By David Kurlander

The McMinn County, Tennessee school board’s decision to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus has spurred a national debate over the surge in censorship of divisive literature. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Bans & Schools Part I: Book Panics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed historical American resistance to book bans, from Clarence Darrow’s full-throated defense of evolution textbooks during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial to Harper Lee’s 1966 self-defense of To Kill a Mockingbird after the book was banned by a Virginia school board. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower waded into his own controversy over reactionary anti-Communist book burnings.

On June 13th, 1953, Air Force One touched down in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. President Eisenhower’s popularity was at a high ebb. Around 15,000 New Hampshire residents lined the streets as the Commander-in-Chief’s motorcade headed from the airport to Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey’s home in Hanover. Eisenhower was in town to receive an honorary degree at Dartmouth’s commencement exercises. 

Eisenhower’s main rival for control in the Republican Party was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower had been slow to directly criticize the fiercely anti-Communist McCarthy, who was then at the peak of his infamous search for “subversives” among federal employees.

The two leaders had briefly come to loggerheads over McCarthy’s attempts to scuttle the nomination of Charles Bohlen to serve as Ambassador to Russia by accusing Bohlen of being gay. Eisenhower had ultimately backed down from openly condemning McCarthy in early April after the Senator went over the head of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to orchestrate an agreement with Greek shipping magnates to avoid trade with China and North Korea. 

Amid it all, McCarthy was also aggressively pressuring the International Information Administration to remove Communist-authored books from United States-controlled libraries abroad. McCarthy went so far as to send his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, and his chief consultant, David Schine, to Europe on a search for objectionable titles. 

At Dartmouth, Lester B. Pearson, Canadian foreign secretary and president of the United Nations General Assembly, and New York attorney Joseph Proskauer, who had pushed the Declaration of Human Rights into the U.N. charter, were talking in their seats. 

As the 563 graduating seniors waited in line for their diplomas, Eisenhower turned to Pearson and asked—according to nearby New York Times reporter Anthony Leviero— “What are you and Proskauer talking about?” Pearson replied that they were discussing “book burners.” 

“I’ve been thinking about the same thing,” Eisenhower responded. “I guess I’ll have something to say about it.” 

When Pearson rose to give his address, he obliquely struck out at the McCarthyites. “We must not compete with Communism in elevating fear into a civic virtue, in making denunciation the test of loyalty, in exalting violence as a badge of patriotism, or in making sterile conformity the test of good citizenship,” the Canadian warned. Pearson’s speech criticized the “voices raised in our midst, calculated to exaggerate the differences which arise between us” as a major impediment to world peace.

Eisenhower initially struck a very different tone than Pearson. He began his speech—prepared almost entirely on his own—with a commendation of the day’s other speeches and a relatively anodyne golf metaphor about how shooting an impressive 79 is only worthwhile if the golfer takes no shortcuts. 

Then, however, Eisenhower’s tone shifted. He advised having the courage to look upon America’s problems with open eyes: “This country is a long way from perfection—a long way. We have the disgrace of racial discrimination, or we have prejudice against people because of their religion. We have crime on the docks. We have not had the courage to uproot these things, although we know they are wrong.”

Then Ike delivered the phrase, seemingly off-the-cuff, that graced the headlines of many national papers the next morning: “Don’t join the book burners.” He followed up with further cautions, saying, “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”

Eisenhower even explicitly called for developing some familiarity with Communism, asking, “How will we defeat Communism unless we know what it is, and what it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it?” And he argued that political outsiders still deserved their place in the nation: “They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.”

Eisenhower’s speech was generally praised. An informal count of mail at the White House on June 16th found that 102 positive responses and only eight negative responses had arrived in the mailroom. 

Some Democrats pointed out that Eisenhower’s State Department was allowing McCarthy to pressure the removal of Communistic texts from overseas libraries. Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas C. Hennings Jr. told the New York Times: “The unique and distinguished thing about President Eisenhower’s speech is that the current campaign to burn books is at present completely in the control of the Eisenhower Administration. All that the State Department has to do is to stop ‘burning books.’” 

Nevada Democratic Senator Pat McCarran added an even blunter assessment, suggesting that Eisenhower wasn’t minding the store at State: “It’s bad a man in his position doesn’t know more about it. Someone must have sold him a bill of goods.” 

The State Department also got tied up in the contradictory elements of Eisenhower’s speech. An official statement read, “Anyone who did anything about destroying a book did so under his own initiative.” But Secretary of State Dulles disclosed that eleven books in the State Department libraries had in fact been burned—or otherwise pulled from circulation—over the previous weeks. 

McCarthy denied that Eisenhower was directing ire at him, taking a very narrow view of Eisenhower’s rhetoric. “He couldn’t very well have been referring to me. I have burned no books,” he deflected. 

On June 17th, United Press International Reporter Merriman Smith asked the President in a press conference about the target of his “book burners” warning: “Mr. President, your speech this last Sunday at Dartmouth was interpreted or accepted by a great many people as being critical of a school of thought represented by Senator McCarthy; is that right or wrong?” 

Eisenhower responded chidingly, saying, “Now, Merriman, you have been around me long enough to know I never talk personalities. I think that we will get along faster in most of these conferences if we remember that I do not talk personalities; I refuse to do so.”

Ike did express some degree of discomfort with the removal of far-left books from international libraries. “I believe the United States is strong enough to expose to the world its differing viewpoints from those of what we call, almost, the man who has Socialist leanings to the man who is so far to the extreme right that it takes a telescope to find him.”

Later in the press conference, however, Eisenhower admitted that he would still support the State Department banning titles that explicitly advocated for overthrowing American-aligned governments. “I see no reason for the Federal Government of the United States to be supporting something that advocates its own destruction. That seems to me to be about the acme of silliness.” McCarthy was mollified, saying of Eisenhower, “I think he has given a commendable clarification of the Dartmouth speech, which has apparently been misunderstood by many newsmen.” 

On June 24th, ten days after his Dartmouth address and a week after the ambiguity of his press conference, Eisenhower sent a letter to Robert Downs, the president of the American Library Association (ALA), further explaining his perspective. “Freedom cannot be censored into existence,” Ike wrote. “A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.” 

When Downs read the letter two days later to the ALA conference board in Los Angeles, Eisenhower’s words were met with a half-minute of applause. 

The implicit war of words between Eisenhower and McCarthy over book bans shadowed a battle—between censorship and freedom of speech, civility and aggression, rigor and bluster—that define much of the debate over banning books in schools today. Yet the complexity of Eisenhower’s position on suppressing potentially incendiary material reflects the difficulty in carving out absolute moral positions in the ongoing negotiation over free expression. 

For more on Eisenhower’s “book burners” speech, read this poignant reminiscence from Richard C. Cahn, a 1953 Dartmouth graduate and a prolific trial attorney, in the July/August 2016 Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. And for a great read on the tension between Eisenhower and McCarthy, read David A. Nichols’ 2017 Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy. And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander. 

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