The Millionaire Who Took on McCarthy
William Benton was an advertising icon and wildly successful investor—and with those millions backing him up, he took on the country’s scariest politician.
A melodramatic mix of half-truths, rants, and innuendoes made Wisconsin’s junior Senator Joseph P. McCarthy powerful and intimidating. By 1951, he had cowed some of the Senate’s all time all stars, including Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver, Robert Taft, J. William Fulbright, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.
The rare senator willing at that time to confront this “hit and run propagandist of the Soviet type” was a rookie senator from Connecticut. For introducing a resolution to expel this blathering bully, William Benton suffered McCarthyite blowback, including a $2 million libel suit. Many also believe Benton’s heroism lost him his Senate seat in 1952. Still, Benton insisted: “Somebody had to do this job.” Years later, as his legend grew, he would demur: “Well of course I like to think I did a lot of things that showed courage in the Senate.” But he admitted, it may have been “in part because of my political inexperience.”
This political amateur also had something his other colleagues lacked: a real life awaiting back home. As a millionaire adman, publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and owner of the Muzak Corporation, Benton could afford to be daring. Professional politicians, he would lament, “too often underestimate the long-range values of boldness and stubbornness in defense of an ideal.” As America’s new leaders take office, they should remember William Benton’s courage, deciding what ideals they will champion, no matter what.
Born in 1900 in Minneapolis, Benton was a true child of the 20th century who would master the business of mass communication. He was also the kind of preacher’s kid like Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles who retained their parents’ puritan moralism even in the dirty world of politics. At Yale, class of 1921, he often felt treated like a Midwestern rube. After learning how to sell at the National Cash Register Company, Benton entered the world of secular American evangelism—advertising—working for 1920s’ legendary agency, Lord and Day.
In 1929, Benton launched Benton and Bowles with his former assistant Chester Bowles. Among the first to use consumer research surveys and radio advertising intelligently, they gave the world radio soap operas—and jingles. Six years later, despite the Great Depression, “rags-to-riches” Benton sold his share in what was now America’s sixth largest agency for $1 million.
Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago’s young, visionary president, recruited his prematurely retired Yale classmate in 1936 to redefine the school’s image. Benton neutralized claims that the school schooled students in subversion, produced popular radio programs using faculty experts, and pioneered techniques in marketing universities—lessons America’s universities have learned far too well. Meanwhile, Benton bought Electric Research Products, Inc. (ERPI)—an educational filmmaking company; Muzak—which he turned profitable by shifting to producing background music; and the Encyclopedia Britannica. As Britannica’s publisher, Benton made millions for himself and the university, popularizing highbrow culture for middlebrow types. Benton’s faith in Hutchins’ University of Chicago methods would result in the phenomenal 54-volume Great Books of the Western World set, published in 1952.
After a string of government jobs, Benton became assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs in 1945, initiating the Voice of America radio broadcasts, United States Information Offices, and Fulbright scholarly exchange programs. Four years later, Connecticut’s Senate seat opened. His buddy Chester Bowles, now Connecticut’s governor, appointed Benton. In 1950, Benton ran for the seat, despite it having only two years left in the term. Benton beat another Yalie, Prescott Bush, by 1,100 votes.
As a Senate rookie and non-politician, Benton lacked the clubby loyalties and political sensibilities that silenced most colleagues when Joe McCarthy soared as the anti-Communist tub-thumper who roared. McCarthy’s Feb. 9, 1950 speech in Wheeling, Virginia, claiming 205 Communists infiltrated the State Department, made him America’s number one Commie-hunter. Even as his numbers shrank to 81 or 57, even as his tall tales grew—he became more fascinating and frightening. Although McCarthy’s scattershot libels missed more than they hit, his rhetoric resonated because Communists were trying to subvert America—and many liberals dismissed the threat.
When the Senate reconvened in January 1951, McCarthy was not only known as a reputation-killer but a kingmaker—and breaker. Everyone believed his intervention defeated Millard Tydings, a senator since 1927. Tydings had chaired hearings labeling McCarthy’s crusade a “fraud and a hoax.” McCarthy claimed Tydings was “protecting Communists,” and spread a doctored photo falsely placing Tydings next to the American Communist Earl Browder.
Protective of the State Department he had served and the Senate and nation he now served, Benton introduced Senate Resolution 187 demanding McCarthy’s expulsion. Benton’s 30,000 word testimony on Sept. 28, 1951 detailed 10 justifications, including McCarthy’s breach of senatorial etiquette in libeling a colleague, Tydings, during Maryland’s Senate campaign, his unethical acceptance of $10,000, and his “perjury” and “calculated deceit” in falsifying charges against State Department employees and the American icon General George Marshall. McCarthy’s actions, Benton insisted, were “destructive of fundamental American principles.”
The thin-skinned McCarthy counterattacked against “Benton’s smear attack” so viciously, the Senate Rules committee felt compelled to investigate Benton and McCarthy together. Smearing Benton, McCarthy called “the chameleon from Connecticut” a “mental midget,” a “clever propagandist… worth millions a year” to the Reds, with “aims and objectives… identical” to the Communist Party, including shielding a “motley Red-tinted crowd” when he worked in the State Department. Benton’s behavior proved the Democrats to be “the party which stands for government of, by and for Communists, crooks and cronies,” McCarthy fumed. During the hearings, he accused Benton, when at State, of hiring Communists and distributing “lewd and communistic literature… worldwide.” McCarthy also caught Benton in two minor indiscretions regarding campaign contributions and supposedly nonpolitical but incredibly self-promoting travelogues Benton produced.
McCarthy knew how to put critics on the defensive. While barraging Benton with lies, the brazen McCarthy then slapped Benton with a $2 million libel suit. McCarthy admitted to supporters the suit was frivolous. Still, he sneered that every morning as Benton shaved and realized he had to fight this expensive headache—“he’ll sweat.”
Trying to out-demagogue the demagogue, Benton called McCarthy “a Joseph-Come-Lately” in fighting Communists. Reflecting the consensus of the times, Benton boasted that he and other Democrats hunted Reds in the late 1940s, while McCarthy was a “virtual unknown” until 1950.
Most of Benton’s colleagues tut-tutted about the novice who had breached etiquette himself in trying to expel a fellow senator and was now tormented. One colleague jabbed that the Benton-McCarthy duo could make “an ideal double murder.” Eventually, despite labeling McCarthy’s assault on Tydings a “despicable, back-street type of campaign,” the committee’s final report criticized both and punished neither.
When Benton lost his Senate seat in November 1952, many spooked Senators credited McCarthy. Benton would occasionally play the martyr, recalling being “defeated on an issue of conscience.” But he usually insisted that opposing McCarthy attracted donors and voters, just not enough to survive the Republican tidal wave for Dwight Eisenhower that fall.
After his re-election, McCarthy haughtily dropped the libel suit. However, the historian David Oshinsky writes that McCarthy had “won no more than a temporary reprieve. The Benton Resolution was not dead. It would live on and ultimately provide the basis for McCarthy’s censure”—three long ugly years later. Eventually, Benton realized that he pounced “two years before the timing was right.” Still, Benton concluded: “The press was astonishingly weak and wishy-washy. So was the Senate.”
Benton returned to his busy life beyond Washington. In 1958, he transferred his Britannica stock to the Benton Foundation, while remaining Britannica’s publisher until his death in 1973. As “McCarthyism” became one of the great, overused American terms for demonizing your political enemies, the scale of the witch hunt was exaggerated as its underlying justification was overlooked. Those distortions made Benton appear even more gallant. Alas, his contribution has been eclipsed by the adoring stories about Joseph Welch’s lawyerly broadside—“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”—at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings and Edward R. Murrow’s attack on McCarthy’s “hysterical disregard for decency” on CBS-TV’s See It Now.
Still, in our politically polarized and go-getting era, we need role models like Bill Benton. No one resigned on principle from Bill Clinton’s administration because he sexually harassed an intern. Colin Powell didn’t resign in disgrace from George W. Bush’s administration after presenting faulty information about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Even the crusader against genocide Samantha Power didn’t resign in protest against Barack Obama’s passivity amid the Syrian genocide.
It is understandable why someone would serve in a Donald Trump administration. When the president calls, patriotic Americans should respond. But every Trump appointee—and all 535 Members of Congress and Senate—should emulate William Benton, the principled pol who rejected his colleagues’ groupthink to defend the dignity of their institution and our country, even as others ducked, dallied, and dodged.
David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy so Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (1983)—This masterwork by a master historian, still holds up.
Thomas C. Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy; A Biography (1982)—The definitive biography.
The Official U.S. Senate Report on Senators McCarthy and Benton (1953)—Tracks these two master propagandists at war, blow-by-blow.