In our age of political correctness in classrooms, where certain books (Whittaker Chambers’ Witness—which no one on my thesis committee sought to read despite my subject matter pertaining to the Alger Hiss trial), are verboten, it is hard to remember that once upon a time there was a right-wing variant of it.
Sixty three years ago this week, Mrs. Thomas J. White of the Indiana Textbook Commission, demanded that the textbook references to the book Robin Hood be removed from state schools. The rationale for this was that this figure “who robbed from the rich to give to the poor” represented a “a Communist directive.”
Mrs. White was no anomaly in this era. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right hand Roy Cohn and his assistant—some said lover–G. David Schine took an expensive tax-payer funded jaunt through seven nations in Europe seeking to ascertain whether State Department-sponsored libraries contained books by Communists. This was exceeding their brief as the purpose of their visit was to make sure there were pro-American books that could influence Europeans about the American Way of Life. Instead they recommended the libraries yank books off the shelf by Dashiell Hammett (who, in point of fact, was an ardent Stalinist) and Ernest Hemingway (revealing their ignorance as Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was critical of communist behavior during the Spanish Civil War), and even Henry David Thoreau.
Although historian David Oshinsky admitted there were some books promoting the Communist message, such as one by the wife of Stalinist Paul Robeson, Eslanda Roberston, who praised the Soviet Union as the height of the Great Terror. But Oshinsky noted that the presence of such works was not “very large” (a House Committee listed only thirty-nine by eight authors”).
Nevertheless, Cohn and Schine treated authors such as Mark Twain as akin to communist-sympathizer John Reed, author of a book (Ten Days That Shook The World) that was a hugely sympathetic account of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Such was the power of McCarthy in that era, that some in the overseas’ libraries burned books. Worse still, the pair damaged international relations. As books went up in smoke, the US attempt to persuade the French to remove Communists from their government failed. Cohn and Schine also lent credence to the Kremlin’s propaganda that the US was either already fascist or going that way by emulating the Nazi book burnings.
But not all Republicans bowed before McCarthy. President Dwight Eisenhower, usually silent up to then about McCarthy, ordered the books back on the shelf, and mirrored the sentiment that the torching of books was reminiscent of Hitler.
This is not to say, however, that the Left was exempt from censorship. The American Communist Party forbid members to even read their own brand of verboten authors. Communist director Edward Dymtryk got into trouble with Party head John Howard Lawson for reading anti-communist author Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo bragged of keeping “such untrue and reactionary works” such as Leon Trotsky’s “so-called biography of Stalin” from being adapted to the screen. Screenwriter Albert Maltz, considered one of the “liberal” faction of the Party, was nearly excommunicated for praising writers such as the “Trotskyite” writer James Farrell as an example of creativity over hewing to suffocating political propaganda.
Conservative icon Whittaker Chambers, who refused to and urged William Buckley not to support Joseph McCarthy, found the Hitler comparison valid. And he prophetically noted that supporting such undemocratic measures could one day be turned against them.
The rest is history.