March 22

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 22, 1947:

Truman orders loyalty checks of federal employees

In response to public fears and Congressional investigations into communism in the United States, President Harry S. Truman issues an executive decree establishing a sweeping loyalty investigation of federal employees.

As the Cold War began to develop after World War II, fears concerning communist activity in the United States, particularly in the federal government, increased. Congress had already launched investigations of communist influence in Hollywood, and laws banning communists from teaching positions were being instituted in several states. Of most concern to the Truman administration, however, were persistent charges that communists were operating in federal offices. In response to these fears and concerns, Truman issued an executive order on March 21, 1947, which set up a program to check the loyalty of federal employees. In announcing his order, Truman indicated that he expected all federal workers to demonstrate "complete and unswerving loyalty" the United States. Anything less, he declared, "constitutes a threat to our democratic processes."

The basic elements of Truman's order established the framework for a wide-ranging and powerful government apparatus to perform loyalty checks. Loyalty boards were to be set up in every department and agency of the federal government. Using lists of "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive" organizations provided by the attorney general, and relying on investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, these boards were to review every employee. If there existed "reasonable grounds" to doubt an employee's loyalty, he or she would be dismissed. A Loyalty Review Board was set up under the Civil Service Commission to deal with employees' appeals.

Truman's loyalty program resulted in the discovery of only a few employees whose loyalty could be "reasonably" doubted. Nevertheless, for a time his order did quiet some of the criticism that his administration was "soft" on communism. Matters changed dramatically in 1949-1950. The Soviets developed an atomic bomb, China fell to the communists, and Senator Joseph McCarthy made the famous speech in which he declared that there were over 200 "known communists" in the Department of State. Once again, charges were leveled that the Truman administration was "coddling" communists, and in response, the Red Scare went into full swing.

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