President Dwight Eisenhower consults with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Charles "Chip" Bohlen, Eisenhower's choice as ambassador to the Soviet Union, whose nomination McCarthy opposed.EXPAND
President Dwight Eisenhower consults with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Charles "Chip" Bohlen, Eisenhower's choice as ambassador to the Soviet Union, whose nomination McCarthy opposed.
Courtesy of Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

Red-Letter Days For The President vs. The Prosecutor

Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joe McCarthy
By David A Nichols
Simon & Schuster, 400 pp. $27.95

Conventional Wisdom is a funny, shifting kind of thing when contemporary politics age to become history. After all, the CW for years has been that good ol’ 1950s Commie-Hatin’, Red-Baitin’, Reputation-Ruinin’ Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt (and his career) was derailed by a combination of hubris, alcoholism, Ed Murrow’s TV show, and Chief Counsel Joseph Welch when McCarthy decided to go after the U.S. Army itself.

The CW also posits that President Dwight Eisenhower — while a brilliant military man (dude helped win the Big One! WWII!) — was a disengaged, dim, grandfatherly Commander in Chief more interested in putting golf balls than pulling votes.

But with the hindsight of research and a torrent of now-declassified documents, Ike scholar Nichols infuses (if not upends) the CW with this book and its central theory: Ike worked in mysterious ways to bring down McCarthy, a man he detested and — with rare floundering — whose name he chose never to utter in public.

Nor was Eisenhower thrilled that nearly 2,200 governments workers lost their jobs due to their real, inflated, or imagined communist sympathies due to McCarthy and his minions.

One of Nichols’ more interesting storylines is just why Joe McCarthy chose to target and try to ferret out Commies from such a powerful “foe” as the United States Army itself. The answer might just boil down to something more salacious.

McCarthy’s aide, David Schine (who McCarthy chief counsel Roy Cohn was, um, very interested in), was drafted into that arm of the military, and neither McCarthy nor Cohn could pull special privileges to get him out, give him freedom at will, or keep him from KP duty. And Roy Cohn was pissed.

This, of course, set the stage for the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings in which the former was accused of holding Schine “hostage” in an effort to stop McCarthyism, while the latter was accused of seeking (though sometimes shady protocols) said privilege for same soldier.

As the storm of the hearings geared up, Eisenhower went into battle mode. Never one to make the big proclamations himself, he relied on meetings, memos (on and off the record), dispatching then-VP Richard Nixon as an attack dog, and subtly influencing those on the Army’s side. Ike was not above his own tricks of bolstering the Army’s position and case via “strategic deceit” while maintaining his Executive Branch “separation.”

Joseph McCarthy consults with his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who pushed McCarthy to investigate the U.S. Army.
Joseph McCarthy consults with his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who pushed McCarthy to investigate the U.S. Army.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

And – as Nichols writes – it wasn’t just Eisenhower’s standing as President or legacy at stake. There were more immediate concerns, like the upcoming Congressional and Senate elections Ike hoped would go Republican despite the brush-tarring of McCarthyism, and the 1956 Presidential election itself.

In his well-written summaries of the hearings as they progress, you can almost hear the wheels coming off the McCarthy Machine, even as the senator held out hope he could actually put the sitting U.S. President on the stand. By the time Welch uttered the trial’s most famous line to a seemingly bored McCarthy, who had made a last-ditch effort to question the patriotism of a young lawyer in Welch’s firm (“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”), the jig was up.

In the end, both sides got a slap for their efforts, but the Senator was undoubtedly the loser in the public and government eye. Ironically, he himself was cleared of wrongdoing and instead Cohn get the brunt; he soon resigned.

Beaten, McCarthy was censured by Congress and instantly lost any power he had accrued. Reports say that when he rose to speak the Senate chamber room would empty. When he sat down in the Senate dining hall, other lawmakers would scurry away. He died in 1957 at the age of just 48 from hepatitis, exacerbated by his heavy drinking.

Nichols' well-paced, well-written book deftly details a relationship — while not face-to-face — that had a huge impact on American history of the 1950s. As recent events show, it was also hardly the last Russian Connection to face scrutiny and involve outraged and investigatory government figures...

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