James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.” He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C.
In 1957, the New York Times published a profile of President Dwight Eisenhower’s first assistant for national security affairs, a position that would eventually become known as national security adviser. “No man in the Government, with the possible exception of the President, knows so many of the nation’s strategic secrets,” the Times declared of Robert “Bobby” Cutler. The paper then employed a mess of contradictions to describe this Massachusetts Republican, which was not so much the oxymoron then that it is today. “A proper Bostonian” who is also a “Rabelasian with a salty vocabulary,” “an earnest Episcopalian” and “a man who can move so quickly from ribaldry to piety and back to ribaldry again,” “a ‘slave driver’ who can force his staff to work as hard as he works himself” but also “a charming and generous friend,” Cutler was “a bachelor’s bachelor . . . who has had a lifelong love affair” not with any person but with his home town, Boston.
To add another paradox, barely hinted at by the Times: Cutler was a gay man who sat atop the national security bureaucracy at a time when people like him were being purged from government service.
This we know thanks to a new biography, “Ike’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler.” Written by Cutler’s great-nephew, Peter Shinkle, it is based largely upon a set of secret diaries that Cutler wrote during his time in the Eisenhower administration and that he never intended anyone, except the (human) object of his affection, to see. While the interests of America’s historical record — long bereft of gay history, which is often elusive by nature — may be served by revealing the intimate details of Cutler’s interior life, whether he merits a full-length biography is another matter.
Born into a Boston Brahmin family, Cutler was a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School. After working as a lawyer, banker and political fixer, he got to know Eisenhower personally as an aide on his 1952 national whistle-stop campaign train tour. As much as Cutler’s bloodline made him a natural fit for the WASP aristocracy leading the new Eisenhower administration, his sexual orientation threatened his privileged position.
Shortly after swearing the oath of office, Eisenhower began weeding “subversives” out of the federal government. Elected amid the Red Scare, Ike had won the presidency partly because of a sense that the long-reigning Democrats were soft on communism, which in the public mind had become linked with homosexuality. A whisper campaign, abetted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, tarred the recently divorced Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, as a homosexual; Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen (Ill.) associated Stevenson with “the lavender lads of the State Department.” Ike’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Clean House,” alluded not only to corruption but sedition and sexual impropriety.
On Inauguration Day, Attorney General Herbert Brownell submitted a draft executive order to the new president mandating security background checks for all new federal employees. The following day, Cutler suggested a more sweeping policy, one that had been proposed by a government commission during the previous Truman administration but never implemented. Under the regulations advised by the Interdepartmental Committee on Internal Security, “sexual perversion” should be a factor in determining whether an employee posed a security risk, alongside the more conventional menace of communist sympathies. While “sexual perversion” was undefined, its intended target was obvious: homosexuals.
As a result of Executive Order 10450, signed by the president on April 27, 1953, thousands of patriotic gay men and women lost their jobs in what later became known as the “Lavender Scare,” far more than would ever fall victim to the much more infamous Red Scare. Shinkle’s contribution to history is his revelation that a gay man played an important bureaucratic role in this tragedy by advocating a policy that lowered the threshold for dismissal from disloyalty to homosexuality.
There are not many more such previously undisclosed moments in this book, however, much of which treads familiar Cold War history. In chapters rehashing the controversy over Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, U.S.-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala, and the evolving U.S. nuclear weapons posture, Cutler emerges as a bystander to far more significant figures like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA Director Allen Dulles and Hoover. Shinkle does recount an exchange involving the latter figure, which, in light of what he has revealed about Cutler’s sexual orientation, can be read in a somewhat humorous light. Following a leave of absence Cutler took during the “politically sensitive” period around the 1956 reelection campaign, which may have been prompted by rumormongering about his sexuality, Hoover wrote the returning administration official a letter. “Dear Bobbie,” the FBI director — himself a bachelor long dogged by gay rumors — began, conspicuously using the feminine form. Cutler, no less catty in his reply, used letterhead from the bank at which he was working, embellished with the image of a Puritan and the motto, “Worthy of Your Trust.”
“Ike’s Mystery Man” becomes a genuinely engrossing read in its final third, when Cutler develops a romantic interest in a National Security Council staffer half his age. Thus begins, by his own description, “the greatest adventure of my life,” an adventure that is by turns pathetic and illuminating. Pathetic, as the romance is unrequited yet strung along by the younger man, who at most admits to platonic love for Cutler. Illuminating, because it resembles the experiences of countless men and women who, forced for so long to mask their true selves, appeared to the world as mysteries.
Peter Shinkle will discuss “Ike’s Mystery Man” with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent of Yahoo News, at Politics and Prose on Jan. 20. at 1 p.m.
By Peter Shinkle
Steerforth. 401 pp. $29.95