By MARTY LEVINE
Suspicions, arrests, a call for loyalty oaths: Advocating for peace got some Pitt students in trouble in the last century (or sometimes just a day off from school), while a Pitt prof found himself briefly on the national stage for allegedly consorting with accused communists.
When Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke at Pitt’s commencement in spring 1932, two current Pitt students and a former one got themselves arrested for meeting on campus to paint anti-war signs, including “Generals Die In Bed,” in preparation for protesting the speech.
The protestors hadn’t gotten very far before they were arrested. Athletic Director W. Don Harrison admitted at a hearing for the students, before a justice of the peace, that he “caused the arrest to prevent a ‘disturbance which had not yet occurred,’ ” the Pittsburgh Press reported. Turns out Harrison had called in a city police lieutenant who, the officer testified, was greeted by Harrison, who announced: “ ‘Well, officer, you know what to do.’ ” The officer told the court that “the students were merely looking at placards when they were arrested, and that they did not resist.”
The students had their small fines and convictions for disorderly conduct reversed, and decided not to sue Pitt over the incident. Judge Michael A. Musmanno said in his ruling: “ ‘College students are not intended to be empty tanks into which knowledge is poured. Without free speech, you cannot have thinking.’ ”
A few days later, Pitt instituted a loyalty oath for every student enrolling in the University: “We thought it was wise to do it under the circumstances,” said Pitt’s business manager, without pinpointing the circumstances. The oath read: “While I am a student at the University of Pittsburgh I pledge, upon my honor, loyalty and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Constitution and laws of the state of Pennsylvania; and I pledge, upon my honor, loyalty in spirit and in action to the purposes and regulations of the University of Pittsburgh.”
Just a few years later, an “international ‘strike’ against war,” as the Press labelled a worldwide day of lectures on April 22, 1936, went off more smoothly, as 1,200 Pitt students attended lectures at the Cathedral of Learning — with the administration’s approval.
Summarizing the day’s talks, the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported that “Pitt University students were advised to join with those who wish to ‘reorganize society’ if they hope to escape slaughter in future wars.”
Leading that charge was Stephen Raushenbush, who was expert in the role of money in warmongering, having been chief investigator of a U.S. Senate committee investigating munitions manufacturers. “You will die, I think, because peace costs too much,” he told the students.
Meanwhile, members of the Student Alliance tried to get students to sign a different sort of loyalty oath: “I will not participate in any war in which the United States may be involved,” it said.
Raushenbush apparently would not have signed that pledge. A few years later, he earned credit for planning America’s efforts to defeat German U-boats.
After World War II, the Cold War turned dangerous for one Pitt professor of economics, Bela Gold, who was called before the now-infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948. The committee had just heard from one confessed ex-Soviet spy, Elizabeth Bentley, who claimed she knew of a spy ring of 30 government employees, including Gold and his wife Sonia.
Gold had been born in Hungary but hadn’t been back to Europe since his family emigrated to America when he was 5. Before joining Pitt’s faculty, the Golds had worked in the federal government, she for the Treasury Department and he for the Federal Economic Administration.
Bela Gold had already testified before a New York grand jury investigating communists, which only a month earlier had indicted 12 for conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. But Bela Gold was not one of the indicted. Now he insisted on facing the House committee.
The Press sounded impressed if still skeptical in its report of the Golds’ testimony, as the paper said the “professor and his attractive wife today handed House investigators in the Soviet spy ring case a brand new puzzle in the ‘who’s lying’ game … before a battery of interrogators, reporters, cameramen and kleig lights. The hearing chamber was jammed with spectators and noisy. But, it was a cool performance by the Golds and seemed to convince — at least for the time being — both committee members and investigators.
“The professor, showing no trace of the absent-mindedness sometimes associated with his occupation, took the stand first. He identified himself and then read a prepared statement asserting he had never seen Miss Bentley, denying that he was a member of the Communist Party, and denying he ever disclosed government documents to unauthorized persons.”
Sonia Gold did the same. The pair admitted they knew a few men in the alleged spy ring — and that Bela Gold had had one of them read his doctoral thesis and provide commentary, which created a friendship and a few chances to socialize, but that never a suspicious sentiment had passed anyone’s lips.
In the House Un-American Activities Committee’s report a few weeks later, the couple were listed as still under suspicion. But U.S. Rep. John McDowell, Republican of Wilkinsburg, assured the Pittsburgh newspapers that the Golds would not face any more questioning or any sanctions, since “they were not at all important” compared to the current stars of the hearings, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.
Should such stories be remembered and taught to students in any grade younger than college? Back in October 1935, the dean of Pitt’s School of Education, Charles Prall, didn’t think so.
Speaking at a meeting of Western Pennsylvania educators, Prall told them: “The current movement which attempts to converge the attention of schoolchildren on the ills and shortcomings of society, in order to bring in a new social order of adult life, is, in my opinion, a direct right-about-face from our accepted philosophy,” the Press reported. “The worst psychological thing we could do would be to load up pupils with all the problems society has flunked. They merit a more optimistic diet.”
For better or worse, Prall couldn’t get a single amen on his opinion. He was leading a panel of nine local school superintendents that morning, and, said the paper, none of the other members would even address the idea.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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