This wide-ranging & globe-trotting episode begins with a brief look at the successful 1953 expedition to summit Mount Everest, then pivots to some less inspiring international intrigue, as Cold War fears led the USA to meddle in the internal politics of Iran, Guatemala, & Vietnam, among other nations. John Foster Dulles's leadership of the State Department & his brother Allen Dulles's direction of the Central Intelligence Agency pushed forward a newly aggressive approach in US foreign policy, tossing aside the relatively cautious "containment" doctrine of the Truman Administration. American efforts at winning international hearts & minds ranged from persuasion (in the case of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, & the Congress for Cultural Freedom) to regime change (removing Iranian & Guatemalan leaders) & even outright mind control (in the case of Project MK-Ultra). In domestic politics, Senator Joe McCarthy (& his sidekick Roy Cohn) would finally fall from prominence after unsuccessfully targeting the US Army. President Dwight Eisenhower approved an expansion of existing New Deal economic assistance agencies in the mid-50s, but avoided creating new social programs. Finally, in the 1954 Congressional elections, Democrats regained control of the federal legislative branch, which surprisingly eased political headaches for Republican President Eisenhower, who'd been clashing with GOP conservatives over his moderate agenda.
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From Boomers to Millennials is a Modern US History podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations from 1946 to the present. Welcome to 1954, a/k/a Episode 9: “Pulling Strings Around the World.” This globe-trotting episode will consider President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s agenda, with a particular focus on his administration’s unique approach to foreign policy. We begin in an unlikely spot, on the opposite side of the world from the United States, in New Zealand, then a backwater outpost of a declining British Empire. There, a beekeeper’s son & World War II veteran named Edmund Hillary was preparing in early 1953 to depart on a mission to go where no humans had been before. He flew to Nepal, & at the foot of the Himalayan mountains, he met his climbing partner, a Tibetan-born Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. In May, the two of them proceeded to successfully summit the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, a feat no one had previously achieved while living to tell the tale. As a result, Hillary would be knighted by the British queen, & Tenzing Norgay would become a celebrated Nepalese national hero.
Hillary’s & Norgay’s expedition to Mt. Everest was one of the final achievements of an international project of worldwide discovery that had been going on for hundreds of years, as explorers travelled to every corner of the once-mysterious globe, filling in all the blank spots on the map. Just 500 years earlier, the Old World had been ignorant of many corners of the Earth, & were unaware even of the existence of the Americas. By the 1950s, the map had been fully filled in, and even the most inhospitable places had been reached by enterprising humans: the North Pole in 1909, the South Pole in 1911, & now the very roof of the world in 1953. While many efforts were motivated by genuine scientific curiosity, others, unsurprisingly, sought opportunities for profit. Western nations had the technology to exploit the natural resources of far-flung places, something native peoples often lacked, & European countries soon engaged in a competition for profit & political control of the world. These efforts were often done with little consideration of local peoples’ well-being or their desire for self-determination. While Sir Edmund Hillary was a generous man who raised money to build schools & hospitals in Nepal after his conquest of Everest, most past representatives of the British Empire in Asia had not been so humanitarian. The British ruthlessly gained control of colonies in every corner of the world, to the point that the popular phrase during the Victorian Era that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was no mere exaggeration.
However, by the 1950s, the sun finally was setting on the British Empire. Britain was a financially-distressed power in decline, irreparably damaged by two world wars. Pressure for decolonization was rising all around the world, forcing not just the British but also the French, Dutch, & other empires into retreat. The Americans liked to view themselves as anti-colonialists, in theory if not always in practice, yet they viewed this global destabilization of remote corners of the world as potentially threatening. As we have discussed in past episodes, during the Cold War, the US government became obsessed with the potential threat of Communism & had opposed Marxist aggression even in places like Korea that most Americans had previously known very little about. Republican politicians like Richard Nixon had attacked the Democratic establishment for not being aggressive enough about stopping the threat of Communism around the world. In the early 1950s, the Republicans had taken power in the White House, & many were eager to prove that they would be tougher against the spread of international Communism than their Democratic predecessors had been.
When Eisenhower became president & appointed staff to Cabinet-level federal offices, 2 brothers reached remarkable positions of power within the foreign policy establishment. They were John Foster Dulles, appointed as Secretary of State, & Allen Dulles, appointed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Appealing to conservative anti-Communists in the Republican Party, both promised to take a more aggressive approach to international Communism than the “containment” policy that had been favored by Truman & the Democrats. Instead, they intended to roll back the gains of global Communism (to whatever degree they could get away with without sparking a hot war with the USSR or China, of course).
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the serious & severe son of a Presbyterian minister, & he viewed the quest to win the Cold War as essentially a religious crusade requiring the forces of Christianity to defeat the threat of “Godless Communism.” Historian James T. Patterson describes Ike as relying upon Dulles because he (quote) “was a hard worker, knowledgeable, & wholly loyal in trying to carry out the President’s goals’ (close quote). However, according to biographers Walter Isaacson & Evan Thomas, the so-called “Wise Men” who had formulated the Truman Administration’s containment doctrine (among them George Kennan, Dean Acheson, & Robert Lovett) viewed John Foster Dulles as a paranoid, unimaginative, & self-righteous man. But they now had no choice but to sit on the sidelines & watch the Dulles Brothers move the Eisenhower Administration away from their more cautious & pragmatic approach in favor of sometimes heavy-handed attempts to push back against pro-Communist forces around the globe.
New CIA Director Allen Dulles was an extroverted partier, far more worldly than his pious & reserved brother John Foster, but both siblings shared right-wing political views & a conviction that the ends of fighting Communism justified unscrupulous means. Allen Dulles’s leadership of the CIA would be key, as he authorized the intelligence organization to be aggressive in its efforts to influence the internal politics of various foreign powers. Patterson writes that by 1952, even before Dulles took over the agency, the CIA’s budget had risen to $82 million dollars, and it had thousands of employees divided between Washington DC & foreign outposts. Author Tim Weiner argues that the main purpose of the Central Intelligence Agency when it was created had been to collect secret information from foreign countries, so that the USA was not caught off guard by another surprise attack like the one that the Japanese had inflicted upon Pearl Harbor back in 1941. However, the agency’s ambitions soon extended far beyond mere intelligence-gathering; Weiner notes that (quote) “presidents ordered the CIA to change the course of history through covert action” (close quote). The CIA had engaged in covert operations attempting to shape political outcomes abroad well before Allen Dulles came to be head of the agency; for example, during the Truman Administration, the CIA had been heavily involved in making certain that the Italian Communist Party lost a national election in 1948. Under Dulles, however, the ambition of the CIA would grow from influencing upcoming elections, to actually overthrowing governments after elections had produced a potentially unfavorable outcome for US interests.
According to US foreign policy historian George C. Herring, a military commission led by World War II General James Doolittle concluded that the USA must become more ruthless if it wanted to survive the Cold War; (quote) “We must learn to subvert, sabotage, & destroy our enemies by more clever . . . means than those used against us,” Doolittle said. Presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that Eisenhower concurred that (quote) “The United States was in an apocalyptic struggle with Communism, and the normal rules of fair play did not apply” (close quote). Certainly, the president knew that the Soviets & their ruthless KGB intelligence organizations did not hesitate to spread disinformation & to intervene in internal politics of nations around the world. The KGB gave the enemies of Communism no quarter & offered them no mercy.
Faced with a devious Soviet enemy that was fully prepared to foment & support international revolutions in order to further its own interests, many American officials rationalized actions (that otherwise might be considered undemocratic or immoral) as being necessary in the name of self-defense & the broader cause of freedom around the world. Critics of the new American approach, on the other hand, questioned whether obscure left-wing governments constituted the threat to national security that the Cold War hard-liners believed they did. Opponents of the newly-aggressive US strategy for international relations during the 1950s have argued that even the spread of Communism to 1 or 2 distant & impoverished countries did not significantly endanger American freedoms; they have also suggested that the US government’s overseas interventions sometimes had more to do with protecting private corporate & economic interests than with protecting the general American public from the Communists.
The first of the hotly-debated Eisenhower-era covert actions took place in the oil-rich nation of Iran. History professor George C. Herring writes that (quote) “Having cobbled together . . . a shaky equilibrium in Europe & East Asia, the Cold War combatants in the mid-1950s shifted to the Third World, where they competed vigorously for the allegiance of nations emerging from colonialism. The Middle East . . . posed especially complex challenges. Throughout the region, revolutionary nationalists struggled to gain full independence & sought to exploit the Cold War to their advantage” (close quote). One of these nationalist movements emerged in Iran, which had been a Cold War hot spot ever since Soviet forces continued to occupy that nation after the end of World War II, until finally retreating under heavy Western pressure in April 1946. But over the long term, the foreign influence most resented in Iran during the early 1950s was the British control of the nation’s rich petroleum reserves. Herring notes that Iranian nationalists were (quote) “Long-resentful of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s domination of their nation’s most valuable resource”; [in 1951 they] “voted to take over the giant British corporation” (close quote).
This alarmed the USA, because the staunchly capitalist Americans generally despised nationalization of industry, which involved a national government seizing control of part of its economy by taking over entire industries & pushing out private companies. Although there were public-run utilities at a local or municipal level in many parts of the United States, government takeover of nationwide economic sectors previously controlled by private businesses appeared to Americans as a socialistic tactic that might inevitably lead toward Communism. US officials also fretted over the fact that Iranian nationalists were targeting major British companies at a time when Great Britain remained a vital economic & geopolitical ally of the United States. Furthermore, the massive US auto industry relied upon consumers being able to afford gasoline, which remained cheap in part because of the free flow of Middle Eastern oil via companies based in friendly powers like Britain.
The Iranian government was led at this time by democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, a strong nationalist who Herring describes as (quote) “A traditional liberal . . . willing to compromise with [local Iranian] Communists when it suited his needs” (close quote). To make matters even worse from the US officials’ perspective, Iran shared a border with the USSR, rendering it especially vulnerable to Soviet influence. They worried that Mosaddegh was pretending to be a nationalist when he might secretly be an outright Communist loyal to Moscow. Still, according to historian David Farber, in 1952 the cautious Truman Administration rejected initial British invitations for the Americans to join forces with them in a conspiracy to politically incapacitate Prime Minister Mosaddegh.
However, Herring recalls that during World War II (quote) “[Dwight] Eisenhower had come to appreciate the value of covert operations . . . as an inexpensive . . . means to undermine untrustworthy governments” (close quote). Upon becoming president, Ike approved Allen Dulles’s plan to let the CIA partner with British intelligence to depose the democratically-elected Mosaddegh in order to put the pro-Western Shah (the traditional Persian monarch) back into power. The plan on the ground in Iran was directed by a CIA operative named Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who had been a progressive president on domestic affairs but an aggressive nationalist on foreign policy. Kermit Roosevelt shared his granddad’s preference for grandiose & risky actions in the name of expanding American power. Lacking military forces or large numbers of personnel, the CIA made the most of the wealthy Americans’ greatest potential asset in an impoverished & corrupt Third World country: money. Kermit Roosevelt bribed local politicians, generals, & mullahs (or Islamic religious leaders) to criticize Prime Minister Mossadegh & to cooperate with US plans for a coup. The CIA also hired masses of people to engage in disruptive protests & acts of vandalism, purportedly in the name of Mosaddegh, in hopes of providing a rationale for a crackdown on the political Left. In August 1953, pro-Shah Iranian forces, acting under CIA encouragement, arrested Mosaddegh.
The Shah then took power & became a close US ally who kept the oil flowing to foreign private corporations. Mossadegh would spend the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 1967. Jean Edward Smith notes that (quote) “In the coup’s aftermath, the United States generously provided . . . emergency financial aid to [the Shah of] Iran that had been denied [to] Mossadegh” (close quote). Herring contends that as a result of the successful coup, (quote) “The US supplanted Britain as the dominant power in a pivotal Cold War nation . . . & US oil companies got a 40% interest in [Iranian petroleum].” However, this short-term American geopolitical & economic victory looked very different from the perspective of the Iranian people. Herring states that it marked (quote) “a retreat from at least the semblance of parliamentary government [in Iran] to what became a brutal dictatorship [under the Shah]” (close quote). Iranian nationalists remembered & resented the US interference in their internal affairs, & became paranoid about the power of the CIA to manipulate events in the Middle East. These attitudes contributed to protesters’ decision to seize the American embassy 26 years later, which began the hostage crisis that occurred during the Carter Administration amidst the anti-Shah Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The CIA had now added regime change to its bag of tricks, and it would use this tool again in summer 1954. In the Central American nation of Guatemala, President Jacobo Arbenz had expropriated (with compensation) large amounts of land from the powerful US-based United Fruit Company in order to redistribute it to struggling peasants. This move was popular with the Guatemalan people, but the United Fruit corporation furiously lobbied the US government to do something about Arbenz’s socialistic disruption of private property & free enterprise. Herring writes that (quote) “Although the CIA could find no direct ties with Moscow, the [Eisenhower] administration was already deeply suspicious of Arbenz. When his government took anti-US positions . . . & purchased arms from [Communist] Czechoslovakia,” they decided to take action. The CIA spent millions training anti-Arbenz mercenaries to march on the capital of Guatemala City & seize power over the national government. According to the Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad, (quote) “After President Eisenhower permitted the use of US aircraft in attacking Guatemalan military bases, [a faction within] the [Guatemalan] army deposed…Arbenz in a bloodless coup” (close quote). Smith argues that the CIA’s use of media was important to the coup’s success; the agency had jammed the government-run radio station & broadcast its own radio reports that made the modest anti-Arbenz forces sound invincible. President Arbenz fled into exile after the coup, & an American-backed military leader named Castillo Armas became Guatemala’s dictator. Throughout his harsh reign, the Guatemalan government remained a loyal ally of the United States.
To those who viewed Arbenz as a likely dupe of the Communists, the CIA’s actions in Guatemala had eliminated a serious threat to US interests in the Western Hemisphere. The United Fruit Company’s efforts to persuade the Eisenhower Administration to take action against him had been fruitful indeed; the US company had its Guatemalan lands restored to it by Castillo Armas’s pro-capitalist regime. However, Herring argues that the long-term consequences of the US intervention were damaging to Guatemala & its Central American neighbors, because it (quote) “shattered the political center & initiated a cycle of violence that would last for more than 4 decades” (close quote). Castillo Armas would be assassinated by the end of the 1950s, & during the 60s a brutal Guatemalan Civil War broke out that did not completely end until the 1990s. The US-supported coup against Arbenz also hurt the Americans’ public image within some portions of the populations of Central & South America. In particular, left-leaning groups throughout Latin America increasingly came to view US military & intelligence forces as their mortal enemies, because the Americans had demonstrated their staunch opposition to governments that attempted major economic reforms.
In addition to supporting coups in Iran & Guatemala, according to Isaacson & Thomas, the Eisenhower-era CIA also (quote) “helped install supposedly pro-Western governments in Egypt in 1954 & Laos in 1959; tried & failed to overthrow the government of Indonesia in 1958 . . . [&] plotted assassination attempts against Chou En-lai of China [&] Patrice Lumumba of the Congo” (close quote). All of these actions were covert operations that would remain hidden from the American public for decades. Secrecy about ruthless CIA actions protected the USA’s image as a bastion of democracy & individual rights. Patterson argues that such actions taken against left-leaning nationalists demonstrated that (quote) “key figures in the Eisenhower administration, perceiving the world in black & white, had . . . a dim awareness of the appeal of nationalism & anti-colonialism throughout the world” (close quote). The CIA justified its actions by asserting that the Kremlin was pulling the strings behind countless radical reform movements around the globe, but this conclusion may have overestimated the capacity of America’s Soviet antagonists & understated localized grievances and historical injustices that were motivating populist movements in the Third World.
Perhaps the foreign events of the most lasting consequence during 1954 took place in Southeast Asia. Since the end of World War II, the French had been struggling to reimpose their authority in Vietnam after having been driven out during the Japanese occupation (for details, see Episode 2). The forces they were fighting, the Viet Minh, were anti-colonialist, nationalist, & communist in ideology. Because of the Red nature of the Vietnamese forces fighting the French, the United States had been providing France with financial assistance & weapons in their struggle to re-establish their authority in the Indochina region. However, all their collective efforts proved insufficient in light of the constant Viet Minh onslaught. Now the French were under siege in their last stronghold, the fortress of Dien Bien Phu. When it became clear that the 12,000 French troops faced imminent defeat, Herring states that (quote) “Eisenhower & [John Foster] Dulles seriously contemplated air & naval intervention, even the use of nuclear weapons” before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk. According to Smith, Eisenhower contradicted most members of his National Security Council with his decision not to provide direct US military assistance to save the French from defeat in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, in April 1954, Ike publicly articulated his hawkish advisors’ “domino theory” that if Vietnam became communist, other countries nearby might also fall to the Reds like a row of dominoes. Then, in May, the Viet Minh completely defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu.
The Geneva peace Accords that followed negotiated the French withdrawal from the region, but the US attempted to ensure that the future of Vietnam would not be complete Communist control. Herring argues that, under pressure from their Chinese & Soviet patrons, (quote) the “Viet Minh leaders [accepted] much less in the way of peace terms than they believed their battlefield success entitled them to,” consenting to a Korea-style temporary partition of Vietnam “at the 17th parallel & . . . [an] election [in] 1956 to unify the country” (close quote). The USA increased its involvement in non-Communist South Vietnam, essentially replacing the French as the key Western power in the Indochina region. Patterson writes that the CIA also engaged in covert actions in Communist North Vietnam, (quote) “trying to destroy their printing presses [&] pouring contaminants into the gas tanks of [their] buses” (close quote). When it became clear that the Communist Viet Minh were going to win the 1956 elections set to politically reunify the country, the South Vietnamese government refused to let this promised vote occur. Instead, the US propped up the South Vietnamese regime as a permanent non-Communist power, while the North Vietnamese state supported a growing Communist guerilla movement in South Vietnam. The stage was now being set for one of the bloodiest proxy conflicts of the Cold War.
But there was also a softer & less militaristic side to US participation in the ideological battles of the Cold War, one that relied upon political persuasion that attempted to promote people’s aspirations for individual freedoms not possible under Communist systems. The Voice Of America (or VOA) was a US government sponsored radio network that broadcast news behind the Iron Curtain that went against the totalitarian Communist party line. Historian George Herring recounts that the VOA had been created in 1948 (quote) “under the [authority of] the State Department [as] the first [US] peacetime information program . . . By 1950, broadcasts from 36 transmitters in 25 languages were estimated to reach 300 million people. Desperate Soviet efforts to jam the airways seemed to confirm the program’s success” (close quote). The Voice Of America outlasted the Cold War & remains a US-government funded news outlet in far-flung parts of the world. It remains a target for criticism by regimes hostile to the United States; the Russian government designated the VOA as a “foreign propaganda agent” in 2017. However, back in April 2020, just weeks prior to our recording of this episode, the Trump White House criticized the VOA for not being critical enough of the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But we’re here to help get your mind off the pandemic, so let’s quickly return to 1954. Herring notes in his book From Colony to Superpower that the VOA was just one component among many of the US Cold War overseas propaganda efforts. Another broadcast outlet beaming behind the Iron Curtain was Radio Free Europe, which was ostensibly a private media company, but actually had covert CIA backing. According to Herring, Radio Free Europe (quote) “used émigré broadcasters to [spread] . . . bare-knuckled propaganda denouncing the evils of Soviet imperialism, mocking Communism through satirical skits, & using American popular culture, especially jazz, to subvert Eastern European youth” (close quote). The CIA also created the so-called “Congress for Cultural Freedom” that promoted art exhibits & literary symposia & musical tours around the world to subtly demonstrate the superiority of American capitalist cultural products. Of course, the CIA funding for these efforts was completely secret – Herring writes that the money was essentially laundered through private institutions such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, & the Time-Life Magazine corporation.
However, at the same time the CIA was secretly bankrolling creative works that inspired dreams of human freedom among populations in Eastern Europe, paradoxically the organization also aspired to gain the capacity to control human consciousness. The impetus for this project was reports of North Korean / Chinese torture & psychological manipulation techniques inflicted upon American POWs during the Korean War. The alleged Communist capacity to achieve so-called mental “brainwashing” that could turn their American victims against their own country alarmed many US officials. However, some US intelligence agents secretly aspired to develop this power for themselves. In 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles authorized Project MK-Ultra, which journalist Stephen Kinzer calls (quote) “history’s most systematic search for techniques of mind control” (close quote). This included experiments with a new psychedelic drug known as LSD. That’s right, long before hippies were experimenting with this hallucinogen, it was being utilized by the US Central Intelligence Agency, an organization with aims about as far from the anti-establishment counterculture as imaginable. According to Kinzer, Project MK-Ultra’s experiments during the 1950s on sometimes unwitting American citizens led to (quote) “hundreds of people [being] tormented & many minds [being] permanently shattered” (close quote). These operations were only revealed to the American public 20 years later, when Idaho Senator Frank Church led a Senate Committee in the mid-1970s that investigated & publicized prior abuses by various intelligence agencies during the Cold War Era.
However, during the 1950s, the US Senate’s investigative power was not being used to reveal shady governmental activities to the US public; instead, it was being utilized to dig up dirt on any Americans brought under suspicion of disloyalty. As mentioned in Episode 8, Senator Joseph McCarthy continued his Communist-hunting investigations into executive agencies during the Eisenhower Administration. Biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that resentment between the president & the senator was mutual; McCarthy saw Ike as (quote) “at best a dupe for sinister forces in the eastern establishment,” while the president viewed McCarthy as (quote) “a bully whose anti-Communist fervor was simply an effort to attain notoriety” (close quote). In 1954, Eisenhower was relieved to see McCarthy’s political star finally fall back to earth. Historian James T. Patterson contends that (quote) “[what] brought McCarthy down was his ill-advised attempt . . . to ferret out subversive activities in – of all places – the United States Army” (close quote).
By this time, McCarthy had brought more prosecutorial brainpower into his fold. The Wisconsin Senator was a clever man known for being a gifted poker player, & his ability to bluff certainly helped him when he falsely insinuated to suspects that he had documented proof of their disloyalty. But in order to successfully identify & convict actual suspected Communists, which presumably would increase McCarthy’s standing & popularity with the US public, his Congressional committee began hiring some more sophisticated & talented attorneys to assist him. The most famous of these was Roy Cohn, the privileged son of a New York State Supreme Court justice, & a prodigious student who managed to graduate from Columbia Law & pass the bar exam by age 21. Cohn soon proved himself an aggressive prosecutor of Communists in New York. He helped persuade the federal criminal justice courts to issue a death sentence for both Julius & Ethel Rosenberg after their espionage-related convictions during the early 1950s (see Episode 4 for details about their case). Roy Cohn enthusiastically supported a red-baiting movement that often disproportionately accused Jews & homosexuals, despite his being both Jewish & a closeted gay man himself. Cohn became McCarthy’s right-hand man who helped him investigate, implicate, & intimidate people throughout the US government. Almost everyone feared McCarthy’s influence & knew he had become quite politically powerful, even officers in the US military. Cohn managed to use this fear of being tarred by investigations & allegations in order to blackmail Army officers into giving special treatment for an army private named David Schine who happened to be Cohn’s close friend (rumored to also be his lover). Cohn’s securing of special privileges (such as lighter duties & more leave time) for David Schine would eventually be revealed by the Army in retaliation for the intense scrutiny that McCarthy & Cohn were subjecting their organization to.
The so-called “Army-McCarthy Hearings” went on for over a month & drew large audiences on the growing medium of television. McCarthy had been a master of working the press to publicize his Red-baiting crusade, but by this time the increased media attention began to backfire. In his book Grand Expectations, historian James T. Patterson observes that (quote) “Edward R. Murrow, a widely respected investigative reporter, ran a series of programs concerning McCarthy on ‘See It Now,’ a CBS network production . . . For the most part Murrow let McCarthy’s bullying words & truculent actions speak for themselves” (close quote). But then, at the conclusion of his program, Murrow stated in a legendary monologue (quote) “the line between investigating & persecuting is a very fine one, & the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal & the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, & that conviction depends on evidence & due process of law” (close quote). Patterson notes that Murrow’s program on the Wisconsin Senator (quote) “did attract a great deal of attention & critical praise at the time, & it legitimated rising criticism of McCarthy from other media” (close quote).
Joseph McCarthy was already a heavy drinker, & as increased negative media coverage grew, his dependency upon alcohol increased. Observers reported that McCarthy’s tendency to drink during lunchtime led to shaky performances in afternoon investigative hearings. Patterson reports that (quote) “He often slept in his office & showed up looking unkempt & unshaven. On black-&-white television he resembled a heavy from Central Casting” (close quote). His attempts to subpoena more & more figures within the Army began to meet with serious resistance. Dwight Eisenhower had privately long resented McCarthy’s actions, but the president had been hesitant to publicly criticize a man who was popular with the conservative base of his own party (see Episode 8). However, Ike was now ready to draw a line. He told Senate Majority Leader William Knowland (quote) “I will not allow people around me to be subpoenaed & you might just as well know it now” (close quote). He told his Defense Secretary to withhold sensitive information from McCarthy’s committee.
In June 1954, public opinion turned against McCarthy for good after his conflict during a televised Congressional hearing with Joseph Welch, a special legal counsel defending the United States Army. Welch was soft-spoken & genteel in his mannerisms, but quick-witted & defiant in his rhetoric. Patterson reports that McCarthy (quote) “began accusing Welch’s law firm of harboring a leftist lawyer named Fred Fisher . . . Welch then explained that he had earlier [removed] Fisher [from] the hearings because Fisher had briefly belonged to the pro-Communist National Lawyers Guild” (close quote). Smith suggests that despite his membership in this left-wing legal organization while in college, Fisher was by this point a corporate business lawyer & the secretary of a local Young Republicans organization, hardly a dangerous radical. In a private meeting before the hearings, McCarthy told Joseph Welch that he knew about his young colleague Fisher’s past association, & Welch insisted that it was immaterial to the matter at hand (McCarthy was supposed to be investigating the Army, not Welch’s law firm, after all). McCarthy reluctantly promised not to bring up Fisher’s past left-wing affiliation. But during the hearing, McCarthy was angered by Welch’s unusual degree of skill in pushing back against Roy Cohn’s pointed questions. The Wisconsin Senator tried to pin down the Army legal counsel by breaking his word & painting Welch’s colleague Fisher as a Red. Welch said, firmly but sadly, (quote) “Little did I dream you could be so cruel as to do an injury to that lad . . . You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” (close quote). At this point, applause broke out in the room where the nationally televised hearing was taking place.
Welch was hardly the first witness to try to stand up to McCarthy’s grilling, but his televised defiance finally resonated with the public & turned the tide of national opinion. Patterson opines that McCarthy (quote) “had destroyed himself on national television.” Soon afterward, a Republican Senator demanded that the Senate censure McCarthy for his belligerent conduct & his misuse of the Congressional investigative power to conduct witch hunts. The GOP’s Senate leadership instead opted to approve an investigation of the Wisconsin Republican by a Congressional subcommittee. The tables had been turned, & now the Senate’s most famous investigator was himself being investigated. The Congressional subcommittee issued a report a few months later finding that McCarthy had indeed engaged in misconduct; it concluded that he had wasted Senate resources on a wild goose chase for alleged Communists based upon insufficient evidence. In December 1954, the Senate passed a resolution that condemned the behavior of Senator Joe McCarthy. Patterson reports that (quote) “All 44 Democrats voting favored the resolution, as did the one Independent . . . [while] the 44 Republican [Senators] voting divided evenly, 22 to 22” (close quote). McCarthy must have been shocked by how quickly his once-ascendant power & fame had crashed back to earth over just a few months during 1954.
From that point on, the Congress refused to authorize future investigations & the press largely ignored further allegations from McCarthy. Patterson describes an incident during the 1956 presidential campaign when Vice-President Richard Nixon visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Quote) “[Senator] McCarthy sidled up to a seat next to him. A Nixon aide asked him to leave, & he did [as asked]. A reporter [then] found him weeping” (close quote). Having gone from a national anti-Communist hero to a discredited figure among all but a few far-right cranks, McCarthy despaired & sank deeper into his alcoholism. In May 1957, Joseph McCarthy died of liver failure at just 48 years old & while still a sitting US Senator. McCarthy’s sidekick Roy Cohn, on the other hand, would remain a highly successful attorney in New York for decades afterward. During the 1970s, Cohn’s prominent clients included ascendant real estate tycoon Donald Trump, whom he defended against charges of violating the Fair Housing Act. However, Cohn’s career in the law came to an abrupt end when he was disbarred for misappropriating client funds during the mid-1980s. Roy Cohn died of complications from AIDS at age 59 soon afterward.
During the early 1950s, the political right had grown stronger amid the global battle against Communism & the domestic Red Scare. However, after the end of the Korean War abroad & the decline of McCarthyism at home, the nation seemed ready to return toward the political center. Many social programs first established as part of the New Deal remained quite popular, & Congress found it politically profitable to expand them. President Eisenhower went along with this effort, according to professor James T. Patterson. In ’54, Ike signed (quote) “a broadening of Social Security. He also sought to extend the minimum wage, which [had] covered fewer than half of the wage workers in the United States . . . social welfare expenditures . . . [during Eisenhower’s] presidency rose slowly but steadily as a percentage of GNP [or gross national product] (from 7.6% in 1952 to 11.5% [when Eisenhower left office] in 1961)” (close quote). Generally, this broadening of the social safety net was accomplished through the means of expanding existing programs, because a booming economy meant there was not a major demand for new social programs or major legislative reforms.
Despite Eisenhower’s efforts to appeal to the political center, the New Deal coalition reasserted itself among the American electorate, & during the 1954 midterm Congressional elections, the Democrats obtained modest gains that allowed them to recapture both houses of Congress, which the GOP had previously controlled by a razor-thin margin. Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith calls this Democratic takeover of Congress a “blessing in disguise” for the president, who had often clashed with GOP Congressional leaders. Smith notes that (quote) “The Democrats [generally] supported Ike down the line in foreign affairs” & unlike the Republicans “had little interest in returning to the era of Calvin Coolidge domestically, & were not clamoring to investigate the executive branch” (close quote). In conclusion, despite the sometimes-unstable international situation during the mid-50s, US domestic politics, economics & society were experiencing something of a return to normalcy after the traumatic years of the Korean War & the Red Scare. In our next full-length episode, focusing upon the year 1955, we will move away from geopolitics to examine the social, cultural, & domestic sphere, as we try to understand how everyday life in the Fifties shaped the Baby Boomers’ childhoods.
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