The "Professor Watchlist" of the 1930s


Anton Julius Carlson, Source: University of Chicago


In 1934, conservative political activist Elizabeth Dilling published The Red Network—A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. The book enumerated over 460 “radical” organizations and some 1,300 individuals who were members or sympathizers. Among the organizations listed were the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Civil Liberties Union. The latter commented in a pamphlet that the book,

despite its absurdity in including as reds such persons as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia, Mahatma Gandhi and [British Prime Minister] Ramsay McDonald, is taken seriously by the hundreds of sheriffs and chiefs of police to whom it evidently has been sent. All the present and former officers and committeemen of the Civil Liberties Union are of course included.

Regarding the AFT, Dilling’s entry notes:

Radical; stands for abolition of R.O.T.C.; recognition of Russia; full “academic freedom” to teach anything, including Socialism, Communism or Atheism…

Among the individuals listed, three professors made up a full committee of the AAUP in 1936: Committee B on Freedom of Speech. The goal, in the end unrealized, of the committee was to cooperate with other national organizations to counter attacks on free speech. Its focus was to be external, as opposed to Committee A with its focus on administrative or regental abridgment of academic freedom. The attacks the committee sought to counter came from red-baiting organizations such as the American Legion, the Hearst press, and several state legislatures. A particular concern was the widespread adoption of loyalty oath laws that targeted teachers and professors throughout the 1930s.

The original members of Committee B were AAUP founder Arthur O. Lovejoy, Harvard law professor and free speech scholar Zechariah Chafee, and University of Chicago physiology professor and AAUP president Anton Julius Carlson. All three were listed by Dilling because of their membership in various “radical” organizations. While Lovejoy and Chafee are still widely known today, Carlson perhaps is not. A brilliant scientist, Carlson has been described as the AAUP’s “war horse” of the 1930s. He served as president from 1936 to 1938, on several investigative committees, and on the committee that negotiated the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with the Association of American Colleges. Carlson was deeply committed to the defense of human rights and civil liberties throughout his life.

The committee’s only report, written by Lovejoy and published in 1937, concerned the topic of loyalty oaths. A penetrating conceptual analysis of the supposed aims of such oaths, worth reading in full, the report observes that:

Some of these aims are, in themselves, legitimate, others are inimical to the efficiency of our schools, to the self-respect and integrity of the teaching profession, and to fundamental liberties of the citizen. It is necessary to distinguish the legitimate objectives from the illegitimate; and it is not difficult to show that such laws have no tendency to realize those which are legitimate. Unless this is made clear, there is danger that bad legislative measures will find support because they are erroneously believed to promote good ends.

Among those aims the report analyzed was the promotion of “Americanism.” Written during a time in which fascism was spreading throughout Europe, the report observes the paradoxical nature of claiming to advocate “Americanism” in a manner that seems to reject many of the core tenets of American democracy:

The individuals and groups most active in urging such legislation have not, as a rule, been conspicuous for respect for the civil liberties of others, tolerance of dissent, confidence in the value of free inquiry and discussion, aversion to the use of force, faith in the processes of democracy, eagerness for a wider and more equitable diffusion of the means of well-being and self-development. The movement for laws of this type is, in the main, a manifestation of an essentially un-American temper on the part of a fraction of our citizenship. It is a phase of a tendency which, in some other countries, has finally resulted in an abandonment of the democratic method, the establishment of governments based upon terrorism, and the general suppression of freedom of inquiry, of speech, of the press, and of the suffrage. And it is above all for this reason that American teachers are opposed to such laws. They see in them – interpreted in the light of the temper and utterances of their more aggressive advocates – the insidious beginning of a movement hostile to what is best and most fundamental in our political principles and our national ideals.

The report ends with a moving defense of those who have been targeted:

No oath is needed to compel those who oppose such legislation to support these principles and ideals. Of these principles they are the champions, and it is against these that the measures which they oppose seem to them to be directed.

Following the presentation of the report, Committee B was involved in one further activity: the investigation of the dismissal of President Charles Fisher of Western Washington College of Education (now, Western Washington University) in 1939, which was conducted by Carlson. Carlson’s report notes that the dismissal followed attacks on Fisher by a local newspaper editor, Frank Sefrit, who was joined  by “members of a group of women called ‘Pro-America,’ of the Ku Klux Klan, and of the American Legion.” The report identified as the main reason for the opposition to Fisher “that he invited persons of unconventional views to give public lectures at the College.” Commenting on an editorial by Sefrit that attacked academic freedom, Carlson observed that “it is obvious that Mr. Sefrit and his associates lack insight into the meaning of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” The report concluded that:

The efforts of Mr. Sefrit and others to control the expression of ideas in the public lectures at the College and in the classroom are contrary to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech which are a part of our American democratic tradition. In so far as Governor Martin and the members of the Board of Trustees of the College acquiesced in these efforts their actions are detrimental to the welfare of Western Washington College of Education, of higher education in general, and of the public interest of the State of Washington.

With US entry into World War II, the AAUP curtailed a number of its activities, and Committee B fell into quiescence following the Fisher investigation.

Note (added 11/28/2016): Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has subsequently taken up issues related to external threats to academic freedom, including the regularly recurring practice of blacklisting professors.

11 thoughts on “The "Professor Watchlist" of the 1930s

  1. When his employees were struggling to form a union, Walt Disney testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee that the League of Women Voters was a Communist Organization.

  2. It would be useful today to have a different sort of “Red Network” — one that lists all the right-wing organizations that progressives are up against. That would include Koch network funded organizations, white nationalist groups, and PACs that funnel secret donations to “red” (i.e., Republican) candidates and other extremists on the right.

  3. If the “red” list fits, then wear it. It fits all the way down to the average Trump voter; under educated & the work hard/play hard, beer drinking, bar fly, “Redneck!”
    Some good ol’ country singer(s) could reach them if Trump refuses responsibility. I used to play guitar & write songs, let me find time for that again. Not according to this next week’s schedule but, maybe one day soon.

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  5. Bigots of all stripes should be fair game for exposure online: racists, White Supremacists, anti-Semites, Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Islamo-Fascists, Christian Taliban, alt-right, Ultra-Left, Marxists, as well as their publications: Breitbart, Stormfront, Peoples World and too many others to list here.

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