While making a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., on Feb. 3, 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin announced that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. He then wildly waved a list of 205 purported communists in front of an astounded audience.
It did not matter to the Republican senator that the list contained no names, nor that he kept changing the number. At the height of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Russia, McCarthy got what he wanted: continuous press coverage over the following years as he went on a perpetual, reckless rampage, groundlessly accusing U.S. government employees and other citizens of being communists or Soviet agents. In his heedless pursuit of headlines and power, McCarthy destroyed countless reputations, perhaps even lives.
"McCarthyism," as it came to be called, seemed unstoppable. After Republican President Dwight Eisenhower took office in January 1953, McCarthy's investigatory powers grew as he became chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, which gave him control of the powerful Subcommittee on Investigations.
Disregarding how his investigations might hurt his own party, McCarthy, along with his 25-year-old assistant Roy Cohn, launched an inquiry into Eisenhower's official nominations, such as that of Charles Bohlin, proposed ambassador to the Soviet Union. McCarthy also went after the Voice of America's foreign information activities, which operated under the State Department's control. Without evidence, McCarthy contended that the VOA was "soft" on communism and demanded that books by two dozen authors, including mystery writer Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), be removed from overseas library programs because the writers refused to testify at his hearings.
Always obsessive about not exposing the Oval Office to controversy, Eisenhower was finally, outwardly irked. In a commencement address at Dartmouth College in 1953, he declared, without mentioning McCarthy's name, "Don't join the book burners. ... How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is?"
David A. Nichols, in his assiduously researched new book, Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy, makes the strong — and historically unacknowledged — case that by always operating with a "hidden hand" and refusing to fight the senator publicly "in the gutter, Ike eventually brought down McCarthy.
Apart from the VOA "book burning" issue, what really angered Eisenhower was McCarthy's attack upon his beloved Army. In a congressional hearing, McCarthy humiliated Gen. Ralph Wicker, a hero of D-day, when the general refused to answer a question about the promotion of an Army dentist with past leftist connections. "General," McCarthy intoned, "you should be removed from any command … (you are) not fit to wear the uniform."
Nichols informs us that in March 1954, Sen. Ralph Flanders, R-Vermont, rose on the Senate floor to offer some advice to McCarthy, whom he alluded to as going forth into battle against communism and only bringing back the "scalp of a pink Army dentist."
When Eisenhower read Flanders' speech he made sure, through his good friends CBS CEO William Paley and president Frank Stanton, that the respected broadcaster Edward R. Murrow would use it on his show See It Now that very evening. To devastating effect, Murrow closed his widely viewed show by stating, "We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law."
It was another Army-related issue, however, that ultimately did in McCarthy. It appeared, though there was no irrefutable proof, that Cohn had become romantically involved with a man named David Schine. When Schine was drafted into the Army in November 1953, Cohn continually requested passes and privileges so that he could see Schine more often. Upon learning that Schine might be posted overseas, Cohn even threatened to get the Secretary of the Army fired and to get McCarthy to "wreck the Army."
The author clearly delineates how Eisenhower secretly and artfully used his good friend, assistant secretary of defense Fred Seaton (Ike's "reserve division"), to gather information on the McCarthy camp's intentions in order to better combat the senator at the Army-McCarthy hearings.
The ensuing courtroom drama was televised between April and June of 1954 to a riveted and astonished American public. Here, for the world to see, were the gruff, unshaven McCarthy and his sidekick Cohn (who in the 1970s and '80s would become attorney and mentor to Donald Trump). Now it was they who were on the defensive, and the revealing evidence was overwhelming.
Long before Boston lawyer Joseph Welch forlornly intoned, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" after McCarthy had gratuitously blackened the reputation of Welch's young legal assistant, the senator's dark star had fallen. Finally, on Dec. 2, 1954, McCarthy was officially censured by the Senate. He died in 1957, at age 48.
Nichols' stirring book conclusively shows that Ike's "hidden hand" was actually a hidden fist.