by Eli Motycka
America in the 1960s evokes images of protest, change, and challenge to the status quo, and at the center of these movements were students. College campuses brought hundreds of thousands of students in contact with each other, with millennia of human thought, and with professors who provided lenses to analyze national and international world events. At colleges and universities students learned and discussed their learning. Students questioned government and university policies and campuses became battlefields—literally, with violent protests at Berkeley, Columbia, and Kent State making national headlines, but also intellectually. At Yale in 1964, history professor Staughton Lynd’s political activism ran up against the university establishment put his case for tenure in jeopardy.
Lynd described himself in 1966 as a “Marxist-Quaker-pacifist-existentialist,” a moniker that reflects his beliefs in socialism and nonviolence. He believes in “existential-socialism,” that any conscientious action is supported by one’s individuality in the universe, and his fierce conviction to his morals sent him colliding with the academic establishment at Yale in 1968. Lynd, an associate professor who met all teaching commitments while protesting the Vietnam War across the world, was denied tenure at Yale because of poor communication made worse by a strained relationship with his superiors. The president of Yale and the chairman of the history department both protected Lynd’s right to protest but criticized his methods, corroding an already fragile relationship between a professor and the administration. Lynd responded with his own criticisms of Yale and reduced his chances for tenure to near zero. When the history department met to discuss Lynd’s future, two years of discord informed the decision to deny him a permanent position.
Lynd, after earning a B.A. from Harvard in social relations and a Ph.D. from Columbia in history, had spent three years on a commune in Georgia and a few more working with the civil rights movement in the South before he accepted an offer from Yale history professor Edmund Morgan for the fall of 1964. He entered Yale as an associate American history professor that September.
Citing his activism and establishment-challenging scholarship, Yale President Kingman Brewster welcomed Lynd to the faculty that fall, defending him to conservative alumni and critics as a responsible historian skeptical of traditional explanation.
Lynd stood out among the Yale history faculty for his radical politics and activism. In then department head John Morton Blum’s 2004 autobiography, Blum, who opposed the Vietnam War, praised Lynd’s in-class conduct but criticized his radical methods of protest, specifically his involvement with the Yale chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As the Vietnam War escalated, so did antiwar activism—a balance emerged between Lynd’s public protesting, scholarship and teaching.
Lynd became a central figure in the anti-war movement at Yale. He first made the Yale Daily News for speaking as a conscientious objector at an anti-war symposium on February 11, 1965, again receiving publicity for addressing a student anti-war rally two days after the symposium. Lynd was such an anti-war force on campus that the Yale Daily News satirized his anti-war activism in its May 8 humor issue: “Mr. Lynd said he is refusing to accept his salary as a part-time teacher (he protests three times a week) until something is done his way. ‘I’m not exactly sure what I want,’ he said, ‘but until it happens, I refuse to eat, breathe, or go to the bathroom.’”
Like campus anti-war movements across the nation, Yale’s received its share of criticism. The Yale Daily News printed pro-war letters as early as February 1965, and pro-war rallies coexisted with anti-war rallies on the Yale campus.
In August 1965, Lynd was arrested for crossing a police line while protesting the Vietnam War at the Capitol. This concluded a summer of anti-war activism, mostly in Connecticut, including a teach-out and a protest—the latter attracted 1500 demonstrators.
That fall, letters from alumni pouring into Kingman Brewster’s office condemning Lynd and demanding his termination. Brewster drafted a form letter response, which defended his commitment to academic and political freedom while expressing complete disagreement with Lynd’s views and methods. Notably, Brewster maintained that Lynd would be held to the same standards for promotion as his colleagues when pressed by alumni to sever ties with Lynd. Brewster articulated his position to alumni at an event in Los Angeles, stating that the university had a responsibility to protect its faculty and student dissenters—he deemed it “unthinkable” to persecute an individual based on his political beliefs. Brewster argued that the university would protect even the “irresponsibility” of “nationally visible and extreme pacifist protest by a faculty member,” a clear nod to Lynd. In this speech, Brewster drew a line—as long as Lynd upheld his teaching and scholarly duties and didn’t actively subvert the US government, Yale had a responsibility to treat him as it would any other assistant professor. Supporting the right of dissension is not supporting dissension, but that January, Lynd’s activism strained Brewster’s endorsement.
On December 19, 1965, after Yale had recessed for winter break, Lynd, Herbert Aptheker and Tom Hayden went to North Vietnam on a “fact-finding mission.” Aptheker, a leader of the American Communist Party and historian, had been invited to bring two friends to Hanoi by delegates of North Vietnam at the Peace Congress in Helsinki during the summer of 1965. Aptheker chose Lynd, and Lynd invited Tom Hayden, a founder of the SDS and prominent figure of the New Left. The trip lasted twenty-one days, ten of which were spent in North Vietnam. Aptheker, Hayden, and Lynd reached Hanoi on December 29 and a delegation from Hanoi welcomed them at the airport. In Hanoi, the North Vietnamese government arranged for the three to meet with government officials, North Vietnamese citizens, and a captured American pilot—Lynd also gave a speech condemning Johnson’s foreign policy, calling it “immoral, illegal, and antidemocratic.” Lynd returned to Yale on Sunday, January 9, in time to teach class the next day, having “raised Cain” in Moscow to make it back in time to teach a seminar the next day. Lynd didn’t miss a single class that entire year.
Lynd’s trip elicited a range of responses from the Yale community, including criticism from the Yale Political Union, a more moderate stance from former Political Union president and future US Secretary of State John Kerry, vitriolic letters to the Yale Daily News, and analyses of Lynd’s legal future. Kingman Brewster responded on January 18 with a statement in the News. He supported Lynd’s right to the free expression of his political beliefs while disapproving of the trip itself, labeling it “misguided and naïve,” but focused his criticism on the speech Lynd gave in Hanoi. He dubbed it an act of lending “aid and comfort” to the enemy—a reference to the statute for treason—and contrary to Lynd’s stated purpose of fact-finding. John Morton Blum took a similar stance, later calling the trip “foolish and exhibitionist, but within the boundaries of peaceful protest.” Blum also recalls Lynd scheduling his teaching commitments that semester for two consecutive days, allowing him to participate more freely in anti-war movement, which Blum considered neglectful of Lynd’s teaching obligations. In a letter to Brewster that spring, Blum, as chair of the history department, took complete professional responsibility for Lynd’s scheduling and discussed it with Lynd who agreed immediately to schedule future classes on more days of the week. While the Yale administration condemned his trip to Hanoi it had no reason to fault him for his teaching duties.
Though Lynd’s passport was canceled in February, Brewster’s remarks on Alumni Day later that month reveal a more lasting consequence of Lynd’s trip. Brewster said about his commitment to protecting conscientious objectors, “the outer limits of that faith now seem to be tested by actions which do seem to me—as I have said in public—naive and misguided.” Despite his condemnation of Lynd’s methods, as the deluge of letters from alumni continued so did Brewster’s commitment to Lynd’s rights as an independent protester. He drafted another form letter defending Lynd as “highly regarded as a teacher and scholar in American colonial history,”—isolating Lynd’s scholarship and teaching from his activism—and yet another on May 23, 1966, refusing to recommend Lynd’s dismissal as long as he did not “exploit the classroom for ulterior purposes.” That year alumni gave the most money to Yale in the university’s history, surpassing four million dollars and besting the previous year by $700,000.
Though Brewster received dozens of letters condemning Lynd, he received letters supporting Lynd’s employment and supporting Brewster’s uncompromising stance on academic freedom. Alumni pressure to remove Lynd was vocal but marginal and fiscally insignificant. In every letter, speech, and statement, Brewster defended Lynd’s right to protest.
Lynd, having been nominated by Blum in November 1965, received a Morse Fellowship for the 1966-67 academic year. The fellowship allowed him to research and write and he stayed in New Haven, continuing to entertain students in his home despite having no formal teaching commitments.
In April 1966, Blum informed Lynd and several other associate professors that Yale would not likely promote anyone to full professorship in the coming years due to budgetary limitations in the history department—in the past year the department had granted Professor Robert Lopez a raise and Professor George Pierson had recommended a candidate for hire. Regarding tenure, while the department had promoted Elting Morison and Rollin Osterweis to full professors that month, both were in their sixties and held significant positions elsewhere within Yale (Morison taught American studies while Osterweis coached speech and debate). In light of all this activity, budgetary constraints seemed less pressing than Blum made them out to be, but Blum’s actions were consistent with his statement—no junior professors were given tenure during the remainder of Blum’s chairmanship.
When Blum informed Lynd of his poor chances for tenure he also asked Lynd to clarify the text of a speech he made at an Ottawa anti-war rally a month before. Blum, speaking “as a friend,” proceeded to express his disapproval of Lynd’s rhetoric—the conversation then turned to Lynd’s bleak future at Yale. The two interpreted the conversation differently—Blum maintained the topics were unrelated, as he and Brewster had reiterated their commitment the separation of Lynd the professor and Lynd the activist. Lynd interpreted the conversation as his off-campus activism influencing his academic career. Before a meeting with Brewster about the Ottawa rally the next day, Lynd humorously admitted his own paranoia.
The most significant consequence of Lynd’s conversation with Blum was Lynd’s decision to leave Yale. Lynd applied for and was offered positions in the history departments at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle campus and Northern Illinois University, until the schools’ administrations vetoed Lynd’s appointment. That spring, Lynd requested a leave of absence, which was approved by Brewster, to teach in Chicago. Blum warned Lynd that this wouldn’t help his chances at tenure but he had already been told they were near impossible—Lynd left that June.
The next month, the Illinois Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities revoked Chicago State College’s job offer to Lynd, explicitly citing his political activism as the reason.
The 1915 and 1940 doctrines of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) ensure a professors’ freedom of inquiry and right to “speak or write as citizens… free from institutional censorship or discipline.” While Lynd never sought the AAUP at Yale—the university had an active chapter in the 1960s— it protected the rights of professors to engage in political pursuits as private citizens and deterred Yale from explicitly terminating a professor based on his or her beliefs articulated outside the classroom. Yale history professors Howard Lamar, who assumed the chairmanship of the Yale History Department after Blum in June 1967, Edmund Morgan, and C. Vann Woodward joined hundreds of academics and public figures in signing a petition urging the reversal of the Board’s verdict and preserve professors’ freedoms.
On September 25, at a Chicago State symposium on academic freedom, Lynd spoke about his experiences with the Yale History Department. He contrasted Blum’s optimism about tenure before the Hanoi trip with the April 1966 meeting about Lynd’s poor tenure chances, concluding that Brewster and Blum treated him differently based on his activism. The speech was so critical of Blum and Brewster that two history professors wrote to Yale asking how they could deny Lynd tenure, which they had yet to decide.
At the time of the speech Lynd was still an associate professor employed by Yale awaiting his tenure decision. Lynd had left New Haven to work in the Chicago community, then the headquarters of the SDS, happily leaving Yale behind—he articulated as much in his Chicago speech, burying any chance for tenure by stating that he did not want it. The Columbia University Forum published Lynd’s speech in their fall 1966 edition, and Lynd’s statement that he “would like to be offered tenure and then decline” fell under the scrutiny of the Yale history department.
C. Vann Woodward and Edmund Morgan responded to Lynd’s remarks with an article in the Columbia University Forum, the publication that initially printed the Chicago speech. Woodward and Morgan spoke as members of Lynd’s tenure committee: they reaffirmed their commitment to judge Lynd’s academic merit, but deemed Lynd’s comments about tenure relevant to their committee’s decision. They intimated that it would be misguided (and naïve) to give tenure to a man who didn’t want it.
Their colleagues agreed. On December 15, Howard Lamar sent a letter to Kingman Brewster stating that every professor in the history department was angry with Lynd for his remarks in Chicago —further, the budget constraints that compelled Lynd to go to Chicago were relieved soon after Blum vacated the chairmanship that summer. However, in a statement to the Yale Daily News on September 28 1967, Blum recalls the budget constraints that led him to tell Lynd tenure was unlikely but doesn’t mention the new budget calculus. Blum either wasn’t apprised of the department’s budget while on leave or deliberately omitted Lynd’s renewed chances for tenure, for which he, having just been publicly denounced by Lynd, had all the incentive in the world. That March, Lamar sent a letter to Lynd denying him tenure on scholarly grounds, expressing his disappointment in Lynd’s publications since coming to Yale.
Since coming to Yale, Lynd had written Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism about the history of American radicalism, the book Lamar cited in his letter denying Lynd tenure. Lynd regards Origins as somewhere between a pamphlet and true scholarship. Charles A. Barker’s review in The Journal of American History identifies the book’s political agenda, but finds it “strong nonetheless.” Eugene Genovese berates the book in a September 1966 review in the New York Review of Books, calling it “a travesty of history.” While the Harvard University Press and Cambridge University Press republished the book at their request in 1982 and 2009, respectively, its merits are subject to opinion and Yale disapproved. This is somewhat inconsistent with the fact that the department had persistently recruited Lynd and awarded him a paid year of research, not once presenting doubt in his scholarship until the tenure decision.
Lynd’s scholarship aside, it’s more significant that Yale didn’t offer him tenure because he said he didn’t want it. After his trip to Hanoi, Brewster labeled his acts treason and John Blum called his protests foolish, and Lynd lashed out with condemnation of his own. After his remarks in Chicago Lynd could have published On the Origin of Species and been denied tenure—by March of 1968, Lynd and Yale’s relationship had decayed to a point of disrepair.
Lynd was a committed and beloved teacher who went above and beyond his classroom obligations. While many alumni withheld donations to Yale and harshly rebuked Kingman Brewster for employing Lynd, others supported Brewster, and Lynd’s employment hardly affected financial contributions. Brewster felt and applied little institutional pressure to force Lynd out of Yale. Blum’s report of financial constraints wasn’t a conspiracy against Lynd, he told the same thing to the other associate history professors, but it is significant in that it compelled Lynd to leave Yale and induced the chain of events that soured Lynd’s relationship with the university.
Brewster’s criticism of the trip to Hanoi widened the divide between Lynd and the Yale administration. By April, when Blum broached Lynd’s poor chances of tenure and criticized his activism in the same breath, he left Lynd to read between the lines. Whether there was anything between the lines, it’s possible but there is no direct evidence. Yale Daily News editor Avi Soifer pinpointed this ambiguity in an eloquent and poignant tribute to Lynd, describing the tenure discussion as “an absurd tangle of nebulous criteria and value judgments.”
In a sense, Lynd was denied tenure because of his political activism. It led to the poorly conducted meeting by Blum and made Lynd paranoid and skeptical of Blum’s motives. Lynd’s commitment to social justice took him to Chicago and his speech in Chicago ruined his chances for promotion.
More plainly Lynd was denied tenure because he wasn’t supposed to grow old at Yale. Before Yale decided his future, Lynd decided it for himself—he went to Chicago to engage in the social and political movement of the Sixties. When it came time to decide Lynd’s tenure Yale relieved him of his commitment and for that, he is grateful.
Editor’s note: much of the information in this article comes from an interview conducted between the author and Professor Lynd