Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy


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"In January 1954, Joseph McCarthy was one of the most powerful members of the United States Senate. By the end of that year he had been censured by his colleagues, and his power was shattered. Ike and McCarthy is the dramatic story of how President Dwight Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to make this happen. When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, anticommunist fervor was at a fever pitch. The loudest voice was McCarthy's, charging that the government was riddled with communist spies. Ike thought that McCarthy's ...

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Oct 4, 2017

David Nichols On Eisenhower And McCarthy

In his recent book, "Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy" (2017), historian David Nichols examines a controversial aspect of Eisenhower's presidency: Eisenhower has been criticized for being too slow and indecisive in fighting against the demagogic, smearing tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in what McCarthy said was his fight to root out communism in government. McCarthy's notoriety began in 1950 during the Truman Administration. It continued and perhaps intensified until, following nationally televised hearings involving the Army and McCarthy, McCarthy's actions were condemned by the Senate. McCarthy lost his influence, and he died shortly thereafter.

I had earlier learned a good deal from Nichols. Early in his academic career, he wrote a still-valuable book "Lincoln and the Indians" (1978) about President Lincoln's Indian policy. Nichols subsequently became a scholar of the presidential administration of Dwight Eisenhower. In line with other scholarship about Eisenhower beginning about 1980, , Nichols argues that Eisenhower was a stronger, more effective leader than he had been portrayed to be in the years shortly after his presidency, and that Eisenhower was a master of leading by indirection and by action rather than by rhetoric. Thus, in this book, "A Matter of Justice" (2007), Nichols argued that Eisenhower's "gradualist" approach towards civil rights accomplished more than is sometimes realized. In "Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis -- Suez and the Brink of War", Nichols discussed Eisenhower's handling of the Suez Crisis and other difficult issue in foreign affairs and argued that Eisenhower's leadership and actions were stronger and wiser than they are often portrayed by critics.

In researching his recent book on Eisenhower and McCarthy, Nichols had access to a large collection of documents, many "eyes-only", located in the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene Kansas, that Eisenhower had ordered collected and preserved that set out in detail Eisenhower's dealings with McCarthy .Thus, rather than constituting a revisionist approach to an already-available body of information, Nichols' book relies on facts that had not been generally used by other researchers. The book shows the development in Eisenhower's approach to McCarthy as Nichols argues persuasively that the president and his most trusted associates worked behind the scenes to bring about McCarthy's destruction.

Nichols makes no secret of his own disdain for McCarthy and his demagoguery. His discussions of the course of events between Eisenhower and McCarthy is careful, nuanced, and measured. The book begins with Eisenhower's decision under pressure from his staff while campaigning in Wisconsin in October, 1952, to take out a paragraph from his prepared speech in praise of George C. Marshall, Eisenhower's mentor and one-time commander, whom McCarthy had vilified. Nichols does not try to justify this decision. In many places in his book, Nichols he is critical of Eisenhower's actions. But the book shows that Eisenhower was in control of the situation, disliked McCarthy, and knew what he wanted. His actions led directly and by design to McCarthy's fall.

Nichols captures the tense nature of American life in the early 1950s with its fear of communism, or further war or depression, and with its homophobia. These fears were broadly shared by both political parties and by the administration. In addition, Eisenhower had the narrowest of legislative margins when he assumed the presidency -- and a number of the Republican majority in the Senate were supporters of McCarthy. Thus Eisenhower had to act carefully.

After describing some early conflicts between Eisenhower and McCarthy, the focus of the book turns to McCarthy's attack on the Army. A major cause of this attack was counsel Roy Cohn's and McCarthy's attempt to secure special treatment for David Schine, a friend of Cohn's who worked for the committee. The relationship between the two was ripe with homosexual overtones which were acknowledged but rarely discussed in these days. Cohn and McCarthy began investigating alleged communist infiltration of the army and tied their investigation in to the army's refusal to grant special treatment to Schine. Among many other things, Nichols shows how Eisenhower behind the scenes gathered together a record documenting the Cohn-Schine matter and released it at the most propitious time to bring McCarthy into disgrace -- all the while denying involvement. This led to the famous Army-McCarthy hearings.

As the hearings proceeded, Eisenhower resisted attempts to bring the hearings to a quick close because he realized how McCarthy was destroying himself in full view of the American people. Eisenhower and his attorney general promulgated a long memorandum setting forth a strong doctrine of Executive Privilege to avoid bringing the White House into the hearings. In fact, in Nichols account, some of the witnesses in the hearing came close, at the least, to perjury in denying White House involvement. In his own public statements at the time, Eisenhower lied, in Nichols' account, about his own and about his staff's involvement in bringing about the hearings and in McCarthy's demise.

Far from the passive, avuncular golf-playing executive as Eisenhower is still sometimes portrayed, Nichols portrays a tough, canny, hard leader, not above misdirection, as one would expect from the Commander of the Allied Forces at Normandy. The book shows a difficult time for our country and shows as well a strong leader, flaws and all. The book tells a gripping story and works to a climax in prose that tends towards the stolid and the matter-of-fact. I was moved in reading this book to follow-up on the Army-McCarthy hearings and watch a nearly two-hour extract available on media. I was glad to revisit Nichols and his studies of Eisenhower. I was reminded of McCarthyism and learned a great deal about Eisenhower and his presidency from this book.

Robin Friedman

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