Following on from yesterday’s post about “The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History”, another aspect of that time that fascinated me was the Loyalty program that was formally instituted by President Truman to try and weed out Communists and those who belonged to other “tainted” organizations. This push is an excellent example of how society was so constricted back then. It’s pretty amazing when I look back at it.
In the early 1950’s with the perceived onslaught of the Red Scare, the Space Race, and societal changes, the Establishment (i.e. rich white men who ran the government and all its agencies at the time) were threatened and like any creature when backed into a corner, started to lash out to protect itself.
Part of this was illustrated by the institution of this Loyalty Oath program by President Truman. It actually started earlier in 1947 (and even earlier than that in one form or another) with Executive Order 9835 which called for dismissal of any federal worker associated with list of troublesome groups. The goal was to root out any communist influence on the governmental level, but it spread, and by the end of the program, more than three million government employees had been investigated – only 300 or so were dismissed as “security risks”. (McCarthy was a fruit of all this unrest, but he didn’t come to power until 1950.) And it wasn’t just on the local level — state and local governments followed suite and people had to sign oaths of loyalty to the government to be employed in many places.
This all seems very odd when Truman was the guy who instituted the New Deal, but politics is politics, and Truman’s Democratic Party was facing a huge threat by the Republicans. This was a political maneuver on Truman’s part related to the upcoming election (although it does seem out of character, but perhaps I don’t know him very well.)
As mentioned, the Loyalty program was not new as it had been in existence since 1940 in terms of screening for federal employee loyalty and in keeping lists of names and “subversive” organizations (including, of course, the Communist Party, the Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan and others). Also, during WWII, the U.S. War Relocation Authority administered loyalty oaths to interned Japanese Americans, both citizens and not, and any person who said no (or who refused to sign) were classed as “disloyal” and segregated from the 65,000 other internees. What a mess.
This whole program was eventually revoked by President Eisenhower in 1953, but it actually went on in some places until 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Washington law required state employees to take loyalty oaths. And then – get this: the final loyalty oath (mandatory for those in public office in WA) was only invalidated in 1974…. And just found a case in Georgia where an anti-communist oath was given to city council representatives in 2012. Crikey.
An interesting aside: The Pledge of Allegiance, which is said at a lot of meetings and gatherings, is also a loyalty oath. The “Under God” bit was only added in 1954, by the way. Hmm. Those Fifties. One interesting tidbit: the Regents of the University of California fired 31 professors who refused to take the anti-community oath on the grounds of political and academic freedom.
I researched how the State of Texas responded to this loyalty program – very loyal to it. In fact, the Governor of the time pushed through legislation that made membership in the Communist Party punishable by jail sentences of 20 years and a $20,000 fine. Yikes.
So, this was a good book with voices from the past covering a rather strange time in U.S. social history. There were numerous oral interviews with women who had grown up in the 50’s, and for many of them, looking back, they seemed to have regret that they sometimes didn’t follow through on their dreams and took the “easy route” of marriage, family, home. It was pretty interesting, especially in view of the New Domesticity craze that peaked a few years ago. And you know, I can’t judge these women in any way. I would hope I would make the choice to follow my dreams (as opposed to societal expectations), but would I have done that in those times? Who knows.