How Eisenhower Handled McCarthy's Threat to a "Middle-of-the-Road" GOP

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
June 11 2014 12:34 PM

How Eisenhower Handled McCarthy's Threat to a "Middle-of-the-Road" GOP 

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In March 1954, President Eisenhower sent this letter to George N. Craig, then the Republican governor of Indiana, defending his policy of not publicly criticizing the actions of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The letter shows how carefully Eisenhower had formulated this tactic, and how often he had fielded questions about its appropriateness.

In 1954, McCarthy was at the tail end of a four-year hunt for supposed communist subversives in American government and public life. In late 1953, the senator had begun to accuse the military of harboring communists, which deeply offended Eisenhower. (Craig, a fellow veteran and leader in the American Legion, must have expressed a similar discontent in his initial letter.)

Advertisement

International relations scholar Kenneth W. Thompson writes that although Eisenhower “deferred to professional politicians” in refusing to attack McCarthy by name during the 1952 presidential campaign, the president later regretted not having spoken up. Thompson quotes Eisenhower biographer William Ewald’s opinion that Eisenhower came to see the decision to remain silent as “a terrible mistake,” and that it was something that the president was “very defensive about.”

Any regrets notwithstanding, some within the administration continued to believe that Eisenhower had done the right thing. Thompson quotes an interview that the Miller Center at the University of Virginia conducted with advisor Bryce Harlow: 

Truman attacked [McCarthy] personally, by name. Thereby he created a monster. Eisenhower killed him and he did it by ignoring him. The press went almost wild trying to force Eisenhower to attack him …The result proved [Eisenhower] right.

In the end, as the Miller Center writes, although Eisenhower did “work quietly, behind the scenes, to frustrate McCarthy’s investigations,” the senator’s fall came about more organically: “What did far more to diminish the senator’s power was television’s ability to bring McCarthy’s surliness into American living rooms.” By the end of 1954, the Senate passed a censure motion reprimanding McCarthy, and his investigations ended. 

EisenhowerMcCarthy
Letter from President Eisenhower to George N. Craig, March 26, 1954.

National Archives.

EisenhowerMcCarthy2
Letter from President Eisenhower to George N. Craig, March 26, 1954.

National Archives.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How in the World Did Turkey Just Get 46 Hostages Back From ISIS?

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.