Buried Treasure: Out of the closet 60 years too late


No, it was April nineteen Fifty-three sixty five years ago that one of our most admired presidents signed one of the most shocking edicts in modern American history. It was the height of the Cold War and white Eisenhower and only recently taken office amid fears fuelled by Senator Joseph McCarthy that subversives hiding within the US government were a danger to the national order. It was in that context that Eisenhower signed executive order one. Oh, four five. Oh, declaring that alongside communism sexual perversion. And those were the words that were used were a threat to national security. I have of order became the trigger for a massive purge of the federal workforce. In the years that followed tens of thousands of government employees were investigated and fire for the crime of being gay the full story of executive order one. Oh, four five. Oh. And it's terrible consequences has only started to get the. Attention. It deserves in recent years. But now in new book has cast fascinating new light on the story. It's a biography of the man behind the executive order ice first national security adviser, Robert Bobby Cutler, junior a blue blood progressive Republican from a prominent Boston family a Harvard. Graduate a wealthy banker in US army general during World War Two Cutler was one of the most influential staffers in the Eisenhower White House and oversaw the drafting of the harsh anti-gay executive order. What was not publicly known at the time. But which revealed in the new book is that he was also a closeted gay man tormented by his sexual identity infatuated with a young national security staffer many years his junior. How did a gay man come to help write an edict that caused so much harm to gaze throughout the federal government? We'll talk to the author of the book ice mystery, man. The secret lives of Robert Cutler on today's. Episode of buried treasure. Because people have got to know whether or not their president's while I'm not a crook. I told the American people I did not create arms hostile my heart. And my best intentions still tell me that's true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not I did not have sexual relations with that one. There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth and nothing else. I'm Michael Isikoff. Chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo news, and I'm Dan CLYDE, men entered and chief of Yahoo news, and we are joined now by Peter Schinkel, a Saint Louis journalist and the author of this amazing new book. Peter, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for having me. I gotta say only in recent years learned about the story of the executive order when we were doing the uniquely doing uniquely nasty a documentary about the US government's persecution of gays, and it's such it was such a shocking order, especially in today's context. But the idea that there was a guy Robert Cutler behind it who was a closeted gay man himself is kind of a kindle learning that Roger Teini, the author of the infamous dread, Scott decision was a secret African American slave. It's hard to come up with an analogy. But peter. Tell us how you got onto this story. Well, it was back in the summer of two thousand six I was on a family vacation in Rhode Island with my mother and father and one day. I asked my mother and her sister who was there that day. Tell me a little bit about your uncle, Bobby. I'd heard that he had an association with President Eisenhower. But I didn't know the depth of it at all. So Bobby Cutler was your great uncle, correct? Right. And did you know him? I do I never met him. He died in nineteen seventy four right. And he was one of five brothers born and raised in Boston. My grandfather, John Cutler was his eldest, brother. He was the baby of the five to fast forward to that family vacation. That's where my mother and her sister revealed that he was gay and knowing that the nineteen fifties was a time of remarkable strictures in American life. I began to suspect there. Was a significant story there right away. But presumably at this point, you didn't know his role in overseeing the writing of this executive order one zero four five. Oh, correct. I had no idea. How did you find out about that? I found out about that by going through the files at the Eisenhower library where I made a number of trips over the years and going through the files, and that's when it began to come out. And what was your reaction when you saw that given his own personal history. Well, I was amazed. And I immediately began to try to figure out what exactly did he know about the order. Did he understand the impact that it would have was he actually a person of anti-gay animus or was he a victim of the anti-gay attitudes of the day? And I began looking for evidence that where we could try to understand what exactly was going on. What do we know about Ike? What did I feel about gays and the answer? To those questions are difficult to dredge out of the materials because these folks didn't write down this the people who wrote it down would be say McCarthy or Hoover who as you pointed out in your very fine documentary uniquely nasty issued a memo calling for agents around the country to report sexual deviates says he called them the sexual deviates program. Exactly. So that there's put in writing we're going to go after these guys, but Bobby was didn't put a lot in writing about why he wanted this one piece of evidence that came forward was earlier in one thousand nine hundred eighty three almost one of the first scandals that hit the administration was I- nomination of Charles Bohlen, a very experienced diplomat to be the embassador to Russia and McCarthy immediately held this up and began saying that he was a security risk and began. Rumors began going around the capital did he was security risk that was a code. Added term for homosexual. And indeed the files reflect that he had collected from the State Department allegations that he was a homosexual the fact is that he was also at the Alte cords and was a translated for Roosevelt and that he was deemed by McCarthy to be too liberal. And that was really the source of McCarthy's animist Bowen, right? He he viewed bowling as part of the liberal establishment. That was selling out the country the allegations about Boland's private life were completely uncorroborated career completely. Yeah. Completely and he was just using the homosexuality allegations to achieve a political goal. But ultimately, I stood by him and one of haute, which is one of the first defeats of McCarthy in congress by and it was after that grueling experience, however, which was a national drama, by the way, where the word homosexuality, and sexual perversion were never said. Ed or written about publicly, but this entire drama played out in the nation's capital at that time, I said gush in a comment to secretary of state Dulles. We should try to avoid this happening in the future. We should get these things out. And so it seems like I was hoping to have sexual perversion allegations investigated before his nominees came into the public. So he didn't have to face the grief. He God over the bowl in nominate wrecked. That's beneficial interpretation of what I was trying to achieve. So, you know, Peter, your book sheds all of this light on this tragic history and these terrible policies, but it's also an incredibly poignant and painful personal story of your great uncle, Bobby Cutler, first of all tell us about how you learned about his private anguish inside of the White House. The documents that you discovered and then tell us a little bit about that story. Sure. When I went to the Eisenhower presidential library to do my research. They connected me with a man named Stephen Benedict. And Stephen had actually been on the Eisenhower campaign train in the fall of nineteen fifty two and he worked rewriting speeches and performing a broad array of activities in support of the campaign was there on that campaign train. He got to know migrate uncle Robert Cutler who also was working very closely with like writing speeches, crafting policy positions and generally keeping the candidate company telling jokes. He was a very musing entertaining man as well and could cut the tension of political situations and raise the candidates spirits. So Stephen who is then much younger. He was about twenty six years old bedtime had got to know, Bobby. Who was then, of course in his fifties. And they became friends after I won the election. Steve. Even introduced Bobby to Stevens former lover who was a man named skip coon's and skip was a navy intelligence operative. He was a Russian speaker at the time he was working for a CIA front called amp lib and living in Paris helping to launch anti-soviet radio broadcasts. He was as vigorous a patriot. As you as you could imagine in those days after his experience working with the US navy as an intelligence officer in China. He wrote his dissertation at Princeton, basically accusing the Truman administration of turning a blind eye to what the Soviets were doing to advance communist interests in China and to help the communist party of under chairman Mao win in defeat the American ally the nationalists. So anyway, I've gone off track here a little bit. But the point is that Stephen should. Due skip to Bobby Bobby hired skip to work on the national Security Council. Staff and Bobby quickly became passionately attracted to this young, man. He was quite young, right? He was he was about twenty six years old as well himself. And again, Bobby was in his fifties. So you tracked down Stephen Benedict who at this time is got to be in his eighty. That's right right living where he was living in upstate New York. State New York he had been on the national security staff himself Steve had not he was a White House staffer, and he would not been on the national security stuff. Right. So you call him up because the Eisenhower library told you that's who provided all these documents about your great uncle, Bobby Cutler to them you. Call him up. I'm sure he could not have been expecting here. Call in a million years, you tell them what you're doing. And what does he tell? You he says, well, I've got some things you should look at come up and meet me. So I drove to upstate New York. And there he showed me a six volume handwritten diary that migrate uncle had written spelling out his love for this young, man. I mean, you know, it is so rare that people doing historical research could come across a gold mine of material that nobody has ever seen before. But there you had a six volume diary written by the guy who was the principal national security advisor to the president of the United States during the height of the Cold War, and how much of that was about this love affair or his love interest. And how much of it was just about normal goings on in the White House and foreign policy ninety percent. It's basically styled as almost a protracted love letter. I mean, I it. Really is. It's it's all about his the waves of emotion rising from the heights of his passion for this young, man. But as you noted it is also a sad story. It's a tale of unrequited love in many ways because I think they were never able to physically consummate a relationship they extensively from what we know. And skip did not have reciprocate that deep passion for Bobby. He liked Bobby. He called him a one of his best friends or his best friend, even they became very close emotionally. But it was not a passionate thing. Explain I mean, this is so interesting because I mean, Robert Cutler was Lou blood Republican establishment. Cillian at Harvard. I mean, all the credentials of respectability and mid twentieth century, America. And the idea that he would be pouring out his guts in this diary about his infatuation with this young man is. Explain the psychology there. Well, you know, Bobby was a remarkably. Passionate as a person, and he describes himself. He actually published an autobiography in nineteen sixty five and he gave no hint about his personal sexual attraction. He certainly did. Not reveal it. I would say in reading it now. Yeah, they're breadcrumbs. There's actually a picture of skip in the diary. But all these says is we became friends in the diary or excuse me in the autobiography, yes. And he also has a picture of another young man who was another lover of skips named Gail. Huff teaser who Bobby became attracted to as well in one of the down periods. When skip was pushing him away. So Bobby, I'm sorry. I've lost track there. What was your question? No. I'm just trying to understand, you know, get inside Robert Cutler's head into you know, how he would come how a man of such respectability and authority would be. In writing such potentially incriminating stuff in a lengthy diary. Well, you know, I think it's just the way he was wired as a person after he said, he had a passionate romance with a a woman or he he fell in love with a woman in the nineteen twenties. But she rejected him and after that he had only a string of relationships with men for the next thirty years. Let me take us a cost question. One step further because the sort of obvious question is how he could reconcile in his mind, these feelings that he acted on with other men and at the same time oversee the writing of of this executive order that was so harmful to people in his own situation. Is that a case of karma compartmentalization was it because he needed to protect himself. What did you conclude at the end of your research was his motivation? I will say I think it is possible that because he was trailed by rumors of homosexuality that he was homosexual that maybe he didn't stand up and object to the sexual perversion portion of the order because he would be vulnerable to further allegations, and that would jeopardize his, and it would have been professional suicide to do. So. Well, if anything is you reveal in the book when you go through the steps that led to that executive order. Now, the context, of course, it's the McCarthy era Eisenhower has been trying to appease the mccarthyite s- in his party who have been demanding stricter security controls to keep out subversives in the government, and although subversives in the common mind, meant communists, because they actually couldn't find a whole lot of communists in the government. They found if they went after gays as well they could claim. Game. You know, more scalps of kicking out subversives from the government. The first draft of the executive order comes from the Justice department. The attorney general Herbert Brownell at the time, and it doesn't include the language of sexual perversion as one of the grounds for dismissal from the federal workforce. And Robert Cutler, the closeted gay man who was your uncle then put that language in put the words sexual perversion into the executive order. Well to be clear he didn't actually draft create a new draft. What he did was he pointed Herbert Brownell and the president to a draft of the rules draft executive order that had been prepared for president Truman and was sitting in in the Justice department, right? And that draft had the sexual perversion terminology in it. So, but he he definitely steered the drafting in that way. Right. So. He wasn't exactly involved in drafting and inserting the language itself. But it's about as close as you can get right. He wanted them to the language that included a do you think he consciously did that that is really the key question? And I don't I don't know the answer that I can say that Bobby certainly was a person who believed in process and believed in having a dialogue within government to have it function the best way that it can. So when he reformed the national Security Council and enhanced its he believed that national Security Council which had been neglected by president Truman should actually operate as the preeminent national security body of the US government would happen is you'd have a fulsome debate within the national Security Council right to arrive at the best policies. And I think he probably believed that was what had happened in true in the Truman administration development of this policy that he was bringing forward a policy that had been reviewed and studied and hammered out. I want to get to the impact that this executive order hat, and you've got some really eyebrow. Ray? Using stuff in the book about you know, just what this meant for people who were gay, and we're working in the government you quote from a security agent at the State Department. Peter Zauq who boasted of being the quote hatchet, man, and disparaged hearings and due process for government employees who are accused as a waste of time. He would say the son of a bitches queer and out he goes. And then he later expressed some regret about the number of his targets who killed themselves sometimes within minutes after leaving his office. Mrs again, quoting from this guy soak one guy, he barely left my office. And he must have had this thing in his coat pocket and boom right on the corner of twenty first and Virginia, which is right outside the State Department. Yep. It's horrendous. It's outrageous. And you know, I only look at this era and think that our government's capacity to find a vulnerable minority. And persecute that minority for political purposes should be recognized. And you know, it happened then it can happen again. And so right thinking citizens should be aware. Absolutely. Do you think that your great uncle Robert Cutler was aware of the impact of this executive order on gays in the government? I don't know the answer to that. I never found evidence that he commented on it. He may have repressed it. He made not wanted to know about it. In fact, as I described skip the man he fell in love with himself fell under investigation under executive order one. Oh, four five oh as did Steve Benedict. So but in the end, no so he had to have known. They didn't. I have no record that they told him ever. In fact, I what I show is that skip tried to shield him from knowing about the investigation. He was afraid that Bobby was going to be confronted with it and afraid that Bobby would be pulled into it. But in the end, Bobby Cutler was never exposed any evidence that he was protected any evidence that Eisenhower knew because I think when he did leave of his own volition in the sense that he was not publicly exposed Eisenhower said something like I'm losing my my right hand, man. My right arm. So what did I know? We know only that I considered Bobby an indispensable part of his his government. And what he actually knew about Bobby sexual orientation is a cipher. But I think that it's very likely that he had some knowledge without knowing the details, but that's unsure. Let me ask you one follow up question. He was as we just said he was never publicly outed. He was never discovered. And in a sense. He wasn't outed until you wrote this book, how do you think he would have reacted to this book being written, and and his private life being exposed like this, my belief is that his love for this young, man. Skip coons was so deep that if you transpose that to today's era of enlightened perception of homosexuality that he would be happy to have the story told he would think it was a sad story because it was an unrequited love. It was never consummated. But he would think it's a great story. In fact, one of his novels, he wrote two novels early in his life and both of them are about unrequited love and both of them are about in their context about men and women the impossibility or the difficulty of men and women finding happiness together. Which at the time was likely perception of his own about his own fate. But I personally I would like to think that he'd be happy that this story was told a couple of points, you rank in the book, which I think are worth discussing. He was never publicly outed, but J Edgar Hoover was onto him. At one point. In fact, he gets allegations from I think our White House correspondent clerk the FBI. Does that Cutler is gay and this makes its way to Hoover's desk, but Hoover who was so zealous about going after Gatti's elsewhere in the government, doesn't he gives Cutler a pass why my belief is there that there are two theories here, we don't know exactly why. But one thing that we do know is that Hoover, of course, was rumored to be gay a lifelong bachelor life long bachelor with an extremely close association with his. Top assistant, CLYDE Tolson. They had a spousal like relationship, even though we don't know if it was ever consummated. There's so many pieces of evidence that suggests that he was gay and all of them have to be evaluated in appraised in their own, right. A lot of them are considered suspicious or untrustworthy a lot of it is circumstantial, but the one piece that always sticks with me that is so incredible about Hoover is that he took pictures of CLYDE Tolson sleeping is nothing sexual there. Right. But how intimate does that relationship have to be? So my feeling is that Hoover like Bobby was an elderly bachelor with a abiding passion for men who could not afford to have an allegation of homosexuality against him in the public, and he recognized that the Bobby was in the exact same situation. So it kind of kinship. Yes, exactly. The other option is that Hoover recognized that Bobby was his conduit to Ike. Right. And that Bobby was extremely close to Ike. So if he were to go after Bobby on a homosexuality allegation that would really damage his relationship with Eisenhower. I want you to tell the story another anecdote you have in the book about another closeted gay man in one thousand nine hundred fifty s era Washington, Joe sup one of the most powerful influential columnists at the time and Alsop, of course, was very close to chip Bohlen the nominee for to be embassador in Soviet Union who face these allegations. And at one point there's a confrontation among the three of them, also bolan and Cutler tell us what happened. So at this time of Boland's nomination is pending in the Senate for confirmation. The three men are at at tea party in Georgetown, and Boland's house at bullies. How correct Bobby makes. A comment in essence trying to defend the president and John Foster Dulles and they're handling of bowlen's nomination which had come under attack from McCarthy. John Foster Dulles was of course, the secretary of state at the time, correct. At that moment, just as things are getting heated also tells the story later in his memoirs, he sees bowlen's jaw quivering with anger because in fact at this time and brother had been impugned in this as well. So MRs bolan Avis Bohlen comes in and intentionally knocks over a teapot to break up the tension. So and also was kind of threatening Cutler at that point. Right. He's suggesting or about to suggest that what's the phrase that? Incorrect tastes of love that. Yeah. That Cutler has incorrect tastes of love. Well, the real threat was that he wanted color to leak him in for. Nation. He was also a poor salient club from Harvard, and they'd known each other for many years, but also told Bobby that if he didn't release information either confidentially or on the record either way that the administration would suffer adverse political coverage in newspapers. Whether this also included a threat of revelation of his homosexuality. I don't know what's. So fascinating about that the whole premise of purging gaze from the government as a national security threat was that they were susceptible to blackmail. Never the Amer. Yeah. The idea was that the Soviets could blackmail somebody and get national security secrets actually the one documented case, we appear to have it wasn't the Soviets trying to blackmail, Bobby Cutler, it was a journalist and get him to leak and a hand a closeted gay journalist. Then I mean the layers of complexity and ambiguity are. So fascinating you capture them. So well in the book, I want to get to some other portions of the book, which have not gotten a lot of attention, which is that Cutler, regardless of all this was a key figure at some of the most momentous events of the Cold War, nineteen fifties America, confrontations with the Soviet Union the coup in Guatemala the coup in Iran nuclear strategy. Cutler was at the center of all of that. Yes. He was. And the key thing that he did was he managed the national Security Council and made it possible for like to run the governor. Amid all these stressors. I mean, this is an incredibly challenging time for the United States, and it was a period of remarkable growth instability. If you don't count the fact that we overthrew governments that were democratically elected in two countries. So I mean, he was sort of a moderating figure at least compare in comparison to Dulles, for instance, who was much more hawkish. Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that the key thing his key contribution in terms of being a moderating influence is that right after I took office. He made it possible for j Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who is the father of the nuclear bomb to come into the national Security Council and urge the president and his counselors to be more open with the American public about the threat of nuclear war. And this led to what was called a policy of candor, and it alternately lead to. Mike speech before the United Nations in December of nineteen fifty three called atoms for peace speech, right which in turn led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy agency. Which to this day is the world's foremost agency for controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons, what's so poignant about this part of the story is that someone like your great uncle who provided all of this public service worked so hard for the country. And yet was not allowed to be who he really was. Yes, right. It's an absolutely fascinating book. I mystery man the secret lives of Robert Cutler, Peter shackled. Thanks for joining us on buried treasure. Thank you very much and good luck with the book. Thank you. Thanks to Peter strangled for joining us on this episode of buried treasure. Don't forget to subscribe to skulduggery on apple podcasts or Revie. Listen to your podcasts and tell us what you think leave a review sure to follow us on. Social media and skulduggery pot. We'll talk to you on Friday. Welcome to A cast picks every week. We pick some of our favorite shows. And this is one we think you're gonna love. This is the vice guide to right now. You're inside look into the best of vice on this podcast. We bring you the best of vice behind the scenes, you'll hear from reporters guests and experts on the most significant news and culture on the planet. 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