The Fall 2001 edition of Prologue had an article by Michael Birkner on Eisenhower and the “Red Menace.”
This article starts with a comparison of Joseph McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower – both Republican Party leaders. But while McCarthy’s light quickly burnt out, Eisenhower remained a hero of the Republicans and the country. In 1952, McCarthy and Nixon (who was Eisenhower’s VP), both campaigned on anticommunism:
McCarthy had won the hearts of conservative Republicans with his slashing attacks on "twenty years of treason," and he continued through the campaign year to insist that only a Republican administration could possibly find and destroy the enemy within our ramparts. For his part, Nixon— who had helped expose Alger Hiss as a communist agent during the New Deal years— was more measured than McCarthy in proclaiming that communists were in the government. But Nixon made subversion a typical speech theme and talked ominously about Dean Acheson and his "cowardly school of communist containment."
Eisenhower choose a much more moderate stance:
Eisenhower differentiated himself from McCarthy and Nixon mainly by including in his speeches about national security references to the Constitution and civil liberties. "Freedom," Ike told a large crowd in McCarthy's Wisconsin on October 3, "must defend itself with courage, with care, with force, and with fairness." In a speech to the American Legion, Eisenhower called for the elimination from American life of traitors who would "destroy the American constitutional system." He quickly added: "Let us forever hew sharply to the fundamental American principle that every man is innocent until he is proved guilty. To do less is dangerous to our freedom at home and to our world position of leadership."9 Ike knew that a stated commitment to civil liberties would matter less politically than his attacks on the Truman administration, but it was important to him that it be included. His sense of balance on the communist question— what one of his aides later called "vigilance without fanaticism"— was what he intended to make the hallmark of his presidency.
To appease the public, Eisenhower quickly moved as President to implement a new internal security program:
In one of his first initiatives as President, Eisenhower directed Attorney General Herbert Brownell to make his first priority plugging holes in the Truman internal security program. By April 1953 the President issued Executive Order Number 10450. This measure took President Truman's emphasis on "loyalty" and added "security" to the realm of suitability for employment in the executive branch. In plain terms, it meant that discovering disloyal acts or communist party membership was not the only basis for dismissing a government employee. Employees who were alcoholic, homosexual, or "blabbermouths" could be dismissed summarily under the program devised by the Justice Department. As it took shape during the spring and summer of 1953, Ike's internal security program was multifaceted. In addition to the employee security program, it entailed vetting the foreign service of individuals suspected of unorthodox views and potentially subversive associations, more aggressive prosecution of communists under the Smith Act of 1940, deportation of communist aliens, and exclusion of subversives who sought entrance into the United States.
Much of the implementation of the new program would be coordinated by the newly established internal security division of the Department of Justice. The division was headed by William F. ("Tommy") Tompkins of New Jersey, a former drug-buster and organized crime fighter as U.S. attorney in Newark. Both Tompkins and his boss, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, publicized their efforts at every opportunity, the better to contrast their administration's commitment to a pro-active internal security program with the allegedly lax procedures of the Roosevelt-Truman years.13 This approach to what ordinarily would be a circumspect operation was also designed to counter Joe McCarthy's headlines about alleged communist infiltration in the U.S. Army, State Department, and other executive offices. Tompkins, for example, regularly addressed professional and service organizations about what the administration was doing to "destroy" communism in America. His speeches were filled with data about indictments handed down and security risks dismissed from government as well as tales of spy rings (usually dating back to the Truman years) uncovered. All of this was designed to make Americans feel more safe. Their government was on task, and the communists were on the run.
Eisenhower tried to keep a line between this security program and violating personal civil liberties. He showed his willingness to but security first with decisions like the Oppenheimer and Rosenberg cases. None of this was enough for the rabid anticommunist McCarthy, though. Eisenhower refused to directly confront McCarthy, but unlike what some of his political opponents said, Birkner argues that Eisenhower knew what he was doing:
Ike was neither out of touch nor awed by McCarthy, for whom he felt a deep and abiding contempt. The President's refusal to engage McCarthy in 1953 may be attributed to several factors: first, Eisenhower's early assumption that a coherent and effective domestic anticommunism program would convince Americans that McCarthy was not a credible spokesperson; second, Eisenhower's consistent aversion to "getting into the gutter" with McCarthy; and, not least important, Eisenhower's assessment of the political implications of directly criticizing a popular figure among Republican conservatives.
The article goes on to quote Eisenhower on this issue:
As he repeatedly told friends, he would not give a publicity hound the publicity he craved. "I would give [McCarthy] no satisfaction," Ike would later recall. "I'd never defend anything. I don't care what he called me, or mentioned, or put in the papers. I'd just ignore him."
For all this, though, Eisenhower’s policy of non-condemnation made him look like he was letting McCarthy go wild to the public:
Ike could fairly say that no one who knew him mistook his views on Joe McCarthy. But Ike's views on McCarthy were not readily accessible to the mass media and average citizens.
During the height of McCarthyism, the question of McCarthy would obsess the Eisenhower administration. It was when McCarthy took on the army in 1954 that Eisenhower finally acted, behind-the-scene, to end McCarthy’s reign of terror:
Early in January 1954 McCarthy announced his plan to subpoena members of the army's loyalty and security board regarding their actions in cases at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. It was in response to this McCarthy initiative that Herbert Brownell convened a secret meeting of key administration figures, seeking their counsel about the possible costs and benefits of refusing to honor McCarthy's subpoenas. At this meeting, which originally focused on questions of separation of powers, Army Counsel John G. Adams described the persistent demands McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn had been making for special treatment for David Schine, another McCarthy aide, who had recently been drafted into the army.
The tide was already turning even before May/June of 1954. McCarthy was losing allies and Eisenhower was making “shrewd” moves:
Among them were giving speeches outlining what his administration had done to assure that no communists remained in the executive branch; asserting executive privilege when it came to internal White House documents that McCarthy sought for his subcommittee on investigations; denying McCarthy's requests for access to military personnel to question them about communism in their ranks; refusing to allow McCarthy access to members of loyalty-security boards; continued back-channel support for anti-McCarthy Republicans in the Senate (and occasional public pats-on-the-back to several of them); and effective wooing of conservative senators— notably Everett Dirksen and Charles Potter— when procedural issues were raised relating to the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Ike also continued to make strong public statements against McCarthy's methods without ever directly naming the senator. Whether this was true hidden-hand leadership is debatable, but it undoubtedly contributed to the process by which McCarthy was forced to make increasingly outrageous statements— such as his call, in late May 1954, for civil servants to report directly to him on "graft, corruption, communism, [and] treason" in the government, thus bypassing the President and congressional committees. By the time the televised hearings began, McCarthy was, as even his most sympathetic biographer concedes, at the end of his tether physically and mentally, increasingly dependent on drink, and relying much more heavily on his instincts than on research or preparation for the hearings.
Birkner ends with these thoughts:
The abiding and ultimately unanswerable question about Eisenhower and the Red Menace is connected to a cost-benefit analysis of Ike's refusal to meet McCarthy head-on. Did the President underestimate his ability to shape public opinion and control his party? Or was Ike right to believe that had he denounced McCarthy he would have splintered his party and sacrificed not only his domestic agenda but also the public's faith in a two-party system? Given the complexion of the Congress and the intensity of many Americans' fears about communist subversion— and given what we know about McCarthy's stumble and fall in 1954— Eisenhower's choices seem increasingly defensible. Because history is not a matter of do-overs, we cannot be sure what would have happened had Eisenhower played things another way. It is clear, however, that with McCarthyism purged from the body politic, the nation enjoyed the peace and prosperity associated with the Eisenhower era. Throughout his eight years in the White House, Americans consistently liked Ike. Increasingly, historians have come to like him, too.