I’m not sure why President Benson is so popular lately. Will at Wheat and Tares asked, 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.
R Gary runs a blog called No Death Before the Fall, and I was surprised that my comment was censored by him. Well, here we can talk about things a bit more freely than R Gary allows. (All comments must be approved by him prior to publishing them, unlike my blog that publishes comments immediately. I’m not afraid of disagreement, unlike R. Gary, so long as it remains civil.)
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. I think R. Gary is similar to most “Bensonites”. They 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 a few things here that R. Gary doesn’t want to address. There were 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 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 Indianapolis, 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.
Benson tried to tie Socialism to Communism. On October 1961 General Conference, Benson said (noted on page 287 of Prince’s book),
“Communism is fundamentally socialism. We will never win our fight against communism by making concessions to socialism. Communism and socialism, closely related, must be defeated on principle….No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction.”42
The conflict between Benson and moderate church leaders, particularly Hugh B. Brown, was tactical rather than strategic. “Certainly all of us are against Communism,” Brown wrote to a personal correspondent in 1961. But that end did not justify certain means, and he was overtly critical of the means of the John Birch Society:
The Church has not taken any stand officially relating to these various groups who nominate themselves as guardians of our freedom, except in the case of the John Birch Society, and we are definitely against their methods….We do not think dividing our own people, casting reflections on our government officials, or calling everybody Communists who do not agree with the political views of certain individuals is the proper way to fight Communism. We think the Church should be a modifying, steadying institution and our leaders, or even members, should not become hysterical or take hasty action.43
Prince describes some discussions between Brown, Benson, and McKay. From page 288,
Brown pointed out one consequence for church members of Benson’s broad-brush attack: “All the people of Scandinavia are under Socialistic governments and certainly are not Communists. Brother Benson’s talk ties them together and makes them equally abominable. If this is true, our people in Europe who are living under a Socialist government are living out of harmony with the Church.”45
Prince continues to discuss differences of opinions 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
On page 298, Prince states,
Benson’s actions put McKay in a dilemma. On the one hand, McKay was uncomfortable with the rising tide of criticism directed at Benson, both from church members and from national media. On the other hand, McKay thought highly of Benson, prized his intense loyal support, and shared his deep visceral disdain for Communism. While Benson’s tactics occasionally caused embarrassment and distress for McKay, neither man every questioned the goal.
Less than a month after the Robert Welch dinner McKay called Benson to preside over the European Mission, which meant that Benson would be out of the country (and out of the spotlight) for two years. McKay gave Benson the news privately, and the accounts that both men left of the meeting show that it was upbeat, with no hint that Benson was being “punished” or “exiled.”
Regardless of McKay’s intent, however, the move was widely seen as a rebuff to Benson’s political activism, in spite of the fact that four other General Authorities–Mark E. Peterson, N. Eldon Tanner, Marion D. Hanks, and Alvin R. Dyer–had presided over missions in Europe within the previous three years. The same day that McKay met with Benson, one of McKay’s sons expressed such a sentiment in a letter to Congressman Harding: “We shall all be relieved when Elder Benson ceases to resist counsel and returns to a concentration on those affairs befitting his office. It is my feeling that there will be an immediate and noticeable curtailment of his Birch Society activities.”85 Two weeks later, Harding received a letter from Joseph Fielding Smith, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, that conveyed a similar message: “I think it is time for him and for the church and all concerned, if he would settle down to his present duties and let all political matters take their course. He is going to take a mission to Europe in the near future and by the time he returns I hope he will get all the political notions out of his system.”86
Reaction in the press was mixed. The church-owned Deseret News reported the story with a benign headline, “Elder Benson to Direct European Mission,” while the story ran in the Ogden Standard-Examiner under the provocative headline: “Apostle Benson Denies Being Sent into ‘Exile’ for Political Views.”87 The National Observer attempted a balanced perspective over the John Birch Society Campaign”:
The Benson connection with the John Birch Society has created somewhat of a “schism” in the Mormon Church. To a few Mormons, Birch philosophies appear to coincide with church doctrine….But to others, especially those in the liberal Republican and Democratic ranks, the John Birch Society still meant political extremism, and they began asking for Ezra Taft’s scalp….When the elder Benson received his new assignment to Europe many of his critics said the Mormon Church was “shipping out Benson to get rid of him.” But to this charge, the former Secretary of Agriculture declared: “Ridiculous–members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles are subject to call anywhere in the world at any time. That’s our job, and I welcome the call with all my heart.” President McKay, who called Mr. Benson on this mission also termed the charge ridiculous. He, too, said the mission was a routine church assignment for a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.88
On the eve of his departure for Europe, Benson stirred up yet more controversy. On December 13, he delivered a farewell speech in Logan, a third of which was either a direct quotation or paraphrase from Robert Welch’s manifesto, The Blue Book. Particularly inflammatory was a direct quotation from The Blue Book, that was given wide publicity in a subsequent article by nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson.89 Benson charged that the United States government was so infiltrated with Communists that the American people “can no longer resist the Communist conspiracy as free citizens, but can resist Communist tyranny only be themselves becoming conspirators against established government.”90
Prince discusses even more dialogue supporting/excoriating Benson. From page 302,
In May 1963, Louis Midgely, a faculty member in Brigham Young University’s Political Science Department, published a scalding article in the student newspaper that again fanned the flames of controversy:
I have been asked by the Editor at the Daily Universe to make some comments on the John Birch Society. It is difficult to believe that anyone at a university–anyone who reads and thinks–would take such a movement seriously….The man who wrote The Politician did so to inform his followers that former President Eisenhower was a communist. Of course he provides no evidence but the usual collection of garbage. For absurdity, the charge against Ike would have to be placed next to the belief, as far as I know, held by no one, that President McKay is secretly Catholic. What Welch-Birch really wants is to return to a world without taxes, the U.N., labor unions, racial minorities demanding some kind of legal equality; Birchers want a world without fluoridation, the Soviet Union, large cities and emerging nations and all the rest that goes with our world.”98
The most interesting part of the story of Benson was his foray into presidential politics, and the conundrum among the Brethren as to whether to support Benson or popular Michigan governor George Romney, father of Mitt Romney and brother-in-law to then current apostle Marion G. Romney. I hadn’t realized that Benson might actually run for U.S. president. From page 315,
McKay’s attention was deflected momentarily from the John Birch Society by another of Benson’s political initiatives: his proposed candidacy for U.S. president. Months earlier, Benson had presented to McKay a rather nebulous plan whereby he and Senator Strom Thurmond would press the Republican Party for reforms, with the intent of forming a third party if they were not successful. That plan, however, had not included presidential aspirations. In mid-April 1966, Benson met with McKay and described “The 1976 Committee,” to be composed of 100 prominent men from throughout the country, which proposed to nominate Benson for president and Thurmond for vice president. McKay repeated his resistance to forming a third party, to which Benson replied that he also was “opposed to this, but this Committee and movement might result in a realignment between the two political parties.” McKay responded “that this nation is rapidly moving down the road to soul-destroying socialism, and that I hoped and prayed that the efforts of the 1976 Committee would be successful in stemming the tide.” He told Benson “to let them go ahead and wait and see what develops.” Benson presented him with proposed statements that he and McKay might make if the committee moved as planned to propose his nomination, to which McKay agreed. McKay’s statement ended with the words “his doing so has my full approval.”143
Benson’s bid for president of the United States ran out of momentum and was discontinued a year before the 1968 political conventions. Still it placed McKay in the awkward position of trying to maintain political neutrality toward one Mormon presidential candidate who genuinely was a serious contender, Michigan Governor George Romney, while at the same time endorsing the candidacy of Benson, who was never regarded as a serious candidate. A lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal noted the dilemma, pointing out that Benson “obtained from David McKay, the 92-year old prophet and president of the Mormon Church, an unpublished letter giving full approval to any campaign that Mr. Benson might make….’What Benson is doing could rend the church,’ says a Western governor, ‘and that would be bad for the West.'”143
…[from 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 tot he effectiveness in curtailing his political extremism.
I am sure that there are some ardent supporters of President Benson’s politics. What do you make of his accusations about Martin Luther King and President Eisenhower being tools of the Communists?