Prelude to McCarthyism: The Making of a Blacklist
By Dr. Robert Justin Goldstein
Retired Professor of Political Science
San Diego State University
The so-called “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations” (AGLOSO) was one of the most central and widely publicized aspects of the post–World War II Red Scare, which has popularly become known as “McCarthyism.”
AGLOSO burst into the American consciousness in December 1947, when it was published in connection with President Harry S. Truman’s “loyalty program,” more than two years before Senator Joseph McCarthy made his first publicized allegations of widespread Communist infiltration of the American government in early 1950.
It originated with President Truman’s Executive Order 9835 of March 21, 1947, which required that all federal civil service employees be screened for “loyalty.” The order specified that one criterion to be used in determining that “reasonable grounds exist for belief that the person involved is disloyal” would be a finding of “membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association” with any organization determined by the attorney general to be “totalitarian, Fascist, Communist or subversive” or advocating or approving the forceful denial of constitutional rights to other persons or seeking “to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means.”
Although officially the only purpose of AGLOSO was to provide guidance for federal civil service loyalty determinations, AGLOSO, once published, was quickly adopted by a wide variety of public and private groups, including state and local governments, the military, defense contractors, hotels, the Treasury Department (in making tax-exemption determinations), and the State Department (in making passport and deportation decisions), to deny employment or otherwise discriminate against listed organizations or persons alleged to be affiliated with them.
As various scholars wrote contemporaneously and subsequently, AGLOSO, which was massively publicized in the media, became what amounted to “an official black list.” In the public mind it came to have “authority as the definitive report on subversive organizations,” understood as a “proscription of the treasonable activity of the listed organizations” and the “litmus test for distinguishing between loyalty and disloyal organizations and individuals.”
The influence of the list could be very far-reaching. For example, the November 1956 issue of Elks Magazine carried an article entitled “What the Attorney General’s List Means,” which began by accurately noting that “there are few Americans who have not heard of ‘the Attorney General’s subversive list'” and concluded by declaring, “There is no excuse for any American citizen becoming affiliated with a group on the Attorney General’s list today.”
Although AGLOSO itself was massively publicized, the Justice Department and other agencies of the federal government released little or no information about key aspects of the list, including how it was compiled, what criteria were used to list groups, why the decision was made to publish the list, and why listed organizations were not provided with any notice, charges, or hearings before they were designated.
Moreover, when AGLOSO was first published in late 1947, only the briefest of references were made to the fact that the government had been maintaining in secret an AGLOSO to aid in screening federal employees for loyalty ever since 1940.
The publication of the list transformed what was supposedly a tool solely designed to help screen federal employees for loyalty into what effectively became an official government proscription blacklist, whose influence spread across American society, severely damaged or destroyed the listed organizations, and cast a general pall over freedom of association and speech in the United States.
This article seeks to flesh out how the Truman administration AGLOSO was “made,” drawing upon previously unreleased governmental records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act as well as upon other available sources, such as obscure congressional hearings.
Between 1940 and 1943 the federal government had screened federal employees for “loyalty” using a secret AGLOSO. The original legal basis for this list was the August 1939 Hatch Act, which banned from government employment any person who held “membership in any political party or organization which advocated the overthrow of our constitutional form of government in the United States.” Similar provisions were regularly included thereafter in congressional appropriations acts. Pursuant to these congressional mandates, Attorney General Francis Biddle created a temporary interdepartmental committee to investigate alleged subversion within the federal government. Biddle and the Dickinson Committee (named for Special Assistant to the Attorney General Edwin Dickinson), which he created in early 1942, designated 47 organizations by May 1942 as falling within the Hatch Act criteria, membership in which raised a “flag” with regard to federal employees or applicants for federal jobs.
This first AGLOSO was compiled in secret, and the listed organizations were not informed or given any opportunity to challenge the listings. However, a brief reference to the secret AGLOSO was contained in a Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum that was published as part of a report that Biddle made to Congress in September 1942.
Without naming the organizations, beyond the Communist Party (CP) and the pro-Nazi German American Bund, whose inclusion under the Hatch Act mandate had been previously announced by the Civil Service Commission (CSC), the FBI document reported that the Dickinson Committee had designated 47 organizations as coming “within the purview” of the congressional mandates, including “12 Communist or Communist ‘front’ organizations; 2 American Fascist organizations; 8 Nazi organizations; 4 Italian fascist organizations; and 21 Japanese organizations.”
The major national news media barely mentioned the Biddle AGLOSO, however, and even after Chairman Martin Dies of the House Committee on Un-American Activities placed leaked Justice Department memorandums concerning the designated Communist “front” organizations into the Congressional Record on September 24, 1942, the names of the groups were not reported in the mainstream press. Therefore, although the Justice Department, in publishing the first Truman AGLOSO in December 1947 noted that 47 of the approximately 90 organizations on its list had been previously designated by the Roosevelt administration as “subversive” for “use in connection with consideration of employee loyalty,” most Americans were probably completely unaware that the federal government had previously been using such listing.
At the end of World War II, a widespread belief that good relations with the Soviet Union would continue briefly diminished the concern over alleged Communist and other subversive infiltration of the federal government that had led to the Hatch Act and the Biddle AGLOSO. In October 1945 the Gaston Committee (named for Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston and created in early 1943 to replace the Dickinson Committee) recommended that it be abolished and its functions turned over to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. In December 1945 the new attorney general, Tom Clark, drafted a proposed executive order to implement this recommendation.
However, the rapid development of Cold War tensions after 1945 and concerns about possible Communist infiltration of the government soon created a drastically changed political climate in the United States. President Truman in late 1946 appointed yet another commission to study governmental employee loyalty, which eventually led him to inaugurate a sweeping new federal loyalty program in March 1947.
The rapid, major deterioration in the civil liberties climate and the reemergence of the “subversives in government” issue that marked the period between the end of World War II and early 1947 was largely attributable to four intertwined and reinforcing factors that, due to space considerations and their extensive treatment in scholarly literature elsewhere, can only be briefly listed here:
- the drastic postwar deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War;
- a growing obsession with perceived dangers posed by internal subversion in general and Soviet and Communist Party espionage in particular, fueled by reports, some public and some held within the government, of Russian spy operations in North America, accompanied by a new Communist “hard” line that echoed general Cold War tensions;
- postwar economic tensions and frustrations in the United States, including massive inflation and a major strike wave in 1946, which fostered a general sense of anger and anxiety; and
- deliberate attempts to ignite a domestic Red Scare by a powerful coalition of American conservatives, notably the FBI, significant elements in the business community, the Catholic Church, and, especially, an increasingly politically desperate Republican Party.
Amid the growing domestic and international anxieties of the 1946 congressional election year, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), now a permanent committee, investigated several alleged Communist “front” groups. A House Civil Service Committee (HCSC) subcommittee concluded, after brief mid-1946 hearings, that American security was threatened by the federal employment of persons of “questioned loyalty” and that a government commission was immediately required to establish a “complete and uniform” program to protect the government against “individuals whose primary loyalty is to governments other than our own.”
During closed July 1946 hearings, CSC head Arthur Flemming told the HCSC subcommittee that, in the light of congressional passage of the 1939 Hatch Act and other legislation, the CSC had “no difficulty” in determining that Communist Party members or followers of the party “line,” along with “persons actively associated with groups or organizations whose primary loyalty was to Nazi, Fascist or Japanese governments,” should be barred from federal employment.
Flemming vigorously defended the CSC policy of not asking federal applicants about their association with certain organizations, including pro-Spanish loyalist groups, since, along with “some Communist Party liners,” those “whom you and I would never in the world classify as anything but very good progressives or liberals” had supported the loyalists, including “undoubtedly plenty of people in the Government right now” viewed “as responsible leading progressives.”
During his testimony, Flemming placed considerable emphasis on an April 1946 federal district court ruling, Friedman v. Schwellenbach, as upholding the CSC’s approach to loyalty cases, including its use of the Communist Party “line” test as well as its reliance on membership in allegedly “subversive” organizations.
Meanwhile, Republicans made alleged Communist infiltration of the federal government their central theme during the 1946 congressional elections, bundling it together with attacks upon the Truman administration’s economic record under the slogans of “Had enough?” and “communism vs. republicanism.” Under the leadership of Republican National Chairman Carroll Reece, leading Republicans repeatedly made “anti-Communist” attacks upon Truman and the Democrats: thus Reece referred to the “pink puppets in control of the federal bureaucracy,” while House Republican leader Joe Martin pledged to give priority to “cleaning out the Communists, their fellow travelers and parlor pinks from high positions in our Government.” The election proved a smashing Republican victory, giving them control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1932.
On November 25, 1946, two weeks after the election, President Truman suddenly announced the creation of the President’s Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty (TCEL) charged with making a sweeping study of federal loyalty programs. This news was reported on the New York Times front page under the heading, “President Orders Purge of Disloyal from U.S. Posts.” The TCEL, consisting of representatives of six government departments under the chairmanship of Special Assistant to the Attorney General A. Devitt Vanech (a Justice Department official who was close to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover), was charged with determining federal loyalty standards and establishing procedures to remove or disqualify “any disloyal or subversive person” from federal service.
The timing of Truman’s action, along with his request that the TCEL submit a report by February 1, leaving it only two months to act, left both contemporary observers and historians with the conviction that he acted primarily to preempt further moves on the loyalty issue from the incoming Republican Congress. That Truman’s concern about “subversive” infiltration of the government was likely more political than substantive is supported by his own contemporary statements and by White House counsel Clark Clifford’s memoir. For example, on February 28, 1947, shortly before he instituted a sweeping new federal loyalty program based on the TCEL report, Truman wrote to Pennsylvania Governor George Earle, “People are very much wrought up about the Communist ‘bugaboo’ but I am of the opinion that the country is perfectly safe so far as Communism is concerned—we have too many sane people.”
In his 1991 memoir, Clifford declared that his “greatest regret” from his decades-long government service was his failure to “make more of an effort to kill the loyalty program at its inception, in 1946–47.” Making clear that neither he nor Truman viewed Communist infiltration of the federal government as a serious problem, Clifford added that the 1946 elections “weakened” Truman but “emboldened [FBI Director] Hoover and his allies.” The creation of the TCEL, Clifford wrote, resulted from “pressure” from Hoover and Attorney General Tom Clark, who “constantly urged the President to expand the investigative authority of the FBI.”
The TCEL’s investigation consisted of sending form letters to about 50 government agencies and hearing oral testimony from Clark, FBI Assistant Director D. Milton Ladd, Gaston Committee chairman Herbert Gaston, and HCSC members Edward Rees and J. Combs. The most important testimony appears to have come from Clark, who told the TCEL that while there were only two dozen Communists employed by the federal government, the “gravity of the problem” should not be “weighed in light of numbers but rather from the viewpoint of the serious threat which even one disloyal person constitutes to the security of the government.”
Clark prepared for his testimony with the aid of a lengthy memorandum from Hoover, which stated that, under the Hatch Act, the FBI investigated a federal employee only if there were “definite and substantial indications that he is a member of one of the 47 organizations declared subversive by the Attorney General” or allegations that he personally advocated the overthrow of the government or belonged to an organization advocating such.
Aside from federal employees, Hoover told Clark that the FBI maintained files on those who, “after investigation,” had been “shown” to be “members or, or affiliated with, ‘subversive’ organizations and in addition are either important or influential functionaries in such organizations or very active, influential, or longtime members thereof, or occupy important or strategic positions outside the ‘subversive’ organizations to which they belong.”
The final TCEL report, submitted to Truman on March 2, clearly bore the mark of Clark and the FBI in its core conclusion that the possibility of even one disloyal employee justified a comprehensive federal loyalty program. The TCEL found that the presence within the government of “any disloyal or subversive persons, or the attempt by any such person to obtain employment, presents a problem of such importance that it must be dealt with vigorously and effectively.”
The commission recommended that all 2 million federal employees, as well as all future applicants, be investigated, with the standard for “refusal of employment” to be that “on all evidence, reasonable grounds exist for believing that the person involved is disloyal to the government of the United States.” The TCEL never defined the key terms “disloyal” or “reasonable grounds” but recommended that six types of activities should be considered in making such determinations:
- sabotage, espionage, and related activities;
- treason or sedition;
- advocacy of illegal overthrow of the government;
- intentional and unauthorized disclosure of confidential information;
- serving a foreign government in preference to the interests of the United States; and
- “Membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association with any foreign or domestic organization, association, movement, group or combination of persons designated by the Attorney General as totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive, or as having adopted a policy of advocating or approving the commission of acts of force or violence to deny other persons their rights under the Constitution of the United States, or as seeking to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means.”
The sixth, or AGLOSO, category, was clearly modeled on the Biddle AGLOSO, which was predicated on the 1939 Hatch Act. The TCEL report, however, which was published along with Truman’s executive order establishing his loyalty program on March 21, 1947, never explicitly referred to the Biddle listing. It cited no legislative basis for AGLOSO and provided no guidelines concerning how it should be compiled, what standards should be used to determine which of the six distinct categories of suspect groups an organization should be placed in, or whether the list should be published.
Truman accepted the TCEL’s major recommendation by signing Executive Order 9835 on March 21. It established a loyalty program requiring the investigation of all existing and prospective federal employees, irrespective of their responsibilities or ability to access sensitive information (during the World War II program, while all applicants were screened for loyalty, incumbent employees were investigated only if specific allegations against them surfaced).
One of the final barriers to Truman’s issuance of his order was apparently eliminated by the Supreme Court’s refusal on March 17 to hear an appeal in the Friedman case, in which the lower federal courts had seemingly given the government carte blanche to fire federal employees on wide-ranging loyalty grounds, including membership in dubious organizations and expressing sympathy with Communist Party policies. On March 19, a front-page Washington Post article reported the Court’s inaction had paved the way for issuance of an order by Truman that federal officials had “been told for nearly a month” would be “issued momentarily” and would lay down a clear-cut Administration policy to cleanse the Government of disloyal employees.”
Executive Order 9835 received nationwide front-page coverage on March 23, with screaming newspaper headlines such as “Purge of Disloyal on U.S. Pay Roll Ordered” and “Truman Orders Disloyal Employees Fired.” The executive order declared that the loyalty of “the overwhelming majority of all Government employees is beyond question” and that “protection from unfounded accusations of disloyalty must be afforded” them. It added that the “presence within the Government service of any disloyal or subversive person constitutes a threat to our democratic processes” and required loyalty screenings of all present or prospective government employees, using the “reasonable grounds” standard and all of the specific loyalty criteria recommended by the TCEL, including the exact text of its suggested AGLOSO criteria.
The order also established a Loyalty Review Board (LRB), which would have the power to advise all federal agencies in making loyalty determinations, with the Justice Department directed to furnish the LRB with a listing of all organizations “which the Attorney General, after appropriate investigation and determination,” designated as belonging to one of the six categories, and the LRB charged with disseminating “such information to all departments and agencies.”
Each employee was granted the right to a hearing if “charged with being disloyal,” as well as to written notice informing him “of the nature of the charges against him in sufficient detail, so that he will be enabled to prepare his defense.” However, Truman’s order specified that the charges need only be “as complete as, in the discretion of the employing department or agency, security considerations permit” and that, in submitting information to government agencies, investigative agencies such as the FBI could, at their discretion, “refuse to disclose the name of confidential informants,” so long as they provided “sufficient information” so that the employing agencies could make “an adequate evaluation of the information furnished them.” In practice, because most charges were based on FBI information and the FBI was generally unwilling to divulge its sources and methods or to make its agents or informants available for testimony, federal employees charged under the loyalty program were usually provided only extremely vague charges and not told the sources of allegations against them and thus were denied the right to cross-examine their (unknown) accusers.
Between the March 22, 1947, public announcement of the new loyalty program and the massively publicized December 1947 issuance of the first Truman AGLOSO, the Justice Department began compiling AGLOSO behind a thick curtain of secrecy that has still not yet been entirely lifted. Many relevant department documents have apparently been destroyed, were never transferred to the National Archives, or remain classified.
Nonetheless, the process by which the Truman AGLOSO was compiled can be at least partly patched together from surviving documents and statements made by Justice Department officials after the list was first published in December 1947. These sources suggest that the FBI and the Justice Department devoted massive resources to compiling AGLOSO under what was perceived as enormous political pressure, that both agencies felt overwhelmed by the task and that, ultimately, decisions were made in a unclear and time-pressured manner that paved the way for years of subsequent chaotic confusion and contradiction.
FBI documents obtained almost six decades later under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that on or about April 3, 1947, the bureau, in response to a March 27 request from Assistant Attorney General Vanech for a compilation of “organizations thought to be subversive,” provided a list, without any accompanying write-ups, of 41 organizations which were “thought to be most dangerous within the purview of the recent Executive Order.”
According to a March 29 internal FBI document, these included the Communist Party, 38 alleged “front” groups, the Nazi Party, and the Ku Klux Klan. In an April 3 memorandum to Attorney General Clark, the FBI reported that it had previously sent the Justice Department “complete reports” on the Communist Party and “all of the major Communist front organizations,” totaling “some 50 organizations,” a grouping that presumably overlapped with the 41 organizations listed in response to Vanech’s request.
As the spring of 1947 turned into summer and fall, the FBI kept adding to its list of organizations for Justice Department AGLOSO consideration while increasingly groaning about the workload required for compiling the reports. By fall, with Hoover’s agreement, the FBI quit preparing further proposed listings.
In originally setting an October deadline for AGLOSO determinations, the Justice Department was probably responding to pressure from government officials charged with implementing Truman’s executive order. Thus, on April 24, CSC President Harry Mitchell wrote to Clark reporting that it was “essential” that the CSC be furnished the “list of organizations” designated under the order “promptly,” so that agency loyalty boards could take “immediate action” under Truman’s order. Clark added to the pressure by telling a reporter on May 31 that the AGLOSO list would probably be completed within a month.
Only the sketchiest information about the Justice Department’s internal processes concerning AGLOSO determinations was made public when the first Truman list was published in early December, but additional relevant information survives in archival material and in congressional testimony by department officials. According to a November 24, 1947, letter from Clark to the LRB that was published in the press on December 5 along with the Truman AGLOSO, the department had “compiled all available data” concerning organizations under review for AGLOSO, but the FBI was the only specific source of information mentioned.
At a December congressional hearing, Raymond Whearty of the Criminal Division reported that Justice Department attorneys had thus far considered a total of 449 organizations for AGLOSO designation and that the 33 attorneys detailed to this mission had worked “full time and including in some instances Saturdays and Sundays” between September 19 and October 31.
According to 1952 Justice Department documents, in drawing up the first Truman AGLOSO, the department incorporated “in toto” the 1943 Biddle AGLOSO, without any review of Biddle’s determinations and, in some cases, without any documentation about them. Thus, according to an October, 1952 memorandum by Assistant Attorney General Charles Murray, head of the Criminal Division, “no reexamination of [the Biddle] cases was made prior to their re-designation in 1947,” and with regard to many of the “Fascist” organizations, “incomplete or no files whatever have been located in the department and the basis upon which they were designated originally is unknown, save as summary memoranda prepared at the time may still be in existence.”
Touching on what would soon become one of the most controversial aspects of the “list,” Clark related in December 1947 congressional testimony that making AGLOSO designations was “a hard job and it is a trying job for the reason that we did not have any hearings,” a procedure “a little bit contrary to our usual conception of democratic process so I wanted to be careful about it. That is why I put these lawyers on it.” The hearings issue, along with how to define criteria for designations and whether or not to publish AGLOSO, were all considered behind the scenes by the FBI and the Justice Department during 1947, but available documentation on these subjects is extremely fragmentary. A March 31 internal FBI memorandum from Assistant Director Louis Nichols, reporting the views of the FBI “executive conference” (most top bureau officials aside from Hoover), reported a “unanimous” recommendation that the bureau take “no position” concerning whether hearings should be granted before declaring an organization “subversive or not subversive.”
However, an April 1, 1947, FBI memorandum from Nichols to top Hoover aide and Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson reported that Hoover had “very grave doubts” about granting hearings. It added that Clark had been advised through a subordinate that he should give this matter “his most mature and considered reflection, bearing in mind that Attorney General Biddle did not give such hearings” and that, if hearings were granted, the attorney general “probably would not have time for any list and would be confronted with the possibility of facing court action, of having writs served upon him, of a constant round of bickering, vilification, pressure and abuse.”
In a 1961 speech at Columbia University, Clark, by then a Supreme Court Justice, reported to 400 law students that he had reached the same conclusion, namely that if hearings were granted, organizations proposed for designation would (in the words of a reporter’s summary of his presentation) “so contest and delay the list that it would never be gotten out.” Clark added, “Perhaps we should, as I look back at it now, have given the parties an opportunity to be heard before we issued [AGLOSO].”
The fragmentary remaining evidence strongly suggests that Clark originally decided in the early spring of 1947 not to publish AGLOSO but subsequently changed his mind. According to Nichols’s March 31 FBI memorandum reflecting the executive conference’s views, a top Justice Department official had “rather excitedly” asked him about the FBI’s views concerning AGLOSO publication in the light of “a lot of pressure” coming from two newspapers, and the conference had subsequently unanimously expressed “no objection” to public release of the list. In his April 1 memorandum to Tolson, Nichols reported that Hoover’s view was that Clark would be obliged to transmit the list to the CSC as soon as it was completed and “that when that was done serious consideration would have to be given to the propriety of making such a list public.”
However, Nichols added that a top Justice Department official he had spoken to had reported, after talking to Clark, that the latter “was going to go very slow and doubted whether he would give out such a list.” Anonymous Justice Department officials were quoted in late March and mid-April press reports as indicating that the department would probably or definitely not publish AGLOSO for fear that such action would lead designated groups to go underground or change their names; similarly, Assistant Attorney General Vanech was quoted by name in late March as declaring that the list would probably “never” be officially released.
Clark told reporters on May 10 that he was undecided whether or not to publish AGLOSO but then announced on May 31 that it would be published, although he added, “We don’t want this to develop into a witch hunt.”
Clark’s own congressional testimony before HUAC on February 5, 1948, only two months after publication of the first Truman AGLOSO, clearly suggests that in fact the decision to publish AGLOSO was made as part of a deliberate campaign to destroy dissident organizations. Thus, Clark listed the “continuous study and public listing by the Attorney General of subversive organizations under the President’s executive order” as part of an overall eight-point program designed to “isolate subversive movements in this country from effective interference with the body politic” and render them “completely ineffective as a fifth column.”
Clark noted with approval that the Treasury Department, upon his recommendation, intended to withhold tax-exempt status from AGLOSO organizations, which he described as engaging in “propaganda activity of a subversive nature.”
The existing documentary record concerning what criteria the Justice Department used to designate AGLOSO organizations is highly fragmentary. But the best evidence, above all the fact that department lawyers sporadically wrote lengthy memorandums on this subject for the next 25 years, indicates that the department had no clear and solid criteria for putting a group on the list.
In July 1947, Assistant Attorney General Theron Caudle sent Assistant to the Attorney General Douglas McGregor what he termed the “latest” AGLOSO standards prepared by the Criminal Division to determine if organizations were “subversive.” Consisting of two double-spaced pages, the “organizational standards” included some relatively specific criteria, such as advocating the overthrow of the government and approving the use of force to deny others their constitutional rights, along with some extremely vague ones, such as “consistently opposing the enactment of, or advocating the repeal of laws and measures designed to strengthen and improve the security of the United States” and “closely cooperating with, supporting and furthering the aims of any subversive organization, association or combination of persons.”
On July 24, 1947, McGregor was sent another set of proposed standards in a nine-page memorandum from special assistants to the attorney general David Edelstein and Joseph Duggan, which included both “broad general criteria” for AGLOSO listing as well as “specific criteria” for categorizing designated organizations (as seemed required by Truman’s order), as “totalitarian,” “fascist,” “communist,” or “subversive.”
Edelstein and Duggan began by noting the difficulty of seeking to establish adequate AGLOSO criteria, as it was “believed” that they were “designed to be elastic and flexible” and not based on any allegations of “specific deeds detrimental to the United States” that made possible “ready detection,” but rather intended to “embrace the vast area of political economic and social action which too often reside in the operation of the mind.”
Such an approach, which clearly suggested that AGLOSO would be based on perceptions of what designated organizations “thought” rather than any specific harmful deeds they performed, would, the authors noted, be inherently “particularly imperfect” and “unfortunately limited in scope by human frailty.” They added that their suggested criteria were “formulated on the assumption that their use will be restricted to the Attorney General and his subordinates and that they are not for publication.”
Given their orientation, Edelstein and Duggan inevitably ended up with extraordinarily vague proposed standards. Thus, one of their suggested “broad general criteria” for designating organizations was an overall conclusion that the “actual principles” of an organization could be “deemed hostile or inimical to the American form of government, orderly democratic processes and the constitutional guarantee of individual liberty, so as to lead a person of reasonable prudence and discretion to conclude that such principles are opposed to or in contravention of the principles of the Constitution or laws or the United States.”
There is no documentary evidence that the Justice Department ever adopted the Edelstein-Duggan proposals or any other criteria for designating AGLOSO organizations. In congressional testimony in July 1949, Attorney General Clark clearly suggested, however, the sins of AGLOSO organizations were those of the mind or of engaging in completely legal activities such as aiding Communist defense organizations, rather than those involving any illegal activities. He described AGLOSO as including groups that “clearly were organized for the purpose of fostering American policy favorable to the current policy of a foreign state; others are designed to promote the defense of specific individuals or to serve generally as legal defense or legal aid groups for Communists, or others chose cases that can be rendered into causes célèbres to serve the ends of the Communists; others again are designed to teach Communist dogma and tactics.”
While the Justice Department secretly considered AGLOSO designations and criteria in the summer and fall of 1947, a public debate began over whether the government should undertake to create such an official list of “dubious” organizations at all and, if so, how this should be done. However, probably due to a combination of growing levels of anti-Communist feeling in the United States and the largely abstract nature of the subject in the absence of a concrete AGLOSO listing, this discussion was oddly muted and limited. Most conservative voices remained silent in apparent tacit approval of the forthcoming AGLOSO list, while liberal organizations and spokesmen generally focused on details of how AGLOSO would be compiled and whether or not it would be published, without directly attacking the fundamental conception behind it. Almost all of the relatively few voices that disputed the basic propriety or constitutionality of an official government listing of disfavored groups were associated, at least in the public mind, with “far left” or Communist Party influence.
The major arguments stressed by liberal organizations concerning AGLOSO during 1947 were that designated organizations should be entitled to a hearing or review of some kind before they were listed, that clear standards should be established for designations, and that the listing should be published, on the grounds that present and prospective federal employees were entitled to know which organizational affiliations might jeopardize their jobs. Such arguments may have convinced Justice Department officials to discard their apparent original intention to keep AGLOSO secret, as had been the case, with considerable success, with the World War II AGLOSO.
Thus, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a statement adopted by its board of directors in early April 1947, declared that the attorney general’s AGLOSO powers granted by the Truman executive order posed the “greatest threat to civil liberties” because it appeared to be “without limit,” without “even any requirement that the list be made public so that an individual affected might not innocently join an organization already on the blacklist.” The organization also complained that Truman’s order established “no standard” to guide the attorney general in his determinations and that words such as “totalitarian” and “communist” should be “precisely defined before organizations are charged with being of that character.” Moreover, according to the ACLU, suspect organizations should not be blacklisted by the attorney general without a hearing, and “as far as feasible the list of proscribed organizations should be made public.”
Similar arguments were made by several other prominent “anti-Communist” liberal voices. Thus, former New York City mayor Fiorello Laguardia declared, in a lengthy newspaper column entitled, “Even a Dog Gets a Hearing,” that “some organizations” should “in all likelihood” be “branded” as “disloyal and subversive,” but they at least should be first given a hearing, since placement on the list had such broad implications for individuals and families who might find themselves in those groups. Similarly, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters in late March that any AGLOSO listing should be made public so that people could be warned away from joining or giving funds to designated groups.
The Washington Post, which later would call for the outright abolition of AGLOSO, editorialized on March 29, 1947, that the concept of “guilt by association” was “still, happily, an odious one to the American people” and that it would be a matter of “elementary justice” for the attorney general to make his “index expurgatorius” public “so that the country as a whole may scrutinize it and judge its validity.” The Washington Post soon got its wish in December 1947.
The resultant massive media publicity given to AGLOSO quickly turned it into a quasi-official blacklist and greatly spurred the development of what later became known as “McCarthyism”—well before Senator McCarthy first made the headlines in February 1950 with his speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, alleging widespread Communist infiltration of the State Department.
- Alan Barth, The Loyalty of Free Men (New York: Pocket Books, 1952)
- Carl Bernstein, Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989)
- Eleanor Bontecou, The Federal-Loyalty Security Program (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1953)
- David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978)
- Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991)
- Richard Freeland, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and Internal Security, 1946–1948 (New York: Schocken, 1974)
- Richard Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)
- Robert Griffith and Athan Theoharis, eds., The Spector: Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974)
- Alan Harper, The Politics of Loyalty: The White House and the Communist Issue, 1946–1952 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969)
- Athan Theoharis, Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1971)
- Francis Thompson, The Frustration of Politics: Truman, Congress, and the Loyalty Issue, 1945–1953 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979)
- Michael Ybarra, Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt (Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2004).
Originally published by Prologue 38:3 (Fall 2006), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.