The American President Who Screened Federal Employees for Their Loyalty - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The American President Who Screened Federal Employees for Their Loyalty

The American President Who Screened Federal Employees for Their Loyalty

By Sean Braswell


Because Donald Trump is not the first American president to value loyalty. There are just different motivations behind it.

By Sean Braswell

Loyalty is clearly a trait of paramount importance to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump reportedly told former FBI director James Comey. Even before the “enemies list” that surfaced in August, Trump has claimed that many federal employees are disloyal and pursue their own political interests. His administration has been quietly vetting and gauging the loyalty and political leanings of career civil servants employed by the State Department and international agencies like the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

But the Trump administration is hardly the first in American history to take an interest in the political views of its employees or to question their loyalty or motives. Seven decades ago, another embattled U.S. president, Harry Truman, issued a sweeping loyalty program in an attempt to ferret out federal employees who might have “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive” sympathies. It did not go well.

In the wake of the Second World War, and at the advent of the Cold War, fears of communist activity began to grow in the United States, including in the corridors of power. After a Soviet spy ring was busted in Canada in 1946, and the Republican Party made big gains in Congress during the midterms that same year, pressure increased on Truman, the Democratic president, to take some concrete action to prevent infiltration of the federal government and (more importantly) avoid appearing “soft” on communism. And so in March 1947, Truman signed an executive order saying that federal employees for whom “reasonable grounds for belief in disloyalty” to the United States could be established would be dismissed.

High-ranking women, African-Americans and Jews were disproportionately likely to be accused of disloyalty. 

According to Landon R.Y. Storrs, a professor of history at the University of Iowa and author of The Second Red Scare, the loyalty program was created more for political reasons than out of national security concerns, and Truman did so “against advice of some of his advisers, who correctly predicted that it would fuel, rather than co-opt, the crusade against ‘communists in government.’”

Truman’s order established a framework for performing loyalty checks, including the installation of loyalty boards in every government agency. Loyalty standards were vague and often in the eye of the beholder, usually an investigator looking for “subversive” tendencies. High-ranking women, African-Americans and Jews were disproportionately likely to be accused of disloyalty. Liberal critics argued that the program violated civil liberties while conservatives worried that it was not stringent enough. 


During the program’s peak years (1947 to 1956), however, more than 5 million federal employees were screened, leading to around 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations, most from low-ranking employees. But not much in the way of true communist infiltrators. “Truman’s loyalty program did not catch any spies,” says Storrs, “but existing measures and agencies did.” Still, the loyalty program had other consequences: Many employees left public service, there was low morale among those who remained and the government had trouble attracting new talent into its ranks. 

Then there was the matter of Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, who would harness the hysteria fueled by such investigations to launch his own reckless quest to purge the government of its communist elements. Truman attempted to counter McCarthyism, and to defend officials caught up in the witch hunts, by reportedly saying that “the so-called communist scare” was actually “a lot of baloney,” but it was hard to un-ring the loyalty bell.

Storrs argues that while there are some similarities between the Red Scare era and now — from the rampant anti-intellectualism and mistrust of elites to the tendency toward conspiracy theories and the manipulation of voters to think the government is their enemy — there are key differences, including the fact that Trump insists that federal employees be loyal to him more than to the nation.

And, of course, there’s the somewhat different orientation toward Russia, with the Trump administration remaining largely unconcerned with Russian espionage and influence operations in America this time around. Indeed, if Truman’s loyalty program were still in place, one wonders whether one of the federal employees with “totalitarian, fascist or subversive” sympathies caught up in its net might be the one occupying the White House. 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories