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H. Bruce Franklin, Scholar Who Embraced Radical Politics, Dies at 90

H. Bruce Franklin, a self-professed Maoist whose firing by Stanford University in 1972 over an anti-Vietnam War speech became a cause célèbre of academic freedom — and who in the ensuing decades wrote books on eclectic topics, including one credited with helping to improve the ecology of New York Harbor — died on May 19 at his home in El Cerrito, Calif., near Berkeley He was 90.

The cause was corticobasal degeneration, a rare brain disease, his daughter Karen Franklin said.

Dr. Franklin was a tenured English professor and the author of three scholarly books about Herman Melville when he became radicalized in the 1960s over the Vietnam War, a process that accelerated after he spent a year in France, where he and his wife, Jane Franklin, met Vietnamese refugees whose relatives had been killed by U.S. forces.

“When we came back to this country, we were Marxist Leninists, and we saw the need for a revolutionary force in the United States,” Dr. Franklin told The New York Times in 1972.

His far-left politics, to the point of endorsing violence, mirrored extreme currents running through the country and the culture in that era, a mix of revolutionary theatrics and genuine threat.

Back at Stanford, he and his wife helped form a group called the Peninsula Red Guard. Dr. Franklin was also a member of the central committee of Venceremos, a local organization that promoted armed self-defense and the overthrow of the government.

During campus unrest at Stanford in February 1971, Dr. Franklin urged students to shut down “that most obvious machine of war”: the Stanford Computation Center, which was thought to be engaged in war-related work. A crowd broke into the building and cut off power.

At the urging of the university’s president, Richard W. Lyman, a faculty board voted to fire him for inciting violence.

Dr. Franklin responded by defiantly holding a news conference with his wife, who brandished an unloaded M1 carbine rifle, meant to show “that’s where political power comes from,” he announced, a reference to a saying by Mao Zedong.

His dismissal was the first firing of a tenured professor at a major university since the McCarthy era, and it set off a national debate about academic freedom. Alan M. Dershowitz, then a young civil liberties lawyer spending a year at Stanford, argued that Dr. Franklin’s speech to students was protected by the First Amendment. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling denounced what he called “a great blow to freedom of speech.”

The editorial board of The New York Times disagreed. “His conduct has been cowardly as well as irresponsible, manipulating students, endangering their own safety and damaging their future careers,” the Times editorial said. “It makes pawns of vulnerable young men and women, while the professor as instigator seeks immunity behind the shield of tenure.”

Dr. Franklin later sued Stanford, seeking back pay and reinstatement, but California courts upheld the university’s decision.

For three years, he was blacklisted — refused employment by “hundreds of colleges,” as he wrote in a memoir, “Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War,” published in 2018.

Dr. Franklin published “Crash Course,” a memoir, in 2018.Credit…Rutgers University Press

He was finally hired in 1975 by Rutgers University-Newark, where a decade later he was named the John Cotton Dana professor of English and American studies. He stayed at Rutgers until his retirement in 2016, publishing on a wide range of topics.

Vietnam was a recurring theme. In 1992, in “M.I.A.: Or Mythmaking in America,” Dr. Franklin examined the widely held, and false, belief that U.S. soldiers were still being held prisoner in Indochina. It was a myth, he argued, spun up by Hollywood, in movies like “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and by the Reagan administration, to forestall normalizing relations with Communist Vietnam.

“Still unwilling to come to grips with the origins and the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War, many Americans comfort themselves with legends,” Todd Gitlin wrote of Dr. Franklin’s book in The Times Book Review. “One reads his account wondering what is really missing in action in Vietnam.”

Dr. Franklin had a lifelong interest in science fiction, and he examined how its supposedly pulp themes were at the core of American culture. He wrote a book on the work of Robert A. Heinlein and another on how canonical 19th-century authors such as Poe and Hawthorne dabbled in science fiction. In 1992, he was a guest curator of an exhibition devoted to “Star Trek” at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

Long after he was actively involved in radical politics, he became a saltwater angler off the New Jersey coast. His interest grew into a book about menhaden, a key fish in the coastal food chain, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” (2007).

The book raised awareness of the commercial overfishing of menhaden for fertilizer and animal feed, which led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012 to impose the first catch limits ever. The limits were credited with encouraging a rebound of menhaden along the Atlantic seaboard, and a return of whales, which feed on the fish, to New York Harbor.

Howard Bruce Franklin was born on Feb. 28, 1934, in Brooklyn, the only child of Robert Franklin, who held low-paying jobs on Wall Street, and Florence (Cohen) Franklin, who worked as a fashion illustrator for newspaper ads.

Bruce, as he was known, became the first in his family to go to college when he won a scholarship to Amherst. There, he felt estranged from his largely privileged fellow students. “I despised them from the top of their crew cuts to the soles of their white bucks, mostly hating the smug tweediness in between,” he once told a group of college teachers.

After graduating summa cum laude in 1955, he worked as a mate on tugboats in New York Harbor. In 1956, he married Jane Ferrebee Morgan, who had grown up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina and was working in the information department of the United Nations.

Dr. Franklin served for three years in the Air Force as a navigator and squadron intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command.

He was accepted into the Ph.D. English program at Stanford, receiving his degree in 1961, and was hired as an assistant professor of English and American literature. His first book, “The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology,” was published in 1963 and remained in print for decades.

At the time, he thought of himself as a conventional Democrat. He volunteered on Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign.

But America’s growing involvement in Vietnam changed all that. In 1966, Dr. Franklin helped lead an unsuccessful campaign, which drew national attention, to shut a napalm plant on San Francisco Bay.

He identified as a revolutionary, a word that he defined, according to Time magazine, as “someone who believes that the rich people who run the country ought to be overthrown and that the poor and working people ought to run the country.” In 1972, the year he was fired by Stanford, he published “The Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings, 1905-1952.”

In an interview that month with The Times, Dr. Franklin denied hiding Mr. Beaty but praised the violence that led to his escape.

“We believe that most of the people in prison shouldn’t be there, that robbing a bank is not a crime nor is having drugs,” he said. “And we believe those in prison should be freed by any means necessary.”

Several members of Venceremos were convicted of murder, but charges against Dr. Franklin were dropped.

“My father was able to prove he was not at the place that Ronald Beaty said he was,” his daughter Karen said.

In addition to Ms. Franklin, a forensic psychologist, Dr. Franklin is survived by another daughter, Gretchen Franklin, a criminal defense lawyer; a son, Robert, a physician; and six grandchildren. His wife, who wrote books about relations between Cuba and the U.S. and led educational tours to Cuba, died in 2023 after 67 years of marriage.

Karen Franklin said that she never asked her father whether he regretted his rhetoric about violently overthrowing the government. “I don’t think he considered himself a Maoist or a Stalinist any longer,” she said. “He was part of a movement that was national and international in the ’60s and ’70s. He was a leader in that movement; he was also carried along in that movement, and when the movement ended, his politics mellowed.”

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