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New! The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis: McCarthyism, Communism, and the Myth of Academic Freedom


With a Foreword by Ellen Schrecker

Exposes the destruction of academic careers—and the complicity of educational institutions—in McCarthy’s America

The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis tells the true tale of a mathematician who found himself taking an involuntary break from chalking equations to sit opposite a row of self-righteous anti-Communist congressmen at the height of the McCarthy era. Courageously asserting the First Amendment to confront a system rapidly descending into fascism, Davis testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He became one of a small number of left wingers who served time for contempt of Congress.

In this fascinating and disturbing narrative, author Steve Batterson takes a deep dive into extant archival records generated by the FBI, HUAC, the University of Michigan, and repositories holding the papers of former Supreme Court justices. He looks at the plights of six faculty and graduate students—including three future members of the National Academy of Sciences—whose life’s work was impacted by the anticommunist actions of a wide range of personnel at the University of Michigan. He focuses on the seemingly conflicting Supreme Court decisions on labor leader John Watkins and Vassar College Psychology instructor Lloyd Barenblatt. And he examines the role played in the trial by Felix Frankfurter, a longtime Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, close advisor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and co-founder of the ACLU. In the process, Batterson exposes the ways that McCarthy’s righteous emissaries relied on all kinds of institutions in 1950s America—from Hollywood studios to universities—to sabotage the careers of anyone with a trace of “Red.”

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What people are saying about The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis

The challenges Chandler faced in the 1950s have returned with a vengeance in the form of red state governors and legislators seeking to police what is taught and thought in universities and to punish those teachers whose ideas are at variance with a reactionary political agenda. We are now experiencing what many are calling a new McCarthyism. It’s a tribute to Steve Batterson’s book that we can raise these questions about the politics of jurisprudence and the vagaries and contingencies of the law. His detailed inquiry in The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis provides the historical insight that I associate with the best accounts of this kind: motives are complex, power a critical variable, timing an unpredictable factor, and rational argument not necessarily a winning strategy. This is a case study with resonance well beyond the specificities of the case. It is an important and worthwhile read.
Joan Scott, author of Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom

Carefully done…and good reading as well.
Stephen Smale, UC-Berkeley mathematician, Fields Medalist (Nobel Prize for Mathematics)

Steve Batterson’s compelling biography of Chandler Davis reveals a true American hero. His book, relying on primary sources, including intimate interviews, reveals the other side of the shameful McCarthy period, as a progressive thinker stood for his First Amendment rights, refusing to take the Fifth, and was punished for it. Chandler Davis’ coolness under fire and his exemplary life, unmarred by bitterness and full of hope and grace, is a revelation for us all.
Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan

At a moment when conservative forces are once more taking a sledgehammer to academic freedom, Steve Batterson tells the story of the intrepid and far-sighted H. Chandler Davis as it needs to be told. Calmly unpicking the tenacious fallacies used to rationalize the anticommunist purge of the 1950s, he provides a deeply researched and compulsively readable biography that is note-perfect for our time and full of surprising historical details.
Alan Wald, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, and author of American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War

Steve Batterson is professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at Emory University. He received his PhD in mathematics from Northwestern University in 1976, and soon embarked upon mathematical research at Emory, the Institute for Advanced Study, Boston University, and the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s he wrote a biography of the Fields Medal winner Stephen Smale, followed by two books and several articles on the history of mathematics.

Publication Date: 08/05/2023

Number of Pages: 200

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-68590-035-9

Cloth ISBN: 978-1-68590-036-6

eBook ISBN: 978-1-68590-037-3