Benson, Eisenhower, and CommunismBy: Mormon Heretic
I’m not sure why President Benson is so popular lately. I wanted to follow up on Will’s post, Were President Benson’s Words Prophetic? In Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune, FBI files shed light on Ezra Taft Benson, Ike and the Birch Society. In July, I promised to talk about President Benson’s politics, and I guess the timing is right; I’m finally getting back to that post.
There are quite a few Latter-day Saints that view President Benson as a political hero. Many love to quote President Benson’s “Constitution hanging by a thread” quote. The Tribune even says that Benson is one of the inspirations for the current Tea Party movement. Ardent supporters of Benson the politician (self-described as “Bensonites”) are intensely conservative, and don’t think anything that the politician Ezra Taft Benson said or did was wrong. Let me quote R Gary’s point of view in this comment:
Benson never saw anything wrong with civil rights, only with some of what was being done in the name of civil rights.
Well, that does seem to fly in the face of the title of Benson’s book, ” Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception.” It’s out of print, but you can click on a link at Amazon to see if they can get if for the Kindle.
Let me say that I love President Benson as a prophet. His encouragement to read the Book of Mormon was inspired counsel. But, I’m not a big fan of Ezra Taft Benson the politician (and neither were several of the General Authorities, especially Elder Hugh B. Brown.) I’d like to discuss some really incendiary comments where Benson accused certain people, such as Martin Luther King Jr, of being part of a communist conspiracy. Greg Prince outlines some of these quotes in his David O McKay biography. From page 92, Prince quotes the “Minutes of Council Meeting, November 4, 1965″ for the following quote:
Elder Benson said he shared the feeling of the Brethren who had expressed themselves on this question, that he was confident in his own mind from a study he had made of the Negro question that we are only seeing something being carried out today that was planned by the highest councils of the communist party twenty years ago, and that Martin Luther King is an agent, if not a power in the Communist party. He said that this whole thing is being directed and supported and promoted by agents of the Communist party, that the Negroes are being used in this whole question of Civil Rights, integration, etc., and that the NAACP are largely made up of men and women who are affiliated with from one to a dozen communist-front organizations, and he thought they would do anything in their power to embarrass the Church.
So does anyone still believe the Civil Rights movement is a Communist Conspiracy, or that MLK was a communist?
Many people like to trumpet the fact that Ezra Taft Benson served as Secretary of Agriculture from 1953-1961 while simultaneously serving as an apostle. From the Tribune article, it is apparent that Benson thought Eisenhower was soft on communism, which seems startling to me considering the fact that Ike was General Eisenhower in World War II prior to becoming President Eisenhower. Additionally, Ike took some pretty serious blowback when Gary Powers plane was shot down while spying over the Soviet Union.
The John Birch Society (named after an American Baptist missionary and U.S. military intelligence officer killed by communist forces in China in August 1945) was founded by Robert Welch in 1958. It was a virulently anti-communist society; Benson was not a member, but was a strong advocate. Prince details many efforts by the society to enlist Benson as a member. President McKay denied every request. I liked Prince’s summary on page 279,
Throughout his long tenure as a General Authority, David O. McKay was consistently opposed to Communism. So, uniformly, were his fellow General Authorities. Ironically, once he had become president of the church, opposition to Communism became a seriously divisive issue among the Mormons. On the one hand, McKay gave his special blessing to Ezra Taft Benson as an opponent of Communism, enabling this strong-willed apostle to propagate his ultra-right-wing views among church members–views that included an endorsement of the John Birch Society, founded in Indianopolis, Indiana on December 9, 1958, by Massachusetts candy maker Robert Welch. On the other hand, McKay also responded to General Authorities who, despite their own opposition to Communism, took exception to the extremism of Benson and the John Birch Society. These included Apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, as well as Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner, McKay’s counselors in the First Presidency. Neither Benson nor his protesting colleagues among the apostles ever achieved a clear upper hand with the aging prophet. As a result, both Latter-day Saints who endorsed the extreme views of the John Birch Society and those who opposed them found reason to believe the prophet was on their side, and the divisive issue remained unresolved until McKay’s death in 1970, when his successor, Joseph Fielding Smith, effectively silenced Benson on the subject.
I admit that I’ve know Benson was tied to the John Birch Society, but I didn’t know much. Prince describes a bit of detail on page 286.
In December 1958, a Massachusetts candy maker, Robert Welch, founded a right-wing extremist organization that took up where Joseph McCarthy left off in attacking Communism to target civil rights and government in general, proclaiming that “the greatest enemy of man is, and always has been, government; and that larger and more extensive that government, the greater the enemy.”37 Welch named the organization after an American soldier, John Birch, who was killed by Chinese Communists ten days after the end of World War II. Within a year, Ezra Taft Benson had a close relationship with one of the society’s national leaders. During 1961 he became personally acquainted with Welch,38 and the two men’s political agendas quickly aligned.
Prince discuss differences of opinions among the Brethren regarding the John Birch Society. The Society continued to make extreme statements–even calling former president Eisenhower a “tool of the Communists”. Amazingly, Benson did not refute the statement. From page 295,
Welch had recently published a book, The Politician, in which he accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a tool of the Communists: “On January 20, 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated as the thirty-fourth President of the United States. He thus became, automatically and immediately, captain and quarterback of the free-world team, and in the fight against Communism. In our firm opinion he had been planted in that position, by Communists for the purpose of throwing the game.”75 Asked if he agreed with Welch’s statement, Benson sidestepped the question, refused to defend Eisenhower, and stated merely that Eisenhower “supported me in matters of agriculture. In other areas we had differences.”76
Say what? This is mind boggling to me. Democratic Mormon Congressman Ralph Harding from Idaho condemned Benson in Congress a few days later. Harding supported the current Republican President Eisenhower. Prince states that reactions to Harding’s comments were mixed. President Eisenhower sent Harding an appreciative letter. On page 297,
I am grateful for your letter and for the speech that you made in Congress concerning the support and encouragement that the former Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Benson, has allegedly been giving to a Mr. Welch, said to be the founder and leader of the John Birch Society. Your honest and unselfish effort to set the record straight is something that warms my heart.
Frankly, because I rarely read such trash as I understand “The Politician” to be, I had never before read the specific accusations made against me by Robert Welch. But it is good to know that when they were brought to your attention you disregarded all partisan influences to express your honest convictions about the matter. It is indeed difficult to understand how a man, who professes himself to be an anti-Communist, can so brazenly accuse another–whose entire life’s record has been one of refutation of Communist theory, practice and purposes–of Communist tendencies or leanings.
With my best wishes and personal regard,
Dwight D. Eisenhower81
A year later, when L. Ralph Mecham escorted Ernest L. Wilkinson, then running fo the U.S. Senate, to meet with Eisenhower, the former president again brought up Benson’s actions. Long afterward, Mecham recalled:
When I took Ernest Wilkinson up to Gettysburg to visit with Eisenhower, I believe in the spring of 1963, to get Eisenhower’s blessing for Wilkinson in his Senate campaign, Ike was almost wistful. We had a great conversation about many things. In the course of it he asked us quizzically, “Whatever happened to Ezra?” or something like that. The implication was clear. He could not understand, I believe, why a man to whom he had been so loyal had not reciprocated that loyalty but instead had adopted the extremist views of the John Birch Society.82
I’m too young to remember any of Benson’s political views. From my memory, he was a nice man who preached nothing but a return to Book of Mormon principles. I was interested to learn why Benson stopped politicking. Prince says on page 321,
Benson’s political activism diminished abruptly upon McKay’s death, for he lost his patron and protector. McKay was succeeded by Joseph Fielding Smith and subsequently, Harold B. Lee, both of whom had strongly objected to Benson’s political activities during McKay’s presidency. A comparison of Benson’s talks before and after McKay’s death attests to the effectiveness in curtailing his political extremism.
If you’re interested in more details, here is a longer version of this post. I am sure that there are some ardent supporters of President Benson’s politics. What do you make of his position that Martin Luther King and President Eisenhower were tools of the Communists?