HARVARD AND THE REAL WORLD
C onant liked to recall that he became president of Harvard in the same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States and Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The University would feel the impact of what those others wrought. More than ever before in its long history, Harvard during the 1930s and 1940s found itself enmeshed in the affairs of the world outside.
Harvard had a presence in the early New Deal: but aside from alumnus FDR and Felix Frankfurter, not a very conspicuous one. The Alumni Bulletin took note of the absence of Harvard faculty in FDR's early Brains Trust, and in 1936 Conant estimated that only five or six out of a staff of eighteen hundred had been granted leaves of absence since 1930 to work for the federal government. A member of the Economics department, asked about Harvard's lack of visibility in Washington, replied: “We are standing by for the next New Deal!” Nor was the New Deal popular with a preponderantly Republican faculty and student body. In a Crimson poll in the fall of 1934, undergraduates opposed Roosevelt's policies by 1,149–704, the faculty by 141–50. 1
Though Conant voted for FDR, he was careful to preserve the outward forms of political neutrality. But conservative alums soon had a Harvard New Dealer they loved to hate: Law Professor Felix Frankfurter, ace recruiter for the New Deal, eminence grise to FDR, Vienna-born Jew. A fund-raiser reported trouble with donors over Frankfurter in the spring of 1934, and Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, the wife of Harvard's former treasurer, “quizzed” Conant “heavily on whether or not Felix Frankfurter was a dangerous communist.”