Historically speaking: to censor or not to censor is a difficult question
Dr. James Finck Associate Professor of History
One of the hot news is Florida’s bill banning any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools. The bill is titled the “Parental Rights in Education Bill”, but has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This, of course, led to a national debate over censorship, decency and age appropriateness. This isn’t the first of this discussion, as schools pass similar laws against issues like “critical race theory” and remove books from school library shelves deemed inappropriate. As always, this column does not offer to answer any of these debates, but, historically speaking, censorship is not new and looking at historical examples can help us make more informed decisions today.
Current laws allowing censorship are nothing new. President John Adams enacted the Aliens and Sedition Acts which fined or arrested anyone who spoke out against the government. President Woodrow Wilson signed a similar sedition law. Lincoln did not sign a sedition law. He has just locked up all those who spoke out against him, demanding it as a measure of war. Still, I want to focus on a particularly difficult time when censorship was rampant and look at how one president in particular handled the situation.
It was 1950 and America was embroiled in the Red Scare, where we suspected Communists were hiding under our beds and in our closets. Certainly, it was not just paranoia, because the Communists had infiltrated American agencies and organizations. Prior to 1950, the House Un-American Activities Committee had already organized trials to root out communists in the movie business and created the infamous blacklists. That same year, a little-known senator from Wisconsin gave a speech in West Virginia claiming to have a list of Communists who worked 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 a clear difference: there were no ghosts in Salem but there were communists in government. However, what McCarthy did greatly exaggerated the situation for personal gain and created a frenzy in this nation to rid all aspects of communism everywhere.
One area where McCarthyism concentrated its attacks was libraries, particularly libraries overseen by the State Department. In April 1953, two of McCarthy’s top aides, Roy Cohn and David Schine, toured Europe, attacking books in libraries and the State Department officials who ran them. After the tour, the State Department released a list of which books were suitable and which were not. While some of these books were openly communist, most were not. Some were banned simply because an author who was not a communist did not publicly reject communism.
President Eisenhower was in a difficult position. He disagreed with McCarthy, but they were in the same party and McCarthy held a lot of power. Eisenhower refused to publicly tangle with McCarthy, as his policy was not to publicly debate any opponent, perhaps his greatest character trait and one I wish modern presidents could emulate.
Dr. James Finck is an associate professor of history at Oklahoma University of Science and the Arts at Chickasha. He is president of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historically Speaking.blog.