President Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Senator Joe McCarthy

During the first two years of President Eisenhower’s first term (1953-1954), U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (Rep., WI), was garnering national attention with his reckless charges of communist infiltration of the U.S. government, including the President’s beloved U.S. Army, which he had brilliantly served during World War II. Yet Ike, as the President was known, did not publicly confront McCarthy.

Now David A. Nichols, a retired history professor at Kansas’ Southwestern College and an authority on the Eisenhower presidency, has provided great details on Ike’s behind-the-scenes campaign against McCarthy in Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017).

According to Nichols, Ike drew upon his experience in strategic deception as Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe in World War II to orchestrate the campaign against McCarthy. Keys to this strategy were the President’s avoiding public criticism of McCarthy and deflecting journalists’ questions about the Senator at presidential press conferences and instead having presidential subordinates issue statements and take actions against McCarthy. Those “subordinates” included Sherman Adams, White House Chief of Staff; James Hagerty, White House Press Secretary; Fred Seaton, Assistant Secretary of Defense; Herbert Brownell, Jr., Attorney General; William Rogers, Deputy Attorney General; John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State; and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Ambassador to the United Nations.

An important part of this history was the relationship between Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy’s chief counsel, and a handsome young staffer on McCarthy’s committee, G. David Schine, who after being drafted as a private into the U.S. Army obtained preferential treatment by the Army as a result of pressure from Cohn and McCarthy. Below are photographs of the two men.

Roy Cohn
G. David Schine

When President Eisenhower learned of the special treatment and the reasons therefor, he instigated a secret Army investigation of these matters. The subsequent report of that investigation was publicly released and prompted fiery denunciations of the Army by McCarthy and Cohn, resulting in the now infamous Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

The implicit message of this report was Cohn and Schine’s having a homosexual relationship, which at the time was widely condemned. At the subsequent Army-McCarthy hearing, Army counsel, Joseph Welch, alluded to this relationship when he questioned another McCarthy aide, James Juliana, about the origins of a photograph that had been altered. The question: “Did you think it came from a pixie?,” which Nichols says was a sly allusion to the alteration’s having been made at the direction of Cohn, who was believed to be gay. McCarthy interrupted: “Will the counsel for my benefit define—I think he may be an expert on that—what is a pixie?” Welch’s response: “Yes, I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy [a widely used term for a homosexual at the time]. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?” The room erupted in laughter. (Nichols at 239.)[1]

The hearing’s climax occurred on June 9, 1954, when Welch sarcastically asked Cohn about the important committee work that he and Schine purportedly had done on their weekends together and taunted him to “hurry” to “act before sundown” to discover communists anywhere. McCarthy sought to counter this attack on Cohn and McCarthy by interrupting to say that Welch’s law firm had “a young man named Fisher . . . who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist party.” (Nichols at 280.)

Welch, after finally getting McCarthy’s attention, said, “Senator, I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream that you would be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad. . . . If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.” (Nichols at 280-81.)

McCarthy, ignoring this plea, resumed his attack on Fisher. Welch responded, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?” (Id.)

At the time, many thought that Welch was surprised by this attack on Fisher, but there was no such surprise. Indeed, some thought that Welch’s cross examination of Cohn was taunting McCarthy so that he would attack Fisher and that Welch’s “no sense of decency” speech was rehearsed. (Nichols at 280-82.)[2]

Six months later, on December 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate by a vote of 67 to 22 passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for certain of his actions as a U.S. Senator. Thereafter he had virtually no influence in the Senate or the country at large. He died on May 2, 1957. (Nichols at 292-97.)

Postscript

In 2012, I met author Nichols when he gave a lecture at the Minnesota Historical Society on President Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in issues related to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,[3] a subject in which I had an interest and about which have written blog posts.[4] Later when I had written blog posts about Joseph Welch and his representing the Army in the McCarthy hearings,[5] Nichols told me he was writing a book about Eisenhower and McCarthy, and I provided him with materials I had collected. I was surprised and pleased when Nichols included this kind acknowledgement at the end of his just published book:

  • Nichols was “particularly indebted to Duane Krohnke, a retired Minneapolis attorney and authority on Joseph Welch, his fellow alumnus at Grinnell College in Iowa. Duane provided me with documents unavailable elsewhere, especially Fred Fisher’s account of the hiring of Welch as counsel for the Army-McCarthy hearings. Duane also connected me with Ann M. Lousin [Grinnell, 1964] and Nancy Welch [not Grinnell’s 1961 Nancy Welch], Welch’s granddaughter, both of whom provided important information about Welch and McCarthy.” (Nichols at 300.)

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[1] After Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, public speculation about his sexual orientation intensified. Some say that his relationship with Schine was platonic while others assert it was homosexual. In the HBO film of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Al Pacino plays Cohn as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS. It should also be noted that in 1973 Cohn was hired by Donald Trump to defend the Trump Management Corporation against charges of racial discrimination and Cohn thereby became a close friend and mentor to Mr.Trump.

[2]  See also U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012);  of “Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch,” Grinnell Magazine (Summer 2006).

[3] Nichols has written a fascinating book on this subject: Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1978, 2000, 2012).

[4] Here are blog posts on this subject to dwkcommentaries.com: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Nov. 3, 2012); White Settler’s Contemporaneous Reaction to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Nov. 6, 2012); Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (May 21, 2013); U.S. Military Commission Trials of Dakota Indians After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (June 11, 2013); President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the Military Commission’s Convictions and Sentences of the Dakota Indians (June 24, 2013); The Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Nov. 9, 2012); Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Hanging of the “Dakota 38” (Dec. 26, 2012); Minneapolis and St. Paul Declare U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 “Genocide” (Jan. 12, 2013); Remembering the U.S.-Dakota War at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part I) (Nov. 18, 2012); Remembering the U.S.-Dakota War at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part II) (Nov. 25, 2012); Remembering the U.S.-Dakota War at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part III) (Nov. 29, 2012); Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Dec. 10, 2012).

[5] I am the author of “Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch,” Grinnell Magazine (Summer 2006); the biography of Welch in Newman (ed.), The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (Yale Univ. Press, 2009); and the following posts on my blog (https://dwkcommentaries.com): Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (06/14/12); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (06/08/12); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (06/04/12); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (06/06/12); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (06/10/12); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (06/12/12); and Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder Movie [in which Welch played the judge]” (06/27/12).  The joys of researching about Welch and other subjects are celebrated in Adventures of a History Detective, dwkcommentaries.com (April 5, 2011).

 

 

 

 

Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch

Attorney Joseph Welch’s legal representation of the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings was a very difficult assignment. It was not a trial in a court with established procedural and evidentiary rules to resolve a dispute under known substantive legal principles before an independent judge or jury. That is where Welch had many years of experience. Instead it was a congressional hearing without such rules or substantive law and without an independent trier of fact under the lights of television cameras before a jury of millions of fellow citizens. That is something for which Welch had no experience. Nor did any other lawyer at the time. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate Welch’s performance as a lawyer in the hearings.

As we have seen in a prior post, Welch ultimately was successful in showing the nation the bad side of McCarthy’s personality and tactics and in helping to undermine the Senator’s influence and power. Welch’s folksy,understated manner played  an important part in this TV drama. In that most important test of performance, Welch was successful. [1]

During the first weeks of the hearings, however, Life Magazine said, “many television viewers felt sorry for [Welch]—and even sorrier for anyone who was relying on his advice and assistance. He simply sat there, looking terribly tired and half asleep, and when he did speak up it was in a mild and apologetic tone of voice that seemed pathetically inadequate.”

John G. Adams

Moreover, one of Welch’s clients, John G. Adams, who as an Army attorney had been personally attacked by McCarthy, thought that Welch was not doing a good job in defending him before the committee. Adams was being excluded from the daily meetings to prepare for the hearings, and Welch allegedly was making deals with committee counsel without Adams’ approval. In addition, Adams thought Welch was too much of a gentleman to conduct a rigorous cross-examination of McCarthy’s female secretary.

As a result, during the hearings Adams met with attorney Edward B. Burling of the eminent Covington & Burling law firm to see if it could represent Adams. Burling had Adams meet with one of the firm’s other partners, who said that Adams probably not want the firm to represent him because it was subject to potential smearing by McCarthy. One of its partners (Donald Hiss) was the brother of Alger Hiss, who had been convicted in 1950 for providing classified government documents to an admitted Communist, Whitaker Chambers.

After the hearings were over, Welch thought that he had made many mistakes and that the Army had not proved its case in the hearings. He privately said to fellow attorney Bruce Bromley, who had recommended him for this assignment, “Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t make bad mistakes because I did. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t have gigantic anxieties that you were not aware of.”[1] Edward Bennett Williams, the noted trial attorney and legal counsel for McCarthy, opined that the Army did not put forth a convincing case on the evidence.

In addition, in an October 1954 speech, Welch publicly admitted, “There were many times when I sat stunned and speechless, and [the public] said, ‘What patience the man has.’ When I sat in an agony of indecision, [the public] said, ‘How wise he is. . . .’ Sometimes I was so weary my mind was almost blank, and then some of [the public] would say, ‘How witty he is!’”

Welch also said after the hearings that he had been hampered by the setting: the palpable fear and hate in the room, the crowded hearing room, the TV cameras, being forced to be seated and being far from the witness. For one watching the videotape of the hearings today, it is difficult to appreciate the fear and the hate that were present in the country and in the hearing room.

It is also difficult today to grasp the importance of the hearings because the issues that were being debated seem trivial: whether McCarthy tried to pressure the Army to give special favors to David Schine; whether a photograph of Shine and the Secretary of the Army had been cropped and by whom; and whether a purported letter from the FBI was authentic. Welch’s notes of levity in the hearings makes one wonder whether this was his way of signaling to the public that these issues were not really that important.

At one of the hearings, Welch was questioning a McCarthy investigator on how a photograph of Schine had been cropped to show only Schine and Army Secretary Stevens. Welch asked the investigator, “Do you think this came from a pixie?” McCarthy interrupted to ask Welch what a “pixie” was. Welch retorted: a “pixie is a close relative of a fairy.”

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn

At the time this was seen as an example of Welch’s clever wit. But it really was a double-entendre warning that McCarthy did not catch. Welch really was hinting that Cohn was a homosexual who was having an affair with Schine or maybe even with Senator McCarthy himself. (In the more recent Mike Nichols’ production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Al Pacino plays Roy Cohn as a closeted homosexual dying of AIDS.)

Welch closed the hearings with these remarks: “I, alone, came into this room from deep obscurity. I, alone, will retire to obscurity.  As it folds about me softly, as I hope it does quickly, the lady who listened and is called Judith Lyndon Welch [his wife] will hear from me a long sigh of relief. . . . I can say, as I have already indicated, that I could do with a little serenity. I will allow myself to hope that soon there will come a day when there will, in this lovely land of ours, be more simple laughter.”

Thereafter Welch wrote the Subcommittee’s lawyer, Roy Jenkins, “I think I cherish most the few words at the end of the hearing when you and I agreed that we had never had any really difficult moment. We did not always agree completely, but we seldom seriously disagreed and we never fought. To achieve that result in a room full of tensions required graciousness and good will; and while I would like to think my contribution approached half, I would be quick to say yours exceeded half.” (In response, Jenkins said, “I am going to write the lexicographers . . . so that the word ‘Welchian’ be incorporated as another synonym for the word ‘graciousness.’”)

Welch also wrote after the close of the hearings to Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota, who chaired the subcommittee. Welch said Mundt “had an incredibly difficult assignment and there was no hope that you would please everyone. I do not claim I was always happy with what you did, but I do claim I was happy with every personal contact and proud to have the feeling that you and I are really good friends. I could not bear to have it any other way.”

During and immediately after the hearings Welch was always circumspect in what he said about McCarthy.

In 1959, however, Welch said that McCarthy was “the most completely fraudulent man I ever knew…. But for the life of me I never could figure out what he was up to. He seemed to me just a planless adventurer who seemed to me to get some sort of an adolescent joy out of thrashing around, making a loud noise, wounding people, and embarrassing the hell out of highly placed individuals. He seemed to me to take a sort of maniacal delight in selecting some highly honorable and dignified person in some high position, and at the lowest just scaring the hell out of him, and at the highest or at the worst destroying him.”

And in a 1957 speech Welch spoke out about the fear engendered by McCarthy and the appropriate remedy for same. “Eccentric conduct,” Welch said, “which ought only to produce a tolerant smile has instead provoked fear. Thoughts and words not in conformity with those of the great majority of our people have often brought a dissenter into hatred, ridicule, and contempt, or worse dangers.” Welch continued, “Fear is a painful and contagious disease. It is also a cumulative disease. A society beset by fear develops no immunity to fear. Instead it becomes more and more vulnerable, and fresh waves of fear sweep over the enfeebled patient, whose resistance to disease diminishes with each new attack.” Welch finished, “The cure for the malady of fear is found only in the sweet medicine of reason. And reason at its finest social form is law.”


[1] Subsequent posts will review President Eisenhower’s participation in the hearings, the Army’s hiring of Welch as its attorney, Welch’s activities after the hearings and his background. I interviewed Fred Fisher and James St. Clair in 1986 and have reviewed many source materials that document the assertions in this post. If anyone wants to see the bibliography of these sources, I will do so in another post at the conclusion of this series. Just make such a request in a comment to this or the other posts in this series.