Benson, Ezra Taft

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Benson, Ezra Taft

(b. 4 August 1899 in Whitney, Idaho; d. 30 May 1994 in Salt Lake City, Utah), secretary of agriculture during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known for his outspoken conservative views.

Benson was the eldest of eleven children of George Taft Benson and Sarah S. Dunkley, farmers. At an early age he was busy with farm chores: herding cattle, milking cows, and digging potatoes. At age sixteen he received from a neighbor the arduous task of thinning an acre of sugar beets, which he finished in a day.

In his teens, Benson attended Oneida State Academy. He enrolled at Utah State Agricultural College at Logan, now Utah State University, in 1918. After three years there he spent two years as a Mormon missionary to England. He then returned to Idaho, where he and a younger brother bought their father’s farm. They managed the farm and attended Brigham Young University, where Benson was awarded his B.S. degree in 1926. He then enrolled at Iowa State College and obtained an M.S. in agricultural economics. During this period of farming and study he married Flora Smith Amussen on 10 September 1926. The two had four daughters and two sons: Barbara, Beverly, Bonnie, Flora Beth, Reed, and Mark.

In 1929 Benson became a county extension agent in Idaho and later that year became a marketing specialist and economist for the University of Idaho. Benson was to have a long-term association with the farm cooperative movement. In 1933 he helped found the Idaho Cooperative Council, which he served in an executive capacity, and from 1939 to 1944 he was executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Benson to the National Agricultural Advisory Commission during World War II. The appointment did not prevent him from criticizing farm policy. In late 1942 he signed a statement protesting the increasing regulation of farmers. He also issued a stunning rebuke to the administration’s cropsubsidy program.

During this time he was active in the Mormon Church. He became president of the Boise stake in 1938 and the following year moved to the nation’s capital, where he served as president of the Washington, D.C., stake from 1940 to 1943. He was ordained an apostle of the church in 1943 and became a member of the Council of Twelve, the church’s second-highest ruling body. In 1946 Benson headed the Mormon Church’s European mission and was in charge of distributing supplies to a war-shattered continent.

President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower named Benson as his secretary of agriculture in 1952. It was a difficult time to take on that post, with crop surpluses mounting and dragging down farmers’ incomes. Benson believed that the high, fixed price supports in place since World War II had caused the surpluses, and with Eisenhower’s blessing he advanced a program for flexible supports, lowered during crop surpluses to encourage farmers to cut back production, and raised in time of need. The plan met stiff resistance in Congress. Most farm-bloc legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, wanted supports high and fixed. Benson and the administration won approval for the plan in 1954 only after agreeing to limit the lower end of the plan’s range.

Later that year Democrats regained control of Congress in the midterm elections, and in 1955 the House approved a return to high, rigid supports. This fight became entangled with an administration proposal for a Soil Bank. Benson had mixed feelings about what emerged from Congress. The idea had been to pay farmers to retire land dedicated to surplus crops. The so-called Acreage Reserve was limited to four years. The other part of the program was the Conservation Reserve, which would pay farmers to switch certain amounts of land for longer periods to conservation purposes. Benson liked the idea of the Conservation Reserve but was not enthusiastic about the Acreage Reserve, seeing it as a necessary evil to reduce the surplus. The problem was that the Democrat-controlled Congress insisted upon tying the Soil Bank to a return to high, fixed supports. Benson strongly urged a veto, and President Eisenhower agreed. A new Soil Bank bill was passed by Congress. Although Benson still had reservations, he did not recommend another veto, and the bill was signed by the president.

The other major agricultural legislation during the Benson years came in 1958. Benson had argued for an increase in acreage allotments for most basic crops and for an end to restrictions for corn. He wanted to widen the range of supports to allow for lowering them still further. Because of technological advances, Benson believed acreage allotments were ineffective and that other methods to reduce surpluses had to be tried. The administration won approval of its plan to eliminate acreage allotments for corn, but limitations remained for most other basic crops.

Leaving office in 1961, Benson returned to his post in the Council of Twelve. In 1973 he became president of the council, and in 1985 he became president and prophet of the church, a post in which he served until his death in 1994.

During his tenure as secretary of agriculture, there were many calls from the farm bloc and others for Benson to resign. In 1957, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, eggs were thrown at the secretary during a speech. Eisenhower remained loyal to Benson, who was one of only two cabinet members to stay for the entire eight years of the administration. At the end of Benson’s time in office, crop surpluses were still high. He ardently believed that what had been needed to solve the surplus was less, not more, government intervention, and here was the source of his major disagreements with the congressional farm bloc. In the years after the Eisenhower presidency Benson was outspoken in behalf of conservative ideas and became associated with the John Birch Society. He denounced liberalism, including the civil rights movement, progressive income taxes, the welfare state, and feminism. In his later years Benson was beset by health problems, and he died of congestive heart failure in Salt Lake City at the age of ninety-five.

Benson wrote about his time as secretary of agriculture in Cross Fire: The Eight Years with Eisenhower (1962). His conservative idealism is detailed in his books The Red Carpet (1962), Title of Liberty (1964), The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner (1986), and The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (1988). A full treatment of Benson’s life is Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography (1987) by Sheri L. Dew; shorter summaries include an entry in Current Biography 1953 and Frederick J. Simonelli, “Benson, Ezra Taft,” American National Biography (1999). A study of Benson’s time as secretary is Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Ezra Taft Benson and the Politics of Agriculture: The Eisenhower Years, 1953–1961 (1975). Helpful information about agricultural legislation during Benson’s years as secretary can be found in Congressional Quarterly’s Congress and the Nation, 1945–1964: A Review of Government and Politics (1965). An obituary is in the New York Times (31 May 1994).

Tracy Steven Uebelhor

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