- “The Sword and the Book”The Benjamin Franklin Library and U.S.-Mexican Relations, 1936–1962
On April 13, 1942, politicians and members of the literary and cultural elite of Mexico City gathered for the opening ceremonies of the Benjamin Franklin Library in the grand, old, French-style building at Reforma 34, on one of the capital’s European-style boulevards. Entertained by bands that played both traditional Mexican ballads and the “Star Spangled Banner,” the assembled guests of the new library toured the grounds and the freshly remodeled building politely ignoring, much to the relief of organizers, the still half-empty shelves.1 The guests were then seated outdoors, where they listened to speeches by both Mexican and U.S. officials. Broadcast live by radio throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States, these speeches celebrated the new library as a powerful symbol of friendship between the two countries and of hemispheric solidarity in the face of the dissolution of old Europe in war. In his speech, the guest of honor, President of Mexico Manuel Ávila Camacho, touched on the issue of hemispheric friendship before moving on to present a sustained meditation on the nature of the library as an institution. Camacho argued to the assembled that libraries were particularly potent symbols of democracy, a bulwark against “present-day imperialisms” and an “international society” that worked by joining nations within a common cultural framework. A library was not just a place to hold books but an embassy of ideas that provided the basis and support for connections between similarly minded democratic governments.2
President Camacho’s speech effectively captured both the spirit of the occasion and the vision U.S. officials had for the Benjamin Franklin Library. As the first U.S. government–sponsored library to open abroad, the library was crucial to the state’s program of cultural diplomacy during World War II. Founded through a partnership between the American Library Association (ALA) and the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), both groups intended the library to be what Camacho called an “embassy of ideas,” [End Page 294] promoting greater understanding and interest in U.S. culture across the border.3 While the OIAA saw the library as a means of advertising U.S. foreign policy in Mexico, the ALA was more inclined to see the institution as a tool for encouraging the long-term growth of democracy in Mexico. ALA officials believed that the more educated a populace, the less prone it would be to embrace radical ideology. Libraries therefore had an essential role to play in ensuring that Mexico maintained political unity with the United States by providing citizens with greater access to U.S. materials and by aiding the nation in preserving its own cultural heritage. Because of the influence of the ALA, the Benjamin Franklin Library grew as an institution during the war, eventually housing the most extensive collection of freely circulating U.S. literature and scientific publications in Latin America. In this, it escaped the fate of many reading rooms established by the U.S. Department of State in London and other Allied cities, which served more as narrow repositories for wartime propaganda. Due to its relative popularity, the library also became a template for similar institutions in Montevideo and Managua during World War II, and for U.S.-sponsored libraries across the globe after 1945. Despite the growth of these newer libraries, the Benjamin Franklin Library remained the flagship institution for U.S. book-diplomacy throughout World War II and during the Cold War.
With the end of World War II and the closure of the OIAA, the library passed under the direct control of the State Department, and later the United States Information Agency, which came to view it as an indispensable tool in its arsenal for combating Communism in Mexico. As a department official argued, “the two weapons of man are the sword and the book,” and the Benjamin Franklin Library was the linchpin in a department strategy that was aimed at using the book to prevent political instability and promote cultural unity in Latin America.4 This essay traces the Benjamin Franklin Library’s establishment during...