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The Horrible, Oppressive History of Book Burning in America


To the graduating class of Dartmouth College President Eisenhower cried: “Don’t join the book burners! … Don’t be afraid to go to the library and read every book so long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency—that should be the only censorship.”

But who are the book burners? “Not me,” replied Senator McCarthy, “I haven’t burned any books.” The President, McCarthy added, must be referring to his own Department of State whose directives, sanctioned by Secretary Dulles, order U.S. libraries abroad to remove all books “by Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera.”

President Eisenhower was asked about these directives—he hadn’t heard of them, he said. But, he added in his press conference of June 17, he wasn’t talking about books by Communists when he advocated “free access to knowledge.” If the State Department is burning books which appeal to people to be Communists, then that is all right with the President of the United States. Books by anti-Communists about Communism, he feels, should be laid out for all to study; books by Communists are something else. With this clarification, the U.S. libraries overseas can proceed with their work of education and enlightenment.

There are 230 U.S. libraries and information centers overseas. Close to two million books stand on their shelves. They are visited by 27 million people each year. Their purpose, until Eisenhower took office, was, according to the Educational Exchange Manual, to provide “significant and useful books and pamphlets” that offer “a balanced view of the U.S.” and “a balance of the opinion and thinking of the U.S.” 

That definition in itself was a retreat from the original purpose set 10 years ago. In 1942 and 1943, our first government-sponsored libraries were established in Latin America, and, according to Henry James Jr. in his study published in the current Library Quarterly, “they were founded primarily to function as model public libraries abroad and operated on the principle of free access to printed materials for everyone”—they served as demonstrations of our basic conviction that truth flourishes in the free marketplace of ideas.

In wartime, the special demands for information about the U.S. led to the establishment of new “information centers.” Their role was to provide “information with a purpose.” The purpose was to provide a “full and fair” picture of the United States. Non-conformity was still emphasized to citizens overseas who aspired to build their nations in our image. When the American Military Government opened its libraries in Germany, Austria, Japan, Korea, and Trieste, its directive laid special emphasis on providing books by writers banned under the dictatorships we had fought a great war to defeat. 

In 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act granted permanent legislative status to the Overseas Library program. Its purpose was to offset widespread misinformation concerning the United States, and it held out the “full and fair” picture as the objective of our counter-effort to inform peoples abroad. But as the Soviet-directed Hate America Campaign was intensified, our effort became more closely associated with counter-propaganda. In this spirit President Truman launched in 1951 the self-contradictory Campaign of Truth. In the Library Journal, Robert Delaney concluded: “Culture for culture’s sake has no place in the U.S. informational and educational exchange programs … cultural activities are an indispensable tool of propaganda.”

Leading educators combined in 1947 to urge Congress to distinguish between propaganda and cultural exchange. But Congress chose propaganda, and discounted libraries as a propaganda weapon. By 1951 two experts of the Bureau of the Budget, preparing the overseas library appropriations for Congress, concluded that the libraries should be made focal points of “all overt propaganda activities” and that all other functions were a waste of funds.

In contrast, Harland Carpenter, Robert Crowell, and Chester Kerr, three experts acting as special consultants, reported to the State Department:

Let the libraries become known as mere propaganda agencies for the dissemination of anti-Communist literature and their effectiveness will be quickly crippled. 

And the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, testified:

People are deeply moved by what they experience, and I suspect the actuality of free open-handed American libraries overseas means as much to their users as the books they read in them. They may have read about freedom of opinion in the U.S. They actually see evidence of it in our American library that contains books different from or even hostile to the views of the Administration in power in the U.S. The presence of an uncensored book critical of some aspect of American life in the open collections of a U.S. library can do more than a thousand propaganda tracts to convince the doubting reader of the integrity of American goals and the candor with which American shortcomings are admitted.

Under a Democratic President, Secretary of State Acheson distributed in U.S. libraries throughout the world magazines such as Life, which damned him as little short of a traitor. Secretary Dulles shared Acheson’s principles but lacked his guts. Dulles’ International Information Administration began by advocating the use of pro-U.S. material by Soviet-endorsed writers such as Howard Fast where it might “be given special credibility among selected key audiences.” But when McCarthy attacked this directive the State Department cancelled it and in its place ordered all broadcasters and libraries to stop using material by “Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera.” A further directive to employees preparing scripts and articles for overseas audiences banned discussion by or about “Communists, fellow travelers, and so forth.” And a third directive ordered publishers to certify that no material sent abroad under a State Department program would be by: “Communists, fellow travelers, or persons who might be controversial” (this was cancelled on demand of the publishers concerned.)

So the match bearing the brand name of Eisenhower and Dulles was struck and set to the bonfire. A score of books were removed from all Amerika Haus libraries in Berlin. They included a study by Vera Micheles Dean, a novel by Walter Duranty, the poems of Langston Hughes, and Howard Fast’s edition of the works of Tom Paine. In Bombay and Calcutta the banned books included Clarence Streit’s Union Now, the Lynd’s Middletown, Rising Wind by Walter White, Alan Barth’s The Loyalty of Free Men and Washington Witch Hunt by the New York Herald-Tribune’s correspondent, Bert Andrews. The full lists of books burned and banned have been kept secret; but “et cetera” “and so forth” and “controversial” have generally been interpreted by subordinate officials as referring to any author about whom derogatory information has been offered before a Congressional committee. Any official who did not follow the House Un-American Activities Committee as a guide and further purge the shelves of all works critical of McCarran and McCarthy acted at his own peril. This was made explicit by a memorandum from the State Department Press Officer declining to define “et cetera,” “and so forth,” and “controversial” and declaring that doubtful cases “must be determined by those responsible for the program.” Only reckless men, under these conditions, could choose to take steps offensive to McCarthy, since the President and the Secretary have rarely backed up their subordinates whom McCarthy has singled out for attack. Appalled by the reaction they foresaw, responsible officials overseas attempted to delay the application of the directives. But then the lists of proscribed authors arrived, to be followed by the inspection of library shelves by McCarthy’s staff men Cohn and Schine.

The shock overseas, to peoples trained to despise propaganda and barely freed from political enslavement was tremendous; American correspondents reporting the reaction, filed accounts so violent that many were not printed in newspapers here at home.

Nor are Europeans made happier by the opinion voiced by Eisenhower, seconded by Conant, and approved by McCarthy that they are too immature to be exposed to the dangerous books that may be found in libraries in this country. Eisenhower may hold that it is “The acme of silliness” for the U.S. overseas libraries to harbor Communist books even though these books might be allowed at Dartmouth. Rather than be permitted access to approved books only, many Europeans would hold that our library program should be abolished altogether as a mirror of a frightened nation which can only demoralize the embattled democrats of Europe who are really threatened by mass Communist parties.

McCarthy was right; although they acted on his instigation, the book burners were Eisenhower’s men. Yet it would be wrong to blame McCarthy, Eisenhower, and Dulles, absolve all the others. The truth is that the book burning in Bombay and Berlin followed a pattern well established in communities in our 48 states. 

Some of this book burning begins with an understandable resentment aroused by the worst of the comic books and pocket books. Often, what is praised or criticized by McCarthyism is in fact the old intolerance of veterans groups and patriotic organizations which made itself felt long before McCarthy made his way to Washington. The idea of censorship is in fact accepted without question among wide sections of American society.

And yet other Americans remember and will fight to keep this nation’s dedication to free speech. After five years of fear and intimidation the fact remains, as this issue of the New Republic records, that where bigotry appears, it is met by the courage of a small group, and the conscience and common sense of the majority. If some church spokesman advocate censorship, others rise to the defense of freedom. If many newspapers are silent, voices of protest are still heard. McCarthy may submit a report advocating the suppression of offensive ideas. Another republican controlled committee, led by Senator Hickenlooper, submits a report on the libraries overseas governed by intelligence and restraint. It concludes with a backhanded but definite recommendation that, “An adequate cross-section of American literature should be provided for a better understanding of American life and culture but writings of Communists or Communist sympathizers should not be tolerated in any manner which would indicate their acceptance by the American people.”

Libraries overseas remain as examples of the attitude of Americans toward access to knowledge. And if the President is highly confused, the belief remains among most Americans that libraries are sanctuaries, too precious to be defiled. And the librarians themselves, organized in the Committee for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, have quietly and courageously held their conferences, drafted their bill of rights, kept themselves informed through their own newsletter and stood their ground.