Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy
Book of the week
“Conventional wisdom is a funny, shifting kind of thing,” said Bob Ruggiero in the Houston Press. For generations now, it’s been widely held that 1950s fearmonger Joseph McCarthy ultimately was toppled by his own hubris and hatefulness while the nation’s grandfatherly commander in chief was puttering around a golf course. But that’s not how the drama went down. In David Nichols’ “well-paced, well-written” new history, Dwight Eisenhower emerges as a cunning, patient foe who pulled off a clandestine campaign to derail the senator’s witch hunt for Soviet agents in the U.S. government. Reading Nichols’ account of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, “you can almost hear the wheels coming off the McCarthy machine.”
Nichols has written two previous books on Eisenhower, and here his praise for the 34th president “borders on the fulsome,” said Thomas Mallon in The Wall Street Journal. The tributes to Ike’s tactical savvy are supported by facts, though, including some gleaned from recently declassified documents. As McCarthy blustered his way to leadership of the GOP’s isolationist wing, emerging as a challenger to Eisenhower, the first-term president refused to even utter McCarthy’s name in public and waited for a chance to strike. In January 1954, at a moment when McCarthy had his sights on an Army investigation, the White House chief of staff quietly ordered that a dossier be compiled to detail how McCarthy was pressuring the Army to provide special treatment for a young draftee who’d been an aide to McCarthy’s henchman, Roy Cohn. Months later, Eisenhower orchestrated the release of the report, which revealed that Cohn had threatened to “wreck the Army” if his aide were sent overseas. In the televised hearings that then destroyed McCarthy, the president’s hand was invisible, but also decisive.
“Americans have as much to learn today from Eisenhower as his many critics did in 1954,” said Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic. The media urged him to speak out against McCarthy, but Ike recognized that McCarthy’s loudest foes were keeping their nemesis in the headlines. Eisenhower, the former general and war hero, instead operated by stealth, not always in an honorable way, but with the conviction that McCarthy and his camp had to be demolished. Even so, Eisenhower’s popularity may well have been the biggest reason that he turned back the political threat from his right and McCarthy did not prevail. As we know now, “demagogues sometimes do.”