Ike and McCarthy
Beginning in 1950, Wisconsin’s junior senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, threw the United States into turmoil with his reckless, unsubstantiated charges that a variety of citizens, especially government employees, were Soviet agents. McCarthy’s disregard for the truth, his insatiable appetite for headlines, and his willingness to damage reputations turned “McCarthyism” into an enduring epithet in our political language.
Yet by the end of 1954, McCarthy’s political influence had been essentially destroyed. How did that happen? The answer—fully told for the first time in this book—is that Dwight D. Eisenhower made it happen.
Ironically, in 1953, due to Eisenhower’s election, McCarthy acquired a new platform for his crusade. The Republicans held a one-vote majority in the Senate. As a result McCarthy was appointed chair of the Government Operations Committee and its permanent investigative subcommittee. In that capacity, the senator subpoenaed witnesses, conducted one-senator hearings, accused witnesses of guilt by association and labeled as “obviously communist” anyone who dared to invoke constitutional protections against self-incrimination.
In 1953, the nation was still at war in Korea and recovering from the traumas of depression and World War II. The Cold War with
the Soviet Union created a climate of fear that was the lifeblood of McCarthyism, especially the fear of subversion. But in January 1954, that began to change. McCarthy’s prestige was at its zenith, with a Gallup Poll approval rating of 50 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable. But Eisenhower had concluded that the senator was more than a nuisance; he was a threat to the president’s foreign policy goals, to his legislative program, and to his party’s and his own electoral prospects.1
So Eisenhower did something breathtaking and dangerous; he launched a clandestine operation designed to wrap a scandal around the neck of a prestigious US senator in the president’s own party in an election year. That is what the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, lasting almost two months, were really about.2
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
The standard explanations for McCarthy’s political demise are well known: McCarthy, an alcoholic, did himself in; he was damaged by Edward R. Murrow’s legendary See It Now television program; his reputation was tarnished by the unsympathetic glare of the television cameras and by his confrontation with the wily Boston attorney Joseph Nye Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings. In this conventional version, the final nail in McCarthy’s political coffin was the censure vote by the US Senate on December 2, 1954, which McCarthy lost 67 to 22.
In recent years, pro-McCarthy revisionists have attempted to repair the senator’s reputation by arguing that his political enemies destroyed him to cover up Soviet espionage in the US government. Eisenhower took the possibility of subversion seriously but firmly believed that his methods would be more effective and equitable than McCarthy’s demagogic tactics.3
In 1984, William Ewald published a book called Who Killed Joe McCarthy? Ewald drew on an immense cache of documents that Fred Seaton, the assistant secretary of defense, had collected on President Eisenhower’s orders during the 1954 Army-McCarthy
hearings. Seaton possessed thousands of pages of letters, phone transcripts, memoranda, and documents that he had taken with him when he became secretary of the interior and—when he left the government—had hauled home to Nebraska. Ewald, who worked for Seaton at the Interior Department, recalled Seaton pointing to a locked file and saying “I’ll never open that until you-know-who tells me to,” referring to Eisenhower. When Seaton died, his “Eyes Only” file was donated to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, where I have reviewed virtually every page. In addition, I have had access to documents declassified since Ewald and other leading authors on McCarthy published their books in the 1980s.4
Joseph McCarthy’s senatorial correspondence has been sealed for the lifetime of his daughter. But my objective is to tell the Eisenhower story that has been so long neglected by historians.5
This is a book about a particular era in US history—a time when power brokers embraced attitudes and behaviors unacceptable today. Attitudes regarding race, gender, and homosexuality have changed but, in the 1950s, gays and their relationships were not just denigrated, they were openly persecuted. Just the rumor—not the fact—that a government official was homosexual could cost that person a job. Homosexuals were widely perceived to be security risks, subject to blackmail by communists. As the reader will discover, the Eisenhower administration reflected the prejudice and discriminatory practices of the era.
This is a story about strategic deception, a realm in which Dwight Eisenhower was demonstrably expert. In 1944, the Allies under Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower successfully fooled the German leadership about when and where the largest military expeditionary force in human history would land in Europe. Operation Fortitude involved fake armies, dummy landing craft and airfields, fraudulent radio transmissions, and misleading leaks through diplomatic channels and double agents. Eisenhower understood that carefully planned, rigorously implemented deception could confuse an enemy until he makes a mistake; then he can be ambushed. That,
politically, is what Eisenhower did to McCarthy. Only a half-dozen trusted aides knew what was really happening. Others—including most of the era’s great reporters—missed the story.6
Much of the conventional wisdom includes the enduring myth about the Eisenhower presidency—that Ike was a disengaged, grandfatherly president more interested in playing golf than in the effective exercise of leadership. That legend—now thoroughly discredited by two decades of intensive research—was initially generated by historians who never forgave the popular general for defeating Adlai Stevenson in 1952. But in part, Ike was the author of his own myth. He was obsessive about protecting the Oval Office from anything controversial.
In particular, critics grumble that Eisenhower failed to speak out about the great domestic issues of his time: civil rights and McCarthyism. His detractors depict him as downright cowardly in his response to the Red-baiting senator. Many would agree with the columnist Joseph Alsop, who, in 1954, after listening to an Eisenhower news conference statement intended to counter McCarthy, exclaimed, “Why, the yellow son of a bitch!”7
Ike had not won the war in Europe by making speeches. He did not believe that presidential rhetoric would damage McCarthy. History shows that presidential oratory rarely results in historic change; transformative progress is most possible when a president, faced with a crisis, seizes the opportunity to exercise leadership; consider Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War or Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Depression. However, pundits persist in rating presidents for their skillful use of the “bully pulpit.”8
Complaints that Eisenhower took too long to act against McCarthy are contrary to the facts. Any effort to destroy McCarthy during 1953 would probably have failed. There were eight to twelve senators who frequently supported McCarthy’s positions on communist subversion; therefore, the president lacked an anti-McCarthy majority. Though Democrats supported the president on most foreign policy issues, leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson delighted in treating McCarthy as “a Republican problem.”9
President Harry Truman had openly denounced McCarthy for three years, but his attacks had only enhanced the senator’s prestige; Ike ruined him in half that time. The Eisenhower operation against McCarthy in 1954 was not without its glitches. The general understood that in war or political conflict, a commander must constantly adjust a strategic mission to new realities. He often repeated the maxim “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”10
In this case, the planning involved Eisenhower’s rigorous delegation of operations to a half-dozen trusted subordinates. Those men were expected, like foot soldiers in a war, to put their lives and reputations on the line to protect the president and extinguish McCarthy’s influence. Dwight Eisenhower’s deceptive operation, mediated through his trusted lieutenants, “killed” Joe McCarthy.