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CMC's Conservative Heart

February 7, 2011

by Michael Wilner
CMC's Conservative Heart

The Analyst Papers,” named in honor of CMC’s first student newspaper, the Analyst, is a five-part series published by the Forum, the official student publication of Claremont McKenna College.

For the first time, the history of Claremont McKenna has been brought online. The Analyst Papers has been published in the form of five accessible articles, with the aim of navigating through years of characters, monuments, and obstacles. CMC's history is a short one, but a good one, and few know much of it. To learn it is to better understand what CMC stands for, its challenges and its future.

In 1996, the Trustees of CMC commissioned California historian Kevin Starr to write a book commemorating the College’s first fifty years. His remarkable work, “Commerce and Civilization: Claremont McKenna College, 1946-1996”, has been a key source for this series.

Additionally, CMC’s Development Office has opened the College’s archives to Forum staff for this project. We thank them, as well as the CMC Alumni Association, for access to primary sources and first-hand interviews.

Part I: The Founding: An Idea, Long Before a College

Highlights in Part II:

· The College's founding philosophy was rooted in post-World War Two conservative principles. In its first decades, CMC's leadership openly declared its political affiliations as official positions of the College.

· CMC became the intellectual home of Southern California Republicanism, which created two presidents: Nixon and Reagan. Both were very loyal to the College.

· The 1980s is examined as a capstone era, and a turning point.

Part III: The Challenge of the Campus

Part IV: Claremont Men’s College, with Women

Part V: Our Place in the Liberal Arts


Part II

CMC's Conservative Heart

When its doors finally opened after decades of struggle, the one thing that seemed secure for Claremont Men’s College was its mission.

That mission, articulated in a variety of ways since the idea first sprouted in the 1920s, may have been put best in a document written by its first board members in 1952, entitled A College Declares Free Enterprise. CMC’s purpose, the pamphlet read, would be to train men “who will help carry on our American free-enterprise way of life.”

Ultimately, it was this motivation—to found a college for the American century, emphasizing democratic and free market values—that became the primary justification for Claremont’s existence. It drove the dozen men who had the conviction to make the College come together. It certainly became an increasingly rare position in higher education. And in post-World War II America, it would be an ideal that would dominate the nation’s political discourse. CMC was at the heart of this struggle, and at the heart of CMC was an agenda.

· A Core Philosophy ·

When a college chooses a motto, it’s safe to assume that they consider it a telling indicator of the institution’s founding philosophy.

Amherst’s motto declares, “let them give light to the world.” Haverford states, “not more learned, but steeped in better learning.” Yale states simply, “light and truth.”

Claremont McKenna says that civilization prospers with commerce.

“The educational program of this institution is primarily related to the public and private corporate character of modern life,” read a document, Memorandum on Proposed College for Men at Claremont, written in May of 1941. Russell Story’s edits of the piece, including frequent rewrites of this declarative sentence, show just how important it was to make clear the College’s purpose.

Kevin Starr, author of the College’s official historical account, believes that CMC, grounded in such a forceful political philosophy, had a conservative character from the start.

“From the beginning, Claremont Men’s College had a point of view and an image,” Starr wrote. “In contrast to the orientation of the usual liberal arts college—New Deal liberal in politics, Keynesian in economics, skeptical in matters of emotional patriotism—Claremont Men’s College acquired, indeed sought, an opposing identity: free market in economics, anti-New Deal Republican in politics, unabashedly patriotic.”

Indeed, virtually all of Claremont’s pioneers were anti-New Deal Republicans, whose greatest political achievement may have been founding CMC.

Benson was the most vocal of all. In a speech he gave in 1952, he referred to the New Deal as a “‘Santa Claus’ philosophy of something for nothing”—the idea that “government owes me a living.” Not long after the speech was given, Benson was recruited for a time to work for the Eisenhower administration.

Donald McKenna was no less conservative. He would often note his distaste for the liberal bend of his alma mater’s faculty, and their reliance on pro-debt, pro-inflation Keynesian teachings. In CMC’s early years, McKenna even made frequent calls for the reestablishment of the gold standard.

McKenna’s personal archives, given to the College upon his death, show his political leanings remained steady throughout his life. He held on to an invitation to the “Humane Vision of Conservatism” conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, 1981, and wrote fondly of a 1989 dinner he attended with President Reagan at the Century Hotel in Los Angeles. He staunchly opposed the reelection of Bill Clinton in 1994 (shockingly, the year the College Democrats Club was first formed at CMC, according to Forum coverage from the time.)

Another author of the 1952 document, in which Claremont declares itself for free enterprise, was Herbert Hoover, Jr. Notifying Hoover of his election to the board, Benson wrote him that the College, from its founding, had “taken a firm stand in favor of political and economic liberty.”

It even appears as if Russell Pitzer, a founding figure at CMC, had conservative leanings—ironic, given the political leanings of the college that bears his name today.

“CMC is interested in the area where government and economics intersect,” a skeptical David Boroff wrote in “California’s Five-college Experiment,” a Harper’s Magazine 1959 profile of the Claremont Colleges, “militantly committed to free enterprise and ‘intelligent conservatism’ (the adjective speaks volumes).”

Indeed, to put this philosophy into practice, through education, required a different model. Benson suggested a streamlined curriculum would fit, one he called “political economy,” that would emphasize free market economics and constitutional government.

“Claremont Men’s College believes in free society,” the board of trustees upheld in the 1950s. “We cannot maintain our society free if we ask the government for largesse.”

· A Crisis of Mission: Claremont After Camelot ·

For a college to take a political stance, it must accept it will face inevitable trials of conscience. Claremont has had a few.

Some may point out that its very founding was reliant on the brand of government aid the College leadership scorned: the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill.

But part of CMC’s conservatism has been consistent support for the American military. The College’s first class was packed with former aviators, sailors and soldiers, and part of the justification of CMC’s founding was that men would need to learn how to lead in public life, and in business settings, after leading on battlefields. And when the Korean War broke out less than five years after Claremont finally opened, there was a deep fear that the call of duty would deplete the student body to a point where the College wouldn’t long survive.

This support held true even during the escalation in Vietnam, when it seemed the conservatism of the country, and CMC, was most clearly under threat.

The 1960s challenged every American college, some with already liberal faculties. Brown, for one, decided to dramatically change course in 1969 with its adoption of the free elective curriculum.

Violence was also bursting out across many campuses. Nationally, the most widely publicized riots occurred at UC Berkeley and Kent State, where the National Guard killed four students in protest. In Kent, one of the primary targets of protestors was the ROTC.

In Claremont, as well, the ROTC was under siege. Over 160 students marched on the base in Bauer Center over the course of two years, the bulk of which occurred in a two-day siege in 1970. But instead of National Guardsmen defending the space, there were three-dozen CMC students. Protestors from the other Colleges used rocks as weapons against them.

To Benson, the decade presented a tremendous challenge to everything he had worked for.

The students themselves had a conservative bend—not many other colleges formed clubs like the “CMC Student Committee to Support American Fighting Men in Vietnam”—but to Benson, this was a fight that went beyond a war gone terribly wrong. This was about maintaining calm in a community that was supposed to teach self-discipline and governance.

By 1967, Benson was forced to start compromising. That year he published Balance on Campus, a pamphlet that called for an equality of partisanship in the College faculty.

“A college is not a place for indoctrination,” he stated, “on one side or the other.”

The next year, Benson resigned as president.

It took three years for the campus to grow quiet after Benson left, and not before things degenerated even further. Pomona’s branch of SDS, “Students for a Democratic Society,” threw firebombs at Collins Dining Hall and planted them in CMC trash bins. Story House—CMC’s first true building, and a beautiful one—was fatally burned.

Pomona’s Black Student Union, just days before the Story House fire, had asked CMC’s faculty whether they wanted to see the Colleges burned down, Harry Jaffa and Ward Elliott recall.

“If I were to choose,” Elliott tells the Forum, “I would bet on arson over the official story.

“Hot radiator pipes don’t burn down buildings,” he adds.

But while events fired up on campus, the mission of the College seemed to hold steady. A document referred to by the administrative leadership as the “McKenna Report”, issued by Mr. McKenna in 1968, reported that the identity of the College had survived the decade uncompromised. And steadfast through the heat, unwavering like others, CMC moved into an era where its core philosophy would reach a national stage.

· Ground Zero for Republican California ·

CMC’s first students were fresh off the Pacific front, but the College struggled to bring ROTC to campus. The organization has a one-station policy per university, and Pomona already hosted. So Benson appealed to his friend, and congressman, Mr. Richard Nixon.

Nixon would become a friend to the College, before his presidency and throughout. CMC even made a noble effort to locate his presidential library on campus, before the Watergate scandal erupted, and the College stepped back.

But Nixon wasn’t the only prominent conservative to put stock in Claremont. Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, Leo Strauss, and William F. Buckley were hailed during their frequent visits, Strauss and Buckley in particular. Faculty member Harry Jaffa was considered a brainchild of resurgent Republicanism. And Ronald Reagan, a friend of Claremont before his bid for the White House, would lean on the College throughout his presidency.

“I was going to write and let you know how proud I am to have so many of your graduates and faculty members serving here in my administration,” President Reagan wrote to Jack Stark by hand in 1981.

“I have long enjoyed my association with Claremont Men’s College,” Reagan continued. “The contribution of your school… is invaluable.”

Reagan’s victory, and the historical legitimacy he brought as president to modern conservatism, represented a capstone on grassroots efforts that began in 1940s Southern California. Indeed, it would be difficult to separate that effort with the founding and the rise of Claremont, which shared with Reagan a similar trajectory, congruent challenges, and through the turbulence, a conservative heart.

Read Part III: The Challenge of the Campus.

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