In The Closet In The White House: The Tortured History Of The Gay Man Who Touched Off The Purge Of Gays In Government

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.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, and Robert Cutler, his special assistant for national security affairs. (Photo: Joseph
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, and Robert Cutler, his special assistant for national security affairs. (Photo: Joseph Scherschel/the Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In the annals of presidential directives, few were more chilling than a document signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 1953. 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 trigger for a massive purge of the federal workforce. In the years that followed, thousands of government employees were investigated and fired for the “crime” of being gay.

The full story of Executive Order 10450 and its terrible consequences has only started to surface in more recent years as a result of books like “The Lavender Scare” and films like “Uniquely Nasty,”a 2015 Yahoo News documentary that this reporter co-wrote and directed. But it turns out there was an untold personal drama behind the making of the antigay White House order — a saga that is recounted for the first time in a new book to be published next week, “Ike’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler.”

Written by Peter Shinkle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it tells the life story of the author’s great-uncle, a central character in the creation of Executive Order 10450. A blue-blood liberal Republican from a prominent Boston family, a Harvard graduate and member of the elite Porcellian Club, a wealthy banker and U.S. Army general during World War II, Robert “Bobby” Cutler Jr. became a close adviser to Eisenhower during his 1952 presidential campaign. He was then tapped 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 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.

As advance word of Shinkle’s book has spread, it has already begun making waves 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.

“It’s an incredible piece of research,” said Charles Francis, president of the Washington Mattachine Society, who has filed multiple freedom of information requests to uncover documents relating to the government’s past persecution of homosexuals.

Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House
Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House

“The Eisenhower executive order caused unspeakable damage to loyal LGBT Americans,” he said. “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.”

Francis said his first reaction to Shinkle’s book was anger. He regarded Cutler as the “ultimate Quisling” for unleashing a policy that did great harm to people like himself. But upon reflection, Francis softened his judgment somewhat. “To be fair,” he now says, “he was living in McCarthy’s America.”

The story of how Shinkle came to learn about Robert Cutler’s private life is nearly as fascinating as what he discovered. 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. 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.

With the help of an Eisenhower Library archivist, Shinkle reached out to Benedict, then in his late 80s and living quietly in Toledo, Ohio. When they met, Benedict told him an even more astonishing story. Benedict was also gay. His lover was a Russian-speaking naval intelligence officer assigned to the national security staff named Tilghman B. “Skip” Koons. Benedict and Koons lived together in a “bachelor’s house” in Alexandria, Va., that was frequented by Cutler. Koons — who photographs from the era suggest had movie-star looks — was the object of Cutler’s passionate affections, feelings that eventually turned tragically obsessive.

In short, Shinkle had come across a gay triangle at the heart of the White House national security apparatus during the height of the McCarthy era — a tangle of relationships previously unknown to historians. But Benedict had something else even more revealing in his personal archive, what Shinkle calls the “crown jewels”: Cutler’s six-volume personal diary, which he had left to Koons (and which Koons, after his death, had left for Benedict). When Shinkle opened it, he was amazed to find hundreds of pages in which the president’s chief national security aide poured out his love for the young White House staffer.

Skip Koons on the balcony of the apartment he shared with Steve Benedict in Cannes, France, 1951; Koons in his U.S. Navy unif
Skip Koons on the balcony of the apartment he shared with Steve Benedict in Cannes, France, 1951; Koons in his U.S. Navy uniform. (Photos: Courtesy of Stephen Benedict)

 The passages, quoted in Shinkle’s book, are poignant and sometimes painful to read. “I took his hand our fingers for a moment interlaced,” Cutler wrote after Koons drove him home in his Thunderbird after a night at the movies in 1957. “It was at that moment the greatest adventure of my life began: the best, the purest, the most penetrating moment I ever knew.”

From the diary, though, it appears that Cutler’s relationship with the young staffer was never consummated, leaving the older man tormented even while he later pursued relationships with other young men. In 1958, while dealing with the crisis over the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, Cutler writes of gazing longingly at night at a “blown up photograph” of Koons in his bedroom. “I love him with all my heart, more than I ever cared for any human being,” Cutler wrote in a 1959 entry. “But between us – me, 64-1/2, he 32-3/4 – the thought of love to his normal serene soul is out of course.”

All this cast another light on the creation of the antigay executive order that did so much damage to others in similar situations. As Shinkle reconstructs the story, Eisenhower had promised during his 1952 campaign to root out “subversives” in the government — a pledge made to appease the demagogic Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a man Ike privately disdained. 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.

It was Cutler who, after reviewing Brownell’s memo, recommended that it be toughened with more expansive language (previously recommended by security officials but never adopted under President Harry Truman) specifically identifying “sexual perversion” as grounds for dismissal. It was based on a shaky premise: that gays were susceptible to Soviet blackmail and therefore couldn’t be trusted with government secrets (although there was no evidence of this actually happening). Still, the new language was adopted, with no record of objections raised at the White House or the Justice Department.

Why did Cutler do it? Certainly, it was a sop to McCarthy, who quickly praised the new executive order as a “tremendous improvement.” But Shinkle lays out evidence suggesting a darker possible motivation: to counteract rumors that had begun to spread in Washington of Cutler’s own homosexuality. Shinkle cites an overlooked passage from the posthumously published memoirs of the influential columnist Joseph Alsop (himself a closeted gay man) recounting a nasty confrontation in Georgetown between Cutler and the distinguished diplomat Charles (Chip) Bohlen. Bohlen had been nominated by Eisenhower to be ambassador to Moscow, but his confirmation in the Senate was being threatened by McCarthy’s smears about the nominee’s own private life and that of one of his relatives. Upset that the new administration wasn’t doing enough to support him, Bohlen grew angry and — according to Alsop — was about to bring up Cutler’s “incorrect tastes in love” when Bohlen’s wife intervened, deliberately knocking over a tea tray to defuse the situation. 

Robert “Bobby” Cutler, left, and Skip Koons at the pool at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Washington, D.C., in Jul
Robert “Bobby” Cutler, left, and Skip Koons at the pool at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Washington, D.C., in July 1957. (Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Benedict)

 Whatever the motivation, the impact of the executive order Cutler helped draft was devastating. Shinkle writes about the “climate of fear” it created for gays and lesbians. Security investigators forced them to take lie detector tests and pressured them to reveal names of associates. One security agent at the State Department, Peter Szluk, boasted of being the “hatchet man” and disparaged hearings and due process as “a waste of time.” He would say, “The son of a bitch is queer, out he goes!” Szluk, to be sure, later expressed some regret about the number of his targets who killed themselves, sometimes “within minutes” after leaving his office. “One guy, he barely left my office, and he must’ve had this thing in his coat pocket — and boom! — right on the corner of 21st and Virginia,” Szluk is quoted as saying.

Over time, the climate of fear he helped create 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 warm note saying his departure was like “losing my right arm.”

After the election, Cutler returned to his White House national security post, although by then, J. Edgar Hoover was on his trail, having picked up allegations about Cutler’s s homosexuality from a gay White House correspondence clerk. But Hoover, who was ruthless in pursuing gays as part of an FBI “sex deviates” program, inexplicably never pressed the investigation of Cutler. Shinkle speculates 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 in Cutler a “kindred soul”). Benedict and Koons, both of whom had left the White House and gone to work for the U.S. Information Agency, were not so lucky. They endured years of investigations that, writes Shinkle, put them through “agony” and, although they never had their security clearances yanked, ultimately drove them from government service.

Shinkle, to his credit, presents the story with great fairness and compassion, against the backdrop of Cold War chicanery such as the CIA coups in Guatemala and Iran and controversies over nuclear brinksmanship and a supposed “missile gap.” He also addresses the ethical elephant in the room: Did the demands of history justify exposing Cutler’s private life?

“It might be said that by revealing Bobby’s passion for Skip, I am ‘outing’ my great uncle, betraying his privacy,” Shinkle writes. But, he concludes: “After studying Bobby’s life and letters for more than a decade, I am confident that his love for Skip was so great that if he were alive today — with our era’s liberated view of homosexuality — he would want this story told.”

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