Political Activity at Harvard College Observatory in the Shapley Era (1921-1952): Controversy and Consequences.

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Session 1 -- Astronomy and the State
Oral presentation, Tuesday, January 11, 9:00-5:00, Salons A & B Room (Crystal City Marriott)

[1.04] Political Activity at Harvard College Observatory in the Shapley Era (1921-1952): Controversy and Consequences.

Barbara L. Welther (CfA)

Soon after Harlow Shapley became director of HCO in 1921, he established himself as a scientist who would speak out and take action on national and international issues. Recognizing the importance of international cooperation in astronomy, he frequently traveled abroad and in turn invited foreign scientists to visit and work at HCO. By the mid-1930s, Shapley was actively rescuing refugee scientists in war-torn Europe and placing them in American universities. Both Harvard and the FBI took note of his activities. Shapley feared intervention of any kind from either academia or the government. Desperate for funding, however, he finally went to Washington and lobbied Congress to set up the NSF. Through 1945, when Truman succeeded Roosevelt, Shapley pursued his political activities freely. That year he travelled to Moscow to represent Harvard at the 220th anniversary celebration of the Academy of Sciences. In Moscow he advocated international cooperation between Soviet and American scientists. Consequently, Shapley was subpoenaed for interrogation in 1946 by John Rankin, who served during the Truman administration as a one-man committee to investigate un-American activities. The ordeal infuriated Shapley. Headlines about it infuriated some Harvard alumni who urged the university to fire him. Although Shapley was nearing retirement, President Conant stood by his right to keep his job. By 1950, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was compiling a list of Communist sympathizers in the State Department, the FBI had a dossier on Shapley. McCarthy subpoenaed Shapley, but could not intimidate him. The Senator continued the witch hunt with Shapley's associates. First he harassed Martha Betz Shapley, then Donald Menzel. Both cleared themselves. Other associates, such as Bart Bok, were spared. Ultimately, the interrogation worked in Menzel's favor. It disassociated him from Shapley's ideology and political activities. When the Harvard Corporation sought the next director of HCO, Menzel became the candidate of choice.

Tuesday program listing