Politics & Policy

A School Superintendent Battles Pro-Communists and Pettifoggers

(Photo: Batke82/Dreamstime)
Remembering the strange saga of Thomas E. Harney

Editor’s Note: As part of our Fall 2017 Webathon, we’re sharing some classic pieces by Bill from the early years of National Review. The following piece was first published in our May 23, 1956 issue.

Thomas E. Harney is the superintendent of public schools in a small town in northern New York called Dunkirk. It is not self-evident, Mr. Harney maintains, that it cannot happen here; hence he, for one, proposes to do everything in his power to expose native Communists, pro-Communists and party-liners, especially when they step over into his territory, which is education.

About a year ago, Mr. Harney entered into an extended correspondence with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The NCCJ provoked Mr. Harney by urging on schools throughout the country a “Bibliography of Materials” relevant to the celebration of Brotherhood Week. The Bibliography enumerated certain books, magazines, and educational films most likely, in the judgment of NCCJ, to induce brotherliness. Notwithstanding, Mr. Harney served notice that he would not use certain items on the list — on the ground that they had been written or prepared by persons deeply involved in Communist causes.

He so informed the NCCJ, and entered into a spirited dialogue on the question whether, to cite a few, such well-known fellow travelers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Gene Weltfish, or Shirley Graham, deserved such disarming sponsorship. The NCCJ refused to argue the question whether these persons were Communist or not, confining itself to the assertion that the endorsed material was free of “any Communist line.” “Our Editorial Committee and our Books for Brotherhood Committee,” Dr. Everett R. Clinchy, president of the NCCJ, wrote to Mr. Harney, “has scrutin­ized all such material carefully and has found nothing [therein] of the kind of propaganda that you wish to indicate appears in the material.” Mr. Harney replied, in effect, that anyone who took seriously exhortations on human brotherhood by Communists ended up legitimizing Communists, not promoting tolerance; and that, said Harney, the Dunkirk schools would never, ever do while he was superintendent. “To my mind,” he went on to say to Clinchy, “there is an obvious inconsistency between your statement that you are always ready to fight Communists with every weapon at your disposal, and your actual practice of promulgating an aspect of the Communist line in promoting the works of Communist and Communist-front authors . . . ”

In this fashion, as the opportunity occurs and according to their own lights, men and women throughout the country work to curtail the influence of Communists and fellow travelers. The illusion is sedulously cultivated that such activity, particularly in the hinterland, brings im­mediate and abundant rewards. The case of Mr. Harney versus the NCCJ has a happy ending; when the showdown came, he was upheld. But for his pains, he was subjected to a harassment of a kind that would gladden the heart of an anti-anti-Communist.

The tactics used against him are illuminating. Instead of arguing whether the Communist affiliations of a brotherhood catalyst are relevant to the question whether his material should be used in the public schools, the opposition ganged up to force Mr. Harney to submit a formal report on the cost to the town of Dunkirk of his extensive correspondence before a meeting of the Board of Education. The aim of his critics was, it seems, both to humiliate Mr. Harney by sub­jecting him to a discipline most normally exacted of suspected embezzlers, and to demonstrate to the citizenry that the cost of fending off books, magazines and films written by pro-Communists was inordinate.

Mr. Harney brought a tape recorder to the dramatic meeting. He took the opportunity to describe his position, and that of the NCCJ, in some detail. The tormenters were totally uninterested, or seemed to be, in the essential argument. “We don’t have to listen to this palaver,” said Mr. W. “I’m getting sick of listening to [you].” The talk turned to the cost of the correspondence.

For his pains, he was subjected to a harassment of a kind that would gladden the heart of an anti-anti-Communist.

Altogether, said Mr. Harney, he had sent out between 75 and 100 units of correspondence, much of it mimeographed matter. The postage came to between four and five dollars, he said; the materials, between $3.75 and $5.00.

Mr. A. moved in. Were the letters originally written in longhand (i.e., had a school typist been used in the operation?) That question, Mr Harney, his back up, refused to answer. It was, he said, “immaterial, trivial, and irrelevant.” Well, said Mr. A., given the fact that the material that went out was typewritten, somebody had to type it. Now was it typed on school time? Of course it was, said Mr. Harney, for it pertained to school business. Was it mimeographed on school time? Yes. On School Board stationery? Yes. With school postage? Yes. How did the letters go out? First class, most of them. How much does that cost? About five cents per item. Never any more? Yes, sometimes more — a registered letter, for example, and there were one or two of them. Has the report you submitted been sworn to? Yes.

And so on and so on and so on, question after endless question. All having to do with the few cents involved. But the efforts of Mr. A. and Mr. O. and Mr. W., and the faction they represented, were of no avail. They were simply unable to parlay the cost of Mr. Harney’s crusade into a local scandal. Exhausted, they dropped it. A wave of resentment set in. A resolution was offered, commending Mr. Harney for his vigilance. It was passed, 6-3. Thomas E. Harney carried the day.

And can one hope that the National Conference of Christians and Jews was chastened by the experience? Are there so few who agitate in favor of brotherhood as to require, in the service of that cause, the utilization of Communists?

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