Public Schools

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 70-year-old warning about book banning still resonates

  Rob Boston

If you use social media, you might have seen a meme floating around quoting President Dwight D. Eisenhower on book banning.

“Don’t join the book burners,” the meme quotes Eisenhower 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.”

One must always be careful with web-based memes, but this one is accurate (although there is more to the quote). The story behind it is worth revisiting as the nation faces a new round of book banning.

The source of the quote

First some context: Eisenhower made the statement during a commencement address at Dartmouth University on June 14, 1953. At the time, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) and his allies were running amok, finding communists under every rock. A Red Scare was in full bloom.

As part of his tactics, McCarthy sent two aides, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, to tour libraries sponsored by the U.S. government overseas, usually in embassies. Cohn and Schine began demanding the removal of “subversive” material.

Of course, the books targeted weren’t really subversive – many were written by people whose political views McCarthy disliked. Some were works of fiction whose authors espoused leftist views. In the hysteria of the day, anyone deemed sufficiently un-American for even the flimsiest reason became a target, and it was easy to end up on a banned books list.

‘Read every book’

Eisenhower had been briefed about what was going on in the overseas libraries and decided to use the Dartmouth address to make a statement of opposition. Here’s his full quote: “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 any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”

One can quibble with Ike’s use of “decency” as a standard, but, given what was going on at the time, the statement had the force of a bomb. It was a strong blow against McCarthyism that made headlines around the world. A few weeks later, Eisenhower followed up with some specific action: He directed the U.S. State Department to stop removing books solely because of an author’s political leanings.

Richard C. Cahn, a 1953 Dartmouth graduate who was there for the speech, told the whole story in a 2016 issue of the school’s alumni magazine. The backstory is fascinating and worth a look. It also provides a lesson for us today. There will always be people who believe they have the right to “protect” everyone else from seeing certain material; there will always be people who, for political, religious or other reasons, want to control what we read, learn and experience; there will always be people who don’t want us to ask questions.

The censors’ true goal

These censorship campaigns may be cloaked in “protecting” us (or our children) from “dangerous” ideas, but they are often sparked by nothing more than fear and a desire to stir up hate against a perceived enemy – usually for some type of political gain. In Eisenhower’s day, it was communists. Today, it’s members of the LGBTQ+ community.

To be sure, Eisenhower was no fan of strict church-state separation. During his presidency, the United States ushered in several forms of “civil religion” that still plague us today. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. “In God We Trust” was mandated for use on all currency in 1955, and the phrase was made the nation’s official motto the following year. Eisenhower enthusiastically supported all these moves.

But despite his fondness for governmental endorsement of generic religiosity, Eisenhower had no difficulty recognizing the dangers of extremist attacks on the right to read and learn. His warning about book banning remains powerful – and instructive – 70 years later. Let’s heed it.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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