Reader’s Corner: Eisenhower and Book-burning

Nobody associates Dwight Eisenhower with much of anything literary or particularly high-minded. After all, his presidency was typified by pragmatism and political small-ball more than grand oratory and lofty goals.

But, then there was the graduation speech he gave at Dartmouth in June 1953, six months after taking office. According to Jim Dwyer, it started off in the usual way: platitudes and bromides. Pleasantly dull as a summer’s afternoon. But other matters were afoot. It was the age of Joe McCarthy, after all. Just a few days earlier, it had been reported that books by politically suspect authors like Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre had been purged from libraries run by the United States Information Service in Europe.

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)
Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

With that in the background, the president made a sharp detour: “Don’t join the book burners!” He exhorted those in attendance:

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 … We have got to fight [Communism] 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.

With sentiments like that, what’s not to like about Ike?

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