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The RF and Civil Liberties

Between 1944 and 1952, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) contributed $167,500 to Cornell University (approximately $1.5 million today) for a series of civil liberties studies directed by Dr. Robert E. Cushman, professor and chair of Cornell's Political Science Department, and former president of the American Political Science Association. RF Social Sciences Director Joseph H. Willits encouraged the grants because he believed Cushman could tackle this controversial subject at the height of the Red Scare.

Cushman's series initially focused on civil liberties in wartime, with particular attention to the rights of enemy aliens and conscientious objectors, as well as restrictions on freedom of speech and the press. A subsequent round of grants between 1948 and 1952 examined federal and state efforts to control "subversive" activities and ensure civilian loyalty. 

Cushman described the series as "explor[ing] one of the crucial and perennial problems confronting our American democracy – the problem of determining the extent to which we are justified . . . in restricting our traditional civil liberties in order to guarantee our internal security."[1] The series' authors took a bold risk by investigating this problem at a time when American fears of communist subversion intensified.

Civil Liberties During Wartime

Cushman first reached out to Willits in 1942 to propose establishing a civil liberties research center to organize a network of scholars, generate new research, and promote works-in-progress. However, RF program officers expressed little enthusiasm for the topic and declined the proposal.

A 1942 letter from Robert E. Cushman to RF Social Sciences Director Joseph Willits

Willits and Cushman reconnected in January 1944 to discuss Cushman's ongoing work, which also received modest funding from the Social Science Research Council. Cushman requested, and this time received, RF support for a series of studies by scholars investigating civil liberties in wartime. These studies promised to provide a more objective view than the “crusading organizations” that had typically focused on the issue.[2] Cushman argued that the studies could influence government policy, educate citizens, and help generate a history of civil liberties during World War II. 

The first few years of the series proceeded slowly, with only one publication: Milton Konvitz's The Alien and the Asiatic in American Law (1946), which examined the legal history of Supreme Court decisions affecting Asian immigrants and Asian American citizens.  The second phase of the Cushman's series had a more lasting impact, providing several highly-regarded publications that investigated the pressing problem of civil liberties.

Civil Liberties and Loyalty Programs

In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9835, establishing a federal loyalty program that sought to rid "subversive" people from government service. Simultaneously, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and similar state-level committees red-baited suspected communists. Cushman's efforts to draw attention to the problems of civil liberties became all the more pertinent as Americans' fears of communist subversion grew. 

The growing Red Scare concerned University of Chicago Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins, who submitted a proposal to the RF for a grant to study the repercussions of the state and federal loyalty programs. Willits shared the proposal with Cushman and requested his input. Cushman agreed that the study was worth pursuing: "I have long felt that the most effective way of exposing the dangers implicit in such an agency as the House Committee on Un-American Activities would be simply to put on record accurately and dispassionately the facts as they stand."[3]

Willits asked Hutchins if he would be willing to transfer his idea to Cushman's team of scholars. Hutchins readily agreed, noting that his primary concern was to ensure that the study was made. The RF trustees approved an additional $110,000 grant in May 1948 for a new series of studies focused on the control of subversive activities through federal and state loyalty programs. 

This second, more prolific phase of the series, known as "Cornell Studies in Civil Liberty," resulted in nine publications published by Cornell University Press.  These included Security, Loyalty, and Science (1950) by Walter Gellhorn; The House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945-1950 by Robert K. Carr (1952); The States and Subversion edited by Gellhorn (1952); The Federal Loyalty-Security Program by Eleanor Bontecou (1953).  Three additional books focused on state-level efforts to control subversive activities in California, New York, and Washington, and in 1956, Cushman published a book summarizing the group's work: Civil Liberties in the United States: A Guide to Current Problems and Experience

Charges of Subversion

Cushman's civil liberties project evolved in the midst of a growing nationwide anti-communist crusade, and he was well aware that it had the potential to get caught up in the fear-mongering.  During a January 12, 1950 meeting of the RF's Social Sciences staff, Willits told his colleagues that anti-communist crusader and newspaper columnist George Sokolsky had spread misinformation about the series. Sokolsky focused specifically on the suspected subversive ties of series author Walter Gellhorn, a Professor of Law at Columbia University. Despite the potential for negative publicity, Willits continued to place his trust in Cushman's judgment. Willits later recalled Gellhorn showing up in his office one day to ask if his involvement in the study embarrassed the Foundation. Willits reassured him "that only poor work or dishonest work embarrassed the Foundation and that he hoped Gellhorn's published work would be the answer to all criticisms."[4]

A 1951 article by George Sokolsky in the New York Journal

Not long after Sokolsky's accusations surfaced, the series became part of a congressional investigation led by Representative E. Eugene Cox (D-GA). In August 1951, Cox introduced a resolution to form a House committee that would investigate foundations' support of un-American activities. In his speech to the House of Representatives, Cox pointed to the Cornell series as an example of subversive foundation grants. He incorrectly identified Gellhorn as the grant administrator and noted that HUAC had investigated the professor. Ultimately, the Cox Committee conducted a thorough investigation of foundations, including the RF, but did not find any substantial evidence of un-American activities.

Ironically, despite the controversy surrounding its author, Gellhorn's book Security, Loyalty, and Science (1950) proved to be the standout title in the Cornell series. The book examined the impact of government control of scientific knowledge, and security and loyalty programs upon scientists and the scientific disciplines. Security, Loyalty, and Science received high praise, with one reviewer stating it "confirms the wisdom of the [RF's] grant" to support the civil liberties series.[5] In 1952, Gellhorn received the first annual Goldsmith Award from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for making the "best contribution to the clarification of relations between science and politics." Willits' instincts were correct – the quality of Gellhorn's published work addressed various critiques of the series.

In March 1954, Willits, nearing retirement from the Rockefeller Foundation, thanked Robert M. Hutchins for allowing Cushman's team to take over the Cornell series. Willits wrote, "It was my hope . . . that these studies might point the way to methods whereby the needs of national security and our long-standing traditions of civil and intellectual liberty might both be served."  He concluded, "I think they have done this."[6]


[1] Robert E. Cushman, “The ‘Subversive Activities’ Account,” Cornell Alumni News, October 1950, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, RG 1.1., Series 200, Box 328, Folder 3903, Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY) (hereafter RAC).

[4] Joseph Willits, “Memorandum #14 Relating to the Reece Committee Hearings – Cornell Civil Liberties Study,” June 9, 1954, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Cox & Reece Investigations, Series 2, Box 36, Folder 681, RAC.

[6] Joseph Willits to Robert Hutchins, March 9, 1954, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, RG 1.1, Series 200, Box 328, Folder 3903, RAC.

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