He chose jail over pleading the 5th in order to defend the First Amendment
On July 6, 2022, two and a half months before his death, the hospitalized mathematician and political activist, Chandler Davis, addressed his colleagues at a conference he had helped organize in support of Azat Miftakhov, a Russian graduate student in mathematics serving a six-year prison sentence on trumped up charges.
It was quintessential Chan, as his friends called him. Even as he was dying, he grabbed the opportunity to defend a political dissident as well as express his solidarity with the ”many, many people in many countries ….horrified by the invasion of Ukraine.”
An indefatigable internationalist and well-regarded mathematician who was elected Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society, Chan noted his own “special bond” with Miftakhov. He, too, had been a political prisoner. In 1960, he spent six months in Danbury Federal Penitentiary for his 1954 refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. And, like the young Russian, he continued his mathematical work, publishing a paper with the following acknowledgement: “Research supported in part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons.”
Dissent was a family tradition. There were ancestors on both sides of the Revolutionary War and a great grandfather who had been the abolitionist Wendell Phillips’ bodyguard. Chan’s parents, Marian and Horace Bancroft Davis, had been in and out of the Communist Party since the 1930s. His father, an economist, Chan recalled, “was trying to make a career as a professor and to make the revolution at the same time; so he was frequently fired.”
A political activist even before he entered Harvard at 16 in 1942, Chan enlisted in the Navy the following year. He was able to continue his studies and began graduate work in mathematics also at Harvard. He had joined the Communist party; and, except for his stint in the military, remained a member until he quietly drifted out in the summer of 1953. At the same time, he was writing and publishing science fiction. Unsurprisingly much of that oeuvre, which is still being anthologized, has a political slant and contains the first story to deal with nuclear warfare.
Chan first confronted McCarthyism in 1950, when he resigned a proffered appointment at UCLA to protest the anti-Communist loyalty oath required of all University of California employees. He soon found another position at the University of Michigan where for the next few years, he and his wife, the eminent European historian Natalie Zemon Davis, whom he had married in 1948, continued their political work – much of it focused on combatting the looming Red Scare.
His subpoena from HUAC in the fall of 1953 came as no surprise. “Both the quiet leftists and the agitators like me knew that the ‘investigators’ might presently knock on our door.” His father had already appeared before another congressional committee and had lost his job at the University of Kansas City as a result. But, unlike his father and most other “unfriendly” witnesses of the time, Chan decided to rely on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and association instead of the Fifth’s privilege against self-incrimination. He knew that he would risk a prison term for contempt of Congress, but hoped that the political atmosphere had lightened enough for the Supreme Court to restore the right to dissent. He planned to use his HUAC hearing to test that supposition.
At his hearing before a HUAC subcommittee in Lansing, Michigan, on May 10, 1954, Chan announced that he would not answer any question that dealt with his political activities or opinions. “It seems to me that such a question infringes my freedom of speech…. It oversteps the bounds placed on Congress by the First Amendment….and I will refuse to answer any questions of this nature.”
Chan soon faced contempt charges, a brief trial, and a judge who sentenced him to $250 and six months in prison. For the next eight years, Chan devoted himself to his case – struggling to revitalize the First Amendment, while fighting the academic blacklist that made McCarthyism so effective.
His case meandered through the federal courts until June 1959 when the Supreme Court rejected the similar appeal of Lloyd Barenblatt, another academic who had invoked the First Amendment before HUAC. Although the justices had been moving toward a more liberal treatment of communism by the late 1950s, their 5-4 Barenblatt decision temporarily reversed that progress. It upheld the two men’s conviction on the grounds that communism was so dangerous that the nation’s security permitted measures “which in a different context would certainly have raised constitutional issues of the gravest character.”
Meanwhile Chan was looking for a job. He had been suspended from his position the day after his hearing, along with the university’s two other unfriendly witnesses – the biologists Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson, both of whom had taken the Fifth Amendment at the same HUAC session. They knew that the university would take action against them. Its president, Harlan Hatcher, had joined the leaders of the nation’s top research universities in an influential statement explaining that because “present membership in the Communist Party extinguishes the right to a university position” an unfriendly witness “owes his colleagues in the university complete candor.”
Accordingly, if they were to keep their jobs, Davis, Markert, and Nickerson would have to reveal their past association with communism and discuss their present political views with the official faculty committees established to handle those issues. Since those committees’ questions were the same as HUAC’s, Chan refused to answer them. It would be “abandoning the principle I defended at Lansing” and, he explained, “would have very serious bad effects on the freedom of speech, and specifically academic freedom in this country.” That refusal puzzled and even antagonized his university interlocutors. They did not see themselves as inquisitors and, despite his strong support from the Mathematics Department, voted unanimously to fire Chan. They felt he had lied to them, citing some of his statements “as examples of a display of deviousness, artfulness, and indirection hardly to be expected of a University colleague.”
In any event, even if he had answered the committees’ questions, Chan still would have lost his job. Nickerson, who had tenure and had satisfied the faculty panels that his party days were over was, nonetheless, ousted by Hatcher, while Markert, who had also cooperated with the Michigan investigation, was retained only because the president planned to deny him tenure when he came up for it. For years, even after the AAUP censured Michigan in 1958 for firing Nickerson, Chan’s refusal to cooperate with the university’s internal investigation remained controversial. It was not until the 1990s that Michigan belatedly apologized for its collaboration with McCarthyism by creating the annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture in Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
For eight years until he found a permanent position, Chan, like most other unfriendly witnesses, confronted an impenetrable blacklist. In 1958 he sent letters to nearly 150 mathematics departments. Since he was frank about his troubles, there were few responses. At four institutions, potential offers were vetoed by the administrations, while the one proposal that he did receive was rescinded when he mentioned that his case was still in the courts. He held a few temporary fellowships, edited a mathematical journal, and worked for an advertising company, while continuing his own research and political agitation.
He could have gone to an historically Black college in the South as his parents had but was loathe to raise his three children in a segregated society. So, like other academic victims of the Cold War Red Scare – Mark Nickerson among them – he left the United States. Hired by the University of Toronto along with his wife in 1962, Chan soon became a fixture on the Canadian left, especially within the anti-war movement where he threw himself into helping American draft resisters escape the military, even hiding deserters in his home.
Much of Chan’s political activism after Vietnam involved the scientific community. He worked within such organizations as Science for the People, the Mathematicians Action Group, and the Association for Women in Mathematics, seeking to woo scientists away from war-related research as well as to democratize their disciplines. He also fought for endangered mathematicians around the world – from Vietnamese colleagues during the late 1960s and early 1970s to other dissidents facing political repression in their home countries, ultimately serving as chair of the American Mathematical Society’s Committee on Human Rights of Mathematicians.
As this energetic polymath continued his political work and mathematics, he also wrote poetry and composed music. The breadth of his undertakings would be terrifying, were he not also such a warm, funny, and unassuming mensch, among whose greatest achievements may well have been his 74 years of a genuinely egalitarian marriage.