Mark Skousen is a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University.
A review “Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right,” by Matthew L. Harris (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020, 233 pages).
In an explosive new political biography of Ezra Taft Benson, historian Matthew L. Harris, a professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo, has written an account of the former church president that may reinforce Benson critics and disturb faithful Latter-day Saints.
Unfortunately, the book is far from objective. Drawing upon newly available letters and personal papers, Professor Harris focuses almost entirely on President Benson’s alleged flaws, of which there were many, according to Harris.
For example, early in his administration, Secretary Benson dismissed Wolf Ladejinsky, a Russian-born Jew, from the Department of Agriculture, accusing him of being a communist sympathizer. According to Harris, Ladejinsky was eventually proven innocent, but Benson never apologized or admitted his mistake.
In Secretary Benson’s defense, one must remember that this was an era when the international Communist conspiracy was a real threat, and spies like Alger Hiss held high government positions. In fact, Alger Hiss started his public service in the Department of Agriculture, putting Benson under considerable pressure to weed out anyone who might appear to be a Communist sympathizer.
Troubles Between President Eisenhower and Secretary Benson
Another hot button raised by Professor Harris is Secretary Benson’s criticism of his boss, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after he left office. For a time, Ezra Taft Benson defended the outlandish claim by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, that Ike was somehow a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” Eisenhower had his shortcomings, but being a communist dupe was not one of them.
Like most readers, I was initially surprised that Elder Benson would fall for this shocking charge, especially after Eisenhower defended his controversial Secretary of Agriculture for the entire eight years of his administration.
Harris tracked down Eisenhower’s terse response. In his chapter “Making a Conspiracy Culture,” the historian quotes Eisenhower’s reaction, declaring that “my entire life’s record has been one of refutation of Communist theory, practice, and purpose of Communist tendencies and leanings.”
Eisenhower wrote Benson directly in 1964 (when Elder Benson was president of the European Mission): “I have been informed by reliable individuals that [Welch]…has labeled me a card-carrying Communist and as an individual whose purpose is to help communize this country.” Then he added, “This is the kind of cynical, unjustified and publicity seeking pronouncement that does far more to promote rather than defeat Communism. Such falsehoods and baseless charges are the kind of things against which I never publicly or privately defend myself. But you can understand why I feel some satisfaction when other individuals, who from long association know me well, express indignation at such lies.”
Granted, Eisenhower’s approach to Communism and the Soviet Union was to contain the Soviet threat, not to confront it directly, and that farsighted policy could be misinterpreted. The five-star general firmly believed that ultimately the Soviet socialist system would collapse internally, and he was eventually proven right. For more on Ike’s brilliant foreign policy, I highly recommend Jim Newton’s “Eisenhower: The White House Years,” https://www.amazon.com/Eisenhower-White-House-Jim-Newton/dp/076792813X
Many conservatives, including William F. Buckley, Jr., and Barry Goldwater, denounced Robert Welch and the John Birch Society, but according to Harris, Elder Benson never apologized or changed his mind about Welch’s accusations, or his support of the Birch Society.
On the other hand, Francis M. Gibbons, who served as secretary to the First Presidency, suggests in his 1996 biography, Ezra Taft Benson: Statesman, Patriot, Prophet of God, that Brother Benson may have backed off from his criticism of Eisenhower. He wrote, “The public statement Elder Benson issued [upon the death of Ike in 1969] lauded President Eisenhower as a man of faith, deep spirituality, and courage. It implied regret that any statement or conduct on his part might have hinted that President Eisenhower was anything other than a loyal, patriotic American.”
Harris goes into great detail about the political and religious views of Elder Benson, including his anti-Communist rhetoric, his alleged antisemitism, racism and attacks on the civil rights movement as a communist plot, his conspiracy theories, and the many efforts by his colleagues and church leaders to rein in the apostle, asking him to stop making controversial statements and speeches. Brother Benson had to apologize occasionally for his statements, such as his assertion that “a good Mormon cannot be a liberal Democrat,” or some of his more politically charged speeches at BYU. He had frequent run-ins with BYU political science professors and fellow apostle and Democrat Hugh B. Brown.
Harris contends that his Church counselors and colleagues eventually succeeded in softening Elder Benson’s political views when he became president of the Church in late 1985. But perhaps there is a better explanation: the Lord guided him in a different direction; his focus as President of the Church was reading and distributing the Book of Mormon, not fighting Communism, and opening up missionary work in former Iron Curtain countries.
Harris is convinced that President Benson and his supporters were responsible in part for converting most Mormons into conservative Republicans, which he regards as bad politics. He points out that Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-1 in Utah.
Yet Harris fails to mention that, largely under Republican leadership, the state of Utah has been an economic powerhouse and beacon to the world. Today (2020) Utah is ranked #1 among the 50 states in terms of economic performance. (See https://247wallst.com/special-report/2020/08/25/the-states-with-the-best-and-worst-economies-4/2/)
Republicans have governed the state for the past 35 years. The last Democratic governor was in 1985. Republicans must be doing something right.
Sins of Omission
And that brings me to the infuriating part about his book. Harris claims to be an objective historian, but it is clear in reading his book that he has an agenda: to malign Ezra Taft Benson as an extremist who has few redeeming qualities. There’s little to inspire the reader in this biography of a prophet of the Lord. He engages in a process of piling on one negative story after another.
Throughout his biography, Matthew Harris refers to Ezra Taft Benson as holding “ultraconservative” or “far right extremist” views, smear terms unbecoming an objective historian.
The first chapter is the most laudatory, where he describes Ezra’s early career as a leader in farm cooperatives out West and in Washington DC.
He also highlights Elder Benson’s trip to war-torn Europe in 1946, when he and his companions were overwhelmed by destruction, grief and the horrors of war.
Yet even then Harris ignores the many miracles the Benson group experienced during their relief mission, as told most eloquently in Frederick W. Babble’s powerful book, On Wings of Faith (Cedar Fort, 1998): https://www.amazon.com/Wings-Faith-Frederick-Babbel/dp/1555173543
He deliberately leaves out stories that paint Benson in a positive light. I’ll give two examples of sins of omission in this book:
Harris mentions that Benson represented the Eisenhower administration on a trip to the Soviet Union in 1959. But he chooses to leave out perhaps the most emotional and moving story in Benson’s life, and the life of the newsmen who accompanied him – a visit to the Central Baptist Church in Moscow. As a reporter for US News & World Report said, “It was the most heart-rending and most inspiring scene I’ve witnessed.” Harris might argue that this was a religious event, but it was also political, since the Soviets did everything they could to stamp out religious freedom. No one can read Secretary Benson’s account of this event without bringing tears to their eyes. (To read the story, go to http://mskousen.com/2020/11/elder-ezra-taft-benson-speaks-in-communist-russia/)
Another omission is Elder Benson’s two-day visit to the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the oldest free-market think tank, and the one of which Benson, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and Ernest Wilkinson served as trustees. Benson addressed the FEE audience about threats to the free enterprise system and personal liberties. At the trustee meeting the next day, he was asked a series of questions about the church and free agency. Afterwards FEE president Leonard Read wrote to President Spencer W. Kimball, “Among my acquaintances in this and 22 foreign nations, I have never come upon his equal.” Surely Read and FEE cannot be categorized as extremists under Harris’s definition.
Both these stories are told in Sheri Dew’s “Ezra Taft Benson, a Biography,” but are nowhere to be found in Harris’s book. Granted, Dew’s 1987 biography, and Francis Gibbons’ 2012 biography, are hagiographic and leave out many of the criticism Harris highlights, but overall, they are deeply moving and inspiring.
As an historian, I prefer a more balanced and objective approach.
My advice to Professor Harris: If you’re going to write a “tell all” biography, be sure to tell all – not just the negative stories. As anyone can attest who knew the man (and I met him a number of times), Ezra Taft Benson was a good man, and even a humble man – witness the diminutive size of his tombstone in Preston, Idaho.
The Source of President Benson’s Philosophy
Ultimately, Professor Harris does not understand what made Ezra Taft Benson tick. As a lifelong faithful member of the Church, he took the latter-day scriptures seriously. The Book of Mormon was his constant companion, and he was profoundly impacted by the Lord’s identifying America as “the promised land” (1 Nephi 2, Ether 2); Captain Moroni’s raising the “title of liberty” (Alma 46); and the ancient prophets’ warnings of a “secret combination” that would seek to overthrow our freedoms in modern times (Ether 8). He drew from the Doctrine & Covenants his determination to defend the Constitution of the United States as an inspired document (Sections 98 and 101).
He felt his mission was to be the apostle of freedom. Perhaps he saw wisdom in Barry Goldwater’s famous line, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In my judgment, after having studied this public servant and church leader, Ezra Taft Benson was, despite whatever weaknesses he had, a towering giant in the twentieth century who will long be remembered as a man of positive influence and a devoted servant of God.
About the Author
Mark Skousen is an author and presidential fellow at Chapman University, where he teaches economics, business and finance. He is the editor of Forecasts & Strategies, an investment newsletter, and has taught at Columbia Business School. He is the gospel doctrine teacher in the Peter’s Canyon Ward in California. Email: [email protected].