Chandler Davis: Dissent and Solidarity

David Palumbo-Liu

The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis:
McCarthyism, Communism, and the Myth of Academic Freedom
By Steve Batterson
Monthly Review Press, 2023, 200 pages, $16 paperback.

I FIND IT find it both rewarding and difficult to write this review. Rewarding, because Batterson’s study of this remarkable individual tells us much about how radical activists, so often out of step with their times, can come to be vindicated and their causes recognized as worthy and just.

The difficulty I find myself in is that times have changed again, and whatever victories we may be witnessed coming out of the Red Scare have been replaced by a fresh set of challenges.

This reflux of reactionary politics is easily glimpsed in this juxtaposition, in his preface, Batterson notes:

“In his winter [2015] commencement, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel urged graduates to consider the parallel [of then-current Islamophobic attacks] to the actions taken in 1954 against Davis and his colleagues: ‘I hope you can apply the lessons learned from the mistakes made by both our nation and our university during the McCarthy era.’”

It’s useful here to provide a fuller sample of then-president Schlissel’s speech:

“As a nation, we are struggling mightily with the tensions in trying to balance our constitutional rights and shared values with our sense of safety, in our communities, on our campuses, all the way to the level of national security…. History teaches us moments such as these — these right now — are when we are most likely to bow to fear, to sacrifice our freedoms and rights in return for a perceived increase in safety and security… But history tells us another story too — that we can learn from our mistakes.”

Any dialectician will tell you that any lesson learned does not stand on its own, but must be buttressed with the necessary historical circumstances and a political will not to forget. Yet how quickly this particular lesson has been forgotten, with a vengeance, and at the University of Michigan no less.

In 2023, not all that distant from 2015, another president of the University of Michigan, Santa J. Ono, had this to say on the occasion of Hamas’ October 7th attacks on Israel:

“This violence has caused profound pain within the internationally and culturally diverse University of Michigan community. It is almost certain that more innocent civilians will lose their lives as the fighting escalates.

“Earlier today I began reaching out to the leaders of the major universities in Israel  Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Technion, Weizmann, and Ben Gurion — to express my deep concern for the students, faculty and staff at these world-class institutions, with all of which the University of Michigan has well-established joint research relationships. I also reaffirmed our steadfast commitment to our work with these universities.”

It would take too much space in this review to explain fully how morally appalling this statement is. President Ono bemoans the loss of innocent civilian life, yet is silent on the fact that the vast majority of lost lives are Palestinian, at the hands of the very Israeli state to which he declares allegiance.

Ono knows full well that those universities are deeply enmeshed in the Israeli state, and that their research is instrumental in providing both the technologies and ideological discourses that as of this writing have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, the vast majority innocent civilians, and 70 percent of whom are women and children.

In trumpeting UM’s “well-established joint research relationships” with these institutions, and its “steadfast commitment to our work with these universities,” Ono is not only falling in line with other U.S. university presidents in support of Israel, he goes one step further, vowing to be undeterred by calls to boycott Israeli universities.

More recently, and directly connected to the issues of freedom of speech which are central to this review, Ono prohibited students from even voting on two resolutions regarding the war in Gaza. Despite the fact that each resolution received over a thousand signatures asking for a vote, Ono squelched even a vote on their merits on the grounds that the measures are “divisive.”

It seems to escape him that his prohibition could be applied essentially against any vote in any democracy. Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations remarked, “Unfortunately, the university which is supposed to be an environment for debating competing ideas, is undermining freedom of speech and conscience of its own student body.”

A Forceful Presence

While I am sure that Chandler Davis would wince at this turn of events, I doubt he would be surprised. For as this book shows, in his lifetime he had seen countless instances of principles betrayed.

In this manner as well as others, Batterson’s book performs a double service: its historical account teaches us about the past, but also about our contemporary struggles. And, remarkably, Chandler Davis was an equally forceful presence in both.

In 1954, Davis and two of his colleagues at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, were fired after they refused to cooperate in hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Batterson gives a comprehensive report as to not only these cases, but also the political climate of the times, the exact role played by the FBI, the courts, and the University of Michigan. Indeed, the author shows precisely how they colluded.

In studying the repressive measures of politicians and federal agencies working in tandem with universities used to squelch any sign of Communism or Communist “sympathies,” or just plain dissent, one can learn much about today’s repression of free speech and academic freedom.

Those critical of Israeli policies face censorship, silencing, and university tribunals aided and abetted by forces outside the university, including rich donors, politicians, Zionist pressure groups and Israeli governmental operatives. All this falls into one or another brand of McCarthyism — whether the original or its latter-day incarnation.

As much as it would be fitting to center on Chandler Davis’s story, I want to offer a particular appreciation of Batterson’s book and a deeper appreciation of the life and spirit of Chandler Davis, casting both in the context of dissent and solidarity.

I feel this is more than legitimate, because at nearly every moment in The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis we find Davis (referred to lovingly as Chan throughout the book) working with others — his parents, his comrades, his students, his attorneys, or most especially his life partner and wife Natalie Zemon Davis, herself a noted cultural and social historian of modern Europe, particularly of France, who sadly has also recently died.

His very refusal to answer HUAC’s questions, an act of dissent that earned him a six-month stint in a federal penitentiary and unemployability in the American academy forever, was an act of solidarity — he would not give up names, nor would he inform on any of the activities of any groups that were critical of the United States.

Chandler Davis was one of four members of the faculty subpoenaed by House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] in 1953.

Economist Lawrence Klein responded to all questions and agreed with committee counsel Frank Tavenner that “the objectives that the Communist Party is aiming toward are wrong in principle, theory, and practice.” Klein asserted that he had been “used” by the CP. He was then dismissed from the hearing.

Two others, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson, did not fare as well. Markert had long been the subject of FBI interest. He had considered himself a communist starting in 1935 and through much of the 1940s had been a member of the Party. His apartment had been searched and yielded a wide range of communist materials.

Another source of suspicion against Markert was his combat in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Republican forces.  Although it was clear the committee had all this information, Markert took the Fifth Amendment, as did professor of pharma­cology Mark Nickerson. Like Davis, both Markert and Nickerson had left the Communist Party by the time of the hearings, yet all three were fired by the University.

Standing on Principle

Davis had initially joined the Communist Party in 1943 while a student at Harvard (“it was just what I had been expecting to do all my life”), but by the end of that year he had enlisted in the V-12 Navy training program at Harvard to fight Hitler, as was standard practice for CPUSA members, and resigned from the Party.

On top of that, he had also become disillusioned with CPUSA. Chandler was beginning to have serious doubts — specifically the CP’s unwavering support of the Soviet Union, whose brutal treatment of dissidents was well known.

While he on principle was willing to retain party membership and critique it from within, Chandler wrote, “What had changed between 1952 and 1953 is that my Party membership had become totally useless to my actual political agitation, which was done through organizations like ASP, student groups, etc., …the CP… was simply out of steam.”

Despite his growing doubts about the Party, he still refused to give up his principles. As early as 1950, when he had received an appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, he refused to sign the university-mandated loyalty oath, that required that all employees attest to the fact that they were not members of the Communist Party.

Davis wrote, “in this situation even if I had left the Party I would not have been willing to sign the oath, because it would have been a breach of solidarity with the courageous resistance to it.”  Chandler resigned his appointment. He then landed a mathematics instructorship at the University of Michigan.

Early that same year, physicist Klaus Fuchs confessed to spying on the Manhattan Project for the Soviet Union and Senator Joseph McCarthy alleged that members of the CPUSA had infiltrated the State Department. Investigations were made into any organization that might serve as a front for Communism.

By then Chandler and Natalie Zemon Davis had joined a local group called the “Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions.” Many faculty and graduate students were members. Both HUAC and the FBI considered it to be harboring Communists.

Learning that HUAC might be investigating the Council, Natalie and a psychology instructor named Elizabeth Douvan wrote an essay critical of HUAC, which became a 12-page, anonymously-authored pamphlet entitled “Operation Mind.”

Section titles included, “A Decade of ‘Smear’ Tactics,” “What are ‘Un-American’ Ideas,” “The Committee’s Contribution to American Life: Thought Purge and Inquisition,” and “Here is What You Can Do to Prevent Thought Control in America.”

The FBI and HUAC both believed Chandler was the author. Along with this belief, and the evidence of his open actions in favor of free speech and academic freedom on campus, the FBI also had an informant inside the Council. The informant told the FBI that Davis was involved in research into Quantum Mechanics Theory, which was believed to be used in atomic energy research. This led to the Davises having their passports seized.

Though he had withdrawn from all participation with the CPUSA when he was visited by an HUAC agent in 1953, his principles again remained intact and vital. The agent reported, “He refused, when advised that the Committee had evidence with respect to his Communist Party affiliations, to discuss the subject. As a matter of fact, he ordered me from his office.”

Unlike those who took the Fifth Amendment, Davis decided to rely on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and association, rather than follow most others who evoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. He did so in order to directly get to the heart of the matter rather than evade it.

As Ellen Schrecker writes in her Introduction to the book, “[Davis] viewed his confrontation with HUAC and the following inquisition at the University of Michigan as an opportunity. He willingly risked both his freedom and his career to expose and perhaps even put an end to the mainstream establishment’s willingness to quash left-wing political dissent.”

At that point, Chandler Davis was 27 years old.

University-Government Complicity

For a number of both simple and complex reasons that Batterson ably details, Chandler Davis’s gambit failed and he ended up serving six-month sentence in Danbury Federal Penitentiary.

When Michigan president Harlan Hatcher learned of HUAC’s interest in Chandler, Hatcher reached out to the Committee to offer his cooperation. Thus began a long partnership between the government and the University. In fact, most shocking about Batterson’s account is just how in sync the two investigations were, issues of free speech and academic freedom notwithstanding.

This kind of cooperation was not restricted to individual campuses. Batterson offers a devastating account of how the Association of American Universities (AAU), a prestigious organization of 37 leading universities, issued a guidance whose language includes this passage: “a scholar must have integrity and independence. This renders impossible adherence to such a regime as Russia and its satellites. No one who accepts or advocates such principles and methods has any place in a university.”

The AAU urged professors to inform on those it suspected of Communist sympathies.

The case against Davis was particularly marked by egregious improprieties and unethical behavior. Davis himself viewed the University as an “appendage” of HUAC.

There were no fewer than three faculty committees convened to hear different aspects of his case. One committee wrote that “in the absence of proof Davis is a member of the party we must assume in all justice that he is not.”  It went on to say, “We conclude that we do not find his conduct before the Clardy Committee or as a member of the University any ground on which he can be justly dismissed.”

Finding this not the desired conclusion, President Hatch appointed an ad hoc committee, which conducted secret, off-the-record interviews, and ultimately decided that Davis should be fired, thus delivering to Hatch the result he wanted. They accused Davis of “failing to be candid.”

Hatch wrote to Davis, “This conduct is inexcusable in a member of our profession who seeks at the same time the protection of and continued membership in the University whose policies he disdains and whose responsibilities he ignores.”

What then were the policies that Davis “disdained”? They were, in sum, policies purposefully bent to conform to the AAU directive to dismiss those who had at any time sympathized with Communism. Batterson points out that the academic organization comprised of members of the professoriate, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), issued a report — in direct contrast to the association of administrators — finding that mere membership in the CP was an insufficient ground for dismissal.

Climate of the Times

Batterson provides a detailed account of the various cases of several scholars across the country who were brought before HUAC to illustrate the climate of the times, the nature of both the prosecutions and defenses, to give us a vivid sense of the options before Davis, and an appreciation of the risk he took in not taking the Fifth as others had done, but rather to mount a First Amendment defense.

Again, Batterson explains in detail how and why, given the vicissitudes of the times, Davis failed. The book shows the ebb and flow of conservative and liberal jurists, and different prevailing notions of the role of the courts. One of main points of book is how much “justice” depended on political intrigues and power, and sheer chance.

In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Chandler Davis’s case. Five years after receiving his indictment, Davis was forced to serve his six-month sentence. He also was fired by the University of Michigan and blacklisted by nearly 150 U.S. mathematics departments.

After finishing his sentence in 1960, Davis remained blacklisted in the United States but his brilliance as a mathematician resulted in his being offered an appointment at the University of Toronto and Natalie was given an appointment in History.

Chandler Davis became a major figure in the fields of linear algebra and operator theory: he supervised 15 doctoral theses; he was elected to vice-president of the American Mathematical Society; and he served on numerous editorial boards, including a long stint as editor-in-chief of The Mathematical Intelligencer. Not only a brilliant mathematician and teacher, Davis was also a renowned science fiction author and continued his activism across many causes, right up to his death.

Natalie Zemon Davis became recognized as one of the foremost historians of her generation. She was given an appointment in History at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at Princeton as Henry Charles Lea Professor of History. She was awarded the Ludwig Holberg International Prize and the United States’ National Humanities Medal, She held honorary degrees from over 50 universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Oxford and Cambridge.

“Operation Mind” Vindicated

As I followed the twists and turns of this case and finished the reading the book, one thing struck me and remains as one of its most significant and indeed moving elements. One of the primary documents used to attack Chandler was in fact something that in retrospect seems benign — the 12-page pamphlet “Operation Mind,” a text he hadn’t even authored.

This sticks in my mind for two reasons. First, even though “Operation Mind” seems a flimsy document to hang such an important case on, in fact it was substantial in a way only history would prove — the analysis and critique of its 12 pages has over time been vindicated, and its insights actually normalized in our historical memory of the age.

We are indeed fortunate that “Operation Mind” was reissued in 2022 by Disobedience Press with an introduction by University of Michigan Professor Silke-Maria Wieneck.

Second, I was deeply impressed that Davis would use his loyalty to his comrades and the cause to serve a larger purpose still — to expose the wrongness of the federal investigation and the university case against him, all to his peril, and put this faith in the First Amendment having any meaning, is astounding. What he exposed for the world to see about its frailty came at a tremendous cost to him and his family.

Allow me to end on a personal note, to show just how consistent Chandler Davis was.

I first met Chandler and Natalie Davis in December 2014, in Toronto. We had corresponded before with regard to activism for Palestinian liberation. At our lunch Chandler casually asked how long I was going to be in town. I said for about 10 days.

He said, well if you’re not busy, on Thursday we have a demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy. He added, “we actually do this every Thursday.” Then Natalie added, “and have done so every Thursday for the last 13 years.” Mind you, this was December.

I went, of course, and was struck by the fact that at age 63, I was probably one of the youngest people there. Chandler would have been 88. Chandler and Natalie Davis were active activists to the end — emails only stopped in the last months. Throughout all that time, they were consistent, humane, and filled with good humor and moral outrage.

To end, I will quote from one of the pieces Chandler shared with me, one which resonates with the topic of this book. It’s an essay from 1960 called “From an Exile.” In it he articulates the second element of the twin stream of solidarity/dissent I have used to comment on Batterson’s wonderful book:

“I am not a professor. Maybe I never will be one.

“My apprenticeship was honorable, as a teaching fellow at Harvard, where I got my Ph.D. in mathematics, and as an instructor at the University of Michigan. I loved the university life. Not that it occurred to me at the time to compare it to any other; I had never seriously considered leaving it.

“However, it happened that one summer ten distinguished members of my faculty convened (five at a time) and unanimously declared me guilty of ‘deviousness, artfulness, and indirection hardly to be expected of a University colleague.’ I had refused, first before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and then before these juries of professors, to answer yes or no to the question, was I a Communist….

“More than you need the exiles in particular, you need dissent in general, a profusion of ideas richer than you have seen before. You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious, systematic, proselytizing dissent — not only the playful, the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders. You must welcome dissent, not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential dissenters can hear you.”

Chandler Davis will always be that figure, and we have to all make sure he will never be alone.

March-April 2024, ATC 229

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