President Truman's Executive Order 9835 Demanded Loyalty

A Response to the Red Scare of Communism

Illustration of a Cold War family nuclear fallout shelter
Illustration Of a Cold War Family Fallout Shelter. Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

In 1947, World War II had just ended, the Cold War had just begun, and Americans were seeing communists everywhere. It was in that politically-charged atmosphere of fear that President Harry S. Truman on March 21, 1947, issued an executive order establishing an official “Loyalty Program” intended to identify and eliminate communists in the U.S. government.

Key Takeaways: Executive Order 9835

  • Executive Order 9835 was a presidential executive order issued by President Harry S. Truman on March 21, 1947.
  • The so-called “Loyalty Order” created a controversial “Federal Employee Loyalty Program” charged with eliminating communists from all areas of the U.S. government.
  • The order empowered the FBI to investigate federal employees and created presidentially-appointed Loyalty Review Boards to act on reports from the FBI.
  • Between 1947 and 1953, more than 3 million federal employees were investigated, with 308 fired after being declared security risks by the Loyalty Review Boards. 

Truman’s Executive Order 9835, often called the “Loyalty Order,” created the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, which authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct initial background checks on federal employees and carry out more in-depth investigations when warranted. The order also created Presidentially-appointed Loyalty Review Boards to investigate and act on the findings of the FBI.

“There shall be a loyalty investigation of every person entering the civilian employment of any department or agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government,” the Loyalty Order decreed, also providing that, “equal protection from unfounded accusations of disloyalty must be afforded the loyal employees.”

According to the paper The Second Red Scare, Digital History, Post-War America 1945-1960 from the University of Houston, the Loyalty Program investigated over 3 million federal employees, 308 of whom were fired after being declared security risks.

Background: Rise of the Communist Threat

Shortly after the end of World War II, not only had the entire world learned the horrors of nuclear weapons, America’s relationship with the Soviet Union had deteriorated from wartime allies to staunch enemies. Based on reports that the USSR had succeeded in developing its own nuclear weapons, Americans, including government leaders, were gripped by a fear of the Soviets and communists in general, whoever and wherever they might be.  

Growing economic tension between the two nations, along with fears of uncontrolled Soviet spy activity in America began to influence ​U.S. foreign policy and, of course, politics.

Conservative groups and the Republican Party sought to use the so-called “Red Scare” threat of Communism to their advantage in the 1946 midterm Congressional elections by claiming that President Truman and his Democratic Party were “soft on Communism.” Eventually, the fear that communists were beginning to infiltrate the U.S. government itself became a key campaign issue.

In November 1946, Republican candidates won sweeping victories nationwide resulting in Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Truman Responds to the Red Scare

Two weeks after the election, on November 25, 1946, President Truman responded to his Republican critics by creating the President's Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty or TCEL. Made up of representatives from six Cabinet-level government departments under the chairmanship of a Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, TCEL was intended to create federal loyalty standards and procedures for the removal of disloyal or subversive individuals from federal government positions. The New York Times printed the TCEL announcement on its front page under the headline, “President orders purge of disloyal from U.S. posts.”

Truman demanded that the TCEL report its findings to the White House by February 1, 1947, less than two months before he issued his Executive Order 9835 creating the Loyalty Program.

Did Politics Force Truman’s Hand?

Historians contend that the timing of Truman’s actions, taken so soon after the Republican Congressional victories, show that both the TCEL and the subsequent Loyalty Order had been politically motivated. 

Truman, it seems, was not as worried about Communist infiltration as the terms of his Loyalty Order indicated. In February 1947, he wrote to Pennsylvania’s Democratic 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.”

How the Loyalty Program Worked

Truman’s Loyalty Order directed the FBI to investigate the backgrounds, associations, and beliefs of any of the approximately 2 million executive branch federal employees. The FBI reported the results of their investigations to one or more of the 150 Loyalty Review Boards in various government agencies.

The Loyalty Review Boards were authorized to conduct their own investigations and to collect and consider testimony from witnesses whose names were not disclosed. Notably, the employees being targeted by the loyalty investigations were not allowed to confront the witnesses testifying against them.

Employees could be fired if the loyalty board found “reasonable doubt” regarding their loyalty to the U.S. government or ties to communist organizations.

The Loyalty Order defined five specific categories of disloyalty for which employees or applicants could be fired or rejected for employment. These were:

  • Sabotage, espionage, spying or the advocacy thereof
  • Treason, sedition or the advocacy thereof;
  • Intentional, unauthorized disclosure of confidential information
  • Advocacy of the violent overthrow of the U.S. government
  • Membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association with any organization labeled as totalitarian, fascist, Communist or subversive

The Subversive Organization List and McCarthyism

Truman’s Loyalty Order resulted in the controversial “Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations” (AGLOSO), which contributed the second American Red Scare from 1948 to 1958 and the phenomenon known as “McCarthyism.”

Between 1949 and 1950, the Soviet Union demonstrated that it had indeed developed nuclear weapons, China fell to Communism, and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy famously declared that the U.S. Department of State employed more than 200 “known communists.” Despite having issued his Loyalty Order, President Truman again faced charges that his administration was “coddling” communists.

Results and Demise of Truman’s Loyalty Order

Between 1948 and 1958, the FBI ran initial reviews of 4.5 million government employees and, on an annual basis, another 500,000 applicants for government positions. 

Truman’s executive order said: "maximum protection must be afforded the United States against infiltration of disloyal persons into the ranks of its employees, and equal protection from unfounded accusations of disloyalty must be afforded the loyal employees." But those “protections” were deemed inadequate, as objections surfaced regarding the lack of due process protections resulting from the departmental loyalty board procedures. One complaint concerned the lack of opportunity for employees accused of disloyalty to confront those anonymous informants that the order protected from being named.

Initially, the D.C. Circuit Court affirmed the procedures of EO 9835, and in 1950, a tie vote in the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that ruling to stand.

According to historian Robert H. Ferrell’s book Harry S. Truman: A Life, by mid-1952, the Loyalty Review Boards created by Truman’s Loyalty Order had investigated more than 4 million actual or prospective federal employees, of which 378 were fired or denied employment. “None of the discharged cases led to discovery of espionage,” noted Ferrell.

Truman’s Loyalty program has been widely criticized as an unwarranted attack on innocent Americans, driven by the Red Scare. As the Cold War’s threat of nuclear attack grew more serious during the 1950s, Loyalty Order investigations became more common. According to the book Civil Liberties and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman, edited by Richard S. Kirkendall, “the program exerted its chilling effect on a far larger number of employees than those who were dismissed.”

In April 1953, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 revoking Truman’s Loyalty Order and dismantling the Loyalty Review Boards. Instead, Eisenhower’s order directed the heads of federal agencies and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, supported by the FBI, to investigate federal employees to determine whether they posed security risks.

However, both Truman’s Executive Order 9835 and Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 were later repealed when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12968 in 1995 and Executive Order 13087 in 1998.

In 1956, the US Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Cole v. Young weakened the potential for enforcement of employment suspensions involving non-loyalty-related issues such as sexual perversion. In 1975, the US Civil Service Commission formally reversed its discriminatory hiring policy against gays and lesbians. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued an executive repealing lingering provisions of Truman’s Order 9835 barring the employment of gays in the  US Foreign Service, as well as a policy that had required the Internal Revenue Service to enforce LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) education and charity groups to publicly state that homosexuality is a “sickness, disturbance, or diseased pathology.”

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Longley, Robert. "President Truman's Executive Order 9835 Demanded Loyalty." ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, June 11). President Truman's Executive Order 9835 Demanded Loyalty. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "President Truman's Executive Order 9835 Demanded Loyalty." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).