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 Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prior posts have examined the substance of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the performance of Joseph Welch, the Army’s lawyer, in the hearings, and the Army’s hiring of Welch for this purpose.  Now we look at the role of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in these events.

During the hearings, President Eisenhower maintained his public distance from the battle between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Army. The President believed that any public criticism of McCarthy by the President would merely enhance the Senator’s publicity value without achieving any positive purpose and that it was the Senate’s constitutional responsibility, not the President’s, to curb the Senator.

George C. Marshall

Eisenhower did so despite having an intense dislike of McCarthy and his methods. This stemmed from the Senator’s past attacks on George C. Marshall, who was Eisenhower’s friend and Army colleague and who was the former Secretary of State in the Truman Administration. The dislike was exacerbated by McCarthy’s attacks on several of Eisenhower’s top-level nominees in 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration, and by McCarthy’s investigation of the Army starting in 1953. Eisenhower said privately, “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk.”

We now know, however, that the President was active behind the scenes to fight McCarthy.

Though his Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, Eisenhower selected Welch as the Army’s attorney. Before and during the hearings, privately within the White House, Eisenhower expressed his extreme displeasure with McCarthy and was active in various ways regarding the hearings.

Robert Stevens

Moreover, Eisenhower wanted to give McCarthy enough rope to hang himself even though the Army would suffer in the short run. When the initial hearings went badly for McCarthy, the Senator suggested that there be no more television coverage. Army Secretary Robert Stevens discussed this proposal with the President, who rejected the idea, saying, “Now we have the bastard right where we want him!” The proposal was rejected. Television coverage continued. McCarthy destroyed himself.

As another example of the “hidden hand” of the Eisenhower presidency, the President invited television-journalist, Edward R. Murrow, to the White House to congratulate him for his television program’s exposure of McCarthy’s methodology.

When the hearings were over, the Army’s lawyers, Joseph Welch and James St. Clair, had a private meeting at the White House with the President. The President congratulated them on their presentation of the Army’s case and agreed with Welch that the main effect of the hearings had been to expose McCarthy’s disgraceful tactics before a national audience and that this exposure would ultimately benefit the country.1[1]


[1] Subsequent posts will review 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.  By the way, after the hearings, Welch and St. Clair also had a private meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of Welch’s law school professors at Harvard.

The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings

The Army had many lawyers of its own, and it had a call on lawyers from the Department of Justice. Why then did the Army decide to hire a private attorney? The answer has not been discovered. One reason could be that the Army’s chief legal Counsel, John G. Adams, was included in the charges of improper conduct by McCarthy, and this presented a conflict of interest that prevented his representing the Army and other officials.

In any event, the Army did search for a private attorney. Its first choice, an unnamed prominent Washington, D.C. lawyer, declined the request because he had been associated with a person who might be vulnerable to a McCarthy smear.

Sherman Adams
Thomas E. Dewey
Bruce Bromley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welch apparently was number two on the Army’s list. He was retained, pro bono publico (without fee), for the Army by Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, upon the recommendation of two Wall Street lawyers: Thomas E. Dewey, the former Republican Governor of New York and the Party’s presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948, and Bruce Bromley, a former New York State judge (appointed by Governor Dewey) and a senior litigation partner in the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.[i]

Bromley knew Welch and his reputation as an exceptional trial lawyer with the eminent Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr (now WilmerHale), where since 1919 he had been handling all kinds of commercial civil litigation in courts in New England. Bromley introduced Welch to Dewey, who after an interview joined in a joint recommendation of Welch. But Welch had no experience with national security or political matters, and like almost all lawyers of the time no experience in congressional hearings, especially those on national television. These facts, however, did not disqualify him and indeed may have been seen as qualifying characteristics.

Perhaps one reason for Welch’s selection was his being from Boston as was the first outside lawyer for the Committee, Samuel Sears, who immediately withdrew because of public comments he had made in favor of McCarthy. Before Sears’ withdrawal, however, Welch told him, “I want to talk with complete frankness. You and I can’t afford to have any holding out on the other. I want your confidence, and I want you to have my confidence, and I want to come out of this with each of us the friend of each other.”

Edward R. Murrow

Bromley’s recommendation of Welch suggests another possible connection between the two men. At the time, Bromley and his firm had been retained by the CBS television network to help it prepare for the anticipated counterattack by Senator McCarthy in response to programs attacking the Senator by Edward R. Murrow. Given how practicing lawyers operate, based upon personal experience, Bromley and Welch probably exchanged information and suggestions about doing battle against the Senator.

David Stratheim as Murrow
George Clooney as Friendly

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, Murrow’s programs about McCarthy were at the center of the recent film, Good Night, and Good Luck. The film has a scene of Murrow (played by David Strathairn)and his show’s producer ,  Fred Friendly (played by George Clooney), watching a video clip of the famous 1954 clash between Senator McCarthy and Welch.

Before Welch accepted the offer to be counsel for the Army, he told his law firm partners that he had been asked “to undertake a grueling assignment. It will be long drawn out. I shall have to stay in Washington and I must take two of our best Juniors with me. In exchange, the Army will pay no fee and will not even pay travel and hotel expenses. Also, it is a dangerous assignment. Senator McCarthy is a powerful antagonist. If we have any skeletons in our closets let us say ‘No’ at once.” The partners then unanimously voted to accept the case. One partner ironically observed that another partner, Reginald Heber Smith, who was a national leader for legal aid, had “talked Legal Aid all his life, and now he has a Legal Aid client in the person of the Army of the United States.”

Although I have not found information as to why the Army apparently insisted on a private attorney’s undertaking this representation on a pro bono basis, the Army (and the Eisenhower Administration) may have wanted to avoid criticism by the public and Senator McCarthy of large fees being charged by a private law firm.

In any event, Hale and Dorr accepted the pro bono status. The firm regarded the matter as important for the public, but undoubtedly did not expect the hearings to last as long as they did. Their length obviously increased the cost to the firm; it had to have been a major drag on the firm’s finances for 1954. As Reginald Heber Smith later observed, “The cost was very heavy.”  This engagement, however, subsequently added to the firm’s professional luster and undoubtedly helped in its recruitment of new lawyers and perhaps its retention by some clients.

Another reason for the firm’s pro bono role was not wanting to get sued by a McCarthy supporter in Boston over any fees it would have received if it were fee-for-service.  After all, McCarthy was an Irish Catholic, and there were many of those in Boston, including the patriarch of the Kennedy clan (Joseph Kennedy), who was a McCarthy supporter, and his son, Robert F. Kennedy, was a lawyer for the Democratic members of the McCarthy committee.

Hale and Dorr thus entered the fray as a matter of public service. Reginald Heber Smith said at the time to Welch: “This is your most important case in your professional life; it is the most important case entrusted to the firm . . . . You were exactly right to accept it without pay. . . . Your opening statement to the press was perfect. Get the facts without fear or favor,  present them in that same spirit. The American people are not frightened by mistakes because we all make them; but they are dismayed by what looks like lack of candor and double talk. You can remove this fog of miasma and doubt.  Let the fresh wind of truth come in and do not be disturbed if it blows hard. After that the sun will shine.”


[i]  From 1966 through early 1970, the author was a law clerk and associate attorney at the Cravath firm and worked with Judge Bromley. But I was unaware of the Bromley-Welch connection and thus never interviewed Bromley about his recommending Welch for this important engagement.