The President and the Communist

From the time he took the helm at Stanford, J.E. Wallace Sterling fielded hypothetical questions about whether a member of the Communist Party could serve on the faculty. Then came the real test.

May 2024

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The President and the Communist

FACE-OFF: Sterling and Arnautoff. (Photos, from top: Department of Special Collections/University Archives; Bob Bishop/Stanford News Service; Stanford News Service)

When historian J.E. Wallace Sterling became Stanford’s fifth president, in 1949, motorists could still drive alongside the Main Quad. The Medical School was headquartered in San Francisco. Highway 280 did not yet bisect the Foothills. 

During Sterling’s 19-year presidency, Stanford transformed from a regional university to a national one. The professoriate tripled in size, the student body grew by 40 percent, and the operating budget exploded from $13 million to $115 million. Sterling, PhD ’38, rode into office buoyed by a booming economy and postwar investment in university research. He left it as a new generation of students were questioning the administration on racial and gender issues and beginning to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.

In lieu of annual reports, Sterling had persuaded the Board of Trustees to accept a review at the end of his tenure of the major national issues in higher education and how to evaluate developments at Stanford in that context. Two months before he stepped down, the draft of that report, along with its supporting materials, went up in flames after an arsonist set fire to his office. The Sterling era remained comparatively undocumented; no one would write a biography of Stanford’s longest-serving president until last year, when the Stanford Historical Society published Stanford’s Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949–1968, by Roxanne Nilan, MA ’92, PhD ’99, and the late Cassius Kirk Jr., ’51, with contributing editor Karen Bartholomew, ’71. 

Like university presidents before and since, Sterling sometimes had to navigate a collision course between political concerns of the day and principles of higher education. In the excerpts that follow, he grapples with the prospect—and, later, the reality—of a faculty member who is a member of the Communist Party. 

During Sterling’s first month in office, the California loyalty-oath crisis became a public controversy. Fearing a loss of the University of California’s traditional autonomy from political battles, UC President Robert Gordon Sproul had recently proposed a compromise: that UC employees take a newly worded loyalty oath that would replace the traditional affirmation of allegiance to the United States and state constitutions (as taken routinely by state employees since 1942) with one adding that the signatory was not a member of the Communist Party. The Board of Regents, in turn, would insist that the oath be taken yearly as a requirement for employment, disregarding university procedures on tenure, due process, and contractual obligations.

A proposed debate at UCLA on whether Communists could act as free and impartial scholars had caused a highly publicized uproar when it became known that one of the participants would be Herbert Phillips, an acknowledged Communist Party member recently fired by the University of Washington. Less well known was Stanford Dean of Students Lawrence Kimpton’s [’31, MA ’32] denial of permission to a student organization hoping to host Phillips at a smaller debate. Instead, Phillips spoke to a small public gathering in a Palo Alto park.

Sterling sitting around a wood table with reportersWHAT WOULD WALLY DO? At his introductory press conference, Sterling was peppered with questions about the prospect of a Communist faculty member. (Photo: Gabriel Moulin/Stanford News Service)

Public interest was intense, if narrow: How would Sterling, an expert on international affairs, navigate the question: Were there Communists at Stanford? As a private university, Stanford could dodge the issue of loyalty oaths for public officials. Its faculty, administrators, and many trustees remained protective, however, of the role of higher education in understanding controversial political views and world affairs. The limitation of discussion and debate touched on academic freedom, faculty integrity, trustee authority, contractual obligations, and constitutional protections of personal freedom.

Stanford University was, by reputation and voting behavior, a significantly more conservative community than the UC campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The influence of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, as a prominent alumnus, trustee, and donor, was well known. The residential community of faculty and students had always leaned Republican in elections and political debates, consistently giving notable majorities to the opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who beat Hoover. Stanford’s Republicans, however, included many who still considered themselves Progressives from an earlier era, and the Board of Trustees, like the faculty, included many who considered themselves both Republican and liberal, or at least moderate—leaning more toward Governor Earl Warren than rising California Republican star U.S. Sen. Richard Nixon.

At Sterling’s introductory press conference that April, reporters wasted little time in questioning the new president’s stand on communism as a field of study. Did he think that basic facts about communism should be discussed in schools? “Certainly,” replied the scholar of international relations. “How can you learn about Darwin if you don’t read his books? Or understand Lenin if you don’t read him? Wasn’t it Job who said ‘Oh, that mine enemy had written a book’?” Sterling also pointed out that Stanford had one of the finest Russian and Slavic collections in the world at the Hoover Library. “Mr. Hoover would not have brought the collection to its point of distinction if he had not intended it to be studied.”

Sterling stated that communism posed a real menace to the world, but added, “I hope the people who are responsible for combating it understand it. . . . I also hope that those who seem to be hysterical about it, understand it as well. Understanding tends to deflate hysteria.” The Western world must “demonstrate that the Western system can do more for the individual. . . . It is obvious that education must share this responsibility.”

Pressed further about Communists at American universities, Sterling stated firmly that an active Communist should not teach on campus. “I doubt very much if a member of the Communist Party is a free agent,” Sterling said. “If he is not a free agent, then it would seem to follow that he cannot be objective. If he cannot be objective, he is precluded from teaching.”

Sterling may have been amused at the variety of news headlines that ensued, ranging from “President’s Assault on Reds” to “Teaching of Red Principles Urged.” But despite Sterling’s efforts to place education above fear, the “free agent” question alone would be at the heart of upcoming debates on the implications of state and federal investigations into alleged subversive behavior on college campuses and the authority of politicians, rather than academics, to determine the boundaries of academic freedom.

Sterling and Stern HallRAISING THE ROOF: Sterling inherited a yearlong kerfuffle over the midcentury modern design of Stern Hall (below). His administration would harmonize new buildings with the original campus aesthetic. (Photos, from top: Jack Fields/Stanford Archives; Kit Case/Stanford Archives)

Seeing Red (Tile, that Is)

Wilbur, FloMo, and Escondido Village. Tresidder, White Plaza, and the post office. A medical center and a linear accelerator center. The Sterling era transformed the physical campus. Between 1950 and 1969, building projects added approximately 4.1 million square feet to the 2.5 million constructed since 1887. One controversy was simmering when Sterling took office: The planned Stern Hall dormitory lacked—gasp—a red tile roof. Alumni and faculty were in the midst of a yearlong ruckus about the contemporary glass-and-concrete structure, and the trustees had just agreed to a compromise: Stern’s flat tar-and-gravel roof would stay, but future buildings “should harmonize as far as possible with the general architectural effect of the original Stanford buildings.” That meant modernist styles and techniques but a return to the original sandstone-and-red palette and signature characteristics, like arcades and courtyards. These principles would guide most campus construction for the next three decades. Some of the midcentury marvels have already come and gone—today’s graduates have no memories of Meyer Library, the Physics Tank, or Cowell Student Health Center. But Stern Hall endures. It was renovated in 1995. Its roof is still flat.

[Sterling’s] views were put to a test in the mid-1950s in the case of Victor Mikhail Arnautoff of the Art Department.

The Russian-born Arnautoff, a former Czarist army officer who had escaped Bolshevik Russia, had arrived in the United States in 1925 to study art after years of exile in China. He became a naturalized citizen in 1937. Arnautoff was a talented sculptor, printmaker, and muralist. He was well known for his City Life fresco mural, decorating the interior of San Francisco’s Coit Tower, and for several murals at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. (His work, like that of many other Depression-era muralists, was underwritten by the Public Works of Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.) Arnautoff taught at the California School of Fine Arts from 1932 until 1938. In 1936, he also began teaching part-time at Stanford; he became a full-time assistant professor in 1942.

In September 1955, Arnautoff’s name hit the headlines. After many citizen complaints, lithographs by Arnautoff were removed from public art exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The image in question was one Arnautoff called “a composite and symbolic characterization of McCarthyism.” Titled DIX McSmear, it was a caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon wearing a black mask, holding a pumpkin in one hand, and a paintbrush and bucket labeled “smear” in the other.

‘I believe you should know that it is University policy that no proven Communist should hold a position on our faculty.’

The caricature decorated the cover of The Nation shortly thereafter. As Arnautoff’s employer, Stanford was quickly drawn into the controversy. A Southern California alumnus wrote Sterling:

I simply want to make known to you that my wife and I as members of the Life Alumni and givers to the Stanford Fund, find that we and many of our friends are MOST concerned about the laxity of the Stanford faculty administration that either does not investigate nor care if a Communist such as Victor Arnautoff is allowed on the Stanford staff. . . .

Sterling replied, as he would to many such letters, defending free speech:

The first issues involved relate to the right of free expression. You have no doubt read the statement by Vice President Nixon in which he defended the right of a person to use this means of criticizing people in public life. . . . 

Another issue revolves around the question of good taste or judgment. Opinion as to what constitutes good taste differs widely—more so in a free society than in others. It is our hope here that the freedom which makes possible differing opinions and the exercise of differing judgment will not be abused. This would be the ideal. It is not always attained, here or elsewhere. 

In connection with Stanford’s position on the question of Communists on the faculty, I believe you should know that it is University policy that no proven Communist should hold a position on our faculty.

Arnautoff resided in San Francisco, home to a large Russian émigré population. He headed the Russian-American Society and played a central role in the Russian War Relief organization, both located in the City. Toward the end of World War II, he also began teaching painting and printmaking at the California Labor School. After the war, both the Society and the Labor School were labeled “subversive” by the U.S. attorney general.

When Arnautoff met with Sterling, he answered in detail the president’s questions about his public activities and his university work but declined to answer any questions about his political views. Sterling, following procedure, referred the matter to the Advisory Board, elected by the Academic Council to handle faculty appointments and discipline. The Advisory Board also questioned Arnautoff, and concluded that it would not recommend termination, nor would it go on record as wishing to do so when Arnautoff’s contract expired.

When he learned the result, Robert Minge Brown [’31], Stanford trustees’ general counsel, had an extended telephone conversation with presidential assistant Fred Glover [’33]. Brown, Glover reported to Sterling, was “very disturbed.” 

The 1954 Communist Control Act, Brown noted, stated that although membership in the Party was not a crime, the Communist Party itself was illegal and membership in the Party subjected the member to certain penalties, such as not being able to run for public office or work for the government. Since it had been judicially determined that the Communist Party advocated the overthrow of the government by force and violence, Brown argued, this gave the faculty and the university the right to ask whether Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party. Arnautoff’s refusal to answer “relates not to a criminal act, but to his moral fitness to teach, for otherwise we are putting the faculty opinion over the law of the land,” Brown said.

Brown contended, according to Glover, that if an organization has been legally established as dedicated to the overthrow of the government by force and violence, “it is not a question of political views that are at stake when a man is questioned as to his membership in the party.” When word of the faculty’s refusal to act to expel Arnautoff became known to those interested in the welfare of the university, he argued, this case “is going to be a very damaging one.”

The Arnautoff matter was quiescent until December 1956, when he was subpoenaed to appear before a three-man subcommittee of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, then meeting in San Francisco. When asked by subcommittee counsel Richard Arens if he was a Communist Party member, eligible to attend cell meetings, Arnautoff refused to answer, invoking the Fifth Amendment. The subcommittee, in turn, labeled him a Communist Party member, not by his own testimony but by the accusations of others. The subcommittee recommended that the Department of Justice begin denaturalization action against him.

Stanford issued the following news release:

When a member of the Stanford academic personnel is called for questioning before a congressional or state investigating committee and chooses to stand on his constitutional right to refuse to testify on grounds of possible self-incrimination, he is not subject for this reason alone to dismissal or other disciplinary action. . . .

Dr. Sterling [who was on the East Coast at the time] has stated many times that in his opinion a card-carrying Communist has foresworn [sic] any objectivity in learning and thus has no place on a college campus. At the same time he has said that in cases of this kind, the University will hold to the traditional view that an American is innocent until proven guilty.

Arnautoff maintained his silence; the strategy paid off. Most academics who invoked the Fifth Amendment when testifying during HUAC proceedings lost their jobs. The label of “Fifth Amendment Communist” was grounds enough at most colleges for dismissal. Arnautoff retained his position at Stanford. 

He apparently never admitted to his Stanford faculty colleagues who supported him that he had, indeed, joined the Communist Party in 1937, the same year he became a naturalized citizen. In 1955, he and his wife, Leda, had been granted permission (after repeated petitions) by the Supreme Soviet to return to Russia and become Soviet citizens. Arnautoff retired in 1962, following the death of his wife, in San Francisco, and the next year he returned to his hometown of Zhdanov, Russia.

Excerpted (with endnotes omitted) from Stanford’s Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949–1968, by Roxanne L. Nilan and Cassius L. Kirk Jr. Published by the Stanford Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.

Sterling and Brady in chairs‘SO GRACIOUS’: The Sterlings (above) welcomed Brady (inset) and her roommates at Hoover House. (Photos from top: Gabriel Moulin/Stanford News Service; Courtesy Holly Brady)

My Dinner with Wally Sterling

When I entered Stanford as a newly minted 18-year-old, Wally Sterling was president. It was the mid-’60s, and he had a reputation of walking around campus greeting students with a warm and unforgettable handshake: His hands, it was said, were the size of baseball mitts.

For some reason, that lore gave me a sense that he might be approachable when, during dinner at Branner that first fall quarter, I found a dead palmetto bug in my Swiss chard. In those days, we were handed a plate of food by the kitchen staff and expected to eat what we were given. There were no choices, and nobody expected the food to be very good.

But a bug the size of my thumb? That was too much. I took my plate to the kitchen and showed it to the matron in charge. She simply took the plate from my hand and placed another in it. No shock. No apology. No comment.

Outraged, I stomped back to the table and suggested to my roommates that we invite President Sterling to dinner at Branner so he could see how bad the food was. It was a bit of bravado I didn’t truly plan to put into action, but they thought it was a terrific idea, and soon we’d penned an invitation on Crane stationery and sent it off in the mail.

We were astonished when, a week later, we got a response—not from President Sterling, but from his wife, Ann: “The President will be traveling next week, but if you’ll accept half a loaf, I would be pleased to have you girls to dinner at Hoover House next Thursday.”

Wow. Yikes. OK. We’re adults (barely), we can do this. Two of us—Sue and I—had been groomed in manners in preparation for debut summers (OK, it was a long time ago), but our third roommate, Cyndi, was freaked out by the idea of an intimate, formal dinner at the home of her university’s president. I told her what my mother told me: Watch the hostess and do what she does.

We borrowed a car from a grad student—a beat-up sedan with two doors and a back seat accessed by folding the front seat down—and drove the short distance to Hoover House. Sue and I got out first. Then Cyndi—who was in the back seat—punched the front seat a bit too hard, forcing it into the steering wheel. The horn let out a friendly blast.

A butler, with a tiny smile, opened the front door and showed us in.

Mrs. Sterling greeted us warmly and put us at ease with a little chit-chat. Then she said, “I have a surprise for you girls. The president’s trip was canceled, and he’ll be joining us for dinner tonight.” Stunned, we all turned to see President Sterling’s imposing figure filling the doorway. Cyndi looked like she wanted to bolt.

The president seemed to be genuinely pleased, and maybe a little amused. He shook hands with each of us (that’s how I verified the baseball mitt story) and led us to the dining room.

Dinner was a formal affair, with waitstaff serving from the left and taking from the right. I still remember the menu: chicken on the bone, which we ate with knife and fork (Cyndi having some difficulty with a skittish drumstick), and for dessert, pots de crème. With lids. When a tiny Limoges pot was set down in front of Cyndi, she looked up at me in panic. I glanced at Ann. Cyndi took the hint.

I don’t remember much about our conversation over dinner. The president asked us about our backgrounds, our plans for going to overseas campuses, our prospective majors. I do know the palmetto bug never came up.

After dinner, Ann invited us into the living room for coffee. The room was dominated by a grand piano, and when Sue remarked on it, Ann asked whether she played. Sue admitted that she did, but she was reluctant to show off her skills. Finally, Ann persuaded her: “Oh, Sue, we’d love to hear you. Just play something you know.”

Sue was not prepared, and it showed. The more she played, the more flustered she got, until Ann, with no small amount of compassion, interrupted: “No, no, Sue, play something you know.” We all cracked up—and Sue steered clear of the piano for the rest of the evening.

Even as a brand-new freshman, I knew that evening had been extraordinary. We were so naive, so goofy, so obtuse in the president’s house, and the Sterlings were so gracious, so full of good humor. It taught me that despite our youth and our awkwardness, we could count on being welcomed in this widening adult world.

Over the next year, whenever I saw the president crossing campus, he’d acknowledge me with a wave or a smile. But I doubt he remembered that evening for its provocative conversation. More likely, it was our departure, and the horn that Cyndi blasted, again, as she got into the back seat of that car for the return trip to Branner.

Holly Wheeler Brady, ’69, is a publishing strategist and the former director of Stanford Publishing Courses. She lives in Palo Alto. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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