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Harvard Physics Department asserts that investigations threaten national security, 1950


This document is the response of the Harvard University Physics Department to a proposed Congressional amendment in 1950 requiring that the FBI investigate scientists’ “loyalty” before they could receive government contracts. As the Harvard scientists write, heavy-handed attempts to root out the very rare disloyal applicant would be highly damaging overall to the morale of researchers. Moreover, if scientists were obliged constantly to second-guess their work, then national security itself would be under threat. The letter reveals the defensive posture of U.S. physicists against growing political mistrust in the early Cold War. But it also raises important questions about the changing relationships between science, politics, and the government in this era. With billions in new public expenditures being funneled to academic and corporate laboratories for research and development, what political justifications were used to gain public backing for this commitment? What arguments did scientists make about their own importance to national security? And how did they reconcile their arguments about science and national defense with longstanding ideas about the borderless, free, and international nature of science? Documents like this one show that scientists attempted to thread a needle between the importance of R&D to national defense on the one hand, and the widely held belief that science could only be effective as a truly international, liberal, and free endeavor on the other. Scientists, they said, could be a vital national security asset only if their profession was free, open, and unfettered. This nuanced argument was mostly successful in securing vast government funding and support, but as the congressional attempts to impose “loyalty” tests outlined here show, it could also inspire suspicion and backlash. The push-and-pull between these forces, and the evolution of political discourses and argument surrounding science and the state in this period, shows us the nature of national security as an ongoing process, rather than a tangible thing.

This source is part of the science and Cold War teaching module



Members of Harvard University Physics Department unanimously request that you urge Senate-House conference committee on National Science Foundation Bill either to remove the House amendment requiring loyalty investigation of scholarship candidates or to specify that this amendment applies only to persons whose work involves access to secret information. In attempting to withhold benefits from the very rare disloyal applicant, this amendment actually penalizes the loyal applicants and drastically modifies the American tradition of political freedom in higher education. This freedom is one of the important virtues of the American system over that of the Communists. Loyalty procedures adapted to maintaining secrecy assume a man guilty until proved innocent and deny him the opportunity to self defense that characterizes normal American legal procedures. Since the inevitable occasional mistakes are highly damaging to the individual as well as to the morale of research, clearance procedures should be limited to cases involving real need of security. Fear of an unfavorable FBI report will limit the freedom with which some students will discuss their problems with the faculty. The atmosphere of suspicion introduced by this amendment will weaken the very fields which the Bill aims to promote and will discourage some loyal but freedom loving students from applying for such fellowships and even from entering these important fields of study. The House amendment is uneconomical since the investigations will cost more than the savings on the very rare disloyal candidate. Since full investigations will in any case be applied where secret information is involved, the House amendment will not contribute to national safety or security; if anything, it will weaken the security of secret information by confusing secrecy procedures with non-secret matters and by lowering the critical standards of many of the FBI informants. This telegram is supported and signed by all senior members of the Harvard Physics Department. 
    K.T. Bainbridge        E.C. Kemble
    P.W. Bridgman        O. Oldenberg
    E.L. Chaffee            R.V. Pound
    P.G. Frank            E.M. Purcell
    P.J. van Heerden        N.F. Ramsey
    R.W. Hickman        J. Schwinger
    R.B. Holt            J.C. Street
    G.J. Holton            J.H. Van Vleck


Telegram, Harvard Physics Department to Honorable Elbert D. Thomas et al, March 28, 1950, Vannevar Bush papers, box 87, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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"Harvard Physics Department asserts that investigations threaten national security, 1950," in World History Commons, [accessed December 5, 2023]