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Red Scare: Astronomer Harlow Shapley reshaped the universe, but the FBI considered him a risk

[Harlow Shapley, 1885-1972]

This article originally appeared in the January 2002 edition of Astronomy magazine, but it has not been online, until now. As a freelancer, the rights to our pieces at Astronomy revert to us on publication, its current editor has assured us. So with that in mind, we decided to make the story available here at our own website.

It was the spring of 1947, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was hot on the trail of a suspected Communist. On March 28, federal agents in Los Angeles sent word to Washington that the supposed Soviet sympathizer had sent a letter to a prominent scientist.

The suspicious letter was addressed to Edwin Hubble. It had been sent by Harlow Shapley.

Two of America’s greatest astronomers, these men are largely responsible for our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the solar system’s place in it. But to the FBI, Shapley was a dangerous character.


Records show that for two months in 1947, FBI agents recorded the addresses of every piece of mail that Shapley sent or received. One of those letters went to his old Mt. Wilson colleague, Hubble.

This extraordinary surveillance was just part of the seven years of government spying on Shapley that ended in 1953, a year after he retired as Harvard College Observatory’s director. Copies of Shapley’s 461-page FBI dossier continued to be shared with various federal agencies well into the 1960s. (Shapley died in 1972.) At the height of the FBI’s monitoring, however, when agents were aware of even minute details of his life, Shapley told a friend that he doubted the agency was following him.

That’s in the massive file, too.

Astronomy obtained Shapley’s FBI file with a Freedom of Information Act request. The dossier shows that FBI agents relied on informants at Harvard, moles in the astronomical community, and infiltrators in national political organizations to watch Shapley closely. The FBI even spied on the 1946 convention of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, which Shapley attended. (FBI agents were concerned that Shapley was trying to recruit AAVSO members to turn their mild-mannered pursuit of measuring star brightnesses to something more nefarious. What this activity might have been is not clearly spelled out in the file.) But after seven years of eavesdropping, the FBI could not establish that Shapley was – or had ever been – a member of the Communist Party.

What does emerge from the file is a complex portrait of an astronomer who didn’t like what his government was doing with nuclear arms, a fiercely independent and passionate man who used his position as one of the most visible of American scientists to battle the pogroms of the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph P. McCarthy. What appeared suspicious to post-war FBI agents — Shapley’s concern for war refugees and for the welfare of foreign scientists, as well as Shapley’s vocal opposition to lynchings of blacks in the South — seem like ringing endorsements today. But not everything in the file is flattering by today’s standards. According to the FBI, Shapley could at times be insensitive and petty. Overall, however, the picture of Shapley that takes shape among the blacked-out sections of the file the FBI still won’t release is that of a man who irked government officials in a time when conformity was considered a patriotic virtue.

In a typical assessment, the file reads: “Confidential Informant [redacted] offered the following estimate of Shapley, based upon his association with him: ‘He is a stubborn advocate of his own ideas and one of the supreme egotists of our time. He has an inherent dislike for authority, and will invariably do the opposite to what he is told or supposed to do.’”

Shapley would probably not have quibbled with that appraisal. Appointed director of the Harvard College Observatory at only 35 years of age, the Missouri native was not short on self-confidence.

Shapley had made his reputation with one of the most monumental discoveries in astronomy since Copernicus’ displacement of the Earth from the center of the universe. Four hundred years after Copernicus made the Earth circle the sun, Harlow Shapley moved humanity even farther from the center of creation. Using observations of Cepheid variable stars in globular clusters that he made at Mt. Wilson from 1914 to 1921, Shapley radically revised the scale of the universe, finding that the Milky Way galaxy was about ten times bigger than previously thought. Even more surprising, he discovered that the solar system was not at the Milky Way’s center but out near its periphery. He estimated, after a few revisions, that the Sun and its planets were some 30,000 light years from the galaxy’s true center, which he correctly located in the direction of Sagittarius.

Before he became a world-famous astronomer, however, Shapley started out as a journalist and even, he later admitted, did some spying of his own.

In his autobiography, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars, Shapley relates the time he sat outside the office of a political candidate in tiny Chanute, Kansas. He’d been kicked out by the candidate, who didn’t like the newspaper where Shapley worked, but the young political reporter realized he could hear just fine outside, and took down everything he heard in shorthand.

The next day, the Daily Sun printed Shapley’s notes verbatim — coarse words and all. “Consequently [the politician] wanted to murder me and blow up everybody,” Shapley wrote.

He was all of sixteen years old at the time.

The Missouri native was born on November 2, 1885, the son of a farmer. His twin brother, Horace, would follow their father’s lead, but Shapley wanted nothing to do with working the land. He found working in newspapers a more exciting, if low-paying, diversion, but soon realized that he would never become an editor and make a decent living without a degree. In 1907 he raised enough cash to pay for a year of high school and then packed off for the University of Missouri at Columbia.

The university’s journalism school was still a year from opening up, and Shapley had no real idea what he wanted to study in the meantime. His first term, in fact, he opened up the university’s catalog and decided to take the first class listed. When he realized he didn’t know how to pronounce “archaeology,” he skipped to the next listing, “astronomy.” It must have been fate. Shapley found that he enjoyed the subject, met his future wife among his astronomy colleagues, and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in only four years.

He then won a fellowship to study with Henry Norris Russell, the country’s foremost astronomer, at Princeton. Under Russell, Shapley made his reputation for solving the orbits of binary star systems through the use of complex equations. That landed him a research job at Mt. Wilson, which began in 1914.

Using the 60- and 100-inch telescopes at the observatory north of Los Angeles, Shapley made his great discovery about the Milky Way Galaxy’s true size and the solar system’s place in it. But other scientists were skeptical about Shapley’s findings, including a scientist named Heber Curtis at Lick Observatory outside San Jose. Geoge Ellery Hale, Mt. Wilson’s wealthy patron, convinced Shapley to come to Washington D.C. in 1920 and promote his ideas by facing off with Curtis in a friendly airing.

The event would later come to be called the Great Debate, although Shapley felt it was somewhat blown out of proportion. He had come ready to convince his listeners that the Milky Way was much larger than previously thought and that the solar system was far from its center. But Curtis, after casting some doubt on Shapley’s data, argued something different — that the “spiral nebulae” were actually galaxies outside the Milky Way. Shapley, relying on erroneous data which suggested the spiral nebulae were nearby, said that Curtis was wrong. Both were partly correct: The Milky Way was extremely large, the solar system was on its periphery, and the spiral nebulae were external galaxies.

The notoriety of the event helped Shapley land the Harvard Observatory director’s job a year later, in 1921. For the next 31 years he greatly expanded research at the institution, and made it more of a teaching establishment.

As director of Harvard’s observatory, Shapley also found himself on the periphery of national politics, and he took advantage of it. An outspoken liberal, Shapley actively helped European scientists escape the fascist regimes of Spain and Germany in the 1930s and 1940s to find work in North America.

In the postwar Red-baiting hysteria that gripped the United States, Shapley’s political activities made him just one of the many intellectuals, artists, and journalists that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover investigated for Communist ties.

It’s already well known that Shapley ran afoul of the anticommunists in Congress. In 1946, House Un-American Activities Committee member John E. Rankin of Mississippi subpoenaed Shapley to question him about campaign contributions made by a liberal voters’ organization he chaired.

What Shapley didn’t know, however, was that by the time he received that subpoena in November, the FBI had already been surveilling him for more than five months. Stamped “SECRET,” Shapley’s hefty dossier was only declassified in 1998. In a calm, official tone, the FBI file describes Shapley’s past and his connections to various political and professional organizations. In a section about the Rankin subpoena, the report discusses private conversations and confidential attorney-client conferences that Shapley engaged in as he prepared to appear before the congressional committee. Although no mention of electronic surveillence is made anywhere in the lengthy file, such descriptions of private conversations suggest that Shapley’s phone was tapped.

To an associate, for example, Shapley admitted that he had the political connections to quash Rankin’s subpoena, but he chose to face the southern Democrat in a showdown he hoped would lead to the end of HUAC itself.

The episode did generate a great deal of publicity. After their tempestuous closed-door session on November 15, Rankin and Shapley emerged into an eruption of flashbulbs. “I have never seen a witness treat a committee with more contempt,” Rankin said. Shapley, meanwhile, accused Rankin and HUAC of “Gestapo methods.”

Shapley’s behavior in the closed meeting quickly became lore among those people who objected to HUAC and its tactics. According to Shapley’s account of the hearing, which he told the next day to his Harvard colleague Bart J. Bok and others, Rankin had objected to Shapley’s showing up to the hearing with an attorney. Somehow, Shapley said, Rankin managed to maneuver his lawyer out of the room. Rankin then noticed that Shapley had brought along a secretary who was taking notes. Rankin kicked her out and told Shapley that the committee would provide him with its own record of the hearing. But Shapley said Rankin really exploded when the scientist began taking down the proceedings in shorthand. Angered that Shapley continued to defy him, Rankin approached the witness and tore away his shorthand notes, and the hearing abruptly ended.

But the FBI file suggests that there was more to the hearing, and that Rankin was angry for reasons other than Shapley’s ability to take down notes quickly. Soon after the incident, Shapley telephoned a friend to give an account, telling her to remember that “even the walls have ears.” That conversation is detailed in the FBI file. Shapley told his friend that he and Rankin had argued over Shapley’s efforts to bring scientists to America with the help of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Rankin said that the JAFRC was a Communist organization, and Shapley denied it.

After some arguing, Rankin then turned to a letter Shapley had written to a Massachussetts congressional candidate, Martha Sharp. At the time, Shapley was chairman of a left-leaning state political organization, the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which had given funds to Sharp’s campaign. For political reasons, Shapley wrote later, Sharp had not made public her acceptance of the money.

Shapley said he would only answer questions about his letter if Rankin admitted he had possession of it because a congressional operative had burglarized Sharp’s office in an attempt to smear her.

At that point, Shapley said, Rankin threatened him with contempt. Those threats were repeated, he said, when Rankin realized that Shapley hadn’t brought ICCASP documents that he’d been ordered to produce. (The contempt charges were eventually dropped.)

Shapley returned to Harvard to find that he’d become a hero to its students. His defiance of HUAC thrust Shapley into even more prominence nationally, a development which he later decided was a mixed blessing. As a result of the battle with Rankin, Shapley was frequently asked to speak at colleges about HUAC, US foreign policy, and Soviet relations. The FBI, meanwhile, quietly gathered information about Shapley’s movements and his past.

In 1945, for example, Shapley had been part of a large delegation of scientists who took advantage of the end of the war to travel to Moscow to celebrate the 220th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences. A Yale professor told the FBI that Shapley had handled the invitations for the American scientists, and an FBI informant who was present gave agents a description of the event. “[Redacted] relates that the visiting scientists were accorded one of three types of treatment by their Soviet brethren. Those who indulged in alcoholic beverages were quickly intoxicated and remained in that state throughout their stay in Moscow. Those more readily susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex found their every desire gratified, and those who were of a higher moral calibre, in the informant’s opinion, but who were susceptible to flattery were so constantly eulogized that they had little opportunity to do other than hear the odes written in their honor….Shapley was constantly in either category one or three.”

Shapley’s trips to Moscow weren’t the only thing that apparently made the FBI nervous. The file also reports Shapley’s public pronouncements that nuclear research should not be kept secret, and his efforts to make sure visiting Soviet scholars got access to American scientists. During one of those meetings with foreign scientists, dutifully recorded by an FBI special agent, Shapley told two Soviets that the Russians were smart enough to elect scientists to important posts, but in the U.S. a man such as himself couldn’t get elected dog catcher.

The FBI’s reference to multiple informants indicates that many people very close to Shapley were feeding the agency information without his knowledge. For example, the dossier reports a vebatim conversation between a student newspaper reporter and an unnamed member of Shapley’s office the day before he appeared before Congressman Rankin, suggesting that either the student reporter was an informant or, the more likely scenario, the FBI had a mole in Shapley’s very office.

Agents also kept an eye on Shapley’s communications. For 60 days in 1947, the addresses of every piece of mail Shapley sent or received was recorded, and FBI field offices around the country were asked to investigate the people and organizations in contact with Shapley. The FBI makes special note of the large number of physics and biological laboratories among Shapley’s correspondents, which, the report points out, were involved in nuclear and biological warfare technology. “No inferences are drawn, however, that Shapley’s correspondence from the latter two types of research organizations is based upon an inquisitiveness into the military secrets of the country,” the report writer allows.

Repeatedly, Shapley is accused of harboring sympathies that paralleled Soviet interests. A 1947 report claimed that Shapley promoted a “political line in no wise different from that of the Communist Party, U.S.A.” As an example, however, the unnamed report writer cited Shapley’s lobbying efforts to convince Congress to establish the National Science Foundation. (The NSF today underwrites $3 billion of the country’s scientific research. But in 1947, the effort to give government funds to scientists seemed radical to worried FBI agents.)

The FBI also noted Shapley’s public criticisms of Hoover and HUAC. Several of his speeches are preserved, including the following excerpt, which he gave at a 1947 Progressive Citizens of America rally to more than 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden: “Why should we not demand that our government be fair and open with its citizens? We, the civilians, must pay the bills, we must fight the wars. Congressmen do not loan four hundred million dollars, generals and admirals never won a war; we, the citizens do both of them. Why then this hazy double talk?….You there, with a subversive grin, are you a dripping Communist? No? You deny it? That means you are one. Back up the wagon, Mr. J. Edgar, we’ve got him. Back up 21,406 wagons, Mr. Attorney General, take them all away. The Gestapo purge is on. They are all guilty because they have all begun to think.”

The FBI also took an interest in Shapley’s openness about his atheism. Calling him a “worshipper in the temple of Science,” an agent noted that Shapley had worked on Christmas Day, 1946 as a gesture of his nonbelief. But the report does acknowledge that Shapley had respect for the faith of other people: “He has never attempted, to the knowledge of these informants, to wilfully interfere with the beliefs and traditions of others.”

Less flattering is the file’s claim that on a few occasions the professor abused people in less powerful positions. In 1947, according to the file, one of Shapley’s students, who was funded by the G.I. bill, had angered him by ridiculing his political activism. Shapley put pressure on a residential headmaster who owed Shapley his job to punish the student. In another episode, the file claims, Shapley refused to pay Radcliffe students minimum wage for mathematical drudge work at the observatory. The young women resigned in protest, and Shapley is claimed to have said he would rather get along without them than pay 75 cents an hour.

In 1949 Shapley gave a lecture to Rand Corporation employees in Los Angeles, some of whom were FBI informants. “The general tenor of Shapley’s address was that through international cooperation in scientific fields and keeping the flow of scientific information moving between countries, world peace would be furthered.” The file notes that Shapley was audiotaped without his knowledge: “Rand Corporation feels that they might be embarrassed should this be known, inasmuch as it is customary for the company to advise all speakers when their speeches are being recorded.”

By 1948, the FBI seemed convinced that no concrete connection between Shapley and Communism would turn up. “There is…no information or evidence indicating that Harlow Shapley is now or ever has been a member of…any Communist Party,” reads a report dated March 27. Several times, the FBI refers to a Boston informant who claimed that Shapley was a “concealed” member of the Communist Party, but this does not seem to convince the agency of a real tie. Shapley is repeatedly criticized for harboring pro-Communist and pro-Soviet views and for speaking negatively about U.S. foreign policy, but overall he’s described merely as a headstrong individualist: “[Redacted] volunteered further his personal opinion that Shapley was much too independent in nature to be a member of any Communist Party or to actively engage in work in behalf of the Russians.”

After March 1948, Shapley began to curtail his political activity, telling people that the Harvard president, James B. Conant, was hearing too many complaints about him. “Since the complainants were invariably people who had been accustomed to donate large sums to the University coffers, the Harvard officials were inclined to regard Shapley’s political activity unfavorably, and so advised him,” the file says. By 1949 Shapley had promised the school’s administration that he would no longer bring foreign scientists to the university and that he would avoid bad publicity.

Shapley’s lower profile, however, didn’t keep Senator Joseph P. McCarthy from attacking him the next year. During a committee meeting in March 1950, the Wisconsin senator accused Shapley of belonging to 36 Communist-front organizations and of being an unsavory character. Shapley called McCarthy’s charges “hysterical nonsense” and said, “I have only to say that the senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences…probably the indoor record for mendacity.”

Later that year, a Senate subcommittee cleared Shapley of all of McCarthy’s allegations. In 1952, Shapley reached Harvard’s mandatory retirement age of 66 and stepped down from his post at the observatory. He had overseen massive projects produced by 25 large telescopes around the world, including the Shapley-Ames Catalog of External Galaxies.

After his retirement, he continued to work at the observatory and teach classes. And the FBI continued to keep an eye on him. Apparently, however, they assigned a less knowledgeable agent to watch the aging scientist. In a 1953 report, an entry in Shapley’s file reads: “Informant [redacted] stated on [redacted] that although Subject is the retired director of the Harvard Observatory…he continues to be an active professor of astrology.”

Someone has crossed out the word and written in “astronomy.”

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