How Eisenhower quietly disarmed Joe McCarthy.
Joseph McCarthy’s reign over America’s political life was ferocious and would resonate for decades. It was, however, relatively brief — a mere four years, spanning his 1950 “enemies within” speech in Wheeling, W.Va., through his formal censure by the Senate in 1954. Although he served in the Senate for more than 10 years, McCarthy was, as it were, a one-term demagogue.
Of course, no one at the time could have known how long McCarthy would be able to continue his often baseless accusations and destruction of people’s lives to score cheap political points. There were certainly moments during those four years when McCarthy seemed like a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
The man most responsible for checking McCarthy’s political power was Dwight Eisenhower, who marshaled the responsible sectors of the Republican Party and delivered the White House (twice) to the GOP for the first time in decades. To many, however, Eisenhower seemed unwilling or unable to fully denounce McCarthy, either for reasons of personal temperament or political calculation. The perception that Ike shied away from confronting McCarthy persists in historical estimation. In a generally favorable 2002 biography, for example, journalist Tom Wicker criticized Eisenhower because he “impressed on Americans no moral outrage at McCarthy’s sins against decency.”
In his new book, seasoned Eisenhower historian David A. Nichols sets out to correct the record. Drawing on “eyes only” documents that now reside in the Eisenhower Library, Nichols adamantly maintains that unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Eisenhower and some discreet aides carried out a deliberate campaign for years designed to disarm McCarthy. Nichols sees Eisenhower as a master of “hidden hand” management; the author cites his debt to Fred Greenstein, who portrayed this Eisenhower style in his 1982 book, “The Hidden Hand Presidency.”
On a personal level, Eisenhower despised McCarthy and his methods. Ike went out of his way not to mention the senator by name. “Nothing will be so effective in combating his particular kind of trouble-making as to ignore him,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary. “This he cannot stand.”
But behind the scenes, Eisenhower had no intention of ignoring McCarthy. The senator’s attacks on Gen. George Marshall, and later on Eisenhower’s beloved Army, were simply too much to abide. Indeed, Eisenhower may have felt himself vulnerable to McCarthy’s attacks. It is largely forgotten today, but some in the Taft wing of the Republican Party considered Eisenhower to be a communist appeaser, and at the end of World War II, Eisenhower collaborated with Soviet leaders in ways that could be presented in an unflattering light.
Even without McCarthy directly attacking Eisenhower, the two men were likely to clash. McCarthy tried to block Eisenhower’s appointments; he second-guessed his foreign policy; and he undermined Eisenhower’s brand of anti-communism. McCarthy, Nichols writes, “had no respect for the president or his loyal subordinates.” Once McCarthy began a sustained attack on the Army, ostensibly prompted by the presence of Communist Party members at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, it was inevitable that he would become the target of Eisenhower’s anger.
The difficult question was: Where was McCarthy most vulnerable? The senator was unusually dependent on a combative young lawyer, Roy Cohn. And Cohn, for his part, seemed infatuated with an unpaid consultant on McCarthy’s Senate committee, David Schine, who was drafted into the Army in late 1953.
In a fateful 90-minute meeting on Jan. 21, 1954, in the office of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, top aides to Eisenhower decided not only to invoke executive privilege to keep Army officials from complying with McCarthy’s subpoenas but also to compile all the strongarm attempts Cohn had made to seek special privileges for Schine. These included excessive weekend and night passes and relief from KP duty and various drills.
That document, which in its raw form apparently was two inches thick, was later shown to multiple journalists, including the influential columnist Joseph Alsop, well before the Army released it. From a public opinion standpoint, it was bad enough that Cohn seemed to be targeting the Army as a way of gaining privileges for his colleague. But the unspoken implication was that Cohn and Schine were lovers. That impression had already been created by the pair’s sophomoric antics — such as swatting each other with a rolled-up magazine in a hotel lobby — while traveling through Europe trying to find communist literature in the libraries of the U.S. Information Agency; the press dubbed them “the Gold Dust Twins.” For Schine to be shirking Army duties to appear with Cohn in restaurants and hotels offended many sensibilities in Washington. Although Nichols does not dwell on it, the idea that anti-gay innuendo was the very effective weapon of choice may have been one reason Eisenhower wanted to keep his distance from the attack on McCarthy.
The better-known blows against McCarthy that later appear in public — Edward Murrow’s critical broadcast, the televised ArmyMcCarthy hearings that climax in the famous “Have you no sense of decency?” barb — are merely the culmination of the commander-level planning from the White House. Indeed, the lawyer who asked that withering question of McCarthy, Joseph Welch, had been guided to the Senate committee, Nichols shows, by none other than Eisenhower himself.
There are times when Nichols’s pistols don’t quite smoke; we read of officials who are “probably” or “perhaps” acting with a particular motive, and of people who are presumed but not proved to be acting on the president’s behalf. This isn’t Nichols’s fault as much as a limit of the historical record; still, such phrases occasionally cause the reader’s eyebrows to raise.
Nonetheless Nichols has provided a gripping, detailed account of how the executive branch subtly but decisively defeated one of America’s most dangerous demagogues. In today’s incendiary politics, the hidden hand is out of fashion. But the need to battle demagoguery is as topical as ever.
President Dwight Eisenhower, top, disliked Sen. Joseph McCarthy, above, and made it a point to never mention him by name.