The Power Elite

For the Dulles brothers, the Eisenhower-Nixon victory was the culmination of years of political strategizing dating back to the Roosevelt era. They had come achingly close to achieving their dreams in the 1948 election, only to see their longtime ally Tom Dewey lose in the most shocking upset in American history. But now they were headed for the very center of Washington power. As the new heads of the State Department and the CIA, they would direct the global operations of the most powerful nation in the world. The fraternal partnership gave the Dulles brothers a unique leverage over the incoming administration, and they were imbued with a deep sense of confidence that these were the roles they were destined to play.

The 1952 presidential election represented the triumph of “the power elite,” in the phrase coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills, academia’s most trenchant observer of Cold War America. Mills was a ruggedly independent, Texas-born scholar. He lived in a farmhouse forty miles outside of New York City and rode a motorcycle that he had built with his own hands to the classes he taught at Columbia University. He favored flannel shirts and work boots, and confided to friends that “way down deep and systematically I’m a goddamned anarchist.” Mills rejected both the tired Marxist discourse that had dominated New York intellectual circles since the 1930s and the “romantic pluralism” that characterized conventional theories about American politics. According to Mills, power in America was not solely in the hands of Marx’s “ruling class”—those who owned the means of production. Nor was it a balancing act of competing interests, such as big business, organized labor, farmers, and professional groups. This ebb-and-flow concept of power—which was clung to by liberal and conservative scholars alike—was a “fairy tale,” in Mills’s words, one that was “not adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works.”

Instead, Mills wrote in his 1956 masterpiece The Power Elite, America was ruled by those who control the “strategic command posts” of society—the big corporations, the machinery of the state, and the military establishment. These dominant cliques were drawn together by their deep mutual stake in the “permanent war economy” that had emerged during the Cold War. Though political tensions could flare within the power elite, Mills wrote, there was a remarkable unity of purpose among these ruling groups. The top corporate executives, government leaders, and high-ranking military officers moved fluidly in and out of one another’s worlds, exchanging official roles, socializing in the same clubs, and educating their children at the same exclusive schools. Mills called this professional and social synchronicity “the fraternity of the successful.”

Within this system of American power, Mills saw corporate chiefs as the first among equals. Long interlocked with the federal government, corporate leaders came to dominate the “political directorate” during World War II. The United States had largely become a democracy in form only. More than half of a century before the John Roberts–era Supreme Court that legally sanctioned corporate control of the electoral process, Mills recognized that the shift toward oligarchy was already well under way: “The long-time tendency of business and government to become more intricately and deeply involved with each other has [now] reached a new point of explicitness. The two cannot now be seen clearly as two distinct worlds.”

The crucial task of unifying the power elite, according to Mills, fell to a special subset of the corporate hierarchy—top Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers. These men were the “in-between types” who shuttled smoothly between Manhattan corporate suites and Washington command posts. Little known to the general public, these skilled executors of power constituted in Mills’s words America’s “invisible elite.” They were the men who forged the consensus on key decisions of national significance and who made certain that these decisions were properly implemented. Their work was largely unseen and vaguely understood, but it had enormous impact on the lives of ordinary men and women. It was men like John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles whom Mills had in mind when he wrote of the power elite’s inner core.

Born in Waco to an insurance salesman and a housewife and educated at the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin, Mills was steeped in a native populism rather than the European ideologies of the New York intelligentsia. A big, broad man with an endless appetite for argument, he could debate for hours on end with the likes of Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe. But he eschewed the hothouse sectarianism of the New York left, as well as the compulsory mood of “American celebration” that had been embraced by nearly all of his intellectual colleagues in the Eisenhower years, searching instead for a new language to explain the American colossus that had emerged in the postwar era. Mills took aim at the most important topics in American society: the soul-killing, “cheerfully robotic” regimentation of corporate life; the unique terrors of the nuclear age—an age, he argued, when war itself had become the enemy, not the Russians; and, of course, the overworld of American power, a realm that he believed few average citizens could grasp, even though it cast a long shadow over their daily existence.

“Take it big!” the intellectually ambitious Mills liked to exclaim. He wrote in a vigorous, clear style that rejected the academic caste’s “bloated puffery of Grand Theory,” in sociologist Todd Gitlin’s words. Soon after The Power Elite was published, it began stirring wide debate, catapulting over the ivy-covered walls of academia onto the bestseller list.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, corporate lawyer and presidential adviser Adolf Berle—a member in good standing of the power elite—found “an uncomfortable degree of truth” in Mills’s book but fought off his discomfort by concluding that it was essentially “an angry cartoon, not a serious picture.” Mills also struck a sensitive nerve with Cold War liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whom he accused of abandoning their intellectual independence by joining the era’s American celebration. Schlesinger fired back, charging that Mills’s book seemed more intent on stirring the masses than on stimulating serious academic debate. “I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet’s robes and settles down to being a sociologist again,” he wrote in theNew York Post.

Mills considered himself an intellectual loner—“I am a politician without a party,” he wrote in a letter. But The Power Elite touched a deep chord with a rising new generation of revolutionaries and radicals that was soon to make its impact on history. Young Fidel Castro and Che Guevara pored over the book in the Sierra Maestra mountains. And, at home, Tom Hayden drew heavily on Mills’s writing for the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the emerging New Left.

By the time the Port Huron Statement was presented to the Students for a Democratic Society convention in June 1962, C. Wright Mills was dead—felled by a heart attack in March of that year, at age forty-five. But his critique of the power elite—and his sense of its fundamental, undemocratic illegitimacy—would continue to heavily influence the 1960s generation. Six years after his death, in the wake of the global youth uprisings of 1968, the CIA continued to identify him as one of the leading intellectual threats to the established order.

Schlesinger was partly right about Mills. Though he was a rigorous researcher and a careful craftsman, The Power Elite did indeed resound here and there with a prophet’s moral urgency. Mills, who was deeply concerned about the runaway nuclear arms race of the Eisenhower era, knew that America’s rulers not only possessed terrifying instruments of violence, these men felt largely unrestrained by democratic checks and balances. The ability of American leaders to end life on the planet imbued them with a dark power in Mills’s mind—one that inspired impassioned passages like the concluding paragraph of The Power Elite:

The men of the higher circles are not representative men; their high position is not a result of moral virtue; their fabulous success is not firmly connected with meritorious ability. . . . They are not men shaped by nationally responsible parties that debate openly and clearly the issues this nation now so unintelligently confronts. They are not men held in responsible check by a plurality of voluntary associations which connect debating publics with the pinnacles of decision. Commanders of power unequaled in human history, they have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility.

Men like the Dulles brothers rejoiced in such “organized irresponsibility.” Democracy, in their minds, was an impediment to the smooth functioning of the corporate state. John Foster Dulles had made this clear early in his Wall Street career as he jousted with FDR’s New Deal bureaucracy. Complaining to Lord McGowan, chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, about government efforts to control the spiraling power of global cartels, Foster once acidly remarked, “The fact of the matter is that most of these politicians are highly insular and nationalistic . . . [so] business people . . . have had to find ways for getting through and around stupid political barriers.” Allen, for his part, had gone through his espionage career with similar disdain for presidential directives and “stupid political barriers.” As Richard Helms put it, with typically droll understatement, “There can be no question that Dulles felt most comfortable running things on his own with a minimum of supervision from above.”

When Franklin Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933, he was well aware of the entrenched interests that he would be confronting as he attempted to reform the country’s financial system and to create a social buffer against the havoc of the Depression. “The real truth,” FDR wrote to Colonel Edward M. House, President Wilson’s close adviser, “as you and I know, is that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson.” For a brief period during the widespread devastation of the 1930s, the New Deal was able to challenge this “plutocracy,” as Roosevelt called it. The Roosevelt presidency did not dismantle the power elite, Mills later wrote, “but it did create within the political arena, as well as in the corporate world itself, competing centers of power that challenged those of the corporate directors.”

But the militarization of government during World War II began to return power to the corporate elite, as captains of industry and finance moved into key government posts. The Eisenhower presidency would complete this political counterreformation, as Washington was taken over by business executives, Wall Street lawyers, and investment bankers—and by a closely aligned warrior caste that had emerged into public prominence during World War II.

During the Eisenhower administration, the Dulles brothers would finally be given full license to exercise their power in the global arena. In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, they would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality. Elevated to the pinnacle of Washington power, they continued to forcefully represent the interests of their corporate caste, conflating them with the national interest.

C. Wright Mills was among the first to take note of how “national security” could be invoked by the power elite to more deeply disguise its operations. The Dulles brothers would prove masters at exploiting the anxious state of permanent vigilance that accompanied the Cold War. “For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without foreseeable end,” Mills wrote. “Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own.”

This chilling observation, which still has disturbing echoes today, captured the gloomy zeitgeist of the Eisenhower-Dulles era. It was a time of American celebration—of unprecedented prosperity and unparalleled military prowess—as well as hair-trigger nuclear tensions. Only a few maverick voices—like that of the intellectual loner from Texas—grasped the frightening amorality that prevailed at the pinnacle of American power.

President Eisenhower enjoyed being in the company of wealthy and powerful men. He filled his administration with power players from the Dewey-Dulles–Rockefeller-Luce–dominated New York nexus, as well as from the higher rungs of industry and the Pentagon. Wall Street lawyer Herbert Brownell was named attorney general after running Ike’s campaign, General Motors CEO Charles Wilson was tapped to run the Defense Department, and Chase Manhattan chairman and former diplomat John McCloy—the very personification of the power elite—was called upon as a national security adviser. Even the Eisenhower administration’s second rung of power—the undersecretaries and deputies level—was weighted with men like Wall Street banker C. Douglas Dillon, another close associate of the Dulles brothers. The exclusive ranks of the Council on Foreign Relations, where the brothers had long held sway, was a particularly fertile ground for administration recruiters.

Ike also liked to spend his leisure time with the high and mighty. The avid “golfer-in-chief” often had prominent business executives and Army generals in tow during his twice-weekly trips to the verdant links at Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, including the CEOs of General Electric, Coca-Cola, Reynolds Tobacco, and Young & Rubicam.

Merriman Smith, the longtime White House wire service reporter, defended Ike’s strong affinity for the power elite: “It would be unfair to say that he likes the company of kings of finance and industry purely because of their Dun and Bradstreet ratings. He believes that if a man has worked up to become president of the Ford Motor Company [or] head of the Scripps-Howard newspapers . . . then certainly the man has a lot on the ball, knows his field thoroughly and will be literate and interesting.” To which one observer, quoted by Mills, mordantly responded: “This business of working your way up will come as quite a surprise to young Henry Ford or young Jack Howard [the scion who inherited the Scripps-Howard chain].”

Eisenhower was comfortable in the company of these men because he shared their conservative, business-oriented views. President Truman, who had helped pave the general’s path to the White House by appointing him the first supreme commander of NATO forces in 1951, tried to persuade Eisenhower to run for president as a Democrat, promising that he would “guarantee” him his party’s nomination. But Eisenhower replied, “What reason have you to think I have ever been a Democrat? You know I have been a Republican all my life and that my family have always been Republican.” When Truman persisted, Ike made it even more plain, telling him that his differences with the Democrats, particularly when it came to the party’s pro-labor positions, were simply too immense for him to consider such a course.

Meanwhile, the Dewey-Dulles group’s courtship of Eisenhower to become the Republican standard-bearer, which had begun two years earlier, was coming to a successful conclusion. Dewey had first broached the subject of a White House run at a private meeting with Eisenhower in July 1949, following the governor’s own traumatic presidential defeat. Dewey had beseeched the reluctant general to jump into the political arena, telling him that he was the only man who could “save this country from going to Hades in the handbasket of paternalism, socialism [and] dictatorship.”

By early 1952, the Dulles brothers had come to agree that throwing their support behind the popular war hero was their best path to the White House. In May, Foster flew to France, meeting with the general twice at NATO headquarters in Fontainebleau and urging him to run. The two men did not immediately hit it off. Foster was uncharacteristically diffident and uncertain in the presence of the legendary warrior. Eisenhower, accustomed to crisp military briefings, found Foster’s discursive and lawyerly monologues boring. Foster quickly wore out the general’s patience, which he was in the habit of communicating by tapping out a restless drumbeat on his knee with a pencil and, when that failed to end the ordeal, by gazing blankly at the ceiling and “signaling the end of all mental contact,” in the words of one aide. Foster later brought out the wicked wit in Churchill, who proclaimed him “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”

But the foreign policy paper that Foster presented to Eisenhower in France was far from dull. The memo, which Foster appropriately titled “A Policy of Boldness,” urged the next president to take a much sharper stand against the Soviet bloc than Truman, aiming to roll back Communism in Eastern Europe rather than simply containing it. Foster called for an escalation of the underground war against Moscow that his brother was already operating, including a redoubled commitment to psychological warfare. “We should be dynamic, we should use ideas as weapons, and these ideas should conform to moral principles. That we do this is right, for it is the inevitable expression of a faith—and I am confident that we still do have a faith.” Foster’s paper had the italicized cadences of a preacher’s sermon; it was filled with the missionary fervor that had run for generations through his family.

Foster was at his most zealous in his discussion of nuclear arms policy. He proposed an unsettling shift in thinking about America’s fearsome nuclear arsenal, moving away from the concept of doomsday weapons as an instrument of last resort to one of first resort. The United States must reserve the right to massively retaliate against any Soviet aggression in the world, wherever and whenever it chose, he wrote. By making it clear to the world that Washington was not afraid to wield its nuclear arms as if they were conventional weapons of war, the United States would gain a commanding strategic advantage. It was the type of leverage enjoyed by a heavily armed madman in a crowded room. But Foster had a more diplomatic way of expressing it. Weapons of mass destruction “in the hands of statesmen . . . could serve as effective political weapons in defense of peace.”

Foster further sweetened his argument by pointing out that a nuclear-based military strategy would help contain the growing costs of America’s “far-flung, extravagant” defense complex that was threatening to bankrupt the nation. Instead of maintaining an expensive troop presence at every global flashpoint, Foster wrote, all the United States had to do was keep a ready finger on its nuclear trigger.

Even master of war Eisenhower was initially taken aback by Foster’s proposal for a “first-use” nuclear strategy. After making his presentation to the noncommittal general, Foster returned to his suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he frantically paced the room, telling a confidant that Eisenhower somehow failed to grasp that the world was facing a dire Soviet threat. But Eisenhower did share Foster’s passionate anti-Communism. And the cost efficiencies of the massive retaliation strategy appealed to the budget-minded general, who was equally concerned about the growing burden of military spending on the economy. So began the reign of nuclear terror—or “brinksmanship”—that would hold the world in its grip for the next decade.

Foster’s new “policy of boldness” became a centerpiece of Eisenhower’s presidential campaign, and the Wall Street lawyer was widely touted as the next secretary of state. Henry Luce helped enshrine Foster by running his foreign policy paper in Life magazine in May 1952. “No one has a broader bipartisan understanding of U.S. foreign policy than John Foster Dulles,” stated the respectful biography that accompanied the article.

After Foster was duly confirmed as secretary of state in January 1953—a position he had long coveted and felt he was destined to hold—he addressed several hundred foreign service employees gathered in front of the State Department building in Foggy Bottom. The weather was uncomfortably cold, but the sixty-five-year-old Foster stood on the steps overlooking the crowd with a sturdy self-confidence—a “solid tree trunk of a man,” in the words of one biographer, “gnarled and weathered and durable.” He carried himself like someone who owned the place. “I don’t suppose there is any family in the United States,” he told his assembled workforce, “which has been for so long identified with the Foreign Service and the State Department as my own family.”

Once installed at Foggy Bottom, Foster quickly took command of Eisenhower’s foreign policy, elbowing aside other experts in international affairs who sought the president’s ear. Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, found the new secretary of state a “tough-fibered individual . . . an aristocrat in his own domain” who insisted on maintaining his own direct line to the president. Foster was “a rather secretive person,” Adams added, who assiduously deflected efforts by the White House staff to enter the tight loop he had built with the commander in chief. After their initial uneasiness with each other, Eisenhower ultimately decided that even though his secretary of state was “a bit sticky at first . . . he has a heart of gold when you know him.” Foster soon had Eisenhower “in his palm,” observed a State Department aide.

Allen Dulles felt as firmly entitled to run the CIA under Eisenhower as his brother did the State Department. The junior Dulles had worked uncomplainingly for two years as Walter Bedell Smith’s deputy director at the agency, though he had considerably more intelligence experience than “Beetle.” Dulles good-naturedly put up with the crusty general’s foulmouthed explosions, with the expectation that Smith would anoint him his successor. “The general was in fine form this morning, wasn’t he? Ha, ha, ha!” Dulles would chuckle, after returning to his office from what his CIA colleagues called one of Smith’s “fanny-chewing sessions.”

During the 1952 presidential race, Dulles proved his loyalty to the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign by channeling funds to the Republican ticket through CIA front groups and by leaking embarrassing intelligence reports to the media about the Truman administration’s handling of the Korean War—flagrant violations of the CIA charter that forbids agency involvement in domestic politics.

But even though Smith recruited Dulles for the agency and made him his deputy, he never warmed up to his number two man. “Beetle”—who, as Eisenhower’s former wartime aide, enjoyed unique access to the president-elect—became an impediment to Dulles’s CIA ascension following the Republican victory. “After two years of close personal observation,” wrote a CIA historian, “Smith lacked confidence in Dulles’s self-restraint.” The general felt that Dulles was too enamored of the dark arts of the spy trade. Smith would tell friends that running the CIA sometimes made it necessary to leave his moral values outside the door. But, he quickly added, clinging to his soldierly code of conduct, “You’d damned well better remember exactly where you left them.”

Dulles struck Smith as a man who was all too blithe about abandoning his scruples. The deputy CIA director had no qualms about advocating the assassination of foreign leaders, even presenting a plan to Smith in early 1952 to kill Stalin at a Paris summit meeting. Smith firmly rejected the plan. He shuddered at the thought of Dulles taking over the top spot at the agency.

As Smith prepared to step down at the CIA, he lobbied against Dulles as his replacement, advising Eisenhower that it would be politically unwise to have the brother of the secretary of state serve as the administration’s intelligence chief. Instead, Smith urged Eisenhower to select another one of his agency deputies, Lyman Kirkpatrick. Like Dulles, Kirkpatrick was a product of Princeton and had an impressive espionage résumé dating back to the war—but, as his career at the CIA would prove, he also had a well-tuned sense of proper conduct. (Years later, Kirkpatrick would be called upon to direct the internal investigation of the Bay of Pigs debacle that nearly ruined the agency, doing such an honest job that some CIA old boys, including Dulles himself, never forgave him.)

Despite Beetle Smith’s close ties to Eisenhower, he found himself outmaneuvered by the Dulles brothers. Anticipating Smith’s objections, Foster got to Eisenhower first and convinced him that having his brother in charge of the CIA would actually be an asset, ensuring smooth cooperation in the running of foreign policy. When Smith began making his case against Dulles, Eisenhower cut him off, telling his old friend that he had already talked to Foster, who saw no problem at all with a fraternal reign of power.

Smith had never really stood a chance of blocking Allen Dulles. Eisenhower was deeply beholden to the Wall Street Republican power brokers who had not only recruited him for the presidential race but had helped finance his electoral battle, loaned him one of their own—white-shoe lawyer Herbert Brownell Jr.—to run his campaign, and had even tapped Dick Nixon as his running mate. The Dewey-Dulles group was Ike’s brain trust and bank. When these men spoke, the general listened.

Under Allen Dulles, the CIA would become a vast kingdom, the most powerful and least supervised agency in government. Dulles built his towering citadel with the strong support of President Eisenhower, who, despite occasional misgivings about the spymaster’s unrestrained ways, consistently protected him from his Washington enemies. As America extended its postwar reach around the world, with hundreds of military bases in dozens of countries and U.S. oil, mining, agribusiness, and manufacturing corporations operating on every continent, Eisenhower saw the CIA (along with the Pentagon’s nuclear firepower) as the most cost-effective way to enforce American interests overseas. Presidential historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of The Declassified Eisenhower, initially regarded Ike as “a presidential pacifist.” But after examining the administration’s documentary evidence for her 1981 book, Cook arrived at the conclusion that “America’s most popular hero was America’s most covert president. Eisenhower participated in his own cover-up. His presidency involved a thorough and ambitious crusade marked by covert operations that depended on secrecy for their success.”

The rise of Dulles’s spy complex in the 1950s would further undermine a U.S. democracy that, as Mills observed, was already seriously compromised by growing corporate power. The mechanisms of surveillance and control that Dulles put in motion were more in keeping with an expanding empire than they were with a vibrant democracy. As journalist David Halberstam later observed, “The national security complex became, in the Eisenhower years, a fast-growing apparatus to allow us to do in secret what we could not do in the open. This was not just an isolated phenomenon but part of something larger going on in Washington—the transition from an isolationist America to imperial colossus. A true democracy had no need for a vast, secret security apparatus, but an imperial country did. . . . What was evolving was a closed state within an open state.”

On a bright afternoon in September 1953, forty-three-year-old Senator Joseph McCarthy married his office aide, a twenty-nine-year-old former college beauty queen named Jean Kerr, with great pomp and ceremony at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Pope Pius XII bestowed his apostolic blessing on the couple, and twelve hundred guests—including Vice President Nixon, CIA director Allen Dulles, and young senator John F. Kennedy, whose father was a strong McCarthy supporter—crowded into the cathedral for the nuptials. Afterward, McCarthy and his new wife were whisked away by limousine to a celebrity-studded party held amid the Beaux-Arts splendor of the Patterson Mansion on Dupont Circle, where the couple cut their towering wedding cake and prizefighter Jack Dempsey kissed the bride. Feted by the capital’s political luminaries and Hollywood royalty, McCarthy stood at the pinnacle of his power on his wedding day. Packed into his monkey suit and slugging champagne, the thick-built Washington heavyweight with the dark-stubbled jaw had the champion swagger of Dempsey himself.

The Republican senator had come a long way from the Wisconsin dairy farm where he had grown up. He had financed his political rise by taking payoffs from Pepsi-Cola bottlers and prefab construction moguls. In truth, he never lost his taste for the glitzy swag of politics. One of his wedding gifts, it was reported, was a pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville presented to him by a Houston businessman who shared his militant anti-Communism.

By 1953, McCarthy’s anti-Red witch hunt was in full blaze, torching the careers of distinguished senators and statesmen and even beginning to flicker ominously outside the White House itself. The FBI’s Hoover, long a powerful supporter, was growing increasingly anxious about McCarthy’s inflamed ambitions. That summer Hoover warned the new administration that he had learned there was a “conspiracy” to sabotage Eisenhower’s presidency and replace Ike with the hard-charging Wisconsin senator.

The carnival of shame and humiliation that McCarthy brought to Washington held the capital in its grip from February 1950—when he delivered the infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that kicked off his inquisition (“I have in my hand a list of names . . .”)—to December 1954, when the Senate finally voted to censure him, triggering his rapid political and physical collapse. No one—from the loftiest general or cabinet member to the lowliest government clerk—was immune from Joe McCarthy’s suspicious gaze. When he ran out of alleged Communist sympathizers to drag before his Kafkaesque-sounding Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he began prowling the halls of Washington in search of closeted homosexuals—or “powder puffs,” as he liked to call them.

The florid McCarthy pageant is a fascinating case study in the dynamics of Washington power. The senator was a glaring outsider in the capital’s elite salons—a crude, hard-drinking ex-marine. He seemed to defy the neat power categories of C. Wright Mills, fueled more by the sort of ideological fervor, demagoguery, and murky sponsorship that would characterize the later Tea Party era of American politics.

McCarthy was not educated at Ivy League schools, and he was never courted by Wall Street firms. He had worked his way through law school at Marquette University in Milwaukee by pumping gas and going door-to-door selling caulking compound for doors and windows. He liked to drink bourbon, and in 1952, when an operation for a herniated diaphragm cut him open from gut to shoulder and left him in chronic pain, he drank harder still. Even after he was elected to the august U.S. Senate, he carried around a barroom bully’s sense of grievance. He once assaulted Drew Pearson in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club, pinning the muckraker’s arms behind him and kneeing him in the balls—vicious payback for all the columns Pearson had written about McCarthy’s career. And yet, backed in the beginning by Hoover’s investigative apparatus, as well as by the Catholic Church and the right-wing Hearst and McCormick press, the thuggish senator was able to turn his chairmanship of the previously obscure subcommittee into one of the capital’s most powerful perches. Washington’s VIPs hated and feared him, but most paid homage to him.

McCarthy was a monster of the Republican leadership’s own creation. By the time he claimed the national spotlight in 1950, the GOP had long been using the dark incantations of “treason” and “un-Americanism” for political advantage against the Democrats. It was only a matter of time before a specter like McCarthy began to rise up in this toxic atmosphere. Nixon had exploited these themes to great effect in his congressional and Senate races, as did Tom Dewey—though with less success—in his 1948 presidential campaign. Despite Truman’s victory, he was constantly on the defensive against Republican charges that Communists were honeycombed throughout the federal bureaucracy. In response, Truman imposed a loyalty test on federal employees and created an extensive surveillance apparatus to go with it, which turned up few real security threats. He also shredded the Bill of Rights by unleashing a wave of prosecutions against Communist Party officials, thereby effectively outlawing the party and demolishing much of the organized left. Realizing that he had crossed a constitutional Rubicon, a troubled Truman wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt—the New Deal’s aging but unbending icon—and insisted that he was not trying to set off a witch hunt. But that’s indeed what he did.

As Eisenhower took over the White House in 1953, it was uncertain whether the most dynamic force in Washington would be the new president or the senator from Wisconsin. Eisenhower confided that he reviled McCarthy nearly as much as he had Hitler—but he kept pulling back from confronting him. When Ike had ventured into McCarthy’s home state during the 1952 campaign, making a whistle stop in Green Bay, the senator shared the platform with him. Before speaking to the crowd, Eisenhower leaned over to McCarthy and told him, “I’m going to say that I disagree with you.” McCarthy looked the general squarely in the face: “If you say that, you’ll be booed.” Eisenhower stood his ground. “I’ve been booed before.” But when it came time to speak, Eisenhower buckled, carefully smoothing over their differences.

The GOP campaign in 1952 thoroughly embraced McCarthyism. Nixon took the leading Republican role as hatchet man so that Eisenhower could assume a more dignified posture; in September Nixon vowed to make the “Communist conspiracy” the “theme of every speech from now until election.” McCarthy, in turn, performed loyally for the party, putting his gutter techniques to use at the service of the campaign. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, he declared in a widely broadcast speech in October, “would continue the suicidal Kremlin-shaped policies of this nation.” At one point McCarthy pretended to confuse Stevenson with the accused traitor Hiss, calling him “Alger—I mean Adlai.”

But after Eisenhower’s victory, McCarthy quickly made clear that he considered the new Republican administration fair game. The monster was loose and nobody in Washington was safe. Before the Dulles-dominated Eisenhower administration could get on with its ambitious plans for running the world, it first had to secure the capital, where the dangerous senator continued to make strong men cower. During the first year of Eisenhower’s presidency, McCarthy would boldly target the three institutions at the very center of Washington’s global power: the State Department, the CIA, and finally the Army.

The different ways these institutions grappled with the assaults from McCarthy shed a fascinating light on Washington’s pyramid of power—as well as on the distinctive personalities of the Dulles brothers. It would become clear in the course of this labyrinthine power struggle just who wielded the biggest sword on the Potomac.

There was little doubt about who the big brother was in the Dulles family. Foster had carried himself with a grave sense of familial responsibility ever since he was a boy, while Allen felt free to pursue more mischievous pleasures well into adulthood. Family members inevitably brought their requests and troubles to Foster, not Allen—though the elder brother’s advice, as Eleanor discovered, was not always sound. She once lost her savings on a bad investment that Foster advised her to make. Nonetheless, the Wall Street wise man projected a sober wisdom; titans of industry paid close heed to his counsel, which he dispensed in a deliberative manner, confident that his every word was money.

As the brothers assumed their positions in the Eisenhower government, they brought with them a unique working chemistry, one that had been forged from the time they shared tasks on their Lake Ontario fishing expeditions. Their relationship was not without its tensions and petty squabbles. Allen thought he actually should have been named secretary of state, since he had more experience with foreign affairs and had a more intricate network of overseas connections. He sometimes chafed under his older brother’s imperial rule.

Foster seemed blithely unaware of Allen’s frustrations. “The thing that has puzzled me a great deal is that I’m not sure how much Foster realized this situation,” Eleanor observed years later, after the older brother was dead. “If he realized it, he didn’t show it by any overcompensation or by any overconsideration. All his dealings with Allen were as if there was no psychological essence or problem that had to be dealt with. They dealt with the subject matter and not with each other as people with certain sensitivities and certain prejudices, and so on.”

But Eleanor, the psychologically acute sister, could feel Allen’s jealousy and competitiveness. “I felt it in Allen. I didn’t feel it in Foster. I think you can imagine why. Foster did have more power and more experience, and,” she added matter of factly, “I think [Foster had] the better brain.”

Allen was well aware of the Washington chatter about the unusual brother act. “Every once in a while we were teased, of course, as brothers are likely to be when each of them has a position of a certain amount of importance and are working together,” he remarked in later years. “But I was very conscious of the danger in that situation and I tried to avoid either appearances or actions which would justify any criticism on that score.”

It was very important to Allen that people not think he got his CIA position because of his brother. “You see,” he told an oral historian after his brother’s death, “I was in there before my brother became secretary of state. I was deputy director [of the CIA]. . . . So then when Bedell Smith retired, it was more or less normal that I would be appointed. I mean, that was not considered a particular show of nepotism on the part of Eisenhower. Personally, Eisenhower and I were very close to each other. We’d gotten to know each other very well. Nobody, as far as I know—I’m sure Foster exercised no pressure at all—because it was quite normal that I would take over that place.” But the truth is that Foster did exert his influence on his brother’s behalf, and Eisenhower never felt close to the younger Dulles, regarding him as a necessary evil in his shadow war with world Communism.

Despite its underlying complexities, the Dulles brothers’ partnership proved very effective. They conferred on a regular basis during their Washington reign. “Normally they saw each other once, twice, maybe three times a week. Allen used to go to [Foster’s] house on Saturday and sit down and talk to him for two or three hours,” recalled Eleanor, who—after Foster reluctantly agreed to give her the State Department’s Bonn desk—sometimes joined her brothers at the spacious stone house in a wooded neighborhood of Washington. “I know Foster valued these conversations.”

Unlike the gregarious Allen, Foster was somewhat of a loner. “I’m not sure that there are more than a half dozen people in Washington that he felt really at home with. Maybe a dozen,” said Eleanor. Allen was Foster’s essential link to the Georgetown power circles where the spymaster easily circulated. He collected vital gossip and inside information from his social outings, bringing it back to his brother. Allen was the only frequent visitor that Eleanor ever saw in Foster’s home.

It was Allen, the master of persuasion and seduction, who also expertly handled relations with the press. He counted among his friends not only press barons such as Luce and New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and TV network moguls like William Paley of CBS, but also leading Washington pundits such as Joseph and Stewart Alsop. Allen enjoyed wining and dining the nation’s opinion makers, while Foster would “almost rather negotiate with the Russians than be bothered by that,” in Eleanor’s estimation.

The brothers sometimes clashed. David Atlee Phillips, a CIA counterintelligence official whose career flourished under Allen Dulles, later recalled the time Foster instructed his brother to arrange a secret CIA payment to a foreign political candidate. After consulting with his operatives in the field, Allen informed his brother that it was a bad idea. “The secretary of state, in crisp terms, said he had not asked whether the idea was good or bad,” Phillips recounted, “but that he had instructed the CIA chief that it be done.” The cash was duly delivered—and the candidate still lost (a fact noted by Phillips with evident satisfaction).

On other occasions, Allen expressed his opposition to his brother in more vehement terms. He once told Foster that a speech he planned to deliver on the Soviet Union was “rotten” and he should scrap it. “I am the secretary of state and it is my speech,” Foster insisted. “And I damned well will say it if I want to.” But Allen would not back down. “My Soviet expert here says it is wrong. And I won’t let you make a damned fool of yourself, secretary of state or not!”

By and large, though, the Dulles fraternal partnership was a machine of humming efficiency. “We didn’t realize in the early winter months of 1953 as the new administration took shape just how cozy the Dulles brothers’ arrangement for handling all American business abroad would be,” recalled veteran CIA officer Joseph Smith. “It came to mean very quickly that when a situation would not yield to normal diplomatic pressure, Allen’s boys were expected to step in and take care of the matter.”

Before business abroad could be addressed, however, there was some messiness at home that needed to be taken care of. Allen Dulles might have labored under the shadow of his more esteemed older brother through most of his career, but he was about to show Washington who was the tougher power player.

As the Eisenhower presidency got under way in January 1953, the State Department was the target of no less than ten separate, ongoing congressional probes by McCarthy and his Capitol Hill confederates, who saw Foggy Bottom as a hotbed of pansies, pointy-headed intellectuals, parlor room pinkos, and other soft types who were vulnerable to the siren song of Communism. In the beginning, Foster thought McCarthy’s reign of terror could be useful. He was just as eager as the Republican right wing to purge the State Department of all New Deal remnants.

Foster, courting favor with party hard-liners, agreed to hire a security deputy to oversee the massive screening of all State Department employees. Scott McLeod, the man he hired, was an ex-FBI agent and former reporter for the influential right-wing New Hampshire newspaper, theManchester Union Leader. McLeod, who proudly displayed an autographed photo of McCarthy on his desk inscribed “To a Great American,” was the Wisconsin senator’s man inside the State Department. Like McCarthy, McLeod brought a cynical Irish beat cop’s attitude to the complex task of sorting out the beliefs and allegiances of the U.S. diplomatic corps. McLeod was “anti-intellectual, shrewd, conspiratorial, quick-tempered [and] vindictive,” as John Foster Dulles biographer Townsend Hoopes later observed. A State Department colleague of McLeod put it more sympathetically: “Scotty lived in an essentially simple world.”

As with the other paroxysms of paranoia that seized Washington during the Cold War, McLeod’s witch hunt turned up very few genuinely worrisome suspects. Most of its victims were highly competent, experienced members of the foreign service whose policy differences with the new Dulles regime simply rendered them “incompatibles,” in McLeod’s Orwellian term. A number of these purge victims, such as John Carter Vincent and John Paton Davies Jr., were veterans of the China desk, where their only crime was infuriating the right-wing Taiwan lobby by honestly evaluating why Communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung had been able to defeat corrupt warlord Chiang Kai-shek. The civil service apparatus was supposed to protect respected officials like this, many of whom had made valuable contributions to the U.S. government’s understanding of the world. But ideology trumped ability in Foster’s intensely politicized State Department.

Foster even forced out one of the brightest, most respected intellectual stars in the foreign service firmament, Soviet expert George F. Kennan, simply because he took exception to the secretary of state’s “liberation” strategy aimed at Eastern Europe—a policy so dangerously unviable that even Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers themselves would soon make clear that they had no intention of following through on this campaign promise to “roll back” the Iron Curtain.

As McLeod’s quickly assembled battalion of some 350 inexperienced but gung ho investigators began snooping through State Department employee records, a cloud of fear settled over Foggy Bottom. Those whose files were tagged and sent over to McCarthy’s subcommittee knew their days in government were over—nobody who endured the snide and relentless grilling at the hands of McCarthy and his equally ruthless chief counsel, Roy Cohn, could expect their career to survive. By the time McCarthy’s Washington bonfires were extinguished two years later, the careers of several hundred State Department officers and employees lay in ashes.

Early in the McCarthy-McLeod inquisition, Foster realized that it could burn out of control. While he was happy to see political opponents consumed in its flames, he soon grew worried that the State Department itself was at stake. By subjecting employees to humiliating loyalty tests and exposure of their private lives, the wide-reaching security program was emptying the State Department of its best and brightest.

Even Eleanor Dulles, who was reluctant to confront her impregnably self-confident brother, felt compelled to complain to him. After all, the State Department was the family business, it had been entrusted to Foster—and now he was allowing McCarthy to ruin it. Eleanor had seen the danger early on, when the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign made its unsavory alliance with McCarthy. She first confronted Foster then. “I went over to New York. I called up Foster and said I was coming. He said, ‘Come to dinner.’ You know, he was generous and friendly in that sort of thing, even if he was busy. He was very frank though, if he didn’t want you, he would tell you. . . . But I went to dinner, and he made a very fine martini. I had one. Then he started to fill my glass again, and I said, ‘No, I don’t need another.’

“He looked at me sort of queerly and he said, ‘You must have come over here for a serious purpose, if you won’t have two martinis.’

“I said, ‘I have.’ So then I said to him, ‘I want you to know that I think this is an evil business that’s going on. If the Republicans don’t repudiate McCarthy, I’m going to vote the Democratic ticket.’”

Eleanor’s threat only had the effect of “amusing” Foster, who asked his sister a few questions about why she felt the way she did, and then simply dropped the subject.

In the end, Foster Dulles never confronted McCarthy—even when the senator repeatedly embarrassed both the president and the secretary of state. The administration had no sooner taken office than McCarthy began using his Senate power to hold up the nominations of key appointments, including close Eisenhower associates like Beetle Smith, who had been nominated to serve as Foster’s undersecretary of state. Smith had annoyed McCarthy at some point by saying something positive about a State Department official whom the senator considered a card-carrying Communist.

Eisenhower was infuriated by McCarthy’s antics. The senator was challenging the new president’s authority to control his own government. Ike’s Cold War propaganda adviser, C. D. Jackson—a fascinating and somewhat mysterious character who had a background in the OSS and served as a sort of intelligence link among the White House, the CIA, and Henry Luce’s media empire—advised the president to launch an all-out attack on McCarthy. But Nixon, who thought of McCarthy as a friend and essential ally, urged that the administration try to make the troublesome senator a member of the team. Nixon was supported by others in the president’s inner circle, including even the hot-tempered Beetle Smith himself, who warned that a direct assault on McCarthy would risk splitting the Republican Party.

Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers decided to use Nixon as their mediator with McCarthy. The two men were, in some ways, cut from the same rough cloth. Aggrieved outsiders in the Ivy League/Wall Street world of the power elite, they had both grabbed onto the club of anti-Communism as the blunt tool of their ferocious ambition. They had a working stiff’s bitterness that they clearly enjoyed venting at Harvard types like Alger Hiss as much as they did at hard-core Communists. McCarthy went as far as challenging the nomination of Harvard University president James B. Conant as high commissioner to Germany, before Nixon talked him down.

But Nixon was more sophisticated and intelligent than McCarthy. McCarthy’s ambition was a raw force that he wielded with little or no concern for where his blows might land—even if President Eisenhower or the mighty Dulles brothers stood in his way. Nixon, on the other hand, knew that men like these controlled his path to the top, and he was eager to please them. He was, in Adlai Stevenson’s words, “McCarthy with a white collar.” The vice president kept setting up private meetings with the headstrong senator, where he would try to talk sense into him, dangling political favors before his eyes.

The easily dazzled McCarthy would take Nixon’s bait for a while, but a few days later he would come out swinging again, usurping Eisenhower’s power by announcing his own anti-Communist measures or accusing another administration nominee of some shocking infamy. In the end, not even the wily Nixon could bring McCarthy under control as he thrashed about in the Washington arena.

Foster, deathly afraid of losing the job for which he had been groomed since boyhood, did everything he could to placate the reckless McCarthy. The elder Dulles, observed the veteran diplomat Charles “Chip” Bohlen, was a man “with one obsession: to remain secretary of state.” To do that, Foster was willing to sacrifice nearly everything, including his dignity and the integrity of his department.

“My brother was never a witch hunter,” Allen insisted years later, still defensive about the reputation his brother had developed during the McCarthy era. “I mean, he realized the subtleties of Communist penetration, and all that. But he didn’t go along with the sort of blanket condemnation of people.” The truth, however, is that Foster Dulles’s groveling efforts to pacify McCarthy not only encouraged his aggression but institutionalized his witch hunt within the State Department.

When Eisenhower nominated Chip Bohlen, who had served in the U.S. embassy in Moscow before and during the war, to be his ambassador to the Soviet Union, McCarthy inevitably detected something amiss with the distinguished diplomat—a hint of homosexuality somewhere in his family (it turned out that the allegations involved his brother-in-law). Bohlen was as upstanding a member of the foreign service club as the American establishment had ever produced: grandson of a U.S. senator, graduate of Harvard, respected member of the diplomatic corps since 1929, adviser to three presidents. Eisenhower decided that this time he would take a stand, and he recruited his rival—Senator Robert Taft, leader of the GOP’s right wing—to help push through Bohlen’s nomination.

But Foster remained a bundle of nerves throughout the Bohlen confirmation process, terrified that if the nominee’s head were lopped off, his would be next. The secretary of state was ready at any moment to urge Eisenhower to abandon Bohlen if things got too hot on Capitol Hill. When Foster and Bohlen were being driven to the nominee’s Senate confirmation hearing, Foster awkwardly asked Bohlen not to be photographed with him. Later, after Bohlen was finally confirmed, Foster asked the new ambassador—who planned to fly to Moscow a week or two ahead of his family—to delay his trip, so his solo arrival in Russia would not set off another round of heated speculation about his sexuality.

During the early months of the Eisenhower presidency, Foster repeatedly surrendered to the McCarthy onslaught. When the senator shifted his target from Communists to homosexuals in the State Department, Foster allowed his employees’ privacy to be blatantly violated. Ironically, it was McCarthy’s aggressive chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who took the lead in questioning suspected homosexuals. Cohn, whose heavy-lidded eyes and leathery, perpetually tanned skin gave him a serpentine look, was not only gay but had installed his twenty-six-year-old playmate, a rich golden boy with no particular credentials named David Schine, on his staff. The son of a hotel and movie theater tycoon, Schine was known while a Harvard undergraduate for paying secretaries to take class notes for him. “Essentially,” observed one Cold War historian, “Schine was Cohn’s dumb blonde.” Despite his own sexual leanings, Cohn took obvious pleasure in humiliating the gay witnesses who appeared before the subcommittee, demanding to know the locations of their illicit trysts and the names of their sexual partners.

McCarthy next went after the Voice of America, the State Department’s Cold War propaganda arm, which Allen Dulles had helped create, absurdly declaring it another hotbed of Communist infestation. By April, 830 of the Voice of America’s 1,400 employees had been purged, including its chief.

That same month, Cohn and Schine announced that they were setting off for Europe together to inspect the libraries maintained by U.S. embassies. These embassy libraries were supposed to be a “balanced collection of American thought”—showcases for U.S. tolerance and diversity. But Cohn and Schine were determined to cleanse the libraries of all books they suspected of a leftward tilt. The pair’s investigative junket, which one subpoenaed author labeled “a book burning,” turned into a public relations disaster for the United States, provoking widespread revulsion and ridicule in the European press.

While visiting Frankfurt, Cohn and Schine found other ways to embarrass their country, according to a local newspaper, engaging in flirtatious antics in a hotel lobby and leaving their hotel room in a shambles after a vigorous round of horseplay that the reporter left up to the reader’s imagination. But instead of criticizing McCarthy’s rowdy henchmen, Foster Dulles dutifully culled the embassy libraries of all ideologically impure books, including works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Langston Hughes. Cohn even wanted to ban the soaringly American music of Aaron Copland from the libraries, which also loaned records, because the composer had made the mistake of signing petitions defending the civil rights of labor leader Harry Bridges and other beleaguered left-wing heroes.

This was Washington at the dawn of the Eisenhower-Dulles era, when the most powerful men in the capital lived in fear of being served subpoenas by a drunken senator, when even John Foster Dulles trembled before McCarthy’s brute force. It would take Foster’s more iron-nerved brother to bring the beast to heel.

In July 1953, after having his way with Foster Dulles’s State Department, McCarthy came after his brother’s CIA, announcing in his usual imprecise way that he possessed “tons” of evidence that revealed widespread Communist infiltration of the spy agency. McCarthy’s prime suspect was a bespectacled, Ivy League–educated CIA analyst named William Bundy, whose profile made him the perfect embodiment of the Dulles agency man. A member of Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones society—breeding ground for future spooks—Bundy joined Army intelligence during the war, working at Bletchley Park in England as part of the Ultra operation that cracked Nazi codes. Dulles was close to Bundy’s father, Harvey, a top diplomat who had helped oversee the Marshall Plan, as well as his younger brother, McGeorge, another product of Skull and Bones and Army intelligence who had worked with Dulles at the Council on Foreign Relations and on the Dewey presidential campaign.

McCarthy hoped to make Bill Bundy his Alger Hiss, and, in fact, one of the main pieces of incriminating evidence he waved against him was that Bundy had contributed $400 to the Alger Hiss defense fund. But the Bundys were solid members of Allen Dulles’s inner circle, and Dulles did not easily abandon men like Bundy. The spymaster finally decided to draw the line with McCarthy—and the ensuing, explosive confrontation led ultimately to the inquisitor’s downfall.

Taking on McCarthy at the height of his power was a daunting task, even for the director of the CIA. Dulles knew that, despite J. Edgar Hoover’s growing doubts about McCarthy, the FBI still fed him a stream of damaging information about his Washington enemies. Hoover, a sworn rival ever since Dulles outmaneuvered him to create the CIA in 1947, had amassed a thick file on Dulles and his busy adulterous life. Hoover even suspected Dulles of “secret communist leanings,” a delusion as fantastic as any of McCarthy’s wild claims. At least one high-ranking CIA official—Robert Amory, the agency’s top intelligence analyst—was convinced that the FBI had tapped his office phone.

But Dulles, too, was a master at this sort of game, and he made sure his agency kept its own files on Hoover. Jim Angleton liked to say that any intelligence service that didn’t keep a close eye on its own government wasn’t worth its salt. “Penetration begins at home,” he quipped. The CIA counterintelligence chief was rumored to occasionally show off photographic evidence of Hoover’s intimate relationship with FBI deputy Clyde Tolson, including a photo of Hoover orally pleasuring his longtime aide and companion. Dulles’s wisecracking mistress Mary Bancroft liked to call the FBI director “that Virgin Mary in pants,” but there was nothing virginal about Hoover.

Dulles compiled even more scandalous files on Joe McCarthy’s sex life. The senator who relentlessly hunted down homosexuals in government was widely rumored to haunt the “bird circuit” near Grand Central Station as well as gay hideaways in Milwaukee. Drew Pearson got wind of the stories but was never able to get enough proof to run with them. But the less discriminating Hank Greenspun, editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, who was locked in an ugly war of words with McCarthy, let the allegations fly. Greenspun had been given access to the Pearson files, and he had picked up his own McCarthy stories involving young hotel bellboys and elevator operators during the senator’s gambling trips to Vegas. “Joe McCarthy is a bachelor of 43 years,” wrote Greenspun. “He seldom dates girls and if he does, he laughingly describes it as window dressing. . . . It is common talk among homosexuals who rendezvous at the White Horse Inn [in Milwaukee] that Senator Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities.”

McCarthy’s wedding announcement triggered more wicked chatter in the capital, where many saw it as an obvious ploy to dispel the rumors. The senator was as surprised as many others to read the announcement of his pending nuptials—it was his mother-in-law-to-be who placed the notice in the newspapers. McCarthy’s young bride was described in one gossip magazine as “a bright, shrewd and very ambitious young lady. ‘Opportunist’ was the word many people used.”

One Hoover aide later denied the gay reports about McCarthy, insisting that the allegations were blowback against the senator because he had dared to take on the Dulles brothers. But Hoover kept his own secret files on McCarthy, one of which was filled with disturbing stories about McCarthy’s habit of drunkenly groping young girls’ breasts and buttocks. The stories were so widespread that they became “common knowledge” in the capital, according to one FBI chronicler. Walter Trohan, Washington bureau chief of the conservative Chicago Tribune, who witnessed McCarthy’s molesting behavior, said, “He just couldn’t keep his hands off young girls. Why the Communist opposition didn’t plant a minor on him and raise the cry of statutory rape, I don’t know.”

“The Communist opposition” might have missed the opportunity, but the CIA was clearly prepared to leak stories about McCarthy’s behavior—stories so sordid, they would have destroyed his career. This gave Dulles leverage in his battle with McCarthy that none of the senator’s other political opponents enjoyed. There was an explosive sexual subtext to the CIA’s power struggle with McCarthy, one that was largely hidden from the public but would eventually erupt in the Senate hearings that brought him down.

What the public witnessed was fascinating enough: a clash of titans that verged on a constitutional crisis. When McCarthy tried to subpoena Bill Bundy, Dulles simply stonewalled him. The agency had Bundy spirited away to an undisclosed location, and when Roy Cohn called to demand that he testify before the subcommittee—that very day—he was told that Bundy was on leave. Walter Pforzheimer, the CIA’s legislative liaison, later remembered the phone call. “Roy was furious. . . . What a fight! Later that day, my secretary tracked me down to tell me Cohn wanted to talk to me [again]. And he wanted me to testify about Bundy’s file.” But Dulles simply “wouldn’t allow it.” When a subpoena arrived for Pforzheimer, the CIA director was unfazed. “Allen Dulles just took it and gave it to somebody. I wanted it for posterity, but no one’s ever found it.”

On July 9, 1953, an outraged McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Dulles’s “blatant attempt to thwart the authority of the Senate” and demanded that Dulles himself appear before his subcommittee. Dulles still refused to bend, but he did drop by McCarthy’s office to explain his position. Because of the highly sensitive nature of the CIA’s work, Dulles informed the senator, his agency must be granted immunity from congressional investigations. McCarthy just had to take his word that there were no Communists hidden in the agency. If he ever did find any Reds, Dulles later explained to the press, “I’d kick them out. I have the power to do it and don’t have to have proof they work for the Kremlin. The fact that a man is a Communist would be enough.”

Dulles’s defiant position on congressional oversight astonished even the anti-McCarthy Democrats on the subcommittee, like Senator Stuart Symington. But the CIA director never wavered from his stand, and he soon won Eisenhower’s support. Nixon was again dispatched to meet with McCarthy, to work out a face-saving way for the senator to back down. Soon after, McCarthy announced that he and Dulles had come to a mutual agreement to suspend the probe of the CIA. Dulles drove home his victory by making sure that his friends in the Washington press corps reported McCarthy’s losing confrontation with the CIA as a major humiliation for the senator.

On July 17, syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop—a journalist so deeply entwined with the CIA that he once declared it was his patriotic duty to carry the agency’s water—announced that “Senator Joseph R. McCarthy has just suffered his first total, unmitigated, unqualified defeat. . . . [Administration strategists] have allowed McCarthy to conceal his defeat behind a typical smoke screen of misleading statements. But the background story proves that the junior Senator from Wisconsin went down for the count of ten, all the same.”

Dulles proudly collected newspaper coverage of his battle with McCarthy. He was no doubt particularly pleased by one of the clippings he gathered, an article by The Buffalo Evening News’s Washington correspondent, which reported that the CIA director is “known here as ‘John Foster Dulles’s tougher, younger brother.’”

Not all of the press reaction to Dulles’s display of defiance was so enthusiastic. Two journalistic pillars whom the CIA director considered old friends—syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann and New York Times correspondent Hanson Baldwin—took strong issue with the way Dulles had flouted Senate authority. “The argument that the CIA is something apart, that it is so secret that it differs in kind from the State Department or, for that matter, the Department of Agriculture, in untenable,” Lippmann opined. Baldwin struck an even more critical note, warning of “a philosophy of secrecy and power” taking hold in Washington under the banner of national security.

But Dulles’s firm stand against McCarthy—a man Richard Helms compared to Goebbels—proved enormously popular within the CIA, particularly among the ranks of the liberal, intellectual types whom Dulles had recruited. While Dulles and his family were stalwart Republicans, he recognized that many of the most passionate Cold Warriors were ex-Communists and liberals who not only had firsthand knowledge of bare-knuckled Communist Party practices but were eager to prove their patriotism and join the American celebration. Dulles further cemented his position with this liberal crowd when he stood by CIA recruit Cord Meyer, another bright young product of Yale, who came under FBI suspicion in August 1953 for his postwar peace activities.

After enduring years of relentless harassment from Red hunters, many Washington liberals cheered Dulles as a savior. His CIA became known as a haven for the intelligentsia and for others looked on with suspicion by McCarthyites. “I emerged from [my FBI] ordeal with increased respect for Allen Dulles,” Meyer later wrote. “Dulles proved to be a pillar of courageous strength inside the Eisenhower administration during the McCarthy era. Once he had determined the facts and satisfied himself as to the loyalty of a CIA official, he was prepared to defend him and he refused to give in to the pressures that McCarthy was able to bring to bear. As a result, morale within the agency was high during this period, in contrast to morale in the State Department where John Foster Dulles was less willing to defend the innocent victims of McCarthy’s campaign.”

Dulles’s defiance of McCarthy won the widespread devotion of liberals, but it established a dangerous precedent. In his very first year as director, Dulles began molding an image of the CIA as a super agency, operating high above mere senators. The CIA would grow more powerful and less accountable with each passing year of Dulles’s reign.

McCarthy never got over his rough treatment at the hands of the CIA, and he would threaten on more than one occasion to reopen his investigation of the agency. But if he had, he might have encountered an even more severe response. In March 1954, McCarthy’s subcommittee convened a hearing on “alleged threats against the chairman.” One witness—a military intelligence officer named William Morgan who had worked for C. D. Jackson in the White House—stunned the subcommittee by recounting a conversation that he had the previous year with a CIA employee named Horace Craig. As the two men were discussing how to solve the McCarthy problem, Craig flatly stated, “It may be necessary to liquidate Senator McCarthy as was [assassinated Louisiana senator] Huey Long. There is always some madman who will do it for a price.”

The Dulles slapdown of McCarthy proved to be a fateful turning point for the senator, inspiring a new boldness within the Eisenhower administration that would lead to his collapse. A month later, in August 1953, when McCarthy took aim at Reds in the Agriculture Department, of all places, Nixon advised Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson to “take a firm stand, like Allen Dulles, if McCarthy gets out of line.” In September, after returning from his honeymoon, McCarthy made his final—and fatal—mistake, by taking on another central institution of U.S. national security, the Army.

Like Foster Dulles, the spineless Army Secretary, a former textile executive named Robert Ten Broeck Stevens, had done everything he could to appease McCarthy, but the senator had only grown more frothing in his attacks, accusing the Army of sloppy security measures that had led to the hiring of subversive civilians. At one point, McCarthy dragged a decorated D-day hero, General Ralph W. Zwicker, before his panel and dressed him down like he was a bumbling Beetle Bailey, barking at the dignified, ramrod-stiff officer that he was “not fit to wear that uniform.”

Much of the anti-Army spleen in the McCarthy office was inspired by the adolescent frustrations of the senator’s twenty-six-year-old chief counsel, Roy Cohn. When Cohn’s boyfriend, David Schine, was drafted into the Army in October 1953, McCarthy’s point man began frantically pulling strings on his behalf. Assigned to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training, Schine was showered with special privileges, including frequent exemptions from KP duty and weekend passes so he could be chauffeured to New York City for R&R with Cohn. (Their chauffeur would later testify that the two men also used his vehicle’s backseat for their passionate reunions.) Schine, who found his Army issue boots uncomfortable, was even allowed to wear custom-made boots. When Cohn was told that his boyfriend might be transferred overseas, he flew into a rage. “We’ll wreck the Army,” he spluttered at the Army’s liaison to the subcommittee. “The Army will be ruined . . . if you pull a dirty, lousy, stinking, filthy, shitty double cross like that.”

After months of trying to manage McCarthy, Eisenhower finally reached his breaking point. In February 1954, Massachusetts Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a close ally of the president, privately warned that the Army investigation was “an attempt to destroy the president politically. There is no doubt about it. He is picking on the Army because Eisenhower was in the Army.” The following month, the president authorized Lodge to ask for the publication of a damning report that the Army had been secretly compiling on the numerous ways that McCarthy and Cohn had bullied and blackmailed military authorities on Schine’s behalf. In response to the scorching Schine report, McCarthy’s subcommittee removed him as chairman and called for hearings on the Army’s allegations. The stage was set for the Army-McCarthy hearings, a televised spectacle that turned the inquisitional tables on the senator and finally ended his infamous reign.

McCarthy—who was allowed to participate in the proceedings—gave his usual crude performance, badgering witnesses and shouting “point of order” whenever he felt the urge to disrupt the drama. But captured in the glare of the TV lights, his coarse act had a repellent effect on the viewing public. By the time the Army’s distinguished Boston attorney, Joseph Nye Welch, uttered his devastating and instantly memorable line—“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”—the American people knew the answer.

In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy, and he continued his slide toward oblivion, drinking more and more heavily until he was polishing off a bottle of the hard stuff a day. By 1956, those who knew the senator were describing him as a “sick pigeon” suffering from a host of physical ailments and shuttling in and out of detox. During a visit home to Wisconsin in September, he was seized by delirium tremens and saw snakes flying at him. In May 1957, he was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he died of acute liver failure at age forty-eight. Joe McCarthy had drunk himself to death.

McCarthy’s confrontation with the Army would become famous for his undoing, but it was his earlier battle with Allen Dulles that had drawn first blood and made him vulnerable. As McCarthy’s stature in Washington shrank, Dulles’s grew. No politician during the Eisenhower era would ever again seriously challenge the CIA director’s rule. With his Washington power base secure, Dulles was ready to take on the world.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!