ACLU History: Rooting Out 'Subversives:' Paranoia and Patriotism in the McCarthy Era

Document Date: September 1, 2010

During the anti-Communist witch hunts of the Cold War, the ACLU challenged a wave of assaults on freedom of belief and association perpetrated in the name of national security. Those assaults included President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Employee Loyalty Program, enacted in 1947, which required government workers to sign loyalty oaths and submit to background investigations aimed at rooting out ‘subversives.’ Historian David McCullough, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Truman, rightly called the program ‘the most reprehensible political decision of his presidency.’ In response, the ACLU immediately met with Attorney General Tom Clark to recommend changes in the program, and offered to represent federal employees who were dismissed because of their beliefs or associations. Meanwhile, ACLU affiliates across the country challenged state loyalty oaths and the dismissal of teachers and other government employees based on accusations that they were ‘Communist sympathizers.’

The ACLU became a target of the witch hunts as well: in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy singled out ACLU National Board member Dorothy Kenyon at one of the first of his infamous hearings, because of her involvement with communist organizations. At her hearing, she denounced the Senator as ‘an unmitigated liar’ and ‘a coward to take shelter in the cloak of Congressional immunity.’ The following day, The New York Times published an editorial supporting Kenyon, after which Senator McCarthy claimed to have no interest in pursuing the case; the Senate subcommittee ultimately dismissed the charges.

The government’s ideological assault continued well into the 1950s, as various activists were indicted under the Smith Act, a World War II-era law aimed at suppressing dissidents. The ACLU, which had testified against the Act when it was introduced in 1940, protested the indictment of dozens of Communist leaders under the Act in 1948. Nearly a decade later, the Supreme Court threw out their convictions, but the law remains on the books to this day.

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» Executive Order 9835: Federal Employee Loyalty Program (
» Prelude to McCarthyism: The Making of a Blacklist (
» Women Who Put Women’s Rights on the ACLU Agenda: Dorothy Kenyon
» McCarthy Era: Era of Political Conformity and Loyalty…

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