William Benton

William Benton

William Burnett Benton, was born in Minneapolis on 1st April, 1900. After graduating from Yale University in 1921 he entered the advertising business. He worked for eight years in New York City and Chicago before in 1929 forming his own agency with Chester Bowles.

By 1935 the Benton and Bowles agency was the sixth-largest advertising firm in the world. In 1936 Benton decided he wanted a change in his career and after selling the agency to his partners for over $1,000,000, he became vice president of the University of Chicago. In 1941 Benton purchased the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A supporter of the Democratic Party, in 1945 Benton became U.S. assistant secretary of state where he took charge of the overseas information programs. While in office he was associated with the establishment of UNESCO and the Fulbright Scholarship Act (1946).

Benton was elected to the Senate in 1949. On 22nd March 1950, Benton became the first Democrat politician to support Dean Acheson against attacks from Joe McCarthy. Over the next year Benton emerged as as one of the leaders in the Senate against what now became known as McCarthyism. On 6th August, 1951, Benton introduced a resolution in the Senate calling for McCarthy's expulsion. Benton claimed that McCarthy had "lied" and "practiced deception" with his claims that he had a list of communists working for the State Department

Joe McCarthy retaliated by accusing Benton of purchasing and displaying "lewd works of art" while in the State Department. As well as employing Known communists, Benton was accused of anti-American behaviour by having the Encyclopaedia Britannica printed in England rather than in the United States. According to McCarthy, Benton was the "hero of every Communist and crook in and out of Government."

In November 1951 Benton came up for re-election. McCarthy continued his smear campaign against Benton accusing him of hiring "communists, fellow travellers, or dupes of the Kremlin" and used government money to send "lewed and licentious" materials abroad through the U.S. information program. Benton was defeated in the election and decided to retire from politics.

Benton's final years was spentworking in publishing. In 1952 he published the 54 volume Great Books of the Western World and published encyclopaedias in French, Spanish and Japanese. In 1964 he acquired the Merriam Company, the publishers of the Webster's dictionaries. Benton also worked on the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The editorial creation of the work cost $32,000,000: the largest single private investment in publishing history. William Benton died in New York on 18th March, 1973.

Primary Sources

(1) William Benton, The Economics of a Free Society (1944)

The Free Enterprise System is a system of production, investment, and consumption under which private individuals and business firms, largely by their own initiative and responsibility, combine the community's labor skills, managerial skills, and capital to produce the bulk of the goods and services men want. Its most characteristic features as compared with other economic systems are: maximum dependence upon competition and the free play of prices to determine who shall produce what, maximum dependence on profit as an incentive rather than on compulsion or prestige, and maximum emphasis on free personal choice among the economic opportunities - be they goods or jobs - that are available to men.

Under a free-enterprise system, men risk their resources in private venture in the hope of personal gain. A free enterpriser is a young man going to night school to train himself for a profession, a lawyer moving to another locality in the hope of developing a better practice, a worker taking special training to achieve a skilled status, a man shifting from one job to another in search; of a better opportunity. In a system of free enterprise, private assets, whether of money, talent, ambition, or energy, are risked in the hope of gain - whether by a businessman seeking profit at the risk of loss, by a tenant buying his own farm at the risk of a mortgage debt, or by a young man starting his own small business at the risk of losing his savings and the steady job he held. A true system of free enterprise thus encourages venture and risk taking, whether by an individual worker or by a group of individuals in the form of a cooperative or a big corporation.

In the U.S. there are 4 million or more farm enterprisers, more than 1 million self-employed who work as their own bosses, more than 2 million private businesses with one or more employees. These provide enormous opportunities for innovation and experimentation. After the war, America must create an economic climate that will develop millions more. Can any centrally controlled economy hope to maintain the dynamic drive, the ingenuity, or the diversity of creative impulse of these millions of enterprises? Their persistent search for improvement results in progress: better products and services adapted more closely to the desires of the buyers at ever lower prices. The driving energy of private incentive thus serves the economic good of the nation as a whole.

(2) Roy Cohn, who worked closely with Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s wrote about William Benton in his book McCarthy (1968)

The fact that Joe McCarthy lived well within his means did not prevent his enemies from accusing him of trying to line his pockets out of hours. The chief harassment along these lines was led by William Benton who launched an investigation into his income-tax payments and occasional sources of outside income. this grew into a campaign that plagued McCarthy for years, even after the charges were dropped.

(3) Willis Smith, on Benton's decision to try and get Joe McCarthy expelled from the Senate.

Benton got himself in a fight unnecessarily. He was making a mistake because there was no chance whatever of expelling McCarthy since it would take a two-thirds vote and there were more than enough Republicans to prevent it.

(4) In January, 1952, Ralph Mann and sent to William Benton. The memo was eventually passed on to Drew Pearson.

Today we received a letter from a purported Army lieutenant claiming that he had been picked up in the Wardman Park by McCarthy, gone with him to McCarthy's home, and while the lieutenant was half-drunk, McCarthy committed sodomy. He offered to testify and said he knew other officers McCarthy had picked up. He claims McCarthy promised him a transfer and never got it.

(5) Drew Pearson, diary entry (16th January, 1952)

Benton told me that McGraph and the President both were working on the matter of the young lieutenant involved with McCarthy. This is the third report on McCarthy's homosexual activity and the most definite of all.

(6) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: The Making of a Prime Minister, 1916-64 (1986)

On a number of occasions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I had been in the habit of visiting the United States on short lecture tours. These were organized for me by Senator William Benton. Bill was an interesting and very American character. In his youth he had set up a small shop in the centre of New York and was a dollar millionaire before he was thirty. His heart was in academics and in politics. He returned to the university where he had graduated, Chicago, and became an administrator.

One of his earliest tasks concerned the Encyclopedia Britannica, then the property of Chicago University and losing money. The University authorities sought means of getting rid of it and Benton bought it, speedily turning it into a profitable concern and extending its scope by publishing annually a topical volume, the Encyclopedia Book of the Year.

In 1945 he resigned from the University to become Assistant Secretary of State in President Truman's administration, where he initiated the Voice of America broadcasts, including those to the Soviet Union. He led America's entry into the UN Educational and Scientific Organization. He was also responsible for the Smith-Mundt Act, the Fulbright legislation on international educational interchange programmes. In 1950 he became a senator, representing the state of Connecticut. The incumbent had died and the state party organization nominated Bill to fill the vacancy. Not the least of his senatorial achievements was to introduce the resolution calling for Senator Joseph McCarthy's expulsion from the Senate and the subsequent censure of McCarthy. He was a senator, in fact, for only two years, and was defeated in the election of 1952, though in accordance with US practice he was entitled to be called Senator Benton to the end of his days.