“Ike’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler” by Peter Shinkle— Eisenhower’s First National Security Advisor

Shinkle, Peter. “Ike’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler”, Steerforth Press, 2018.Hardcover – December 4, 2018

Eisenhower’s First National Security Advisor

Amos Lassen

“Ike’s Mystery Man” is the extraordinary story of a gay man who held the nation’s most sensitive secrets at a time when such a thing was supposed to be impossible.
President Eisenhower’s National Security Advisor Robert “Bobby” Cutler was the person who shaped American Cold War strategy in far more consequential ways than previously understood. Cutler was a lifelong Republican, yet also served three Democratic presidents. He was known to be the life of any party yet he was a tight-lipped loyal man who worked behind the scenes to get things done. This is the story of his private life that has never before been told before.
Cutler struggled throughout his years in the White House to discover and embrace his own sexual identity and orientation. He was in love with  Skip Koons, a man half his age, NSC staffer Skip Koons. Cutler wrote with his emotions in a six-volume diary and left behind dozens of letters that have been hidden from history. Steve Benedict, who was White House security officer, Cutlers’ friend and Koons’ friend and former lover, preserved Cutler’s papers. All three men served Eisenhower at a time when anyone suspected of “sexual perversion” homosexuality, was banned from federal employment and vulnerable to security sweeps by the FBI. With the freedoms that we have today, we can only wonder how it was to live like that and we know that many gay men did.

Peter Shinkle has found an extraordinary story through the diary and letters of Robert “Bobby” Cutler, an able public servant. We see how power was wielded in Washington during the 1950s, and also read about the eternal conflict between public life and private emotion.  Eisenhower’s National Security Advisor, General Robert “Bobby” Cutler, was Ike’s “unseen arm”  who worked on and guided many of the President’s most important foreign policies. There is more and that is “the intimate unknown painful story of a gay man’s secret love within the homophobic councils of government.

This book is an important, richly researched contribution to the history of one of the sad episodes in American history — a time  when, during the height of the McCarthy era, thousands of government workers were driven from their jobs or barred from ever getting one because they were gay. It is astonishing to learn that Robert Cutler, President Eisenhower’s first national security advisor and one of the authors of the notorious 1953 Executive Order that declared “sexual perversion” a threat to national security, was himself a closeted gay man. Shinkle shares Cutler’s private hell as he struggled to reconcile his passion for a much younger man with the social mores of his time.

It just so happens that Robert Cutler was the great uncle of Peter Shinkle and perhaps that is why it is written with so much love and respect.
“A honeyed, scintillating and ultimately sad tale of gay love at the highest reaches of the Eisenhower White House . . . Peter Shinkle tells the story of his great uncle Robert Cutler with grace and sensitivity. If this story had come out at the height of the McCarthyite madness, the scandal would have imploded the Eisenhower presidency.

Shinkle exposes how one of the chief architects of American national security policy during the Cold War was a “confirmed bachelor,” even in the midst of Washington’s Lavender Scare. There was an elite circle of gay men who were welcomed into the social world of Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower and this demonstrates how extreme discretion and dissembling allowed some to survive the anti-gay purges. Because of the detective work of Peter Shinkle, we now have the diaries and love letters of one of the complicated loves that existed back then.  Bobby Cutler had two great loves; one was for another Eisenhower aide and the other for his country. Cutler lived in a climate of rabid homophobia yet served as Ike’s “right arm” in crafting national security policy and transforming the role of the National Security Council.

Bobby Cutler was a Harvard-trained lawyer who was not gay himself but who worked with other gay men in the White House and fell in love with one of them at the heart of Ike’s national security apparatus. This was in the nation’s lawmaking capitol at the height of the McCarthy era, where vicious hunts for homosexuals were led often by men who themselves were gay or suspected of homosexuality. An atmosphere of fear and paranoia prevailed. Cutler was gay at a time America ostracized that orientation — and his lover was a CIA operative when the agency typically shunned such people. 

Peter Shinkle masterfully brings together two compelling stories. One is about Dwight Eisenhower’s first national security advisor and his contributions to shaping Cold War policies; the second is the story about Bobby Cutler’s sexual identity struggle and his personal relationships in an era when homosexuality was considered perversion and Eisenhower’s own policies towards homosexuals were punitive. 

In the annals of presidential directives, few were more chilling than a document signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 1953. It had been crafted during the height of the Cold War; Executive Order 10450 declared that alongside Communism, “sexual perversion” by government officials was a threat to national security. The order became the catalyst for a massive purge of the federal workforce and in the years that followed, thousands of government employees were investigated and fired for being gay.

The full story of Executive Order 10450 and its terrible consequences has only started to surface and it turns out there was an untold personal drama behind the making of the antigay White House order and that I the subject of “Ike’s Mystery Men”.

 “Bobby” Cutler Jr. became a close adviser to Eisenhower during his 1952 presidential campaign. He was then asked by Ike to serve as White House special assistant for national security affairs, the forerunner to the position of national security adviser. In that post, Cutler, who prided himself on never talking to the press, was a pivotal figure, helping to direct U.S. foreign policy during an era of tense global confrontation with the Soviet Union. And it was also Cutler who oversaw the drafting of Executive Order 10450 — a role all the more remarkable because, as Shinkle reveals, Cutler was a gay man who secretly pursued a passionate, years-long relationship with a young naval intelligence officer on the National Security Council staff.

“Bobby served the nation’s strategic defense and national security interests brilliantly, while living in private agony as a closeted homosexual, deprived of the affections for which he longed,” writes Shinkle.

The book will undoubtedly stir discussion and arguments among historians and activists who have been trying for years to resurrect the erased history of the U.S. government’s demonization of homosexuals, and to understand how it came about.

 The Eisenhower executive order caused unspeakable damage to loyal LGBT Americans—- tens of thousands were investigated and had their lives ruined. “This is the texture of history. That you have a homosexual — known to himself as a homosexual — writing this order, it blew my mind.”

The story of how Shinkle came to learn about Robert Cutler’s private life is also fascinating. In 2006, while on a family vacation, his aunt and mother first told him the closely guarded family secret: that “Uncle Bobby” (a lifelong bachelor who died in 1974 and whom Shinkle never met) had been gay. Shinkle was intrigued by the puzzle of how a figure at the pinnacle of power in the U.S. establishment could keep such a secret for so many years and so he reached out to Harry Lodge, the son of one of Cutler’s best friends, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (and Richard Nixon’s vice presidential running mate in 1960) Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. The younger Lodge told him that Cutler’s sexual orientation was widely known among his peers. “He didn’t bother to hide it when he wasn’t at work,” Lodge told him.

Shinkle’s trail soon led to the Eisenhower Library, where he located thousands of pages of documents about his great-uncle that had been donated by another former Eisenhower aide, Steve Benedict, who had served as White House security officer. It gets even crazier from then on but you will have to read the book to see ho much.

Eisenhower had promised during his 1952 campaign to root out “subversives” in the government. This was a pledge  to appease the demagogic Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a man Ike privately disliked. Early in the new administration, the new attorney general, Herbert Brownell, sent the White House a brief draft executive order to tighten security procedures and enhance background investigations by federal agencies — without specifying exactly what conduct would be disqualifying.

Over time, the climate of fear caught up with Cutler and his young gay White House friends. Cutler resigned in 1955, apparently fearing that he could become an embarrassment during the president’s reelection campaign the next year. He cited “personal and private concerns.” Eisenhower, who appears to have looked the other way at the rumors about his close aide’s sexual orientation, wrote Cutler a note yelling him that his leaving was like “losing my right arm.”

After the election, Cutler returned to his White House national security post. By then, J. Edgar Hoover was onto him having picked up allegations about Cutler’s homosexuality from a gay White House correspondence clerk. Hoover, who was ruthless in pursuing gays as part of an FBI “sex deviates” program, inexplicably never pressed the investigation of Cutler. Shinkle imagines that the FBI director backed off because he feared that pursuing Cutler would have done “severe damage” to Hoover’s standing with Eisenhower (and, even more speculative, that Hoover, who himself was a lifelong bachelor, may have seen Cutler as a “kindred soul”). Benedict and Koons, both of whom had left the White House.

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