Presidential Reactions to Joseph McCarthy Primary Source eText

Primary Source

President Harry Truman speaks to the press from the White House. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. President Harry Truman speaks to the press from the White House. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Reaction of President Harry Truman to Loyalty Investigation, News Conference at Key West

News conference

By: Harry Truman

Date: March 30, 1950

Source: Truman, Harry. Reaction of President Harry Truman to Loyalty Investigation, News Conference at Key West. March 30, 1950. In Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Rodger Burns, eds. Congress Investigates: A Documentation of History, 1792–1974. New York: Chelsea House, 1975, 80–83. Available online at (accessed August 6, 2003).

About the Author: Harry Truman (1884–1972) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934 and then served as President Franklin Roosevelt's (served 1933–1945) vice president in 1945. Following Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, Truman was sworn in as the thirty-third U.S. president. After World War II (1939–1945), he directed the United States to become the world's dominant power in the postwar era, which led to the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Letter to Harry Bullis


By: Dwight Eisenhower

Date: May 18, 1953

Source: Eisenhower, Dwight. Letter to Harry Bullis. May 18,1953. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed June 18,2003).

About the Author: Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) graduated from West Point in 1915. By 1940, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the eruption of World War II (1939–1945), he swiftly advanced to four-star general in 1943. That same year, Eisenhower received the assignment to lead one of the largest military campaigns in world history: the D day invasion of June 6, 1944. After the war, he went into politics and served as the thirty-fourth U.S. president from 1953 to 1961.


In the early months of his presidency, Harry Truman oversaw a series of momentous events: the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the successful Trinity atomic bomb test in July, the Potsdam Conference with Britain and the Soviet Union in July and August, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 6 and 9, followed by the end of World War II with the Japanese surrender on August 15. Furthermore, Truman called for significant monetary investments in Europe and East Asia to thwart what he perceived as a growing communist threat to U.S. global hegemony.

Despite growing worries about his Cold War policies abroad and an economic recession at home, Truman surprised many by winning a second term in 1948. The president, who raised the stakes of the United States' competition with the so-called Red menace, soon became the victim of the sort of vehement anticommunism he had initiated. During his second term, he suffered a series of stinging defeats abroad that decimated his approval ratings: the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949, communists gained control of China in October 1949, and communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950.

On the home front, the economy worsened, and Truman faced mounting criticism that his administration harbored communist spies and sympathizers. Senator Joseph McCarthy issued the most stinging assaults, especially his speech before the Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, in which he criticized the Truman administration for inadequate investigations into supposed communists within its ranks. McCarthy sparked a wave of anticommunist railings against the Truman administration from Republicans and Democrats alike. The red-baiting, almost entirely based on supposition and outright deceit, enabled conservatives in both parties to block Truman's relatively liberal Fair Deal legislative agenda, including proposals concerning civil rights and national health care insurance.


In his March 30, 1950, press conference, Truman countered McCarthy directly by attempting to out red-bait the nation's leading anticommunist. Truman, who ushered in the Cold War with virulent anticommunist domestic and foreign policies in the late 1940s, now struggled to protect his stature from an upstart senator who gained increasing national attention for levying a relentless barrage of anticommunist attacks on his political enemies.

Squarely framing McCarthy's charges as political in nature, Truman concluded that Republican obstruction of his policies was "just as bad as trying to cut the Army in time of war" or "shoot[ing] our soldiers in the back in a hot war." This rhetoric certainly fought fire with fire, but it also further heightened domestic Cold War tensions and, implicitly, justified red-baiting as an acceptable political tactic.

Butressed by his high-profile battles with the Truman administration, McCarthy's influence grew in the coming years. By 1953, following his reelection, McCarthy had begun a series of nationally publicized investigations into communist infiltration in the federal government. The senator's attacks did not diminish, even with the installation of Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953–1961), a Republican war hero, as president.

Eisenhower rose to the White House in 1952 on a wave of public discontent with the Truman administration. Faced with McCarthy's continuing criticism of the federal government, many called on Eisenhower to publicly rebuke the senator and put the full weight of the presidency behind a defense of the victims of red-baiting.

As conveyed in his letter May 18, 1953, to his friend Harry Bullis, Eisenhower believed that it would demean his high office to engage in a public argument with McCarthy. At the same time, Eisenhower acknowledged that he believed in many of the core justifications for the investigations in the first place. Like Truman, Eisenhower depicted McCarthy as someone desperate for attention and overreliant on anticommunism as a means of selfishly advancing his career.

Primary Source: Reaction of President Harry Truman to Loyalty Investigation, News Conference at Key West

SYNOPSIS: Two days after his Wheeling address, McCarthy wrote Truman urging him to begin an immediate investigation into communist subversion in the State Department. He warned Truman that "[f]ailure on your part will label the Democratic Party of being the bedfellow of international communism." Truman decided to reply publicly to the senator's charges in a press conference at his vacation home, the "Little White House," in Key West, Florida. After having a picnic with reporters on a sunny afternoon, Truman bluntly chastised McCarthy and his Republican allies.

Mr. President, do you think Senator McCarthy is getting anywhere in his attempt to win the case against the State Department?

What's that?

Do you think that Senator McCarthy can show any disloyalty exists in the State Department?

I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.

Would you care to elaborate on that?

I don't think it needs any elaboration—I don't think it needs any elaboration.

Brother, will that hit page one tomorrow!

If you think we are going to bust down the fence on what you have got later, that's a pretty good starter. (Laughter)

Mr. President, could we quote that one phrase, "I think the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy"?

Now let me give you a little preliminary, and then I will tell you what I think you ought to do. Let me tell you what the situation is.

We started out in 1945, when I became President, and the two wars were still going on, and the Russians were our allies, just the same as the British and the French and Brazil and the South American countries. And we won the war together.

We organized the United Nations in April 1945, and one of the first questions that was asked me, after I was sworn in at 7:00 o'clock on the 12th of April, was whether or not the San Francisco conference on the United Nations should go ahead. And I said it certainly will. It went ahead and we finally succeeded in getting a charter and getting it agreed to by I think 51 nations, if I remember correctly.

Then our objective was to—as quickly as possible—get peace in the world. We made certain agreements with the Russians and the British and the French and the Chinese. We kept those agreements to the letter. They have nearly all been—those agreements where the Russians were involved—been broken by the Russians. And it became perfectly evident that they had no intention of carrying out the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter and the agreements which had been made at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam. And it became evident that there was an endeavor on the part of the Kremlin to control the world.

A procedure was instituted which came to be known as the cold war. The airlift to Berlin was only one phase of it. People became alarmed here in the United States then, that there might be people whose sympathies were with the Communist ideal of government—which is not communism under any circumstances, it is totalitarianism of the worst brand. There isn't any difference between the total-itarian Russian Government and the Hitler government and the Franco government in Spain. They are all alike. They are police state governments.

In 1947 I instituted a loyalty program for Government employees, and that loyalty procedure program was set up in such a way that the rights of individuals were respected.

In a survey of the 2,200,000 employees at that time, I think there were some 205—something like that—who left the service. I don't know—a great many of them left of their own accord.

How many, Mr. President?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 205. Does anybody remember those figures exactly? It's a very small figure.

Very small.

An infinitesimal part of 1 percent. We will get the figures for you.

And then, for political background, the Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year. They tried "statism." They tried "welfare state." They tried "socialism." And there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to dig up that old malodorous dead horse called "isolationism." And in order to do that, they are perfectly willing to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States. And this fiasco which has been going on in the Senate is the very best asset that the Kremlin could have in the operation of the cold war. And that is what I mean when I say that McCarthy's antics are the best asset that the Kremlin can have.

Now, if anybody really felt that there were disloyal people in the employ of the Government, the proper and the honorable way to handle the situation would be to come to the President of the United States and say, "This man is a disloyal person. He is in such and such a department." We will investigate him immediately, and if he were a disloyal person he would be immediately fired.

That is not what they want. They are trying to create an issue, and it is going to be just as big a fiasco as the campaign in New York and other places on these other false and fatuous issues.

With a little bit of intelligence they could find an issue at home without a bit of trouble!

What would it be, Mr. President?

Anything in the domestic line. I will meet them on any subject they want, but to try to sabotage the foreign policy of the United States, in the face of the situation with which we are faced, is just as bad as trying to cut the Army in time of war.

On that question we were just kidding.

And that gave me a chance to give you an answer. To try to sabotage the foreign policy of the United States is just as bad in this cold war as it would be to shoot our soldiers in the back in a hot war.

I am fed up with what is going on, and I am giving you the facts as I see them.

Mr. President, do you consider the Republican Party as a party?

The policy of the Republican Party has endorsed the antics of Mr. McCarthy.

That affects the bipartisan—

That's what it is for—that's what it is for. They are anxious for the return of isolationism.

Do you think that this has torpedoed, then, the bipartisan—

It is an endeavor to torpedo the bipartisan foreign policy. They are not going to succeed, because the levelheaded Republicans do not believe that at all, as note Mr. Stimson, Senator Vandenberg, Senator Saltonstall, and a dozen others I could name, who know exactly what is going on and are trying their best to cooperate. And I am going to try to help them prevent it going under.

Well, Mr. President, to carry that out to its logical conclusion, when Dean Acheson will go down in history as one of the great Secretaries of State, nothing that the Democratic Party can do except simply to sit on the sidelines and say, "Well?"

Well, it's too bad. It's a dangerous situation, and it has got to be stopped. And every citizen in the United States is going to find out just exactly what the facts are when I get through with this thing.

You will stand up on one side, and they will stand up on the other?

There's only one side that the people will stay on, and that is the side that will lead to peace. That is all we are after. This is just another fiasco to find an issue. This is not it.

Mr. President, would you like to name any others besides Senator McCarthy who have participated in this attempt to sabotage our foreign policy?

Senator Wherry.

Yes, sir?

Senator Bridges.

Yes, sir?

That's about as far as I care to go.

Okay, sir.

Now, what I forgot to say was would you like to say anything about Mr. Acheson and Mr. Lattimore, and—what's his name—the Ambassador at Large?

Jessup. I think I made myself perfectly clear that I think Dean Acheson will go down in history as one of the great Secretaries of State. You know very well that Mr. Jessup is as able and distinguished a citizen as this country has ever produced. Lattimore is a member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and is a very well informed person on foreign affairs.

You don't believe he is a spy?

Why of course not. It's silly on the face of it.

Mr. President, don't you think the American people recognize this for what it is?

There is no doubt about it. I am just emphatically bringing it to their attention.

For direct quotes, could we have that, "I think the greatest asset—

I would rather you would say that the greatest asset the Kremlin has is the present approach of those in the Senate who are trying to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy.

Could we have that read back to us?

Sure. Jack?

Mr. Romagna: I'm all balled up. Take your time—take your time.

The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.

This may seem redundant, but this is just for the record. The partisan effort, of course, is the effort by the Republicans in the Senate—

Well now, I didn't say that, "partisan effort." Leave it at that. Draw your own conclusions.

Primary Source: Letter to Harry Bullis

SYNOPSIS: In the following letter, Eisenhower presents his reasons to Bullis for refusing to confront McCarthy, but he notes that he might change his mind on the issue. In the fall of 1953, McCarthy began hearings on supposed communist infiltration in the U.S. Army that would do just that. The charges enraged the former general to such an extent that he openly encouraged a congressional investigation into McCarthy's investigations. The Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 destroyed the senator's public stature and resulted in his censure by the Senate.

May 18, 1953

Dear Harry:

I emphatically agree with most of what you have to say in your letter of May ninth. I shall certainly take seriously your observation about the Judd case.

With respect to McCarthy, I continue to believe that the President of the United States cannot afford to name names in opposing procedures, practices and methods in our government. This applies with special force when the individual concerned enjoys the immunity of a United States Senator. This particular individual wants, above all else, publicity. Nothing would probably please him more than to get the publicity that would be generated by public repudiation by the President.

I do not mean that there is no possibility that I shall ever change my mind on this point. I merely mean that as of this moment, I consider that the wisest course of action is to continue to pursue a steady, positive policy in foreign relations, in legal procedures in cleaning out the insecure and the disloyal, and in all other areas where McCarthy seems to take such a specific and personal interest. My friends on the Hill tell me that of course, among other things, he wants to increase his appeal as an after-dinner speaker and so raise the fees that he charges.

It is a sorry mess; at times one feels almost like hanging his head in shame when he reads some of the unreasoned, vicious outbursts of demagoguery that appear in our public prints. But whether a Presidential "crack down" would better, or would actually worsen, the situation, is a moot question.

With all the best,

As ever, [Dwight D. Eisenhower]

Mr. Harry Bullis, General Mills Incorporated, 400 Second Avenue South,

Minneapolis 1, Minnesota.

Further Resources


Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower: The President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Griffin, Robert, and Athan Theoharis. The Specter: Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.

Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy. Lanham, Wisc.: Madison, 1997.


"McCarthyism or 'The Red Scare.'" Dwight D. Eisenhower Library. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed June 18, 2003).