Ike and McCarthy author David A. Nichols on the art of lying, and the truth about Eisenhower

Kansas City-raised journalist Walter Cronkite said in 2004 that his long-held view of Dwight D. Eisenhower — whom history has sometimes painted as a do-nothing preisdent — had changed over time. “I came to realize how wrong I’d been about him and his presidency.”

Because Eisenhower often worked behind the scenes and was careful about his public remarks, the true impact of the 34th U.S. president is still coming into view.

The latest revision: David A. Nichols’ new book, Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy. The former professor and dean at Southwestern College has unearthed documents proving that Eisenhower successfully neutralized Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts. (Among other tactics, the president simply refused to utter the legislator’s name in public.)

Nichols speaks about the book and his research at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. I talked with him by phone last week.

The Pitch: McCarthy was ruthless, but he was actually lousy at hunting for communists.

David A. Nichols: That’s right. There were spies in the government. There were things to be afraid of at this time, including subversion, but there’s no evidence that Joe McCarthy ever caught one spy.

In 1950, he makes this speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, where he says, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 communists in the State Department.” He did not have those names. That was typical of Joe. He was great at making headlines. He was not good at catching spies.

One contrast: McCarthy was a Marine, a grunt, whereas Eisenhower was an Army general.

I think that’s an accurate description. McCarthy got this reputation, that he kind of falsified, about being “Tail Gunner Joe.” Ike was strategic in all ways. He deployed people carefully. He would change plans. One of his favorite sayings was, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” You have to adapt the plan the minute you get into a strategic situation. You have to do lots of things you didn’t plan on doing. He was most adept at being adaptable and just so much unlike Joe McCarthy.

A lot of historians like Haynes Johnson have suspected that Ike had a much more active hand in McCarthy’s downfall, but you actually had the paperwork to prove it.

We can prove it beyond question. I don’t think there’s any doubt. I’m not a journalist and I’m not a pundit. I’m a scholar who doesn’t put a phrase in a book unless it’s been thoroughly documented or at least is accompanied by compelling circumstantial evidence. We just don’t go there unless it’s there. And it is there in this case. Eisenhower’s role in destroying McCarthy is now beyond question.

Did it help that you’re based in Winfield, Kansas, instead of the coasts?

I’m blessed by that because I live only two and a half hours from the Eisenhower Presidential Library. The historians’ bias against Eisenhower was rooted in so many of them being East Coast liberal Democrats. There is some geographical bias in all of that, too. But also Abilene, Kansas, is not the most exciting place to visit. It’s a nice town, and I love the town, but there’s not even a movie theater.

Ike had friends who wanted him to attach his library to a big university in a metropolitan area, and he just refused to do that. One of the things it says about the library being there is that he never forgot where he came from. He put it there. As a result of the neglect by historians, I found a treasure trove of stuff that nobody had done. And in fairness to my colleagues, a lot of documents had been declassified in the last 30 years, and it made a real difference in this book.

One of my critiques of my profession is that even our most brilliant historians, some of whom are wonderful writers, kind of make up their minds in advance when they go to do research, and then they go cherry-pick the evidence.

What I try to do is go naked to the sources and see what’s there, and I’ve been shocked at what I’ve found. Truly, on all these issues I’ve talked about, I had for decades assumed otherwise, and then I go to the documents and discover the truth is somewhere else altogether.

Ike’s top advisers in this matter were also from this area.

Fred Seaton, in particular, who plays such a central role in my book, grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, and had known Ike for a long time. Herbert Brownell, the attorney general, grew up in Peru, Nebraska, just north of Abilene. So there was a Midwestern flavor to some of those advisers.

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One thing that you demonstrate in the book is that the records show that Eisenhower ensured that the Army/McCarthy hearings dragged on for months because it became obvious that McCarthy took to television like a whale takes to a beach.

That’s a great metaphor, because television was not kind to Joe, and the Eisenhower people figured that out early on. Ike would posture with people visiting the White House and say, “Oh, gee. How long are these hearings going to last? Don’t you wish they were over?”

Behind the scenes, he vetoed at least five times Republican efforts to shut down the hearings, because the people on his team determined it was doing so much damage to McCarthy. At one point, McCarthy sends [Secretary of the Army] Robert Stevens to him to plead with him to shut it down, and Ike says, “No! We’ve got the bastard right where we want him.”

In Ike and McCarthy you repeatedly show that Ike didn’t want to stoop to McCarthy’s level, but not mentioning McCarthy’s name in public was strategic because the senator was such an attention hog, and the “neglect” got under his skin.

Ike understood that, and a lot of the journalists didn’t understand that. We judge presidents by whether they use the bully pulpit or not on every issue, but there’s a lot more to being president than just what you say. I don’t have any discomfort with some of my colleagues being critical of Eisenhower. As a public educator, he was maybe not as good as he could be in some regards in using the bully pulpit to educate the public.

On the other hand, he was wonderfully strategic behind the scenes. After all, this is the [World War II] general who had fooled the German general staff about where and when the greatest armada in human history would land in Europe [the Operation Overlord D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944). He had deception in his bones, and he practiced that deception on smaller scale, but very importantly, with Joe McCarthy.

It’s also frightening that the hearings happened because McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, were seeking bizarre privileges for a private in the army.

G. David Schine had been an unpaid consultant with the McCarthy subcommittee because of Roy Cohn’s insistence. Frankly, they were boyfriends. Schine was a handsome, wealthy New Yorker, and Cohn wanted him aboard, and then he [Schine] got his draft notice in July of 1953. And Cohn went on a crusade trying to convince the Army to set up special privileges for Schine, get a special commission for him and to get him off on nights and weekends for what they euphemistically called “committee business” that was conducted in a nearby hotel.

It just went on and on for months. And this agitation finally got revealed to all the Eisenhower White House’s top advisers in a meeting on January 21, 1954. When the Army counsel John G. Adams presented them with all this agitation from Cohn on behalf of Schine, Eisenhower knew about that meeting. He wasn’t at it. But he met with the chairman of it before and was debriefed about it afterward, and they decided they now had ammunition to use against Joe McCarthy.

So in effect, they decided to wrap this gay-lover scandal around the neck of a prestigious senator in the president’s own party in an election year. And that politically is about as tough as it gets.

Cohn later became an adviser to future president Donald Trump.

That’s right. After McCarthy’s demise [in 1957], Cohn went back to New York and, starting in 1973, became a mentor and attorney to Donald Trump. The federal government was suing the Trump family for discrimination in their housing, and they consulted with Roy Cohn. He told Donald Trump, “Just tell ’em to go to hell and take ’em to court.” That’s what they did.

Eventually, they settled, and that relationship became quite intimate, and he helped Trump with all kinds of things, including mafia-related financing for his projects.

My book’s not about Donald Trump. I want to emphasize to you, and I’m speculating, but he appears to have exploited some of the same issues McCarthy did that I assume he learned in part from Roy Cohn: You exploit people’s deepest fears, you create a scapegoat, and you make charges — the more outrageous, the better. The truth doesn’t really matter if you just tell a big like and stick to it.

Had Eisenhower not used executive privilege on the notes of that January meeting, the plan might have backfired.

When the discussion of that meeting erupted during the Army/McCarthy hearings on May 12, 1954, senators from both parties wanted to subpoena all the people who were present at that meeting, about a half a dozen of Eisenhower’s key advisers. On May 17, Eisenhower issued an executive order refusing those advisers for testimony.

They didn’t exactly call it “executive privilege” at that time. That kind of got added later. Herbert Brownell, Ike’s attorney general, traced that back to George Washington.

A lot of Ike’s press conferences remind me of the way that Will Rogers once parodied Romeo and Juilet. “Thou speakest like a politician. Thy lips move, but thou sayest nothing.”

Ike would do what one scholar would say was a “fog of words” when he really didn’t want to answer a question. He’d give the journalists a fog of words that really puzzled them. They’d say, “What did he say? What did he mean?”

On the other hand, he could be quite precise with his language when he chose to. He was a very careful guy. He did 190 press conferences, more than as far I know any modern president.

Obama hardly held any.

Ike held them once a week during key periods of every year. Those transcripts are all available for people to look at online when they want to.

In his letters to his brother Milton, though, he didn’t hold back.

No, not at all. Milton was a real confidant.

Eisenhower was also behind a lot of innovations that people are only now recognizing.

Like the interstate highway system, one of the great public works projects in all of human history. That was his project.

I had be raised for years, and I have a Ph.D in history, where I studied with all historians who said that Ike did nothing on civil rights. But I found out, when I went to the Eisenhower Library, that that’s just flat out false. The textbooks still say that Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Harry Truman deserves credit for issuing an executive order, but he didn’t enforce it worth a hoot, and Eisenhower did 90 percent of the desegregation of the military. He desegregated the District of Columbia. Truman didn’t do that.

He appointed not only Earl Warren to the Supreme Court but five pro-desegregation justices to the Supreme Court. He passed the first civil rights legislation in 82 years.

He didn’t do a lot of bully pulpit stuff on civil rights. A lot of people, including people in the black community, were disappointed with that. But look at what he did in Little Rock, Arkansas: He sent the 101st Airborne with fixed bayonets to force a court-ordered desegregation of Central High School, a court order issued by one of his own appointees, Ronald Davies.

You discovered the manuscript for the last thing he had published.

It was an article for Reader’s Digest. It was published a month after Eisenhower died. It was an article on extremism, and he did write about Joe McCarthy. Up to that point, he would never criticize Joe McCarthy in public. Privately with people, he would. He finally did, but he did several drafts of that article and took his pencil and edited out some of the harshest criticisms.

But he still ended up saying, I did what I could behind the scenes to help people who were damaged by McCarthy. At the end of that article, he notes that somebody who was very critical of his approach to McCarthy came up to him after McCarthy’s demise and said, “Mr. President, you were right about McCarthy.” And Eisenhower smiled proudly and said, “Yes, I am.”

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