The Duke Debate Team

The question of academic freedom on campus is a recurring one, despite the clear precedent created by the Bassett Affair at Trinity College in 1903. In the 1930s, debate was generated by appearances of Socialist Norman Thomas on campus, and, in the 1960s, Duke became involved in an indirect, although positive, manner when the North Carolina legislature imposed a speaker-ban law on state institutions of higher education.

Joseph C. Wetherby and Two Members of the Debate Team, 1954During the Cold War after World War II, several occasions arose when the university benefited from its tradition of academic freedom. One such incident, the appearance of Joseph C. Wetherby, assistant professor of English and director of debating at Duke, on Edward R. Murrow's CBS television program "See It Now," resulted in nationwide publicity. Professor Wetherby courageously defended the right of intercollegiate debaters to argue the officially adopted topic of the Speech Association of America, "Resolved: That the United States should extend diplomatic recognition to the Communist government of China."

In preparation for competition, Edwin Chapman, Jr., a freshman from Newport News, Va., wrote his congressman, Representative Edward J. Robeson, Jr., requesting information relative to the nationally-selected topic. Robeson promptly replied, expressing amazement "that such a topic . . . was even seriously considered by any group of persons who are normally intelligent and responsibly informed." He advised Chapman not to debate the positive position "as quotations from your statements may embarrass you for the rest of your life." Stating that it would be a "great favor," he requested the names of the Debate Club faculty advisor at Duke and the members of the National Debating Council. Since Chapman had used only a university address, the congressman presumed he lived in his district but he concluded by expressing an interest in knowing "just where you reside."

In the regional newsletter of Tau Kappa Alpha, the national forensic honor society, Wetherby warned his fellow coaches of possible trouble with the debate topic. Before long, the Associated Press had reported the Duke incident along with a growing nationwide controversy. The biggest story concerned President Eisenhower's being questioned about directives from the Secretaries of the Army and Navy forbidding the debate teams at West Point and Annapolis from debating the topic.

Edward R. Murrow devoted time in two programs in November 1954, to reporting the controversy and defending the right of free discussion and debate. Wetherby appeared on one "See It Now" show with Wayne C. Eubank of the University of New Mexico, president of Tau Kappa Alpha. Immediately after the program, Wetherby began receiving letters and telegrams, mostly favorable toward his position, from throughout the country.

The president of Duke, A. Hollis Edens, understood the significance of the issue, and did not interfere with either the student group or its faculty advisor. He did, however, receive mail on the subject. Especially welcome was the letter from Peter Maas '49, then public relations director of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company. Wrote Maas: "This is my first alumnus letter written to the university, and perhaps I have been lax in remaining in contact. However, I want to tell you how impressed I was by Duke University's part on the recent Ed Murrow 'See It Now' broadcast . . . . Duke's position has certainly earned a vote of confidence from me."

Duke's debate team in 1954-55 included 32 members, 12 of whom took part in 7 tournaments and 94 tournament debates. A student member of that debate team, Carl J. Stewart, Jr., does not recall that the controversy had much effect on the team itself. "There's no question that the national sentiment at that time was that we should not extend recognition to Communist China," he says. "But as far as the debating team went, we found it a fascinating topic and turned up lots of articles on both sides of the issue."

Alumnus Ben L. Smith, superintendent of city schools in Greensboro, N. C., forwarded to President Edens copies of a favorable political cartoon and editorial, and took the unprecedented step of inviting students from the Debate Club to present their arguments before a local Kiwanis Club. An editorial in the Greensboro Daily News reminded North Carolinianas that the university was following a "high tradition . . . set years ago . . . by refusing to dismiss Professor John Spencer Bassett because of the clamor raised when he expressed an unpopular view."


Related Resources


© 1996. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.