Schoolbooks have embraced Communism, threatening young Americans’ patriotism and sexual morality. And behind it all lies a shadowy cabal of big businessmen, bent on demolishing the very system that enriched them.
That’s what right-wing journalists wrote in the 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare. It’s easy to see parallels to that campaign in contemporary attacks on critical race theory and LGBTQ-themed lessons, which have become whipping boys on conservative media. Once again, the alarmists warn, students’ minds and bodies are at mortal risk. And “woke capital” (think Disney) is the culprit, conspiring with “Marxist” educators and politicians to destroy the nation.
What we tend to forget is that the McCarthy-era attacks typically fell short of their mark. Even in the white-hot atmosphere of the Cold War, most people refused to believe that school curricula had been hijacked by Communists and their alleged fellow travelers in corporate America. Public opinion back then was also influenced by an organized and well-funded counter-movement that arose to rebut these baseless claims. That history should provide some consolation—and also, perhaps, some inspiration—to the groups that are fighting present-day conspiracy theories in education.
The Cold War campaign was spearheaded by Canadian-born writer and activist Lucille Cardin Crain, who insisted that “collectivism” was eroding traditional American values of individualism and free enterprise. Crain published a newsletter that was bankrolled by William F. Buckley Sr., whose son had recently published a surprise 1951 best seller (God and Man at Yale) that charged his Ivy League professors with biting the capitalist hand that fed them. Now Buckley Jr. joined Crain and a handful of other right-wing journalists in denouncing high school textbooks—which Buckley deemed even more dangerous than the subversive material he encountered at Yale.
Their main target was the country’s most popular civics textbook, American Government, by Oregon political scientist Frank Magruder. According to Crain, the book embraced the “Statist propaganda” of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal alongside his “Communist party line” on American inequality: Poor people were “underprivileged” rather than lazy, and the federal government was their savior. Magruder also praised the United Nations, which threatened to supplant American sovereignty with Soviet-inspired “one-worldism.”
Other right-wing critics took aim at the “Building America” textbook series, which supposedly advanced “Welfareism and Stalinism” by praising Social Security and public housing. Conservatives also denounced the books for commending anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose research on adolescents in Samoa would allegedly lead American students into sexual vice—and soften them up for Communist appeals. In Sapulpa, Okla., the school board burned several textbooks because of their supposedly subversive messages about “socialism and sex.” Texas critics said that passages about the United Nations charter—which guaranteed couples the right to marry regardless of background—would promote racial intermarriage, a sign of “moral depravity” in “its lowest and vilest forms.”
Finally, conservatives also denounced supposedly subversive messages in elementary-school storybooks. A member of Indiana’s textbook commission demanded the removal of references to the book Robin Hood, whose hero “followed the communist line” by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. In the South, critics blasted a story called “The Rabbits’ Wedding” that described the nuptials of a black and white bunny, and a new edition of The Three Little Pigs that portrayed the black pig as smarter than the white one.
Overall, though, these attacks generated more ridicule than change. Georgia’s board of education dropped Magruder’s American Government but became a national laughingstock when it attempted to sell its remaining copies to other states; two years later, Georgia restored the book to its approved list. Illinois defeated a bill that would have triggered investigations of “un-American” textbooks when citizens complained about them. And after President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemned “book-burning” at a 1953 commencement speech at Dartmouth College, nearby Vermont rejected a proposed censorship board for school materials.
As conservatives correctly sensed, capitalists helped defeat their campaign against allegedly anti-capitalist textbooks. The Rockefeller and Carnegie corporations underwrote the National Commission for the Public Schools, which distributed films, leaflets, and advertisements to rebut the textbook critics. The National Association of Manufacturers blasted “unjustified and damaging attacks on schools” by misguided citizens “who labor under the impression that education…means socialism and communism.” And when Lucille Cardin Crain asked Chrysler to condemn several “subversive” textbooks used in the Detroit schools, the auto manufacturer politely—but firmly—declined.
“Why does yours seem such a comfortable shoulder on which to weep?” Crain asked her friend Rose Wilder Lane. “Here I am again, complaining about businessmen digging their own graves.” The daughter of children’s book writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, who authored the popular Little House in the Big Woods series, Lane promoted her mother’s work—with its romantic paeans to frontier capitalism—as an antidote to America’s creeping state collectivism.
America’s latter-day capitalists had forsaken their roots, Lane wrote; like Communists, they paid too much attention to material matters and not enough to ideas. “The trouble is their belief that money is power,” Lane told Crain. “It’s Marxian, of course.” Nor did Lane shy away from telling off corporate titans, who must have been miffed when she classed them with the nation’s Soviet enemy. “If you Big Business Men had the sense that God gives little green apples, you would act to protect your own property, your own liberty, your own lives, and that action would save the country,” she wrote the brokerage kingpin E.F. Hutton. “It is not the masses that need educating; it is the Mr. Huttons. And in my opinion you are not educable.”
In the end, neither America’s business leaders nor the bulk of its citizens wanted what Crain, Wilder, and their allies were selling. Americans were deeply opposed to Communism in education, of course: In surveys, 90 percent of respondents said Communists should not be allowed to teach in public schools. Hundreds of teachers were hounded out of the profession for Communist ties, whether real or imagined. But most Americans simply did not believe that civics textbooks—or children’s stories—were making their kids into Reds.
Likewise, Americans today don’t think racists or pedophiles should be teaching in their schools. But nor do most people think that a biography of Ruby Bridges indoctrinates racism, or that the book Gender Queer will “groom” their children for abuse. They don’t want Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Art Spiegelman’s Maus taken off reading lists, on the dubious grounds that young readers’ safety will be threatened by passages about nudity or sexuality. And they certainly don’t want the offending books to be burned, as a local Virginia school board member suggested last fall.
Most Americans don’t think that proponents of critical race theory are secretly spreading “Marxism” in the schools, either, or that woke corporations are somehow supporting the same evil project. The people who make such claims are a small minority, just as they were in the 1950s. The rest of us know that Beloved isn’t encouraging pedophilia or racism, any more than Robin Hood promoted Communism. Fortunately, PEN America, the American Library Association, and a host of other organizations are fighting the new burst of book-banning. As the Cold War precedent reminds us, the only way to protect freedom in our schools is to challenge the conspiracy theorists in our midst.