Dwight Eisenhower never liked Joseph McCarthy.
According to Eisenhower’s brother, Milton, the former five-star general turned politician “loathed McCarthy as much as any human being could loathe another.”
In fact, Eisenhower so loathed the communist-hunting Republican senator from Wisconsin that, as president, he set in motion a plan to bring him down, asserts biographer David A. Nichols in his new book, “Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy.”
“Ike and McCarthy” is Nichols’ third book seeking to reassess – and upgrade – history’s appreciation of Eisenhower’s political and leadership savvy in an area where some have thought Ike was lacking: 2011’s “Eisenhower 1956” details his role in foreign affairs, tamping down the Suez crisis before it turned into World War III, while 2007’s “A Matter of Justice” repositions the 34th president as being more progressive on civil rights than previous biographers have suggested.
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As in those books, in “Ike and McCarthy” Nichols dives deep into the archives to make his case – this time, that Eisenhower planned and mobilized a behind-the-scenes campaign to thwart McCarthy. While the story is sometimes repetitive, it is a thorough and detailed look inside one of the classic battles in American politics.
Eisenhower’s disdain for McCarthy grew, Nichols writes, after his experiences with McCarthy during his 1952 campaign for president. McCarthy had targeted Eisenhower’s boss and mentor, George Marshall, blaming the former Army chief of staff and U.S. secretary of state for “allowing” China to fall into communist hands and the State Department to accept communists in its ranks.
Eisenhower, furious at the challenges to Marshall’s patriotism, intended to defend his old boss in an Oct. 3, 1952, speech in Milwaukee. But when Wisconsin Republicans and campaign aides talked him out of it – even after anti-McCarthy Republicans had been told the defense would be included in the nationally broadcast speech – the incident left McCarthy looking more powerful than ever.
It also left Eisenhower humiliated, Nichols writes, and wary that McCarthy was forming bigger ambitions – like becoming president himself.
Initially, the heart of Eisenhower’s anti-McCarthy campaign was to ignore him. As president, he never mentioned McCarthy by name in public, Ike’s way of saying “You don’t really matter.”
But McCarthy did matter, especially as chairman of a Senate committee that he used like a cudgel to bash anyone he decided was soft on communism. Still, during his first year in the White House, Eisenhower continued his strategy of non-confrontation, arguing that McCarthy would just feed off the attention as he had President Harry Truman’s.
But as McCarthy intensified his attacks on the Army, Nichols argues, Eisenhower changed course. First, the president evoked executive privilege (a new concept in presidential power at the time) to deny McCarthy access to personnel records. Then, Eisenhower’s top aides – acting under his guidance – began compiling a dossier on what proved to be his nemesis’ weakest link: efforts by McCarthy and his right-hand man, Roy Cohn, to seek favors for Cohn’s close associate David Schine. Schine had recently been drafted, and McCarthy and Cohn went to extraordinary lengths on his behalf.
The Eisenhower administration waited to leak the Schine dossier to the media until the ground had been prepared by salvos from other sources, including the March 9, 1954, broadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s now-landmark “See It Now” expose of McCarthy and his tactics.
The Schine report’s revelations – including McCarthy and Cohn’s threats to “wreck” the Army – led to what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. The nationally televised proceedings showed America McCarthy’s bullying tactics in action – Nichols argues, just as Eisenhower knew they would.
As he did throughout his presidency, Eisenhower took the public position that he was above the down-and-dirty of politics. Because of his public aloofness, many believed Eisenhower was politically naive.
The original golfing president, Nichols shows in meticulous detail, was far from it.
“Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy”
By David A. Nichols
Simon & Schuster, 385 pages