By Greg Guma
Chapter One: Wrong Turn
He had nightmares when he was wide awake. Nervous and garrulous, he couldn’t resist running over the accomplishments in his past – prestigious places he had taught, famous scientists and intellectuals he had known, mathematical breakthroughs that had brought him early acclaim.
The words came fast and urgently as William Pierce struggled to sound confident about what he was saying. But at times he let out a small laugh that betrayed underlying fear, mostly that he might come across as crazy.
He was 57 when we first met. Once a gifted mathematician, a university professor with a Harvard Ph.D., and valedictorian of the 1943 University of Vermont graduating class, Pierce no longer looked very collegiate or professorial. Five foot three, out of shape and overweight, he shambled into the editorial office in a frayed, rumbled suit and had clearly been drinking.
He had tracked me down at the Vermont Vanguard Press, the weekly paper I edited, after attending a talk about intelligence community abuses. The talk was mostly based on my investigation of FBI disinformation surrounding the arrest of a so-called “terrorist suspect” at the Canadian border. Pierce claimed he had an even more explosive story to tell.
It wasn't difficult to verify his academic credentials and past employment. William A. Pierce had indeed been an academic star. Born in Lyndonville in 1921, he received the highest academic grades as a UVM undergraduate since John Dewey. After graduating in 1943 with an award for “unusual excellence in scholarship,” he was swept into World War II and served in the Navy at a Virginia proving ground until 1946. “I doubled as mathematician and church organist,” he recalled. After the war came three years at Harvard, where he taught and completed his doctorate.
In 1950, attracted by “an excellent group of research scholars,” Pierce joined the Math Department at Syracuse University. But the City of Syracuse “was then a hotbed of anti-Communist activity,” he told me, “and the University was under considerable pressure to do something about ‘them reds on the faculty’ – especially the Jewish reds in the Math Department.”
Syracuse was also the home of Laurence Johnson, supermarket chain owner and ardent enforcer of the McCarthy era blacklist. Johnson was widely known for threatening to place signs in his stores that warned customers not to buy the products of any company that sponsored a TV or radio program featuring one of "Stalin's little creatures." This meant anyone in Red Channels, a 213-page compilation of entertainers with alleged Communist links.
Some of the country’s largest corporations had bowed to Johnson’s pressure.
A few months after Pierce arrival on campus, Dr. Donald Kibbey, acting Math Department chair, fired two members of the faculty for alleged activities in “controversial” political groups. Several other mathematicians submitted their resignations in solidarity, and one colleague, Professor Paul Rosenbloom, warned Pierce that he “was terribly wrong to stay at Syracuse.”
Years later, Pierce chided himself for not seeking a teaching post elsewhere, as some of his colleagues did. “I was certainly untrue to myself,” he said. “It was the worst mistake I have ever made."
One reason was that the new math Chair wanted to reorient and rebuild his department “along security lines.” An early warning of the trouble ahead emerged during an argument between them. Pierce recalled Kibbey’s face literally turning red as he labeled Franklin Roosevelt a “crook” and accused Rosenbloom of being a Communist.
“At Harvard and Syracuse I was considered a left-winger,” Pierce admitted. “The label resulted partly from my membership in peace groups and opposition to the Cold War, but it was primarily my criticism of FBI investigations and security procedure in areas of human learning. There was some trouble, for instance, when I described Russian advances in certain fields of mathematics and science, and then urged that Americans wage a more effective, peaceable competition with the Soviet Union.”
“Listen buddy,” one colleague snapped in response, “”if you don’t like your Uncle Sammy, get the hell back to Russia.”
Next: Naming Names