George S. Benson pt. 1
If you have stopped by my library page you would know that I have been spending a lot of time reading and learning about George Benson this semester. If you don’t know who George Benson is, the wikipedia serves as a good enough introduction.
George is a controversial character. A survey of people at Harding will tell you that. Some people laud him as the man the kept Harding open in the latter part of the Depression. Others credit (to be read “blame”) him for marrying Harding and other Church of Christ schools to the political right and big business. Sadly, both of these are accurate.
My work, however, has revolved mostly around his ideas on communism. Benson was a hardcore anti-communist. Much of the fundraising he did with big business in mind revolved around their hatred and fear of communism. This was one of the consistent themes that ran through the National Education Program’s work here at Harding.
George Benson was a missionary in China during the revolution in the 20s by Chiang Kai-Shek. In his book Missionary Experiences he credits Chiang and his loose connections with communism for turning the people of China against all foreigners. This isn’t true though. The Chinese have always been suspicious of the outsiders, this was most notably demonstrated during the Boxer Rebellion, thirty years before Benson landed on its shores.
Benson came back to Harding in 1936 and took over the role of president. He was having issues raising money amongst congregations so he had to start reaching out to the business community. He found that the best way to do this was through lectures, talks and programs which emphasized free markets, constitutional government and biblical belief. Over time, most notably in the beginning of the 1950s his lectures, held through the National Education Program, became less about free markets and more about being anti-communist.
With this message the money began rolling in to Harding and he and Cliff Ganus became right-wing figures, touring and speaking to groups around the country. Some would like to say that they became household names for the nation, but this is untrue. At best they were known as pundits, but most sources (outside of his own writings) classify George Benson as one voice in the extreme right.
The many contributions to anti-communist fear and propaganda can be found online by googling “National Education Program” and on Harding University’s iTunesU page and stand as a reminder of what happens when fear of something defines who a person is.
In 1962 the National Education Program made a video that the nation decided had crossed the line. McCarthy and his Red Scare machine had been silenced and the next to met criticism was the NEP. National newspapers and institutions blasted the poor scholarship and misguided attempts to instill fear in the American people about socialism and communism. After several years of unsuccessful attempts to rebound, George Benson retired in June of 1965.
In time, the NEP toned down, and were largely marginalized at Harding and in the United States. Benson would later move the program to Oklahoma Christian where it resides today.
After resigning from his post at Harding, and Johnson was considering doing away with the unfair and disproportionate limits on immigration, George Benson stood in front of a congressional committee and warned that doing away with the caps would let in more communists.
The legacy of George Benson is a strange one, and is largely still being sorted out. I don’t know that my work and research will point or move the conversation in one direction or another, but I am looking forward to the things that I will learn.
I posted this as “Part 1” since I am sure it will come up again and again this semester and bless the blog a couple more times.