Essay: Lessons on Free Speech from Eisenhower and McCarthy

Updated: May 14

(Note: the random numbers after sentences are superscripts to the endnotes.)

One of the greatest concepts produced by Christianity (and being preserved therein) was the idea of rights--namely, God-given rights in respect to the dignity of each individual. No other religious or philosophical framework has even ventured close to an idea so holistic and effective for the morality of man. One of these rights is the freedom of speech. A problem that occurs, however, in positing freedom of speech as a right is thus: what happens when that speech, given as a right, is used to attack the right itself? This problem is not easily solvable.

Nonetheless, this issue must be addressed if one wishes to either defend or attack freedom of speech as a right. It behooves us, in the modern period, to look to history and examples of how people have dealt with this difficulty in the past. This does not necessarily mean that an answer will be found, but it does mean that insight will be given. One of the most applicable and obvious of such examples is the fight in the United States between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

The stakes of such an issue as this are towering. On one hand, freedom of speech is a value of such importance that even speech against it cannot be barred. On the other hand, freedom of speech is a value of such importance that speech against it must be barred. So then, is freedom of speech universal or particular? Meaning, should it be allowed even when it is being used to attack the right itself? Some will argue that prohibition speech is an act of contradiction within the right. Others will counter that speech against free speech must be prevented at the right itself will be destroyed. Suffice it to say, the issue is not straightforward. The conclusion one comes to speaks much of the role of rights.

As aforementioned, the battle between senator Joseph McCarthy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower is worthy of inspection. Upon Eisenhower entering office in 1953 (elected in 1952), one of the most immediate concerns of the nation was Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. The youngest senator to hold office up to that point, Joseph McCarthy had already developed his own way of dealing with this threat (IT’S HISTORY). This strategy involved nearly random accusations of those in the U.S. government as being Soviet spies. Some of McCarthy’s suspicions were true, others baseless (Schiewart 669).

Ike, for his part, disliked Communists as much as McCarthy (Ambrose 316).1 However, the sometimes and increasingly sporadic accusations were not looked upon with benevolent eyes by the president. It was apparent from the outset, especially when McCarthy made claims that some of Eisenhower’s cabinet picks were Communists, that a fight would be inevitable (Ambrose 306). It was, then, how the senator tried to catch the Communist that Eisenhower was adverse to (Ambrose 316). When asked about McCarthy’s methods, Ike said, “I despise them,” and “[they are] un-American methods of combating Communism (Ambrose 350; Wicker 107).

Despite his dislike for McCarthy, Eisenhower wanted to keep his opinions to himself and personal friends; reasoning that given enough rope, the senator would publicly and politically hang himself (Ambrose 308; Smith 590). “I won’t get into a pissing match with that skunk,” Ike privately told his brother (Smith 590). He also thought that “that skunk” wanted to be president, and was merely accusing people of being Communist out of personal insecurity and fear (Ambrose 348-349). The president’s reservedness on remarks about McCarthy does not downplay, as some would suggest, the president’s notions that McCarthy was a full-scale totalitarian. Ike truly hated McCarthy, almost as much as Hitler (Ambrose 307). “McCarthy is making exactly the same plea of loyalty that Hitler made to the German people,” Ike privately said, “Both tried to set up personal loyalty within the government while both were using the pretense of fighting Communism” (Wicker 158).2 Eisenhower had a strategy: ignore McCarthy and wait for his downfall (Ambrose 303; Smith 587).

Yet, as time went on, McCarthy became increasingly liberal in his accusations. Not only that, he organized the banning and burning of over thirty thousand books in American libraries in Europe (Ambrose 316-317; Smith 587). These books were heralded to be “Communist;” undoubtedly, many of them were. Nevertheless, Eisenhower, otherwise firm in his resolution of silence in regards to McCarthy, could not tolerate this kind of despotic action. Speaking to a crowd at Dartmouth, the president exhorted them, “Don’t join the book burners. 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” (Ambrose 317-18; Wicker 131). McCarthy responded as any typical totalitarian would, “He couldn’t very well have been referring to me. I have burned no books” (Smith 589).3

Although considered the breaking point by some, Eisenhower still made no further public comments concerning the senator after this.4 He did, however, restrict Congress’s ability to subpoena government records and employees, thereby castrating much of McCarthy’s power (Smith 592).5 In a short time, Ike’s plan had worked and McCarthy did indeed fall from public favor. Upon accusing the U.S. Army of internal Communist agendas, McCarthy was shamed by the defense counsel (Smith 592-594). The entire nation watched these hearings and McCarthy has seldom been looked on positively since (Smith 593).

This brings the return of the question stated at the beginning. Was McCarthy right or was Eisenhower? Indeed, Communism was and still is a colossal threat. It may even be the greatest threat that any Democratic-Republic could ever face. It is wholly against the rights of the individual. Both Eisenhower and McCarthy saw and knew this. Yet, each took a different approach in addressing it. To Eisenhower, shutting down and silencing the rights of even Communists was too much. He believed that they should be stripped of power, but not God-given dignity. They should, despite their anti-free speech beliefs, be allowed free speech. McCarthy thought differently. He believed Communists should be silenced entirely. If this meant even the burning and banned of books, so be it. The threat was (and is) that present.

Aside from the more philosophical problems which McCarthy’s ideas encounter, there is a practical reason to think he was subordinate to Eisenhower in this issue. Once McCarthy could justify silencing some on the real basis of Communism, he would soon be able to silence near to anyone--and, anything. If the requirement for silence is a label, then the label will be applied liberally. In short order, then, one goes from being an “advocate of the protection of free speech” to a tyrant. Eisenhower, unlike McCarthy, would not compromise free speech. He would stand up for it, even in the face of Communists. Therefore, because McCarthy’s view of free speech is rife with contradictory notions about rights, and because it is greatly more vulnerable to tyranny, Eisenhower was the one who held up the rights of the individual.

In conclusion, the issue of universal freedom of speech is a difficult one. The stakes of such a problem are towering and not to be taken lightly. However, by looking at history and more precisely to the contrast of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Joseph McCarthy’s views on the subject, it can be seen that Eisenhower’s position of universal free speech is superior. This is because it is less vulnerable to tyranny and remains free of contradictions within the ethic of rights. To defend the right of free speech would be to do as Eisenhower did and defend it for everyone, even if that person is trying to tear it down.


  1. “Ike” was Eisenhower’s common nickname.

  2. Eisenhower was not downplaying the evils of Hitler. He knew firsthand how evil Hitler and the Nazis were. To suggest that Eisenhower had an affectionate affinity to Hitler is nonsense. Eisenhower’s comparison merely points out that Hitler did not start out as a dictator but became one slowly. He was afraid that McCarthy’s behavior could have similar effects.

  3. Although McCarthy was not a true “totalitarian,” he could have easily become one.

  4. In a press conference following his condemnation of the book burning and banning organized by McCarthy in Europe, Eisenhower seemingly rolled-back on his statement of not burning books that were Communist. So then, this would be another public statement on McCarthy. Also, it is important to note that it is not clear whether or not Eisenhower really supported the book burnings. Historians have taken different sides on this point. It seems, however, as though Eisenhower was sincere in his condemnation of the burning and not sincere in his permission of it. This is because of the American people’s split opinions on this issue and Eisenhower not wanting to loose too much public favor.

  5. Although Ike was doing this for a good cause, this move was, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “the most absolute assertion of presidential right to withhold information from Congress ever uttered to that day in American history.”

Works Cited

Ambrose, Stephen. Eisenhower: Soldier and President (The Renowned One-Volume Life). Revised ed., Simon & Schuster, 1991.

IT’S HISTORY. “Hunting the Communists! - Joseph McCarthy l THE COLD WAR.” YouTube, uploaded by IT’S HISTORY, 4 July 2015,

Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to America’s Age of Entitlement, Revised Edition. 10th Revised ed., Sentinel, 2014.

Smith, Jean Edward. Eisenhower in War and Peace. Illustrated, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.

Wicker, Tom. Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy. First Edition, Harcourt, 2006.

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