Dennis Lythgoe: Ike deserves more credit for bringing down McCarthy

(AP | REX |Shuttersock | Courtesy Sundance Institute) Attorney Roy Cohn, right, whispers in the ear of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in an image from Matt Tyrnauer's "Where’s My Roy Cohn?", an official selection in the U.S. Documentary Competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Recently, PBS presented an American Experience documentary on the infamous communist hunter, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.

While watching the program, I was surprised that the producers failed to utilize a reinterpretation by a notable historian of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency as it related to McCarthy. That book was published in 1982. Yet none of the historians consulted for the documentary indicated either a knowledge of the book, or of the other historians who revised the historical estimate of Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1980s and beyond.

The producers showed the red-baiting senator badgering highly respected Americans at lengthy hearings in the nation’s capital. McCarthy, an arrogant demagogue, showed himself devoid of any respect for humanity as he accused these people of being communists – then mocked them ruthlessly as un-American.

The hearings continued for days unabated, while McCarthy became the country’s best-known U.S. senator. Of course, he was later revealed to be a huge liar who had no verifiable evidence of his claims. Other Republicans soon realized that he was doing a massive disservice to the country.

Eisenhower was elected president as a Republican in 1952. He watched McCarthy’s shenanigans with dismay. According to the documentary, Ike detested the anti-communist orator but “failed to do anything about it.” It was like the typical descriptions of Eisenhower as a lazy two-term president: “Have you heard of the Eisenhower doll? You wind it up and it does absolutely nothing for eight years.” (There were many “doll jokes” used to describe dignitaries in the 1950s) For years after his second term, Eisenhower had to live through these jokes and unkind estimates of his presidency.

The documentary’s conclusion alleged that McCarthy was finally brought down by the United States Senate when its other 99 members overwhelmingly censured him in 1954. Censure has often been promoted as a potential method to punish presidents who are accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Censure did cause the Wisconsin senator to see himself as a failure. He began to drink more severely after he realized his compatriots no longer respected him, he gained weight and he died as a relatively young man only three years later. But the act of censure did nothing to atone for McCarthy’s sins.

McCarthy’s reckless acts began to be publicly ignored due to the quiet, determined actions of Eisenhower. The historian most responsible for discovering this unnoticed fact was Fred Greenstein, professor of politics at Princeton University. He wrote a definitive book called “The Hidden-Hand Presidency.”

In it, Greenstein conceded teaching his students that Ike was “a good-natured bumbler who lacked the qualities to be an effective president.” By the 1960s, his and others scholars’ views of Eisenhower’s tenure had changed to an admirable one, partly because of the perceptive journalists Murray Kempton and Gary Wills. They re-examined Ike’s style instead as “evidence of shrewd political art and kraft.”

According to Greenstein, Ike believed there was no end to the things a person could accomplish if he didn’t care who got the credit. Allegedly, Ike did not hesitate to be devious in protecting his own role as almost invisible. His was a unique style of leadership that remained essentially secret until historians studied his presidency.

Greenstein wrote that Ike was “gentle in manner, strong in deed.” He was vague in public and precise in private. Moreover, “He did not engage in personalities.” He swore and lost his temper in private, but in public, he was always pleasant, kindly and above board. He destroyed McCarthy behind the scenes, but never mentioned him in public.

Eisenhower responded to questions about dealing with “government subversion” by saying he would do so “without besmirching the reputation of any innocent man.”

In fact, Ike’s strategy with McCarthy can be summed up in a private Eisenhower diary entry, April 1953, before his censure: “The best treatment of McCarthy is to ignore him. That is one thing he cannot stand.”

Dennis Lythgoe

Dennis Lythgoe, Salt Lake City, is a professor of history emeritus, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Mass.