Reed Harris, Columbia College '32, was most well-known for his exploits as a news editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator during his college career. An energetic and feisty Spectator editor, Harris was kicked out of the university in 1932 for publishing an article charging that a lucrative dining room contract had been quietly awarded to the university president's sister.
Harris was not your typical college rebel. Although he voiced his strong and controversial opinions in his articles, Harris was a "serious student" who looked like a "fraternity man with good credentials," rather than a newspaper editor. He did a good deal to improve the quality of the Spectator, including introducing a new and concise format and stripping the Spectator of puff features and boring social notes. He was a mover and shaker, and saw many things wrong with Columbia University that he wanted to change. He used the Spectator as an instrument in voicing his opinion, and was very effective in doing so.
Reed Harris was not only an editor at the Spectator, but was also a writer. His own writing featured investigative exposes and took cuts at the Columbia football team, ROTC, anti-Semitism, the Republican Party, the secret society "Nacons," and the preparation and serving of food in John Jay Hall. His commitment to writing controversial, meaningful articles earned him the respect of his co-workers. Former CBS News President Fred Friendly, one of Harris's co-workers at the Spectator, called Harris "the Columbia Daily Spectator's first real editor."
After the printing of most of his articles, Harris managed to slip by without much trouble from the administration. But one article in particular drew the last straw. When Harris charged that President Nicholas Murray Butler was awarding a sweetheart contract to his sister, Harris was handed an expulsion from Columbia University.
His expulsion fired the shot heard 'round the undergraduate world and demonstrated the high-handedness and hypocrisy of the Columbia University administration that many of the students had learned to hate. It precipitated a sort of small-scale free speech movement, with thousands of students coming out to protest on campus in a one-day strike. The strike was organized by several student Communists, providing a connection that would prove troublesome for Harris in his life after Columbia. The strike was ultimately effective, as Harris was reinstated. But Harris refused the offer, instead coming to a compromise with President Butler. His expulsion would not be listed on his transcript if Harris resigned from the school voluntarily. That is exactly what Harris did, and he moved on and continued his life elsewhere.
The opinion of Reed Harris regarding football became fairly well-known in his 1931 editorial calling college football a "racket" and advocating out and out professionalism to take the place of the then-present subterfuge in the matter of paying players. Despite subsequent alumni and administrative pressure, finally ending in the cancellation of his registration at Columbia, Harris found no reason to modify his views, and rather held to them more strongly.
A few weeks after he left Columbia Harris wrote a book criticizing collegiate football. This book, entitled King Football, the Vulgarization of the American College, accused Ivy League schools of caring more about athletes than academics and advocated "full academic teaching rights for political activists, including Communists."
The 254-page King Football was a biting commentary on various aspects of the American college in general, combined with a scathing denunciation of Columbia, which made the book of more than ordinary interest to residents of Morningside Heights.
Omitting only the actual names of players, Harris offered several convincing examples of professionalism in collegiate football, easily recognized by those familiar with Columbia. He even went so far as to draw up a table containing average yearly sums paid to players at five institutions of higher learning for services on the gridiron. While dealing primarily with football, Harris did not let things end there, but went on to criticize the regimented thought, lack of academic freedom, the fraternity system, etc., all of which are in evidence at the American university. The book contained a chapter called "Knowledge Factories - What Product?" in which he said,
"We have mediocrity whole sale, conforming mediocrity...We have people who accept the advertisements as essentially honest, who believe rather vaguely in the goodness of Republico-Democratism and the badness of Socialism, Communism, pacifism, and all the other 'isms' so hated by the American Legion, who have no belief in God but attend church occasionally to keep up appearances, who seldom vote - 'whats the use?' - who still seem to believe that all men with ability can get jobs in this period, and that private charity, rather than the state, should care for the rest, and who have other beliefs, crude, unthinking, accepted..."
Another chapter in King Football was called "Portrait of a University President," and depicted the career of Columbia University's president, but referred to him as the head of New York City's largest university in order to avoid naming him or the college. Harris sarcastically entitled Butler "The Maharajah of American Education and World Peace" and disagreed with how the Butler launched and guided the university upon its big-business-like career. Of him, Harris said,
"However much one can say against the president for his lack of intellectual honesty, his tendency to orate about high principles and to act in direct opposition to his orations, and his overdeveloped love of pomp and evidences of wealth, one must admit that he has been able to separate tremendous sums from their owners and that he has been able to keep the majority of the Alumni well satisfied. It is an accomplishment but an accomplishment of the sort which represents terrible sacrifices of ideals and ideas in favor of the American doctrine of material progress."
This book came back to haunt Harris in 1953 when he became involved in the hearings of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. At the time, Harris was a high-ranking State Department official. He was also the first government official with the courage to challenge and criticize McCarthy during the height of his political power. He was subpoenaed by McCarthy's committee because he was the State Department official who decided to curtail American news broadcasts in Hebrew to Israel. Harris thought the Hebrew broadcasts were a waste of taxpayers' money.
The 1953 hearings were an investigation of the Voice of America (which Harris headed) for Communist infiltration. But the questions Harris was asked by McCarthy pertained not to the Voice of America, but to Harris's youth and his years in college. Harris was denied counsel, was unable to meet his accusers face to face, and was damned through "guilt by association" with the American Civil Liberties Union, which McCarthy incorrectly cited as a "Communist front that figured on the Attorney Generals list of subversive and Communist front groups."
In retort to Harris' outspokenness, McCarthy accused Harris of being a Communist, and cited King Football as proof. Because Harris advocated full academic teaching rights for Communists in the book, McCarthy used this as evidence that Harris was a member of the Communist party. Harris later said he regretted writing King Football and that he no longer held many of the views he expressed twenty-one years earlier, but he had to fight back those accusations during the McCarthy hearings.
Harris responded with charges that McCarthy was using innuendos and half-truths to smear innocent people. His testimony was so powerful that CBS featured it in 1954's "See It Now" expose that helped turn public opinion against McCarthy. The following is a transcript from the portion of "See It Now" that featured Reed Harris.
Edward Murrow, host of "See It Now" -- Now -- a sample investigation. The witness was Reed Harris, for many years a civil servant in the State Department, directing the information service. Harris was accused of helping the Communistic cause by curtailing some broadcasts to Israel. Senator McCarthy summoned him and questioned him about a book he had written in 1932.
McCarthy: Now we'll come to order. Mr. Reed Harris? Your name is Reed Harris?
Harris: That's correct.
McCarthy: You wrote a book in '32, is that correct?
Harris: Yes, I wrote a book. As I testified in executive session . . .
McCarthy: At the time you wrote the book -- pardon me; go ahead. I'm sorry. Proceed.
Harris: At the time I wrote the book the atmosphere in the universities of the United States was greatly affected by the great depression then in existence. The attitudes of students, the attitudes of the general public were considerably different than they are at this moment and for one thing there was generally no awareness, to the degree that there is today, of the way the Communist Party works.
McCarthy: You attended Columbia University in the early thirties. Is that right?
Harris: I did, Mr. Chairman.
McCarthy: Will you speak a little louder, sir?
Harris: I did, Mr. Chairman.
McCarthy: And were you expelled from Columbia?
Harris: I was suspended from classes on April 1st, 1932. I was later reinstated and I resigned from the University.
McCarthy: And you resigned from the University? Did the Civil -- Civil Liberties Union provide you with an attorney at that time?
Harris: I had many offers of attorneys, and one of those was from the American Civil Liberties Union, yes.
McCarthy: The question is did the Civil Liberties Union supply you with an attorney?
Harris: They did supply an attorney.
McCarthy: The answer is yes?
Harris: The answer is yes.
McCarthy: You know the Civil Liberties Union has been listed as "a front for, and doing the work of," the Communist Party?
Harris: Mr. Chairman this was 1932.
McCarthy: Yeah, I know it was 1932. Do you know that they since have been listed as a front for, and doing the work of" the Communist Party?
Harris: I do not know that they have been listed so, sir.
McCarthy: You don't know they have been listed?
Harris: I have heard that mentioned or read that mentioned.
McCarthy: Now, you wrote a book in 1932. I'm going to ask you again: at the time you wrote this book, did you feel that professors should be given the right to teach sophomores that marriage -- and I quote -- "should be cast out of our civilization as antiquated and stupid religious phenomena?" Was that your feeling at that time?
Harris: My feeling is that professors should have the right to express their considered opinions on any subject, whatever they were, sir.
McCarthy: All right, I'm going to ask you this question again.
Harris: That includes that quotation. They should have the right to teach anything that came into their minds as being the proper thing to teach.
McCarthy: I'm going to make you answer this.
Harris: All right, I'll answer yes, but you put an implication on it and you feature this particular point of the book, which, of course, is quite out of context, does not give a proper impression of the book as a whole. The American public doesn't get an honest impression of even that book, bad as it is, from what you are quoting from it.
McCarthy: Well, then, let's continue to read your own writing, and . . .
Harris: Twenty-one years ago, again.
McCarthy: Yes, but we shall try and bring you down to date, if we can.
Harris: Mr. Chairman, two weeks ago, Senator Taft took the position that I took twenty-one years ago, that Communists and Socialists should be allowed to teach in the schools. It so happens that, nowadays I don't agree with Senator Taft, as far as Communist teaching in the schools is concerned, because I think Communists are, in effect, a plainclothes auxiliary of the Red Army, the Soviet Red Army. And I don't want to see them in any of our schools, teaching.
McCarthy: I don't recall Senator Taft ever having any of the background that you've got, sir.
Harris: I resent the tone of this inquiry very much, Mr. Chairman. I resent it, not only because it is my public neck that you are very skillfully trying to wring, but I say it because there are thousands of able and loyal employees in the federal government of the United States who have been properly cleared according to the laws and the security practices of their agencies, as I was (unless the new regime says no; I was before).
McClellan: Do you think this book (that you wrote then) did considerable harm, its publication might have had adverse influence on the public by an expression of views contained in it?
Harris: The sale of that book was so abysmally small. It was so unsuccessful that a question of its influence -- Really, you can go back to the publisher. You'll see it was one of the most unsuccessful books he ever put out. He's still sorry about it, just as I am.
McClellen: Well, I think that's a compliment to American intelligence. (laughter) I will say that for him.
Edward Murrow, host of See It Now: Senator McCarthy succeeded in proving that Reed Harris had once written a bad book, which the American people had proved twenty-two years ago by not buying it, which is what they eventually do will all bad ideas. As for Reed Harris, his resignation was accepted a month later with a letter of commendation. McCarthy claimed it as a victory.
The Reed Harris hearing demonstrates one of the Senator's techniques. Twice he said the American Civil Liberties Union was listed as a subversive front. The Attorney General's list does not and has never listed the ACLU as subversive, nor does the FBI or any other federal government agency. And the American Civil Liberties Union holds in its files letters of commendation from President Truman, President Eisenhower, and General MacArthur.
Throughout the trial, Harris was accused of many things, including not undergoing a background check, although he proved that he had passed through government security clearances at least six times through the years. When Harris told McCarthy he had been cleared, McCarthy compared Harris to Alger Hiss, whom (he said sardonically) "was also cleared."
Harris responded by saying, "Mr. Chairman, I consider that a most unfair innuendo. You are casting innuendos and aspersions here. It is not fair...It is my public neck that you are very skillfully trying to wring." To this statement, the crowd vocally approved of Harris. He had won them over, and created a small turning point in the hearings.
But McCarthy soon pulled out King Football, the book Harris had written twenty-one years earlier, as evidence that Harris was a Communist. Since King Football indicted the big-time intercollegiate sports for commercialism, anti-intellectualism, distorted priorities, fraud, and hypocrisy, it was the perfect fuel to say that Harris was a Communist.
"They were evil men. During the hearing, I wanted to pick up a chair and throw it at McCarthy. That's how angry I was," Harris said.
McCarthy seemed arrogant and unfair in pressing his questions because Harris defended himself so ably against McCarthy's verbal assaults. Harris unquestionably became favored in that portion of the hearings, and his popularity later grew after CBS's "See It Now."
After the McCarthy hearings, Harris was forced to resign from his job in the State Department. It was virtually impossible for Harris to be able to return to Washington society, and he earned his living by printing brochures for trade associations. He never received his degree from Columbia University, despite an attempt in 1981.
At the age of 71, in bad health and at a suburban Washington nursing home, Harris decided he wanted to try to get his diploma at the Columbia University graduation on May 13, 1981. He was suffering from a progressive brain disease and his family feared it would be the last commencement he would live through. His family and friends, especially Fred Friendly, tried very hard to get Harris his diploma, but the Columbia administration refused.
Harris said, "I want that diploma. Not for me, but for the young journalists of today. I want them to know that they will not be punished for speaking the truth and printing what is right."
Friendly commented on Harris's situation, saying, "Reed is something of a saint to me. History gave Harris a raw deal. I want to help do something about that."Harris's blatant honesty is what gave him such a famous name, at Columbia University and elsewhere in the world. Between the Spectator, King Football, and the McCarthy hearings, Harris managed to effectively voice his opinion on many different levels. In spite of the fact that he was supported by the majority of college students for his opinions in the Spectator; that his accusations in King Football were extremely accurate, and that he was eventually an admired figure in the McCarthy hearings, he was persecuted each and every time he voiced his opinion. The refusal of Columbia University to grant Harris a diploma just capped off the lifetime of raw deals that Harris was dealt.