If this nation is to get the maximum benefit of the talents nurtured and trained in our colleges and universities, we must not interfere with the maximum development of that talent. One step taken by the Congress last year represented a serious step in that direction -- and I refer to the Loyalty Oath provisions inserted last year in the National Defense Education Act. That Act, as you know, provides generally for Federal loans to students at institutions of higher learning. It announces that the security of the Nation depends upon the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of our young men and women, and it encourages this development by a student loan program.
When the bill passed Congress last year very little attention was paid to a section inserted on the Senate Floor which required every student loan applicant to sign an oath of loyalty and to make out an affidavit declaring that he did not believe in or support any organization which believed or supported the overthrow of the Government by illegal methods.
No thought was given to the question of how this section would be enforced – who would investigate the veracity of these affidavits -- who would determine whether students who did not belong to any subversive organization might have some proscribed belief – what constituted the belief of an organization – and under what circumstances a method of overthrowing the Government was illegal. I suspect that there are some Republicans who may consider it improper, if not illegal, whenever a Democrat wins an election.
Nor was there any discussion of what danger to the nation was being avoided by this requirement – or why Congress was singling out recipients of Federal loans for educational purposes and not those who receive old age benefits, crop loans or other unrelated payments.
The loyalty oath has no place in a program designed to encourage education. It is at variance with the declared purpose of the Act in which it appears; it acts as a barrier to prospective students; and it is distasteful, humiliating and unworkable to those who must administer it.
No one can quarrel with the principle that all Americans should be loyal citizens and should be willing to swear allegiance to our country. But this is quite different from a doctrine which singles out students, who seek only to borrow money, as a group which must sign a rather vague affidavit as to their beliefs as well as their acts.
This year I introduced a bill – cosponsored by Senator Joe Clark of Pennsylvania – to repeal this provision in its entirety. We were successful in having it reported by Senate Committee on Labor, Education and Public Welfare; but we were defeated on the floor of the Senate by that same coalition of viewpoints that looks with suspicion upon any advancement in the principle of academic freedom. There were still plenty of students, I was told, who would be glad to sign these affidavits and accept these loans. It reminded me of the leading American chemist, when World War I was declared, who called upon the Secretary of War and offered the services of his fellow chemists – only to be rejected on the grounds that the War Department already had a chemist.
These opponents of repeal were also critical of those colleges which had refused to participate in the loan program because of this limitation. They said it hurt the program and it hurt the students while only making a futile gesture for an abstract principle. Perhaps they were right – but, as you know this college is one of those which turned down much needed money because of this loyalty oath provision. I think you did the right thing – I think you should be proud of your college -- and it makes me proud to be here today.
Such an affidavit is superfluous at best and discriminatory and subversive of the purposes of the Act at worst. Card-carrying members of the Communist Party will have no hesitancy about perjuring themselves in the affidavit. It will not keep them out of the program. But it does keep out those who resent such a requirement, those who are over-apprehensive in their interpretation, those who fear unnecessarily the interpretation of some official of an unexpressed view, those who are conscientiously opposed to test oaths, and those who consider the disclaimer affidavit a bridle upon freedom of thought. To submit to this condition is to accept an insupportable invasion of educational autonomy, which has grave implications for the integrity of our educational system.
To be sure, most of us would probably sign—and most of us those excluded from loans by this section might be said to be non-conformists and dissenters –but surely, in our efforts to attract into scientific pursuits of the best talents, the most intriguing minds of our nation, we do not wish to exclude the non- conformists and dissenters. Certainly those who are willing to sign the affidavits are not always by that act necessarily proven to be either more loyal or more talented than those who do not sign.
The students, the teachers, and the college officials of our leading universities are understandable concerned about the effect of this provision on the whole program, on the level of our academic thought, and on the academic freedom of their institutions – institutions which, in the words Jefferson prescribed for the University of Virginia, should be “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” A number of universities have refused to participate in the program because of this provision, with consequent irretrievable loss to prospective students and the nation.
More than just the right of the government to demand an oath of allegiance as a condition to a loan is involved. If we are to be faithful to our basic principles of freedom of thought, if we are to encourage the restless minds in our universities to go beyond the frontiers of knowledge, if we are to remove the inhibitions that might foreclose inquiry, we must resist any attempt to force our students into a preconceived mold.
It is not enough to say, as the Secretary of War said to the chemist, that we already have some college graduates and will undoubtedly have more regardless of the ultimate fate of this provision of the Education Act. We must have the best talent in the nation and, in the words of the Act, “no student of ability should be denied the opportunity for higher education because of financial need.” Unlike the Soviets, we cannot take steps to keep our brightest minds in scientific careers, but we can take steps to keep them out. That is the great danger.
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 905, "Mills College and the Loyalty Oath, Oakland, California, 30 October 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.