Mobilizing the Intellectual Arsenal of
Democracy: Archibald MacLeish and the
Library of Congress
Appointed Librarian of Congress in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the lawyer-turned-Pulitzer Prize–winning-poet Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) produced a voluminous public record as an antifascist, noncommunist liberal. Horrified by what he saw as Western civilization's failure to resist European fascism, MacLeish used his many platforms as poet, essayist, journalist, radio playwright, and establishment insider to combat intellectual and spiritual torpor and rally U.S. intellectuals for the impending war. By 1941 he held two positions within the federal government from which he could speak and act. Concurrently the Librarian of Congress and the director of the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF) (and then briefly deputy director of the OWI during the war's first months), MacLeish helped shape and articulate the nation's pro-Allies, antifascist propaganda line.1 Just as important but neither as visible or well-known as his role directing U.S. propaganda, MacLeish used these positions to help coordinate the federal government's various communications’ surveillance and intelligence activities against fascist propaganda. Between these two roles—democratic rhetorician and architect of the emerging national security state—one can identify the contradictory imperatives of MacLeish's own war-era work and within U.S. liberalism in general.
The central tension in MacLeish's work concerned the highly fraught matter of information management in a democratic society. As a former constitutional law professor, practicing poet, and government official responsible for implementing information control policies and shaping public opinion, MacLeish understood as well as any one the combustible implications of the question, How should a democracy mobilize for war in an age when official lies, half-truths, censorship, and hate campaigns would be employed by all belligerents? Within his two jobs MacLeish confronted the competing imperatives between the free flow of information necessary to democratic practices and the control of information necessary to the wartime state. As Librarian of Congress, he saw himself as the guardian of public information and, more important, Western culture's