As the public attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy on supposed communists and “fellow travelers” became more and more outrageous, many of Eisenhowers friends and advisors urged him to censure McCarthy “in the hope of destroying his political position and his capacity to distort the American ideal before the world.”
“I even had letters from Americans arguing that, as President, I should ‘fire McCarthy’ — a circumstance that made me wonder wryly, at times, how much the average citizen really knows about the institutions and composition of his government,” Ike says in his memoirs.
“If I were to attack Senator McCarthy, even though every personal instinct so prompted me, I would greatly enhance his publicity value without achieving any constructive purpose.”
Some historians say that McCarthy’s attacks on Truman and the Democrats helped Eisenhower to get elected and that Ike put up with McCarthy as long as it served his purpose. That’s the kind of claim that can’t be proved or disproved because it concerns an individual’s motivations, but Ike won the popular vote by a pretty hefty margin — six and a half million votes — and won the electoral college 442 to 89, so it would be pretty hard to prove that McCarthy’s antics had much to do with it.
At one point McCarthy demanded that the government get rid of all the books in its overseas libraries that were written by “communists, pro-communists, former communists and anti anti-communists” or just anyone accused by McCarthy of disloyalty.
Eisenhower learned of this while visiting Dartmouth College and responded with an
“impromptu talk” that seems pretty timely today if you take out “communism” and stick in “terrorism.”
“Don’t join the book burners,” Ike told the students (and reporters). “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.
“How will we defeat Communism unless we know what it is, and what it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it? It is almost a religion, albeit one of the nether regions.
“And we have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.”
McCarthy eventually claimed that Eisenhower was “soft on communism,” but by then his power was broken by the fiasco of the Army-McCarthy hearings, and he spent the next three years drinking himself to death.
But the spirit of Joe McCarthy lives on in the White House today – smear your opponents using half truths and outright lies.