The downfall of McCarthy: Ike helped push; Who Killed Joe McCarthy?, by William Bragg Ewald Jr. New York; Simon & Schuster. 399 pp. $17.95

On Oct. 2, 1952, a confrontation took place in a hotel in Peoria, a confrontation presidential candidate Dwight David Eisenhower did not particularly relish. His scheduled meeting was with Joseph McCarthy, junior Republican senator from Wisconsin. Across the nation, headlines screamed McCarthy's wild charges of Communist infiltration of the United States government. The stalking senator of the dead-white face and grating voice was turning into a loose cannon on the nation's quarterdeck.

Reports on the two-man encounter vary. Kevin McCann, an Eisenhower lieutenant who sat outside in the corridor, said long after, ''I never heard the General so coldbloodedly skin a man. He . . . just took McCarthy apart.'' McCarthy himself simply said to the waiting press, ''We had a very, very pleasant conversation.''

Now William Bragg Ewald, a member of the White House staff during the Eisenhower years, tells the tumultuous story of McCarthy's heyday and downfall, and of the aloof but effective role which the President played in that downfall. Ewald has drawn on diaries, telephone conversations, and memoranda which were impounded at the time by the executive branch, and these lend substance and fresh excitement to the narrative.

Eisenhower decreed that the way to harness the loose cannon and throw it overboard was to keep above the fray. ''Presidential silence . . . became a strategy of attack,'' Ewald writes. Let the Senate take care of its own maverick. Executive branch interference was unconstitutional and would only earn more headlines and even sympathy for the rampaging senator.

Sketching in the climate of the times, Ewald reminds us that McCarthy rose to ascendancy in the waning Truman years. It was in the summer of 1948 that Whittaker Chambers had made his charges against Alger Hiss. If the elegant Hiss, who had served the US government at Yalta, Dumbarton Oaks, and the United Nations, was suspect, who could be trusted? In December 1949 Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China for Taiwan, and the Yellow Peril and the Red menace seemed to coalesce.

McCarthyism as such began on Feb. 9, 1950, in West Virginia, when the senator waved a piece of paper before a Republican women's club audience, claiming that it contained the names of 205 bad security risks in the State Department alone. By the election year of 1952 McCarthy was in full spate, and the mood of the country was that the Truman administration had never quite come to grips with Communist infiltration.

Ewald reminds us where McCarthy's constituency lay: ''Joe McCarthy meant votes in Irish Boston, in German Milwaukee, in Polish Chicago, in redneck Tennessee and Southern-fried Dixie . . . wherever red-blooded Americans responded in wrath to his headlined revelations that the US Government was honeycombed with Communists, pinkos and fellow travelers.''

After the Peoria meeting, McCarthy won a round in his growing feud with Ike. Persuaded by his staff, Eisenhower had deleted praise of General Marshall from a campaign speech. McCarthy, who during the summer had charged Marshall with high treason, claimed that he was responsible for that deletion.

After Eisenhower's election, the feud became official, with Ike relying on his staff and the Department of Defense in the drawn-out struggle. For his part McCarthy had the services of such henchmen as Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, of various ex-FBI men, and occasionally of the formidable J. Edgar Hoover himself.

The bulk of the book, with its full crescendo of drama, is the account of McCarthy's investigation of the Army's Fort Monmouth as a hotbed of Communist espionage and the story of Army Secretary Robert Stevens's well-intentioned attempts to placate the senator and yet keep his congressional subcommittee from riding roughshod over executive branch terrain.

The climax, only half-remembered now but deserving never to be forgotten, comes when a special senatorial committee is formed to judge the Army-McCarthy fracas, with the courtly and wily Boston lawyer Joseph Welch acting as special counsel for the Army. The high point of drama arrives when McCarthy lies once too often - faking an FBI report and challenging his onetime sponsor, Hoover. Welch finally runs him to earth (''Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?''). The account is so well told here that it almost seems brand-new.

Ewald is especially good at thumbnail sketches that make the characters in the unfolding drama come alive. The capsule on Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell, is a fair sample: ''He had a ready and gentle smile, smoothness of motion, a slight paunch and a quick, tough Phi Beta Kappa mind. . . .''

In sum, Ewald maintains that Ike came out on top because he kept to the high ground, never engaging in vituperative attack, and also because he was well served. The President let the Senate censure and destroy its colleague. ''And Eisenhower won, above all, because he constantly held up before his fellow countrymen a standard to which . . . wise and good men, weary of negative, niggling controversy, could repair: a standard of abstract principles of freedom of the mind, fidelity to the Constitution, fair play, honesty, magnanimity. . . .''

In a sense, Joe McCarthy self-destructed. Drugged by publicity, made torpid by all-night vodka sessions, lulled by his own insensitivity, lying once too often, he ultimately committed political suicide. In this version, Eisenhower is seen as ringleader to the political slaying of McCarthy, without quite getting into the ring, and certainly as principal accessory to a crime that was no crime at all. For nothing of the real America, nothing that was truly American, died with McCarthy.

Read this book and learn a good deal about what we were - and are.

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