One of the hot news stories is the bill in Florida banning discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools. The bill is called “Parental Rights in Education Bill” but has been dubbed the “Don’t say gay” bill. This, of course, has led to a national debate about censorship, decency, and age appropriateness. This is not the first of this discussion as schools are passing similar laws against issues like “Critical Race Theory” and taking books off school library shelves deemed inappropriate. As always, this column does not propose to answer any of these debates, but, historically speaking, censorship is not new and looking at historical examples may help us make more informed decisions today.
Actual laws allowing for censorship are in no way new. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law which fined or arrested anyone speaking out against the government. President Woodrow Wilson signed a similar Sedition Act. Lincoln did not sign a sedition law. He just locked everyone up who spoke out against him, claiming it as a war measure. Yet, I want to focus on a particularly difficult time when censorship was rampant and consider how one particular President handled the situation.
The year was 1950 and America was embroiled in the Red Scare, where we were suspecting communists were hiding under our beds and in our closets. Granted, this was not just paranoia, as communists had infiltrated American agencies and organizations. Before 1950, The House Un-American Activities Committee had already held trials to stamp out communists in the movie business and created the infamous blacklists. In this same year a little-known senator from Wisconsin gave a speech in West Virginia, claiming to have a list of communists who were working for the State Department. Overnight, Joseph McCarthy became famous, and McCarthyism was born. McCarthyism is often compared to a witch hunt, especially after the release of “The Crucible,” but there is one stark difference: there were no ghosts in Salem but there were communists in government. However, what McCarthy did was greatly exaggerate the situation for personal gain and created a frenzy in this nation to rid all aspects of communism from everywhere.
One area where McCarthyism focused its attacks were libraries, especially the State Department’s oversees libraries. In April 1953, two of McCarthy’s chief staffers, Roy Cohn and David Schine, took a tour of Europe, attacking the books in the libraries and the State Department officials who ran them. After the tour, the State Department issued a list of which books were appropriate and which were not. While some of these books were overtly communist, most were not. Some were banned simply because an author who was not a communist would not publicly reject communism.
President Eisenhower was in a tough position. He did not agree with McCarthy, but they were in the same party and McCarthy held a great deal of power. Eisenhower refused to tangle with McCarthy publicly, as it was his policy not to debate any opponent publicly, possibly his greatest character trait and one I wish modern presidents could mimic. Yet finally the President had had enough. On June 14, 1953, while speaking at Dartmouth College, he took up the idea of censorship. After speaking about having fun and joy in life, he spoke about courage. He ended that part of his speech with:
“Don’t join the book burners. 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.
“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 we have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. 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.”
When asked about his statements a couple of days later at a press conference, Ike added, “When I talk about books or the right of dissemination of knowledge, am I [not] talking about any document or any other kind of thing that attempts to persuade or propagandize America into communism? Indeed, our courts found 11 communists guilty of practically traitorous action; they pointed out that these men were dedicated to the destruction of the United States form of government by force, and that they took orders from a foreign government. So, manifestly, I am not talking about that kind of thing when I talk about free access to knowledge.”
As an academic, I agree with President Eisenhower that information should not scare us. He went on to say that if more Americans had read Mein Kompf, we might have been better prepared to stop Hitler, so reading more about why people were attracted to communism might not be a bad thing. But notice that Ike did make two exemptions: those that “offend our own ideas of decency” and those that “persuade or propagandize.” For myself I would add “age appropriateness.” Think about our movie ratings. Most things that are PG 13 movies are not bad but are not age appropriate for younger children to learn about yet or without parents’ approval. I know this is a difficult subject. We have been fighting it for years. when it comes to our children, we will probably never stop fighting it. Eisenhower warned us against censorship, but he also believed there were certain things that should not be read.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.