1950 March 31

U.S. Seizes, Burns 3,000 Copies of “Scientific American”


In an incredible act of censorship, the U.S. government seized and then burned 3,000 copies of the highly respected magazine Scientific American. The magazine’s offense was an article on the atomic bomb, which the government claimed contained the “secret” to producing a bomb. The seizure and burning was symptomatic of the rising hysteria of the Cold War in 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy (R–Wisconsin) had launched his infamous anti-Communist crusade on February 9, 1950. National security fears were heightened by the news in late August 1949 that the Soviet Union had successfully tested its first atomic bomb.

The Scientific American incident had several astonishing elements. First, protests against the government’s action were few and rather muted, confined to a small number of writers and editors. Second, considering the fact that book burning had come to symbolize the horrors of Nazi Germany, it was embarrassing, to say the least, that the U.S. government itself burned a respected scientific magazine over unconfirmed allegations that it contained nuclear “secrets.” The incident reverberated almost three decades later when, on March 3, 1979, the government enjoined the Progressive magazine that was about to publish an article on the Hydrogen bomb, which the government argued, contained the “secret” to making an H-bomb. After several legal delays, the government dropped its case, and the article by Howard Morland, “The Secret That Exploded,” was published on October 1, 1979. One crucial difference between the two incidents was that the Scientific American incident, coming at the height of the Cold War, passed with little news coverage or protest, while the 1979 Progressive incident was widely covered in the news media and protested by critics of government secrecy.

Other outrageous examples of book-burning in post-World War II America, when the example of Nazi book-burning was well known, include: December 10, 1948 (comic books burned in Binghamton, NY), and November 10, 1973 (the novel Slaughterhouse Five by the famed author Kurt Vonnegut).

Watch an interview with Gerard Piel, Editor of Scientific American: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thKlKGgi1OI

Read: Howard Morland, The Secret That Exploded (1981)

Learn more about Nazi book burning: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005852

Learn about book burning in history: http://mentalfloss.com/article/50038/11-book-burning-stories-will-break-your-heart

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