NDEA Grants Ignite Debate Over Cold War Loyalty

Passed by Congress in August 1958, in the aftermath of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the “Sputnik crisis,” the National Defense Education Act was designed to boost America’s scientific prowess and support education at all levels. However, federal funds came with a catch—beneficiaries would have to sign an affidavit disclaiming belief in the over throw of the U.S. government and take a loyalty oath.

In November 1959, Harvard withdrew from the NDEA student loan program, joining universities from across the country in protest against the affidavit and the limitations on free speech that it entailed.

Two years later, in the fall of 1961, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 reopened the debate among the faculty, which voted unanimously to reaffirm its boycott.

“Although it will hurt the University to continue to refuse the funds,” government professor Robert G. McCloskey told The Crimson that October, “it is a price we can and must pay.”



The NDEA emerged within the context of a post-Sputnik frenzy to surpass the Soviet Union in the Space Race, resulting in efforts to beef up math, science, and foreign language departments across the country. In addition to supplying funds to these departments, the act provided generous student loan funding: participating universities would be matched nine dollars in federal grants for one dollar from their own resources.

Yet Title X, Section 1001 (f) of the NDEA cited two stipulations for loan recipients. An individual could not receive funds “unless such individual...has executed and filed with the Commissioner an affidavit that he does not believe in, and is not a member of and does not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.” The individual also had to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America.”

Before coming to Harvard, Pusey established himself as an outspoken opponent of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy while he was president of Lawrence College. Still, in 1958, the year the Act was passed, Pusey accepted the funding, lauding “the high motives which prompted Congress to pass the...Act” while simultaneously describing the loyalty oath as “rude and unworthy of Congress” and “a direct personal affront.”

But by September 1959, the faculty became more vocal about the apparent inconsistency between criticizing the loyalty oath requirement and benefiting from the funds. After the failure of the bill to remove the loyalty oath proposed by then-Senator John F. Kennedy ’40, the faculty became more critical of Pusey’s accommodating stance.

A month later, the faculty and the Corporation voted to boycott federal funding. Both cited the affidavit requirement, rather than the loyalty oath, as the primary motivator.

The boycott movement also included Princeton and Yale, as well as dozens of other universities. But as the years passed, the University began to reconsider the issue. “We felt in the first two years we could get along without the money,” Pusey said. “We’re a little worried now”

By October 1961, he reopened the debate before the faculty. The previous summer, Pusey had appeared before congressional committees to promote the repeal of the affidavit provision, but Kennedy’s bill to do so failed once again.

In its October meeting, the faculty confirmed its stance from two years earlier.

In a staff editorial before the decision, The Crimson declared the affidavit “a symbol of hate from a hysterical past, a badge of suspicion of ideas and of men who use them. As long as it is enforced it will indicate an ugly fact—that academic freedom has become a cliché in America before it has become a reality.”



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