Berkeley in the Age of Innocence

In a loving look backward, the Harvard economics professor and author of The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State recollects college days of a benignity long gone. The essay was written for a book being edited by Irving Stone and to he published by Doubleday later this year to mark the centennial of the University of California at Berkeley.

One clay in the autumn of 1930 I was gazing at the notice board in the post office of the main men’s residence at the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph, Canada. It was usually an unrewarding vision, but on this day it advertised a number of research assistantships at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California. The annual stipend was $720 for unmarried scholars. I copied down the details and applied. Sometime later I received a letter from George Peterson, associate professor of agricultural economics, saying that I had been selected. I was surprised, and so were my professors, who detested me and thought the people at Berkeley were crazy. I quickly accepted; in that second year of the Great Depression the monthly salary of $60, if not princely, was by far the best offer of any kind I had. In fact, it was the only offer of any kind I had.

From that day on, the University of California has engaged my affection as no other institution educational, public, or pecuniary—’with which I have ever been associated. One Sunday afternoon last summer, with my wife and oldest son (who had been an assistant at the University of California Law School) , I strolled across the California campus-over Strawberry Creek, by the Campanile, down by the Library, out Sather Gate. I was taught, as were most of my generation, that no one should allow himself the weak luxury of sentiment or even emotion. To this day when I write “Love” at the end of a letter, I remind myself that it is only an affectation, in all respects a matter of form.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that I loved this place—the paths, trees, flowers, buildings, even the new ones. I was deeply embarrassed.

In the thirties, for some reason related either to the eccentricities of the California crop year or to the climate, the University of California opened in August. Accordingly, in July of 1931 I borrowed $500 from an aunt, one of the few members of our rural family still to command such capital, and set sail for California. I boarded the steamer which plied between Port Stanley, on the north shore of Lake Erie, and Cleveland, where, by prearrangement of our local jeweler and oculist, I met his nephew, who had a graduate fellowship at California in astronomy. At five o’clock the following morning we set out in the 1926 Oakland automobile which my companion had acquired for this trip. The car was in terrible condition and almost immediately got worse. To save money he had bought a five-gallon gasoline tin and a one-gallon container for oil so that we could stock up on these products whenever, as happened in those days, our path led us through a region being ravaged by a price war. Such at least was the theory. About thirty miles out of Cleveland my friend stopped to check the gas (the gauge was broken) and look at the oil. The car absorbed the whole five gallons ol gasoline and the whole gallon ol oil. For the rest of the (t ip we averaged around a quarter gallon of gas and a half pint of oil to the mile. To this day I shudder at the cost.

The journey rook ten days, not counting twentyfour hours at Casey, Iowa, where we laid up with a broken connecting rod. That too had a lasting effect. It was raining hard, and as we waited for the repairs, eve listened to the local farmers, who used the garage as a dub, discuss Hoover. I became a lifelong Democrat. It was about six o’clock on a bright summer evening when eve got to Berkeley and drove up Bancroft Way (as one then could) to the International House. The hills behind every very bleached and sere, but the low sun glistened on the live oaks and the green lawns and the masses of pink geraniums, which elsewhere are only geraniums but in Berkeley are the glory of the whole city. The sun also lit up a vast yellow-buff facade of the International House, with the large Spanish arches of the portico below. We passed into the great hall, then gleaming new, and combining the best mission style with the finest in Moorish revival. I thought it a place of unimaginable splendor.

Eventually the International House was to prove a bit too expensive even for one who earned S60 a month and was, as a result, one of the more affluent members of the community. My capital had been depleted by that terrible car. But for the first few months at Berkeley this nice Rockefeller benefaction—it had counterparts in New York, Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo—housing several hundred students of both sexes from the United States and many foreign lands, was to be my window on the Berkeley world. Never before had I been so happy.

The world on which I looked clown could not be recognized in important respects by Mario Savio. I must stress that I had just emerged from the Ontario Agricultural College, and this could have distorted my vision. At OAC students were expected to keep and also to know and cherish their place. Leadership in the student body was solidly in the bands of those who combined an outgoing anti-intellectualism with a sound interest in livestock. This the faculty thought right. Anyone who questioned the established agricultural truths, many of which were wildly wrong, was sharply rebuked, and if he offended too often, he was marked down as a troublemaker. A fair number of faculty members had effectively substituted the affable and wellclipped manner and mustache of the professional countryman for the admitted tedium of science.

At Berkeley I suddenly encountered professors who knew their subject, and paradoxically, invited debate on what they knew. They also had time to talk at length with graduate students and even come up to International House to continue the conversation. I first discovered at Berkeley, from Henry Erdman, who had until recently been the head ol the agricultural economics department, and Howard Tolley, who had just succeeded him as the director of the Giannini Foundation, that a professor might like to be informed on some subject by a graduate student—and that he would be not just polite but pleased. So profound was that impression that I never stopped informing people thereafter. (Howard Tolley, after a year or two, went on to Washington to become head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration under FDR. I shall mention him again in a moment. In 1968, after the elapse of a third of a century, I was back in Berkeley one Sunday to urge the case, and more important, since everyone was persuaded, to raise money, for Eugene McCarthy. I was not at all surprised to see Henry Erdman in the front row. He believed strongly in keeping informed.)

A lthough we had a stipend, we agricultural economists were second-class citizens. Our concern was with the prices of cling peaches, which were then appalling, and the financial condition of the Merced irrigation district, which was equally bad, and tire prune industry, which was chronically indigent, and other such useful subjects. I earned my research stipend by tramping the streets of Los Angeles and Oakland and San Jose to ascertain the preferences as to package and flavor—sage, orange blossom, clover—of Mexican, Jewish, Negro, and (as we then thought of them) ordinary white Americans for honey. No differences emerged. This kind of work was not well regarded by the nonagricultural or pure economists. Thorstein Veblen was still being read with attention in Berkeley in the thirties. He distinguishes between esoteric and exoteric knowledge, the first having the commanding advantage of being without “economic or industrial effect.”It is this advantage, he argues, which separates the higher learning from the lower. Ours, obviously, was the lower.

We suffered from another handicap. Agriculturalists, in an indistinct way, were considered to be subject to the influence of the California Farm Bureau Federation, and much worse, of the opulent and perpetually choleric baronage which made up the Associated Farmers of California. Actually, our subordination was not all that indistinct. Both organizations told the dean of the College of Agriculture and the director of Extension what they needed in the way of research and also conclusions, rhey were heard with respect. No one was ever told to shape his scholarly work accordingly: men were available who did it as a matter of course.

The nonagricultural economists, whatever their differences in other matters of doctrine, were united in regarding the farmers, even more than the bankers or oilmen, as an all-purpose class enemy. In time I acquired a certain reputation in economic theory and other branches of impractical knowledge, and also as a rather circumspect critic of the agricultural establishment. So I was accorded an honorary status as a scholar, my farm handicap notwithstanding. I was then even more happy.

The department of economics at Berkeley has never been considered quite as eminent as that at Harvard. The reason is that the best Californians have always been at Harvard. In the autumn of 1968, of the twenty-three full professors of economics at Harvard, no fewer than seven, nearly one third, were recruited at one stage or another in their careers from the University of California at Berkeley. And economics at Berkeley has long had a marked personality. In the early thirties, years before the Keynesian revolution, Leo Rogin was discussing Keynes with a sense of urgency that made his seminars seem to graduate students tire most important things then happening in the world. I learned Alfred Marshall from Ewald Grether, who taught with a drillmaster’s precision for which I have ever since been grateful. Marshall is the quintessence of classical economics, and much of what he says is wrong. But no one can know what is wrong if he does not understand it first.

My memory also goes back to M. M. Knight’s seminar in economic history, a gifted exercise in irrelevancy. Once Robert Gordon Sproul, then the president of the university, said in one of his booming speeches that, after all, a university was run for the students. Knight, a brother of the noted Frank H. Knight of the University of Chicago, attacked tin’s doctrine for two full sessions. A university. he argued with indignation, was run for the faculty, and to affirm the point, he announced his intention of introducing a resolution at some early faculty meeting to exclude the students from the library. They got in the way.

We graduate students were also fond of Paul Taylor, who spoke out unfailingly for the small farmer in California; Charles Gulick, who spoke out for the farm workers, who then, as now, aroused great animosity and a measure of righteous anger for wanting a union and a living wage; and Robert Brady, who was the friend of the consumer and other lost causes. Brady taught courses in the business cycle and set great store by exhaustive bibliographic research. One of my friends met this requirement by going to the card catalogue in the library and copying into the appendix of his thesis everything that appeared there under the headings Cycle, Business and Cycle, Trade. Brady sent over for some of the latter items which were new to him, and they turned out to be works on bicycles, tricycles, and motorcycles published by the Cycle Trades of America. There was quite a scene.

A few years after I left Berkeley, f became deputy head of the Office of Price Administration in charge ol the World War II price controls. This was a post with unlimited patronage—eventually, as I recall, I had some seventeen thousand assistants. In addition to Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon and many other promising people, numerous ol my former professors, including Howard Tolley, Harry Wellman (later the acting president of the university) , and Robert Brady, turned up on our staff. Brady had scarcely arrived before he was assaulted hip and thigh by the Dies Committee later better known as HUAC—for saying in a book on German fascism that American capitalism was only technically better. To complicate matters further, Dies had got hold of the edition published by the Left Book Club in England. It had something on the cover about not being for public sale.

I handled the defense on the Hill with the handicap of knowing that everything I said in favor of Bob would immediately be used against me. Brady later attributed his troubles to the oil companies and said I was their tool. He had proposed that people conserve oil by not changing the crankcase for the duration or ten thousand miles, whichever was less. I did not endorse the idea. This was mostly because with everything else it never got to my attention. But if it had, I might have remembered that Oakland and the way it changed itself and wondered if it would have made much difference.

The graduate students with whom I associated in the thirties were uniformly radical, and the most distinguished were Communists. I listened to them eagerly and would liked to have joined both the conversation and the Party, but here my agricultural background was a real handicap. It meant that as a matter of formal Marxian doctrine, I was politically immature. Among the merits of capitalism to Marx was the fact that it rescued men from the idiocy of rural life. I had only very recently been retrieved. I sensed this bar, and I knew also that my pride would be deeply hurt by rejection. So I kept outside. There was possibly one other factor. Although I recognized that the system could not and should not survive, I was enjoying it so much that secretly I was a little sorry.

In the ensuing twenty years many ol those I most envied were accorded an auto-da-fe by HU AC, James Eastland, or the late Joseph M. McCarthy. Their lives were ruined. Phrases about the unpredictable grace of God kept crossing my mind.

One man who did not himself get called by McCarthy was Robert Merriman, a vital and popular graduate student and teaching assistant who came down to Berkeley from Nevada in the early thirties. As an undergraduate he had been wholesome and satisfactory and even took an interest in ROTC. But Berkeley had its eflect, and so (as he told friends) did the great waterfront strike of 1934, where he saw soldiers deployed against the strikers. Hugh Thomas’ brilliant book The Spanish Civil War tells the rest of his story. Interrupting a traveling fellowship in Europe in 1936, Merriman went to Spain, where he commanded the Abraham Lincoln Battalion on the Jarama and then went on through many battles to be chief of staff of the XV International Brigade. A major and by now long a veteran, he was killed (possibly executed after capture by the Nationalists) on the Aragon front in 1938. He must have been the bravest of our contemporaries; he so impressed Ernest Hemingway that he became in part the model for Robert Jordan (a professor from Montana) in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The California campus has ornaments for lesser heroes who died nearer home for more fashionable beliefs. T here are some naive, haunting lines written by John Depper, a British volunteer, of the Battle of Jarama that might serve:

Death stalked in the olive trees
Picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned
Again and again.

A year ago in Chicago I was on a television discussion program with Robert Merriam, a White House aide to President Eisenhower and once Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago against Richard Daley. He said that for many years he had been investigated closely by the FBI because of his name. Merriman was not wholly forgotten.

Iwould not wish it thought that our life in the thirties was limited to politics and great matters of the mind. One roamed through San Francisco, climbed Mount Diablo, went up to the Sierras, where someone was always imagining that the Depression might make panning gold profitable again, and consumed (I most diffidently) alcohol stolen from the chemistry laboratories and mixed with grapefruit juice, and alter Repeal, a blended whiskey of negligible cost called, to the best of my memory, Crab Orchard. I have difficulty in believing that the latter-day intoxicants and suffocants do more. In any case we were all greatly impressed one night when a girl who had been overstimulated by these products ceremoniously removed her clothes in the patio of the International House and spent the late hours of the evening doing orgiastic obeisance to the heavens above, and, more than incidentally, to the windows of the men’s rooms around.

In these days people came to Berkeley from all over the world, and naturally enough, no one ever left. The reasons were social and economic as well as cultural. As a student, teaching fellow, or even a nonstudent, one could be a respected member of the community, and it counted against a person not at all to have no income. But the moment one left Berkeley, he became a member of the great army of the unemployed. As such he was an object of sympathy and lost his self-respect. In general graduate students avoided taking their final degrees lest they be under temptation, however slight, to depart. When, in 1933 and 1934, jobs suddenly and unexpectedly became available in Washington— NR A, PWA, AAA—almost everyone got busy and finished up his thesis. Even my Communist friends reacted favorably to the exorbitant salaries which economists commanded in the New Deal.

Among the people who appeared in Berkeley, my mind returns to a slim, boyish-looking girl who, improbably in light ol her build, claimed to have been in Texas Guinan’s chorus before turning to the higher learning. More recently she had been in Tahiti, and then in Bora Bora, where she had gone native and had as proof a comprehensive suntan. Now she was doing graduate work in anthropology on the basis of credentials, partly forged and partly imaginary, mostly from a nonexistent undergraduate institution in the city ol New York. I fell deeply in love with her; on our second or third date, as we were walking up Strawberry Canyon back of the stadium and I was talking, she asked me if I thought it right, as an economist, to be wasting both her time and mine. Nothing in my Canadian and Calvinist background had prepared me for such a personal concept of efficiency. A little later, alter an all-night party in San Francisco, she insisted on being taken to the Santa Fe station. She had just remembered that on the day following, she was scheduled to marry a banker in New Mexico. Much later I met her in New York. She was just back from Haiti (not Tahiti) and preparing to marry a Pan Am pilot. She told me she was working on her memoirs and was being encouraged to the task by Westbrook Pegler. I was by then a promising young member of the Harvard faculty. I first worried that she would publish her recollections, and then, after a time, that she would not.

Though we graduate students expected the revolution very soon and planned to encourage it, we did not expect any help from the Berkeley undergraduates. Not that they would oppose it—they would simply, as usual, be unaware that anything was happening. A singular accomplishment ot American higher education, as one reflects on it, was the creation of a vast network of universities, public and private, which for a century until the sixties caused no one political embarrassment of any kind, in other countries they created trouble from time to time but not here. A control system which subtly suggested that whatever the students most wanted to do—that is, devote themselves to football, basketball, fraternities, college tradition, rallies, hell-raising, a sentimental concern for the old alma mater, and imaginative inebriation—was what they should do was basic to this peace. The alumni rightly applauded this control system, and so, to an alarming extent, did the faculty.

At Berkeley in the thirties this system was still working perfectly. Coming up Bancroft Way to the International House of an evening, one saw the fraternity men policing up the lawns of their houses or sitting contentedly in front. Walking along Piedmont at night one heard the shouts of laughter from within, or occasional bits of song, or what Evelyn Waugh correctly described as the most evocative and nostalgic of all the sounds of an aristocracy at play, the crash of breaking glass. Here were men with a secure position in society and who knew it and who were content. On a Friday night they would do their duty at the pep rally shaming the apathetic, on Saturday they would be at the stadium, and on Saturday night, win or lose, they joined with the kindred souls of earlier generations, men they did not hesitate to call brother, to whoop it up as a college man was meant to do. The Daily Californian was the approving chronicle of tins world—of the Big Game, the Axe, the cards turned in unison in the cheering section to depict an Indian or a bear, the campaign to send the band to Oregon to support the team.

In 1932 Norman Thomas came to the campus and spoke to a small assembly in a classroom. Neither Hoover nor Roosevelt dreamed of favoring us. Hoover did speak to a vast audience of indigent citizens from the local Hooverville down on the Oakland flats and was cheered uproariously when he told them that, at long last, the Depression was over. They had not heard. Only once was there a suggestion of student involvement. The financial condition of the state of California in those days was appalling. State workers were being paid with tax-anticipation certificates. Even the governor, James (“Sunny Jim”) Rolph, sensed that something was wrong. In 1932 and 1933 there were threats to cut the university budget. When it seemed that these were serious, the students were encouraged to assemble and ask their relatives and friends to petition their legislators to relent. Perhaps that was the camel’s nose.

In the 1960s, Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland, Lewis Hershey, and Ronald Reagan accomplished what not even the most talented of our teachers had ever hoped to achieve. The undergraduates became politically concerned. When the time comes to award honors to those who made our universities the center of our political life, it will be a great injustice if the men of the affirmative, as distinct from the negative, influence are featured. Now. I would suppose, Berkeley is the most intense intellectual and political community in the world; perhaps, indeed, it is the nearest tiling to a total university community in modern times. As such it would be silly to suppose that it could be altogether tranquil. Often in these past years following some exceptionally imaginative outbreak on Telegraph Avenue, I’ve heard a colleague say: “You know that sort of thing could never happen here.”I’ve always been too polite to say why I agreed. And the statement could be wrong. As other university communities succumb to the concerns so long a commonplace at Berkeley, they too cease to be tranquil.

Not everyone is as restrained as I am about Berkeley. A few weeks ago 1 shared a seat on an airplane with a young colleague newly recruited, like so many before him, from the University of California. I asked him if he missed it. He replied, “Christ, yes! At Berkeley you worked all morning in the library, and then at noon you went out into the sun and there was always a demonstration going on or something. Man, that was living!” (I have not seen him since. I expect he may be happier now at Harvard.)

The days passed. During my second year my stipend was raised to S70 a month, allowing me to save a little money and also to have a larger social life. Then in my third year I was sent to Davis, which, for the benefit of non-Californians, is in the Sacramento Valley not far from Sacramento. It is now a full-fledged university, but in those days it was the center of agricultural research and instruction too closely associated with orchards, insects, and the soil to be carried on at Berkeley. It cultivated, in other words, the lowest of the lower learning. At Davis I was the head of the departments of economics, agricultural economics, accounting, and farm management. I also gave instruction in all of these subjects, and, with the exception of one elderly dean who gave lectures to nondegree students, I was also the total teaching stall in these disciplines. During the year I had time to write my Ph.D, thesis, and I do not recall that I was especially rushed. Certainly such was my love for Berkeley that I went there every weekend. At Davis my pay was $1800, and I was able (by way of repayment of my own college debts to my family) to send my younger sister to college.

The Davis students were also highly stable. My course in beginning economics was required for some majors. The scholars so compelled tramped in at the beginning of the hour, squeezed their yellow-corduroy-clad bottoms into the classroom chairs, listened with indifference for an hour, and then, by now conveying an impression of manfully suppressed indignation, tramped out. Only once in the entire year did I arouse their interest. I gave some support to the textbook case for lower tariffs. Coming as they did from the sugar-beet fields, olive orchards, and other monuments to the protective tariff, they knew that was wrong and said so.

My best-remembered student that year was a boy who had an old Ford runabout and spent his weekends putting up signs on the highways which warned motorists to repent and prepare at a fairly early date to meet their God. In response on an examination to a question about the nature of money, he stuck resolutely to the proposition that it (not the love of money but money itself) was the root of all evil. I tried to reason with him but in vain. So I flunked him, for his contention seemed to me palpably untrue. That was my only encounter in those years with any form of student dissent.

One day in the spring of 1934 I was in Berkeley putting the finishing touches on my thesis. A Western Union boy came into the room with a telegram offering me an instructorship at Harvard for the following year at $2400. I had not the slightest idea of accepting, for I was totally happy at California. But my rapid advance in economic well-being, plus no doubt the defense of my faith against that student, had made me avaricious, and I had heard that one won advances in academic life by flashing offers from other universities. I let it be known over the weekend that “Harvard was after me,” and on the following Monday, went by appointment to see the dean of the College of Agriculture to bargain. I carried the telegram in my hand. The dean, a large, handsome, and Highly self-confident man named Claude B. Hutchison, who later became the mayor of Berkeley, was excellently informed on all matters in the college, and his intelligence system had not failed him on this occasion. He congratulated me warmly on my offer, gave me the impression that he thought Harvard was being reckless with its money, and said that of course I should go. In a moment I realized to my horror I had no choice. I couldn’t now plead to stay at two thirds the price. The great love of my life was over. I remember wondering, as i went out, if I had been right to flunk that nut.