Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy by David A. Nichols

Posted April 16, 2017 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from NetGalley, Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy  by David A. NicholsIke and McCarthy by David A. Nichols
Published by Simon and Schuster on March 21st 2017
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Political, Presidents & Heads of State, History, United States, General, 20th Century
Pages: 400
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: NetGalley, Simon & Schuster
Buy on Amazon

“As it is now, the President is trying to produce confidence in the face of the Soviet menace, and McCarthy is stirring up fear; Eisenhower is trying to draw the parties together, and McCarthy is setting them apart; Eisenhower is urging cooperation with the allies, and McCarthy is attacking their policies and purposes; Eisenhower is trying to bury the past and McCarthy is trying to resurrect it.” – James Reston, New York Times, February 14, 1954

In the 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee) began his relentless search for communist spies within and outside the United States Government. He questioned people in one-senator, closed-door hearings and used senatorial privilege to protect himself from libel accusations. He doctored evidence, made baseless or exaggerated accusations, declared people guilty by association, and attacked those who wished to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights.

When the chief consultant of the subcommittee, David Schine, was drafted by the army, McCarthy and the subcommittee’s chief counsel Roy Cohn sought out special privileges for him. Cohn and McCarthy acted on threats to “wreck the Army” when their requests were ignored. McCarthy made a critical misstep in targeting the United States Army. The private threats were documented and publicized, leading to the Army-McCarthy hearings. The hearings were the beginning of the end for McCarthy’s unchecked power in the Senate. In Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, David A. Nichols shatters the notion that President Dwight D. Eisenhower sat idly by while McCarthy wreaked havoc on American institutions.

“Whenever, and for whatever alleged reason, people attempt to crush ideas, to mask their convictions, to view every neighbor as a possible enemy, to seek some kind of divining rod by which to test for conformity, a free society is in danger. Wherever man’s right to knowledge and the use thereof is restricted, man’s freedom in the same measure disappears.” (Address at the Columbia University National Bicentennial Dinner, New York City. May 31, 1954)

This thorough and well-researched book mostly covers the time period between the beginning of Eisenhower’s presidency in 1953 and the end of the Army-McCarthy hearings in June 1954. Eisenhower is an interesting figure because he was courted by both Democrats and Republicans to run for president. (“I don’t believe in bitter partisanship. I never believe that all wisdom is confined to one of the great parties.”) He ultimately decided to run as a Republican. When he took office in 1953, Americans had many fears: the intentions of the Soviet Union, weapons of mass destruction, another economic depression, and communist subversion. The fears of a communist conspiracy were further agitated by “the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the communist takeover of China in 1949, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea.”

If you imitate your enemy, you risk becoming like him. And if that is not who you really are, you will be supremely incompetent in carrying it out.

Eisenhower sought to ease the public’s fears by “protecting American democracy from extremism and avoiding another, more cataclysmic world war.” Senator Joseph McCarthy chose to stoke those fears and divide the country into “us vs. them,” going as far as accusing previous administrations of treason. Eisenhower’s administration had legitimate concerns of Soviet infiltration in the government, but the president believed the threat should be dealt with inside the court system and within the bounds of the law. Unfortunately, Eisenhower made a few of his own missteps in proving his Communist-fighting credentials—there were fears that McCarthy would bring the fight directly to Eisenhower because of his own communist “associations” in the aftermath of World War II.

“We must, even in our zeal to defeat the enemies of freedom, never betray ourselves into seizing their weapons to make our own defense. A people or a party that is young and sober and confident and free has no need of censors to purify its thought or stiffen its will. For the kind of America in which we believe is too strong ever to acknowledge fear–and too wise ever to fear knowledge.” Address at the New England “Forward to ’54” Dinner, Boston, Massachusetts September 21, 1953

Ike and McCarthy is the story of the behind-the-scenes machinations, secret meetings, and planned leaks that led to the Army-McCarthy hearings and Joseph McCarthy’s downfall. Eisenhower was criticized for ignoring the McCarthy problem, but he was managing the crisis in his own way. Great care was taken in keeping the president above the fray and ensuring the White House wasn’t implicated in undermining an elected United States Senator. He saw McCarthy “as a symptom, not a cause,” so attacking the senator directly would not effectively end the problem. Publicly demonizing McCarthy would make him “a hero and a martyr.” His public criticisms of McCarthy’s methods were subtle and never personal.

“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship. How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is, and what it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it?” Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement Exercises, Hanover, New Hampshire. June 14, 1953

One of Eisenhower’s methods for dealing with McCarthy was refusing to mention him by name. He insisted on discussing “principles, not personalities.” Eisenhower knew that if he did not give McCarthy the attention he craved, he would soon self-destruct. He had to be careful about singling out McCarthy, because the entire Senate would rally around their fellow senator (not really a concern these days!). Criticism of McCarthy had to come from the Senate, not the White House. He was patient in waiting for public opinion to shift against McCarthy, while he “actively stage-managed the buildup toward action against McCarthy.” His gamble paid off. According to a January 1954 Gallup poll, McCarthy’s favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was 50% to 29%. In the midst of the Army-McCarthy hearings in May 1954, it was 35% to 49% (History of McCarthy’s support on Wikipedia). The 36-day hearings were televised. McCarthy came off poorly on television, so the lengthy televised hearings hastened his downfall. (Note: After watching Good Night, and Good Luck, test audiences complained that the actor playing McCarthy was too over-the-top. It wasn’t an actor—the filmmakers used the actual footage.)

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular”Edward Murrow “See It Now” on CBS – March 9, 1954. “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

After contentious Senate hearings, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure McCarthy on December 2, 1954. The story of the escalating tensions between Eisenhower and McCarthy show how far we’ve come, how far we’ve fallen, and how much has stayed the same. It was remarkable how much of this book reflected contemporary arguments, right down to Eisenhower being accused of playing golf and vacationing rather than leading. It was impossible not to make comparisons between the temperaments of Joseph McCarthy and the current United States president, though McCarthy was much more ideological. Imagine if he had access to Twitter! McCarthy is thought to have had presidential aspirations and Eisenhower knew a man like McCarthy should never make it to the Oval Office. He was aware that a public fight between the moderate and reactionary wings of the Republican Party would give the Democrats the advantage during midterm elections, but pursued the fight anyway. He chose country over party, because some values are too important to betray because of party allegiance.

“There is a certain reactionary fringe of the Republican Party,” he said, “that hates and despises everything for which I stand or is advanced by this Administration.” He pondered that the Republican Party might have to face “the complete loss of the fringe of Old Guarders,” except for procedural matters. However, he concluded, “I, for one, have always thought that we cannot afford to appear to be in the same camp with them.”

There’s a lot to learn from Eisenhower’s deft handling of a demagogue and intraparty conflict. There was so much drama surrounding the McCarthy problem, it’s incredible to think about how it wasn’t the only major thing on the president’s plate. I was also amazed by how much the Republican Party has changed over the decades. If you are interested in the nitty-gritty of politics and fly-on-the-wall accounts, this book is perfect for you. I found all the details of the political drama endlessly fascinating! As a warning, it does reflect the prejudices of the time, especially towards gay men. Many of the key players make innuendo about why Cohn was so concerned with Schine’s treatment. The author David A. Nichols is a leading expert on the Eisenhower administration. He also wrote A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution, which I want to read someday.

Side note: One of my favorite parts of the book was the sometimes strained relationship between the media in the White House:

Ike had often complained that the press had a guilty conscience about McCarthy. Having built him up, the media wanted the president to destroy a monster of their own making. His address was chock full of references to “the facts,” employing the term a dozen times. He accused the papers of placing “a premium upon clichés and slogans. We incline to persuade with an attractive label; or to damn with a contemptuous tag. But catchwords are not information. And, most certainly, sound popular judgments cannot be based upon them. . . . Freedom of expression is not merely a right,” the president concluded, “its constructive use is a stern duty. Have we, have you as publishers, the courage fully to exercise the right and perform the duty? Along with patriotism—understanding, comprehension, determination are the qualities we now need. Without them, we cannot win. With them, we cannot fail.” (Address at the Dinner of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, New York City. April 22, 1954)

Further Reading/Viewing:
The Real Joe McCarthy By Ronald Kessler (Wall Street Journal) – Was McCarthy proven right? “Efforts to vindicate McCarthy overlook the fact that he did not help the cause of dealing with the spy threat. Rather, he gave spy hunting a bad name. In sanctioning McCarthy’s intimidating tactics and dishonest charges, revisionists dangerously invite history to be repeated.”
Have You No Sense of Decency – Footage from the Army-McCarthy hearings
Edward R. Murrow: “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy”
What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man – Roy Cohn took a special interest in Donald Trump and set out to cultivate his career. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.”
United States Capitol Shooting Incident in 1954 – I never heard of this incident, but it’s really interesting! On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. Five congressmen were wounded. The shooters were pardoned in 1979.


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