Eisenhower and the ‘Red Menace’ Conspiracies


Library of Congress, Public Domain

Two distinct and contradictory images dominate our understanding of Eisenhower, McCarthy, and the communist question.


By Dr. Michael J. Birkner
Benjamin Franklin Professor of Liberal Arts
Gettysburg College


On March 4, 1954, the editorial cartoonist Herbert Block took on one of the most controversial issues of the time in his daily offering in the Washington Post. He featured two of the dramatis personae of the day: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, war hero-turned-chief executive, and Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, then at the height of his crusade against “communists in government.”

In the Herblock cartoon, McCarthy, looking not merely menacing but maniacal, is wielding a bloody meat cleaver that he had presumably used to finish off another innocent victim of his reign of terror. McCarthy’s antagonist, the President, stands nearby looking completely outclassed. “Have a care, sir,” the President says, pulling out of his scabbard a feather rather than a sword. The contest between these two Republican leaders, in this telling, was clearly a mismatch.[1]

Ultimately, however, it was McCarthy who stumbled and fell, not Ike. Months after the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the senator was censured by his colleagues, his influence and spirit broken, his cause disoriented and discredited if not quite shattered. McCarthy died three years later, before his fiftieth birthday, of alcohol-related disease. “McCarthyism,” however, lives on in the American language, as a synonym for unfairly tarring the reputation of innocent people.[2]

And what of Ike? Dwight Eisenhower, the supposed political weakling, went on to a second landslide victory for President. He lived until 1969, as one of the most trusted and revered public figures in America. Moreover, the overmatched, quivering figure in Herblock’s cartoons has been transformed by revisionist scholarship. Ike today is widely viewed by scholars as a far more engaged and effective leader than most of the press and the historical community had painted him back in the 1950s and 1960s. Some writers argue that it was Ike who killed Joe McCarthy, by using a hidden-hand technique whereby he directed the administration’s campaign against McCarthy but let others take the credit when McCarthy fell.[3]

Two distinct and contradictory images, then, dominate our understanding of Eisenhower, McCarthy, and the communist question. Both perspectives have merit— and some notable limitations.

The irony of the McCarthy phenomenon, as recent studies of American communism have made abundantly clear, is that Joe McCarthy burst into national prominence with charges about spies and fifth columnists at the very moment when the threat of internal subversion in the executive branch was on the wane, if not entirely extinguished. It would take a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, to convince the country of this fact. And as we shall see, given McCarthy’s continued insistence that “reds,” “pinks,” and fellow travelers were compromising American national security, it was no simple task.

Dwight Eisenhower fails to avoid Joseph McCarthy’s handshake on the campaign trail. / Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

Subversives were not much on Dwight Eisenhower’s mind as he responded to a concerted effort by eastern establishment Republicans to draft him for the presidency in 1952. After a long dalliance with the draft movement, Ike declared his candidacy in the spring of 1952, impelled less by personal ambition than his rejection of Senator Robert Taft’s quasi-isolationist views on foreign policy.[4] A magnetic figure who was the Republicans’ best hope for recapturing the White House, Ike nonetheless had much to learn about campaigns and campaigning. But he was a quick learner. In the course of traveling 51,000 miles through 45 states with stops at 232 towns and cities in 1952, battling first against Taft and then the Democratic standard-bearer, Adlai Stevenson, Ike became an increasingly effective public speaker.[5]

Few applause lines were more reliable than Ike’s frequent references to “the mess in Washington” and the Truman administration’s failings on the communist question at home and abroad. Ike assured enthusiastic audiences that he would make it a top priority in his administration to ferret out communist spies, traitors, and security risks in the government. “Why do we fear the communists?” he asked in Davenport, Iowa, in September 1952. “Why, in the paper this morning, I saw that in the West there were eighteen new communists arrested who have all these years apparently succeeded in hiding their identity or at least their connections with that party. We fear communism abroad, and we fear its infiltration at home. Why do we have to do that? We are not accustomed to the kind of leadership that leaves us bewildered [and] helpless. We want to get rid of those people soon.”[6]

In his memoirs, Ike noted that “everywhere [I traveled in the fall of 1952] I urged the need for uprooting Communism wherever it might be found in the United States.”[7] Ike promised a new team in Washington that was up to the task of revamping the government and protecting our defense secrets.

Campaigning for the ticket on Eisenhower’s right were two prominent anticommunists: Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and California Senator (and Eisenhower’s running mate) Richard M. Nixon. McCarthy had won the hearts of conservative Republicans with his slashing attacks on “twenty years of treason,” and he continued through the campaign year to insist that only a Republican administration could possibly find and destroy the enemy within our ramparts. For his part, Nixon— who had helped expose Alger Hiss as a communist agent during the New Deal years— was more measured than McCarthy in proclaiming that communists were in the government. But Nixon made subversion a typical speech theme and talked ominously about Dean Acheson and his “cowardly school of communist containment.”[8]

Eisenhower differentiated himself from McCarthy and Nixon mainly by including in his speeches about national security references to the Constitution and civil liberties. “Freedom,” Ike told a large crowd in McCarthy’s Wisconsin on October 3, “must defend itself with courage, with care, with force, and with fairness.” In a speech to the American Legion, Eisenhower called for the elimination from American life of traitors who would “destroy the American constitutional system.” He quickly added: “Let us forever hew sharply to the fundamental American principle that every man is innocent until he is proved guilty. To do less is dangerous to our freedom at home and to our world position of leadership.”[9] Ike knew that a stated commitment to civil liberties would matter less politically than his attacks on the Truman administration, but it was important to him that it be included. His sense of balance on the communist question— what one of his aides later called “vigilance without fanaticism”— was what he intended to make the hallmark of his presidency.[10]

Having won a personal mandate in the 1952 elections, Eisenhower determined to make good on his promises. By overhauling the executive branch’s security system, Ike believed he would redeem a pledge to the voters and satisfy the loudest anticommunist voices in his own party. He would then be able to move on to other issues that mattered to him, including balancing the budget, revamping defense strategy, and reducing the role of federal intervention in people’s daily lives. In his assumptions the new President was half right. His revamped security system eliminated “security risks.” But Ike’s program did not satisfy Senator McCarthy, who continued to hammer at subversion in government and even to suggest that a Republican administration was neither more serious nor more effective on national security matters than Harry Truman had been.[11] Therein lay a challenge to Ike’s leadership that he never anticipated— and that he was slow to meet.

In one of his first initiatives as President, Eisenhower directed Attorney General Herbert Brownell to make his first priority plugging holes in the Truman internal security program. By April 1953 the President issued Executive Order Number 10450. This measure took President Truman’s emphasis on “loyalty” and added “security” to the realm of suitability for employment in the executive branch. In plain terms, it meant that discovering disloyal acts or communist party membership was not the only basis for dismissing a government employee. Employees who were alcoholic, homosexual, or “blabbermouths” could be dismissed summarily under the program devised by the Justice Department. As it took shape during the spring and summer of 1953, Ike’s internal security program was multifaceted. In addition to the employee security program, it entailed vetting the foreign service of individuals suspected of unorthodox views and potentially subversive associations, more aggressive prosecution of communists under the Smith Act of 1940, deportation of communist aliens, and exclusion of subversives who sought entrance into the United States.[12]

Much of the implementation of the new program would be coordinated by the newly established internal security division of the Department of Justice. The division was headed by William F. (“Tommy”) Tompkins of New Jersey, a former drug-buster and organized crime fighter as U.S. attorney in Newark. Both Tompkins and his boss, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, publicized their efforts at every opportunity, the better to contrast their administration’s commitment to a pro-active internal security program with the allegedly lax procedures of the Roosevelt-Truman years.[13] This approach to what ordinarily would be a circumspect operation was also designed to counter Joe McCarthy’s headlines about alleged communist infiltration in the U.S. Army, State Department, and other executive offices. Tompkins, for example, regularly addressed professional and service organizations about what the administration was doing to “destroy” communism in America. His speeches were filled with data about indictments handed down and security risks dismissed from government as well as tales of spy rings (usually dating back to the Truman years) uncovered. All of this was designed to make Americans feel more safe. Their government was on task, and the communists were on the run.[14]

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 on September 9, 1957. / National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

What about Eisenhower’s earnest commitment to civil liberties? The Eisenhower administration was sensitive to this issue and sought to assure Americans that individuals would not (contrary to McCarthy’s methods) be unfairly singled out and that those who were charged with crimes or dismissed for cause would have the opportunity to defend themselves.[15] At the same time, the President made it clear that serving in the government was fundamentally a privilege, not a right. When evidence suggested that an employee might present a security risk, the employee could be immediately dismissed. In cases where there were doubts, the Eisenhower administration would give security precedence over individual rights. That would not satisfy civil liberties purists, Tompkins noted in his speeches, but he emphasized that one mistake in the security business could be profoundly costly to the nation.[16]

The administration’s “security first” approach was best exemplified in the case of nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the fall of 1953 the famed scientist, then a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission with full access to the nation’s atomic secrets, was accused by a former high official at the AEC of being a Soviet agent. Reams of documents in FBI files failed to confirm the charge, and no evidence ever demonstrated that Oppenheimer was disloyal. But testimony about Oppenheimer’s character and associations cast serious doubts about his judgment. The information collected during the Oppenheimer hearings ultimately persuaded the AEC and the President that Oppenheimer should not have access to the nation’s atomic secrets.[17]

If Eisenhower showcased his priorities on national security matters with his decision on the Oppenheimer case, he demonstrated his determination to be tough on traitors in the equally celebrated Rosenberg case. By refusing to grant clemency either to Julius or Ethel Rosenberg, convicted atomic spies, Eisenhower sent a clear message to would-be Fifth Columnists and the public. To the spy he was saying, “If we catch you, you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and there will be no mercy.” To the public he was in effect saying, “We are serious about the communist problem and we are getting results.” And to Senator McCarthy he was saying, “We do not need your assistance in tracing down and punishing spies and security risks.”[18]

Despite these highly publicized cases and the aggressive approach to security risks in government, the Eisenhower administration faced continued attacks from McCarthy and his allies for not acting with greater vigor. At the same time, liberal cartoonists and political commentators lambasted Eisenhower for failing to repudiate the junior senator from Wisconsin. By refusing directly to condemn McCarthy and his tactics, Eisenhower seemed out of touch— or, as the Herblock cartoon implied, overmatched.[19]

Ike was neither out of touch nor awed by McCarthy, for whom he felt a deep and abiding contempt. The President’s refusal to engage McCarthy in 1953 may be attributed to several factors: first, Eisenhower’s early assumption that a coherent and effective domestic anticommunism program would convince Americans that McCarthy was not a credible spokesperson; second, Eisenhower’s consistent aversion to “getting into the gutter” with McCarthy; and, not least important, Eisenhower’s assessment of the political implications of directly criticizing a popular figure among Republican conservatives.

Taking stock of the close balance between Democrats and Republicans in the Eighty-third Congress, the President keenly felt that he could not antagonize the GOP’s old guard— especially not with leading members of that wing of the party holding key committee chairmanships. Eisenhower was convinced, reasonably, that too direct a confrontation with McCarthy could boomerang. Dealing with an unruly Senate that distrusted executive authority, it was possible that any attack on the Wisconsin senator would strengthen or embolden, rather than weaken, McCarthy. Consequently, Eisenhower’s strategy would be to maintain aloofness from McCarthy while focusing on achieving his own domestic objectives. As Ike put it to his brother Milton, responding to Milton’s call for a confrontation with McCarthy, “It will only build him up, make him bigger, add to his power and into the bargain probably bring down upon me as President the fury of the entire United States Senate— because let me tell you, it’s a club. No President goes around attacking one member of the Senate without having the rest of them coalesce behind him.”[20]

Privately, Ike did not camouflage his contempt for McCarthy— nor his frustration that the Wisconsin senator should be taken seriously by millions of Americans. For example, writing to a businessman friend, Paul Helms, Ike referred to McCarthy’s “outlandish charges” and “completely unwarranted and despicable insinuations” about communists in the government and the military. He further lamented in his diary that McCarthy’s fishing expeditions for communists in government hurt morale among employees in agencies like the State Department and the United States Information Agency. But Ike was loathe to publicly condemn McCarthy. As he repeatedly told friends, he would not give a publicity hound the publicity he craved. “I would give [McCarthy] no satisfaction,” Ike would later recall. “I’d never defend anything. I don’t care what he called me, or mentioned, or put in the papers. I’d just ignore him.”[21]

Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s self-restraint contributed to a common perception that either the President did not appreciate the damage McCarthy was doing to his own government and individual citizens or he simply lacked the character to stand up against the senator. Such attacks doubtless hurt the thin-skinned President, but they did not persuade him to change his stance. He would not give McCarthy the satisfaction of thinking that he could or did influence what Eisenhower thought or said about anything, least of all regarding communists in government.

Complicating matters, and encouraging the perception that Ike was appeasing the nation’s leading anticommunist politician, were efforts by Eisenhower aides to forge a constructive relationship between McCarthy and the administration. Throughout the year 1953, Vice President Nixon and senior White House aides actively courted and cajoled McCarthy in a misbegotten peace initiative. This strategy backfired. It misread McCarthy, frustrated anti-McCarthy Republicans inside the administration and out, and utterly failed of its goal. Whatever Ike’s aides offered the nation’s chief communist hunter— including confidential material that would embarrass the Truman administration— it would never be quite enough to make Joe McCarthy back off his crusade.[22] Ike’s men were slow to grasp that McCarthy’s cause had come to consume him, that it did not matter who was President or who held power in Congress, he was going to investigate alleged communists in government and inveigh against officials who he believed stood in his way— even if that put him in opposition to a popular President of his own party.[23]

Looking back from the perspective of nearly half a century, it is striking how little leadership Eisenhower offered in 1953 on the McCarthy issue. To staff and friends who wrote him insisting that something needed to be done to check McCarthy’s influence, the President stressed his desire for “positive” rather than “negative” responses to McCarthy.[24] Ike would speak out for free expression, as he did at Dartmouth College in June 1953, when he uttered his famous lines about not joining the “book burners,” and also in an eloquent letter to the American Library Association, wherein he emphasized the importance of free expression in a free country. Ike would say kind words about foes of McCarthy, such as Senators Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Ralph Flanders of Vermont. He honored one of McCarthy’s targets, Gen. George C. Marshall, at his inauguration and on other occasions as well. But there was no “hidden hand” strategy in operation against McCarthy in 1953 and no public break with the senator.[25] Ike could fairly say that no one who knew him mistook his views on Joe McCarthy. But Ike’s views on McCarthy were not readily accessible to the mass media and average citizens.

Joseph McCarthy in 1954 / Library of Congress, Public Domain

Throughout 1953, Senator McCarthy continued making charges about communists in government and threatened to launch new investigations, including what he promised could be a devastating foray into the procedures at the army’s base in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Though they believed his charges had little merit, cabinet officers and congressional liaison staff made repeated attempts to conciliate McCarthy. Ike personally drew the line at meeting McCarthy in the White House— that he would never do— but his top aides and Vice President Nixon engaged McCarthy in Senate cloakrooms, dined with him in Washington restaurants, and drank with him in Capitol Hill bars. On several occasions, beginning in the summer of 1953, Nixon told McCarthy in confidence that the administration deserved the chance to complete its work on security issues and that it was time for the senator to move on to another issue— or at least direct his fire at the previous administration.[26] McCarthy made no commitments— and then let his actions speak for him, as he launched an investigation of alleged subversives at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

The interaction between Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens and McCarthy is a study in how an executive should not respond to a dangerous adversary. Stevens compromised his role as Eisenhower’s man by giving McCarthy gifts, making special accommodations for McCarthy aide David Schine in his service as a private in the army, and even offering to assist McCarthy if he would lay off the army. All for naught, as McCarthy barreled forward with his plans to investigate the army in pursuit of the answer to his queries about the promotion of a left-leaning dentist to an officer’s position in the army reserves there. Throughout the early sparring between senator and secretary, Stevens— and the President he worked for— appeared both weak and inept.[27]

During the height of McCarthy’s conflict with the administration, in the fall of 1953 and the first six months of 1954, the McCarthy question obsessed Eisenhower’s staff and dominated staff activities. As Assistant to the President Sherman Adams later observed, it seemed like nothing else mattered half as much as Joe McCarthy.[28] The situation reached a point where White House memorandums circulated about whether members of the senior staff should attend McCarthy’s wedding and what, if any, present, should be sent in Ike’s name. (Sherman Adams, Vice President Nixon, and other White House staffers attended the wedding, but no present from the President was sent.)[29]

As months passed with no end of the McCarthy challenge in sight, Ike’s frustration grew. He called McCarthy various epithets and, according to one friend, frequently “would go up in an utter blaze” over McCarthy. He even speculated, on different occasions, that McCarthy was mentally ill, that he wanted to be President, and that the Russian leadership was manipulating him to divide and distract the American people.[30] At one point Ike asked his congressional liaison Wilton Persons how he could feel “altogether clean after shaking hands with [McCarthy].”[31] Yet Ike would not abandon his strategy of ignoring McCarthy publicly. This led to some awkward moments. For example, shortly after his eloquent Dartmouth College speech in June 1953, Ike was asked by UPI correspondence Merriman Smith whether he was referring to McCarthy and his aides David Schine and Roy Cohn, who had been traveling around Europe ferreting out subversive literature in American Information Agency libraries. Ike denied he was referring to anyone in particular.[32]

Also in 1953, Ike failed to fully support Mutual Aid Administrator Harold Stassen in Stassen’s loud dispute with McCarthy over the issue of Greek shipowners and trade with Communist China and North Korea.[33] Ike’s appointee as security officer of the State Department, Scott McLeod, harmed morale in that key agency by his exaggerated rhetoric about making “heads roll”— “blood in the streets and all that,” as he put it in a magazine interview. Worse was McCleod’s blunderbuss approach to security in the department. The President endured McLeod’s antics, even when Secretary Dulles himself complained about poor morale in the department.[34]

Herbert Block’s biting cartoons, then, had something more to them than simply one liberal’s distaste for McCarthy and condescension toward Ike. It just was not clear, for a very long time, that Eisenhower would engage Senator McCarthy at all— or that he could engage him effectively.

So how can scholars legitimately argue that Ike helped kill Joe McCarthy? Because 1954 was not 1953. Once McCarthy took on the army, as he did with the Fort Monmouth investigation, it was inevitable that the President would act, usually behind-the-scenes, to thwart him and ultimately to bring him down.

Eisenhower had expected that a newly aggressive security program would blunt McCarthy’s investigations. He was mistaken. The administration’s secondary assumption— that McCarthy might be inclined to back off the communist issue if given the right inducements— also proved faulty. So did the third— the assumption that public would gradually lose interest in communist subversion and McCarthy would have less and less to talk about. But in a political climate where the cold war remained frigid, and in which the Oppenheimer and Rosenberg cases were front-page news for months on end, McCarthy and the communist question simply did not evaporate.

The origins of a more concerted administration effort may be dated to a memorandum circulated in the White House before Christmas 1953. Written by two relatively junior staff aides, Stanley Rumbough and Charles Masterton, the memorandum highlighted the costs of appeasing McCarthy and called on the President to take a more openly critical stance on McCarthy. Eisenhower’s failure to challenge or repudiate McCarthy, Rumbough and Masterton wrote, conveyed the impression that he was weak. Taking McCarthy on directly, they argued, might entail some political costs, notably in relations with Congress. But this possible problem would be outweighed by political gains as the public perceived Ike as a “fighter.” Eisenhower, they noted, held high ground. “He can appeal to the people now as a popular leader who has been attacked. Further, in speaking out against McCarthyism he is on the side of the angels. He can answer McCarthyism in the spirit of fair play and in the very words of the founding fathers, the Bill of Rights, Washington and Lincoln.”[35]

Whether the President ever saw this memorandum is doubtful, and in any case, he was not willing to follow its prescription. But events in 1954 would force the hand of Eisenhower’s staff in dealings with the Wisconsin senator and ultimately would encourage what Fred Greenstein and others have described as Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” assault on McCarthy.

Early in January 1954 McCarthy announced his plan to subpoena members of the army’s loyalty and security board regarding their actions in cases at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. It was in response to this McCarthy initiative that Herbert Brownell convened a secret meeting of key administration figures, seeking their counsel about the possible costs and benefits of refusing to honor McCarthy’s subpoenas. At this meeting, which originally focused on questions of separation of powers, Army Counsel John G. Adams described the persistent demands McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn had been making for special treatment for David Schine, another McCarthy aide, who had recently been drafted into the army.[36]

As the assembled aides were digesting John Adams’s amazing story about Private Schine’s service, Assistant to the President Sherman Adams suggested that a chronology be drawn up of McCarthy’s efforts to secure special privileges for David Schine. The chronology produced by the army counsel was leaked to the press on March 11 and became the basis for a congressional investigation of McCarthy. McCarthy denounced the chronology as blackmail to drive him off his investigations, which he vowed to continue and to expand. It was a messy situation— and one in which the outcome was far from clear.[37]

J. Edgar Hoover / Library of Congress, Public Domain

In truth, though it was not evident at the time, the tide was turning against the senator even before the famous televised hearings of May and June 1954. McCarthy’s bullying of witnesses, including his tongue-lashing of Fort Monmouth commanding officer Gen. Ralph Zwicker (a much-decorated World War II veteran) had not played well for the senator.[38] Worse for McCarthy, one of his most valuable allies, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concluded that he was not a reliable ally in the fight against communism. At a crucial juncture when the senator challenged the White House version of a key document, Hoover publicly sided with Ike.[39] Nor was it a matter simply of luck or good staff work. Eisenhower made shrewd moves. Among them were giving speeches outlining what his administration had done to assure that no communists remained in the executive branch; asserting executive privilege when it came to internal White House documents that McCarthy sought for his subcommittee on investigations; denying McCarthy’s requests for access to military personnel to question them about communism in their ranks; refusing to allow McCarthy access to members of loyalty-security boards; continued back-channel support for anti-McCarthy Republicans in the Senate (and occasional public pats-on-the-back to several of them); and effective wooing of conservative senators— notably Everett Dirksen and Charles Potter— when procedural issues were raised relating to the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Ike also continued to make strong public statements against McCarthy’s methods without ever directly naming the senator.[40] Whether this was true hidden-hand leadership is debatable, but it undoubtedly contributed to the process by which McCarthy was forced to make increasingly outrageous statements— such as his call, in late May 1954, for civil servants to report directly to him on “graft, corruption, communism, [and] treason” in the government, thus bypassing the President and congressional committees.[41] By the time the televised hearings began, McCarthy was, as even his most sympathetic biographer concedes, at the end of his tether physically and mentally, increasingly dependent on drink, and relying much more heavily on his instincts than on research or preparation for the hearings.[42] All of this caught up with McCarthy, most famously in his colloquies with Army Counsel Joseph Welch. By the end of the hearings in June, McCarthy was effectively finished as a force in American politics. The censure proceedings, which took until December to bring to a close, were merely the final strike against someone who had publicly self-destructed.

Eisenhower viewed McCarthy’s fall as a vindication not only of political decency but of his own strategy of indirect rather than direct conflict with a man he believed the nation’s worst demagogue since Huey Long.[43] It can surely be argued that Ike’s tactics were the best of several less-than-ideal options for combating the senator from Wisconsin. It can even be argued that the sheer fact of Ike’s election spelled doom for McCarthy. Had there been communists to find, Eisenhower would have been forced to admit it, and McCarthy would have gained rather lost credibility.[44] But there were none. McCarthy’s scattershot charges and bullying tactics wore less and less well as time passed.

Nearly half a century removed from McCarthy’s fall, a number of points seem reasonably clear.

First, there will never be a definitive accounting of who killed Joe McCarthy, because new evidence periodically is unearthed and perspectives inevitably change over time; second, Ike’s decision to ignore McCarthy in 1953, rather than to engage him directly, was a judgment call, not a simple matter of cowardice or incompetence. Civil libertarians will forever emphasize that there were many victims of Eisenhower’s failure to denounce McCarthy and of Herbert Brownell’s loyalty-security program, which drove out of the government hundreds of decent and loyal Americans who had some personal flaw but nonetheless never compromised a single national secret. Eisenhower’s sympathizers can respond that the President did his best to honor the Bill of Rights even as he was fighting against an evil empire that spared nothing and no one in its effort to subvert American power and American freedoms.

The abiding and ultimately unanswerable question about Eisenhower and the Red Menace is connected to a cost-benefit analysis of Ike’s refusal to meet McCarthy head-on. Did the President underestimate his ability to shape public opinion and control his party? Or was Ike right to believe that had he denounced McCarthy he would have splintered his party and sacrificed not only his domestic agenda but also the public’s faith in a two-party system? Given the complexion of the Congress and the intensity of many Americans’ fears about communist subversion— and given what we know about McCarthy’s stumble and fall in 1954— Eisenhower’s choices seem increasingly defensible. Because history is not a matter of do-overs, we cannot be sure what would have happened had Eisenhower played things another way. It is clear, however, that with McCarthyism purged from the body politic, the nation enjoyed the peace and prosperity associated with the Eisenhower era. Throughout his eight years in the White House, Americans consistently liked Ike. Increasingly, historians have come to like him, too.

Endnotes

  1. For the Herblock cartoon, which originally appeared in the Washington Post on March 4, 1954, I am grateful to Herbert Block. He provided a copy of the cartoon based on my description of it and granted permission to publish it. Writers critical of Eisenhower’s response to McCarthy include Stephen A. Ambrose, Eisenhower: The President (1984), esp. pp. 82 – 83, 167, 619 – 620, and Jeff Broadwater, Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade (1992).
  2. There is a large and growing literature on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism, fueled most recently by a reexamination of lapses in American security policy during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. For a fresh accounting, see Sam Tanenhaus, “Un-American Activities,” New York Review of Books 48 (Nov. 3, 2000): 22, 24 – 27. For a review of recent historiography from a left-of-center perspective, see Ellen Schrecker and Maurice Isserman, “The Right’s Cold War Revision,” The Nation, July 24/31, 2000, pp. 21, 23 – 24. See also John Haynes, “The Cold War Debate Continues: A Traditionalist View of Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism,” Journal of Cold War Studies 2 (Winter 2000): 76 – 115.
  3. Reevaluations of Eisenhower’s leadership may be traced back to a 1967 Esquire essay by Murray Kempton, but the critical turning point in Eisenhower studies is linked to the publication of Fred I. Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (1982), which held that Eisenhower was much more crafty and effective a President than previous studies had described. Greenstein used the McCarthy case as a centerpiece of his argument. See also William B. Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? (1984), for a sympathetic exegesis of the administration’s actions in 1954.
  4. The most detailed analysis is William B. Pickett, Eisenhower Decides to Run: Presidential Politics and Cold War Strategy (2000).
  5. Peter Lyon, Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero (1974), p. 480, observes, however, that voters more often came out to see Ike than to listen to his speeches.
  6. Eisenhower remarks in Davenport, IA, Sept. 18, 1952, can be accessed through the Eisenhower Speech Digest for 1952, copy in Sherman Adams Papers, box 6, Dartmouth College Library Special Collections, Hanover, NH.
  7. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: The White House Years, 1953 – 1956 (1963), p. 57.
  8. On Ike, McCarthy, and Nixon in 1952, see especially John Robert Greene, The Crusade: The Presidential Election of 1952 (1985); David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (1983), chap. 16; Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890 – 1952 (1983), chap. 27; and Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? pp. 29 – 47.
  9. Eisenhower speech in Madison, WI, Oct. 3, 1952, and the speech to the American Legion, Aug. 25, 1952, can be accessed in 1952 Speech Digest, Adams Papers, box 6, Dartmouth College, and Eisenhower speech files at the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, KS. See also document 921 in The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower: NATO and the Campaign of 1952, Louis Galambos et al., eds. (1991), Vol. 13, pp. 1336 – 1337, n. 1. The editors note that Eisenhower removed from his prepared text for the American Legion words that could be interpreted as a direct criticism of Senator McCarthy. Elsewhere in the campaign, as Ewald shows, Eisenhower expressed disagreements with McCarthy’s methods. Privately, in a meeting on the campaign train Eisenhower gave McCarthy a tongue-lashing. Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? pp. 33 – 35.
  10. The “vigilance without fanaticism” motif was coined in Stanley Rumbough and Charles Masterton, memorandum to Murray Snyder, Dec. 1, 1953, DDE Central Files, OF 99 – 6, box 368, Eisenhower Library.
  11. Among many good accounts of McCarthy’s continuing investigations of fifth columnists in 1953 and 1954, the most detailed and reliable are Thomas C. Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography (1982), chapters 18 – 22; and Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, chaps. 17 – 30. Among the first flash points between the senator and the new administration was Eisenhower’s nomination of Charles Bohlen as ambassador to the Soviet Union. For a first-hand account, see Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929 – 1969 (1973), pp. 320 – 335.
  12. See Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pp. 308 – 310; Herbert Brownell, Advising Ike: The Memoirs of Attorney General Herbert Brownell (1993), pp. 230 – 248; and Ralph S. Brown, Loyalty and Security: Employment Tests in the U.S. (1958).
  13. The William Tompkins Papers at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, IA, offer a useful window into the administration’s anti-subversion efforts between 1954 and 1957 and its public relations efforts on this front. A major example was Brownell’s November 6, 1953, speech on the Harry Dexter White case. It was Brownell’s way of contrasting Truman’s alleged lapses of judgment with Eisenhower’s forceful anticommunist program. Brownell, Advising Ike, pp. 236 – 242; Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, pp. 347 – 350; and Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition (1988), pp. 271 – 273.
  14. Tompkins Papers, box 8, Hoover Library. Eisenhower and his aides trumpeted the number of “security risks” purged from the executive branch— for example, announcing in the fall of 1953 that 1,456 “Reds” had been ousted from the government through the administration’s protocols. But as scholars of the subject have noted, Eisenhower could announce such dramatic numbers only by fudging facts— for example, counting as a security risk any individual who left the government who had in his or her files derogatory comments from any source, including anonymous, unverified tips. In fact, almost all of the 1,456 cases Eisenhower cited were of people who had left government service for other than security-related reasons. See John E. Haynes, Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era (1996), p. 175, and Reeves, Joe McCarthy, p. 545. Reeves notes that in a year of nearly frenzied investigation by the administration, “not a single Communist had been found in any of the departments.”
  15. On Ike’s concern to avoid unnecessarily smearing individuals during security investigations, see DDE memo to Herbert Brownell, Nov. 4, 1953, Ann Whitman Files, Administration Series, box 8, Eisenhower Library, published in Louis Galambos and Daun Van Ee et al., eds., The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The Presidency: The Middle Way (1996), 14: 640 – 642.
  16. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, pp. 309 – 310. Tompkins speeches files, box 8, Hoover Library. On the subject of balancing fairness to individuals against security imperatives, see also Brownell, Advising Ike, pp. 230, 248. Brownell concedes that security policies varied from agency to agency within the federal bureaucracy and this imbalance caused some “unnecessary problems” in morale. Other observers, in the press and among liberals, were sharply critical on this score, especially regarding the State Department. For a fascinating give-and-take between a defender of the Eisenhower policies and scholarly critics, see William B. Ewald, “McCarthyism and Consensus,” in Kenneth B. Thompson, ed., Credibility of Institutions, Policies and Leadership (1986), 13: 32 – 35.
  17. The literature on the Oppenheimer case is voluminous. For a balanced and persuasive reconstruction of the case, see Barton Bernstein, “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered,” Stanford Law Review 42 (July 1990): 1383 – 1484; also Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission (1989), pp. 34 – 112. For a pithy personal reflection, see James Reston, Deadline: A Memoir (1991), pp. 221 – 226.
  18. On the Rosenberg case and its implications, the best source is Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (2nd ed., 1997). For the revelations of the Venona intercepts, which show without a doubt that Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union against the U.S., see John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), esp. pp. 35 – 36, 295 – 303. Richard Gid Powers notes that “nothing Eisenhower did during his first year was more effective in laying the communist issue to rest than execution of the Rosenbergs on June 19, 1953. . . . Eisenhower’s refusal to grant clemency was meant to put the Soviets and potential spies on alert that espionage would be dealt with mercilessly in the future, but just as surely it sent a message to counter subversives that their services were no longer needed.” Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism (1995), p. 266.
  19. Particularly sharp criticism of the president was expressed in liberal newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Post, and left-of-center opinion journals, including The New Republic, The Reporter, and The Nation.
  20. Quoted in Ewald, “McCarthyism and Consensus,” p. 15. For context, see Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (1970), pp. 198 – 199; Ambrose, Eisenhower the President, pp. 56 – 58; Greenstein, Hidden-Hand Presidency, pp. 169 – 171.
  21. DDE to Paul Helms, Mar. 9, 1954, in Galambos and Van Ee, Papers of DDE, 15: 937 – 940; DDE to Harry Bullis, May 18, 1953, in ibid., 14: 233 – 234; Leonard Finder, memo of a conversation with Eisenhower in the White House, Dec. 8, 1953, Finder Papers, box 1, Eisenhower Library; Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, pp. 319 – 321, 327; Eisenhower Oral History in John Foster Dulles Oral History Project, Princeton University Special Collections, Seeley Mudd Library, Princeton, NJ; Lucius Clay Oral History with Herbert S. Parmet, Apr. 8, 1969, copy, uncataloged, in Columbia University Oral History Project office, New York, NY. Clay notes that he thought Eisenhower’s approach was wrong at the time but on reflection concluded that it was exactly the right way to deal with McCarthy— a view also expressed by Eisenhower’s brother Milton, in his own memoir.
  22. Reeves, Joe McCarthy, pp. 460, 486 – 487, 532 – 533. See also Fred Seaton papers, “Eyes Only” series, boxes 4, 5, Eisenhower Library; William H. Lawrence Oral History, Eisenhower Library; and Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913 – 1962 (1987), pp. 311 – 316. Ambrose observes that Nixon’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy with McCarthy was not so successful as he liked to think it was. “The Senator was always agreeing to behave, then forgetting the next day” (p. 316). Nixon’s memoirs discuss McCarthy but shed little light on his interactions with the Wisconsin senator.
  23. McCarthy biographers David Oshinsky and Thomas Reeves both concluded that McCarthy was sincere, if deeply flawed and destructive in his pursuit of communists. A new biography of McCarthy by Arthur Herman offers a different slant, arguing that whatever his flaws as an investigator and political leader, McCarthy was not wrong to take on the communist issue as he did and, further, that his sins were minor compared to those of his enemies. See Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (2000).
  24. See DDE to Swede Hazlett, July 21, 1953, in Robert Griffith, ed., Ike’s Letters to a Friend, 1941 – 1958 (1984), p. 110.
  25. See especially Broadwater, Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade, pp. 127 – 128, 224 – 225, n. 21, and John G. Adams, Without Precedent: The Story of the Death of McCarthyism (1983), pp. 51 – 52, 58, 71 – 80, 99 – 101, 109. Regarding book-burning and the ALA letter upholding free expression, see Emmet J. Hughes, The Ordeal of Power: A Political Memoir of the Eisenhower Years (1963), p. 94. Hughes takes credit for writing the letter as an implicit jab at McCarthy, an assertion verified in his papers at Princeton University. See also the telephone conversation (transcript) between retired Gen. Lucius Clay and Robert Stevens, Feb. 25, 1954, which suggests that Eisenhower had to this point been largely on the sidelines in his administration’s dealings with McCarthy. Stevens observed that Ike needs “to make up his mind what he is going to do.”
  26. Robert Clark interview, Eisenhower Oral History Archive, Gettysburg College; Fred Seaton “Eyes Only” file, boxes 4, 5, Eisenhower Library. See also Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, pp. 260, 296 – 297; Ambrose, Nixon, p. 328.
  27. Adams, Without Precedent, chaps. 5 – 20; Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? pp. 90 – 94; Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, pp. 336 – 338, 359 – 360. Stevens’s complicated interactions with McCarthy are documented in the “Eyes Only” materials in the Fred Seaton papers, boxes 4, 5, Eisenhower Library. See especially “memo for the file,” Nov. 6, 1953, and Army Counsel John G. Adams’s forty-page analysis of the army’s dealings with McCarthy, dated April 1, 1954; Stevens telephone conversation with McCarthy, July 14, 1954 (transcript); H. Struve Hensel memorandum, Mar. 22, 1954; and William Rogers telephone conversation (transcript), Sept. 9, 1953. “Half of the battle,” Rogers told Stevens, “is to have a good relationship [with McCarthy].”
  28. Adams, interviewed by Fred I. Greenstein, 1978, tape 1, in author’s possession. I am grateful to Professor Greenstein for making this tape recording available to me. Robert Kieve interview, Eisenhower Oral History Archive, Gettysburg College, corroborates Adams’s account of the White House staff’s preoccupation with McCarthy. He notes that there was never a consensus about how to respond to the Wisconsin senator.
  29. Ann Whitman Files, Diary Series, box 1, Eisenhower Library, especially entry of Sept. 29, 1953. See also Reeves, Joe McCarthy, pp. 512 – 513.
  30. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, p. 359. At one point Eisenhower called McCarthy “a pimple on [the] path of progress.” See Robert H. Ferrell, ed., The Diary of James G. Hagerty: Eisenhower in Mid-Course, 1954 – 1955 (1983), p. 27. In the course of a private conversation with Michigan Senator Charles Potter in May 1954, Ike called McCarthy “lawless” and “psychopathic.” Charles E. Potter, Days of Shame (1965), pp. 15, 17.
  31. Hughes, Ordeal of Power, p. 66.
  32. Ambrose, Eisenhower the President, pp. 82 – 83; Greenstein, Hidden-Hand Presidency, pp. 175 – 177.
  33. On Ike’s failure to back Stassen, see Robert G. Spivak, “Ike’s Appeasement of McCarthy: Rebuff to Stassen Jolts Liberals,” New York Post, Apr. 3, 1954; also Griffith, The Politics of Fear, pp. 203 – 204, and Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, pp. 294 – 297. Stassen’s memoirs concede that he had gotten bad publicity in his tangle with McCarthy but expressed certitude the President would stand with him in any further confrontation with the senator. Harold Stassen and Marshall Houts, Eisenhower: Turning the World Toward Peace (1990), pp. 247 – 250.
  34. On Scott McLeod, see William Harlan Hale, “‘Big Brother’ in Foggy Bottom,” The Reporter, Aug. 17, 1954, pp. 10 – 17; and Charlotte Knight, “What Price Security?” Collier’s (July 9, 1954), pp. 58 – 69; “Interview with R.W. Scott McLeod,” U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 12, 1954, pp. 62 – 73; Reeves, Joe McCarthy, pp. 469 – 471, 478, 556 – 557; and Herbert S. Parmet, Eisenhower and the American Crusades (1972), pp. 239 – 246, 252 – 254. In Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade, chap. 5, Jeff Broadwater places McLeod’s activities in the context of a state department security system that demoralized hundreds of the department’s best employees. For a vigorous, albeit qualified, defense of McLeod’s efforts to establish new security policies in the State Department, see John Hanes, Jr., Oral History, John Foster Dulles Oral History Project, Princeton University.
  35. Rumbough and Masterton, memorandum to Murray Snyder, Dec. 1, 1953, DDE Central Files, OF 99 – 6, box 368, Eisenhower Library.
  36. Brownell, Advising Ike, pp. 257 – 259; Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? pp. 171 – 172ff; Haynes, Red Scare or Red Menace? pp. 159 – 161.
  37. On Sherman Adams’s instigation of the chronology, Sherman Adams, First Hand Report: The Story of the Eisenhower Administration (1961), pp. 144 – 145. In March John Adams leaked an early draft of the chronology to three Washington reporters and syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop. Without Precedent, pp. 122 – 123. On the uncertainty of the situation in terms of political advantage, see William Lawrence, “McCarthy v. Eisenhower: Showdown Again Off,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1954, in which Lawrence suggested that Washington observers believed McCarthy had the advantage in his dealings with the White House; and William S. White, “McCarthy Still Strong with GOP Pros,” New York Times, Mar. 21, 1954.
  38. On McCarthy’s hazing of General Zwicker and its political impact, see especially Reeves, Joe McCarthy, pp. 542 – 548. UPI’s White House correspondent Merriman Smith later recalled that while few staffers would talk frankly with him about McCarthy, even in private, in 1953, by spring 1954 a new and more “open” attitude was prevalent. That suggested to Smith that the administration’s position was changing. He was right. See Merriman Smith, Meet Mr. Eisenhower (1955), p. 19.
  39. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor, p. 269. For background on Hoover’s disenchantment with McCarthy after three years of regularly feeding him tips, see Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, esp. pp. 283 – 298. Roy Cohn insisted that McCarthy never received “one single piece of paper” from Hoover or the FBI. Ovid Demaris, The Director: An Oral Biography of J. Edgar Hoover (1975), p. 164.
  40. For Eisenhower’s “covert anti-McCarthy campaign,” beginning in March 1954, see Greenstein, Hidden-Hand Presidency, pp. 187 – 201. A more detailed treatment which runs along essentially the same interpretive track is Ewald, Who Killed Joe McCarthy? pp. 283 – 312.
  41. Reeves, Joe McCarthy, pp. 618 – 619, 623.
  42. Herman, Joseph McCarthy, pp. 262 – 271.
  43. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, pp. 330 – 331; Eisenhower Oral History for John Foster Dulles Project, Princeton University.
  44. Richard Rovere, “The Untold Story of McCarthy’s Fall,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 2, 1965, pp. 3 – 5. The quotation is from p. 4.

Originally published by Prologue 33:3 (Fall 2001), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.

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