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).

 

 

 

 

President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the Military Commission’s Convictions and Sentences of the Dakota Indians

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

Before he participated in the U.S. Military Commission’s convictions and sentences of the Dakota Indians, President Abraham Lincoln was involved the U.S.-Dakota War itself in August-September 1862.[1]

Lincoln reentered this drama on October 14th at a Cabinet meeting when Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, read aloud a report from General John Pope that the War was over and that the Army held about 1,500 Dakota prisoners. “Many, Pope said, “are being tried by military commission for being connected in late horrible outrages and will be executed.”[2]

Lincoln and the Cabinet were upset with Pope’s apparent plan to execute many of the captives, and three days later Pope was directed that there be no executions without the President’s approval.

Roughly three weeks later (on November 8th), after the completion of the military commission trials, Lincoln received a telegram from Pope containing a list of the 302 Dakota men who had been convicted and ordered to be hung.[3]

Immediately (on November 10th) the President by a telegram put all of these convictions on hold pending his Administration’s review of these convictions. Lincoln instructed Pope to submit the “full and complete” trial records for these cases to the President along with any materials that might indicate which of the men were the most guilty along with a “careful statement” regarding the commission’s judgments.

This instruction annoyed Pope, who responded the next day not with a “careful statement,” but with a vehement objection to the order. According to the General, “the only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered  most people or violated most young girls.” Moreover, Pope said, “The people of this State [of Minnesota] . . . are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed, I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians–old men, women and children.”

Pope reiterated these sentiments on November 24th when he urged the President to make a speedy decision. He warned, “Organizations of inhabitants are being rapidly made with the purpose of massacring these Indians.”

Exactly what the presidential review would entail was not immediately clear. Lincoln contemplated setting guidelines for executing “only a part” of the 302 men and sending the cases back to Minnesota for an “officer on the ground” to make case-by-case designations. But on December 1st Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General, advised the President that the power of review could not be delegated.

Therefore, that same day (December 1st), the President asked two aides (George C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggles) to make a “careful examination” of all the transcripts and identify those Dakotas who “had been proved guilty of violating females.” The aides soon responded there were only two who had been so convicted.

Lincoln was surprised so few rapists were among the 302 on death row. Therefore, the President asked his aides to make “a further examination” to identify “all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles.” Whiting and Ruggles did just that and reported that 38 additional Dakota men had participated in massacres. The report contained a brief summary of the proof against each man plus the transcripts of their trials.

The first man on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey, the escaped black slave who had been the first to be tried by the military commission. The summary of his case by Whiting and Ruggles said, “Engaged extensively in the massacres, and, though sentenced to be hung, recommended to have his punishment commuted to imprisonment for ten years, because of the valuable testimony and information furnished the commission.”

On December 5th or 6th Lincoln reviewed his aides’ report and trial transcripts. He then personally penned his execution order to Colonel Sibley with the names and trial numbers of 39 men to be executed on December 19th.[4] They were the 2 convicted for rape and 37 of the 38 men convicted for participation in massacres. The only one on the latter list of 38 who was not included on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey.

On December 11th in response to a Senate resolution, the President forwarded to the Senate the Whiting-Ruggles report, the trial transcripts and related materials. In his cover letter Lincoln referred to his aides’ list of 38 men convicted for participation in massacres, but said, “One of the [38 men] . . .  is strongly recommended by the [military] commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years’ imprisonment.” Lincoln, however, did not mention the name of this individual (Godfrey) or his black race. This review, Lincoln added, was done “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”

Throughout this period, the President and his Administration were under great pressure to approve all of the ordered executions in addition to the pleas from General Pope.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was running for election to the U.S. Senate in January 1863, urged the President to order the execution as soon as possible of all those condemned by the commission. “It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refuse this,” Ramsey said. “[Otherwise] private revenge would . . . take the place of official judgment on these Indians.”

Minnesota’s other public officials and newspapers echoed these sentiments as did letters, petitions and memorials submitted to the White House.

Virtually the only Minnesotans suggesting some mercy were Minnesota’s Episcopal Bishop Henry P. Whipple and other pastors.

Lincoln perhaps drew some comfort from a December 17th petition from 38 Dakota leaders that said “the bad [Dakotas] ought to be punished” and all “of the Indians who were engaged in killing the white men and women and children should be hanged.” The “good” Indians, on the other hand, should be “well treated” and permitted to return to their homes on the reservation.

On December 23rd, Lincoln directed the reprieve of one of the 39 to be executed as a result of a last minute plea by a Presbyterian missionary (Rev. Thomas Williamson) and his sister (and endorsed by Brigadier-General Sibley) on the ground that the certain evidence at the trial was unreliable.

Accordingly on December 26th, 38 Dakota men were hung to their death in Mankato, Minnesota.

The fate of the other 264 Dakota men (including Mr. Godfrey) who had been convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by the military commission was not addressed directly by President Lincoln. But they were not pardoned. Instead, they were transferred to a U.S. detention facility in Davenport, Iowa, where most of them spent the next three years. After they were released from detention, they were transferred to several reservations for the Dakota. Joseph Godfrey went to a Nebraska reservation where he lived until his death in 1903.[5]


[1]  As discussed in a prior post, On August 21, 1862, Lincoln’s focus on the worsening situation in the Civil War was interrupted by the news of the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. About a week later the President reluctantly granted a de facto, indefinite extension of time for Minnesota to fulfill its quota for more troops for the Civil War so that the State could provide men to fight the Dakota War. In addition, on September 5th the President created a new military Department of the Northwest to be in charge of the Dakota War under the command of General John Pope.

[2] This post is based upon David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics Ch. VIII (Minn. HIst. Soc’y Press 1978, 2000, 2012) and Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota:The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey at 221-22, 228-32, 239, 243-45, 252-56, 262-66,, 352-56 (Pond Dakota Press; Bloomington, MN 2013).

[3]  The commission had sentenced 307 Indians to be hung, but five were removed from the execution list before it was submitted to the President.

4 The original of the President’s order is at the Minnesota Historical Society. Davis, TWO Sioux War Orders: A Mystery Unraveled, Minn. History at 117 (Fall 1968). Through a  subsequent exchange of telegrams the date of the executions was postponed to December 26th. 

5 An evaluation of President Lincoln’s involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War and of legal issues relating to the commission trials and judgments will be the subjects of other posts.