Prologue Magazine

Eisenhower and the Red Menace

Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3

By Michael J. Birkner

© 2001 Michael J. Birkner

Dwight D. Eisenhower President Dwight D. Eisenhower (NARA, NWDNS-64-M-36)

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.

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

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.

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.

Eisenhower and the Red Menace, Part 2

Michael J. Birkner is Benjamin Franklin Professor of Liberal Arts at Gettysburg College. The author of several books on nineteenth-century American political history, he is currently working on a biography of Sherman Adams, chief of staff to President Dwight Eisenhower, 1953 - 1958.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.