The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68

The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68

The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68
Ray C. Hillam
July 25, 2001


In April 1966, President Ernest L. Wilkinson had students carry out a covert monitoring of the responses of so called “liberal” professors to his controversial forum address. As evidence of student spying began to surface, it was denied by President Wilkinson until eventually the leading students recruited as spies came forward and confessed their wrong doing. Only then did President Wilkinson accept some responsibility. However, he never admitted the depth of his involvement.

Because I was one of the first to discover student spying and the one on whom an official hearing was conducted, I found myself at the center of this episode.

For years I have been encouraged to write my account of the spy scandal, but I have not done so for three reasons. First, I did not want to call attention to an ugly chapter in BYU history; second, the episode was such a wrenching experience for me that I felt I lacked objectivity; and last, the healing process called for “forgetting” so I worked at putting it out of mind. I had been advised by my dean, Martin Hickman, to “let go, it’s history, leave it to your memoirs.”

It is now 35 years later and I am retired. It is memoir time!

Because the episode was a defining moment in my career at Brigham Young University, I feel I should leave my account to my family and friends. Also, there are lessons which may be of value. Unfortunately, in putting this together I have had to dig up some old bones.

This account is based on memory and papers which are available at the Church Archives in Salt Lake City and in the Special Collections at the Brigham Young University Library in Provo, Utah.


The Global Context. In Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he identifies the Great Depression and World War II as the period of our country’s “Greatest Generation.” The Cold War would warrant equal recognition. Clearly, the Soviets and communism were as much a threat to us as the Nazis or the depression.

The most significant event in the century, which grew out of World War II was the discovery and use of the nuclear bomb. It changed the structure of world politics forever. What followed was a bipolar world with the threat of extinction. It was Sparta versus Athens with nuclear teeth. Mutual deterrence became a Mexican standoff. Armageddon was upon us. Tensions were so great that we were inclined, as Louis Rene Bares, put it, “to embrace apocalypse as the healer … like a moth dancing in its own flame … prepared to be consumed.”

This new phase of danger threatened our very existence. The ideological threat seemed to be as great as the issue of survival. Communism was “on the march,” giving birth in America to an anti-communism reaction which became so extreme some lost much of their good sense. It was an adversarial relationship with both advocating a nuclear theology. It was scary.

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s exaggerated claims, that there were card-carrying communists in government were frightening. A Congressional committee declaring many Americans to be un-American was unsettling. There was suspicion and fear across the country. We turned against one another as a priesthood of armchair experts spun their conspiracies. It was an ugly chapter. Fortunately, it ran its course and by the eighties communism fell on bad times and is now discredited and relegated to the dustbin of history. Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet system surrendered and we won the Cold War. This was achieved by another “great generation” of Americans.

The Utah and BYU Context. The spirit of the McCarthyism of the fifties spilled over into the sixties and was “alive and well” in the liberal-conservative equation of Utah politics and on the BYU campus. W. Cleon Skousen, a former FBI agent and Salt Lake City chief of police, was at the center of the controversy with his book entitled The Naked Communist and his claim that many university faculty were communist sympathizers. Another popular source of controversy and debate was John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. In addition, Robert Welch’s John Birch Society and the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), picked up on the fear and hysteria, making significant inroads in our community and at BYU. Also, there was a strong anticommunist theme in the 1964 national and Utah elections. Many in our community were euphoric over Barry Goldwater’s Republican Convention statement “extremism in the fight for liberty is no vice.”

The controversy centered around the threat to academic freedom at BYU. Richard Poll of History and Kenneth Davies of Economics were among Skousen’s principal critics. Many young faculty such as Louis Midgley, Van Perkins, Kirk Hart, James Duke, Quinn McKay, Ed Morrell, Richard Wirthlin, and myself joined with them and other faculty in challenging Skousen’s claims and attacks on the academic community.

The debate on campus generated anxiety, anger, and distrust. To curb this threat to our community, a group of us met to see if we could sort things out. “After all, are we not all high priests in the same church?” someone argued. “Surely, there is some common ground politically?” So in the early sixties a meeting was held in Dick Poll’s home at 1159 Aspen in Provo’s lower Oak Hills. It was significant, not because it was a meeting of the minds, but rather it reaffirmed the lines of battle between us. It helped President Ernest L. Wilkinson and Cleon Skousen, who were present at the meeting, identify who their local enemies were.

The meeting started out in a quiet mood of conciliation and moved to a spirit of contention. The content of Cleon’s views was objectionable and his calm demeanor and piety enraged many of us. Louis Midgley accused Cleon of dissembling and Cleon accused Louis of being contentious. When Cleon was challenged on his sources, he answered that they came from the FBI and were confidential. This was supposed to end the argument. During refreshments, Cleon asked me, “Who is that young man? He has an evil spirit.” President Wilkinson later let it be known that he was displeased with us and particularly with “that young man from Davis County” (Midgley). It was generally concluded that Wilkinson sided not with his faculty but with Skousen and his young associate, Richard Vetterli.

Several significant events on campus created a stir. One was the debate between arch-conservative Governor J. Bracken Lee and Economics Professor Richard L. Wirthlin on the national debt and deficit spending. Wirthlin won the debate, but he did not score many points with Wilkinson or the archconservatives. Then there was the panel discussion in the Stepdown Lounge of the Smith Family Living Center and the publication of Political Extremism Under the Spot Light (1966) sponsored by the Young Democrats and Young Republicans. President Wilkinson attended the panel and became so upset he prevented BYU from publishing the proceedings. Kenneth Davies edited the proceedings and published it off campus. Wilkinson also prevented its sale in the bookstore. The director of the bookstore was caught in the middle. He finally had it removed from the shelf.

The political environment at BYU in the sixties was characterized by fear and anxiety. The relationship between administrators and faculty was polarized. The president’s practice of using students to monitor the views of faculty grew out of this hysteria over communism, the fear of the welfare state and the issue of free inquiry. The corrupting influence of power, pride, fear, distrust and politics helps explain how and why it happened. This will be addressed later.

My Background. In April 1966, when President Wilkinson initiated the student spy ring, I was an assistant professor of political science and a bishop of a student ward. I had just completed the doctorate in international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. I had been a Chinese intelligence analyst in the CIA before coming to BYU. Earlier I filled a mission to Sweden and I was a Korean War veteran. I joined the BYU faculty in 1960. During the 1964 national elections I worked on the Nelson Rockefeller campaign. In spring 1966 I was awarded a sabbatical leave and was preparing to spend a year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam. Now the story.

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