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The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations: A Sad Lesson from American History

In his 1952 book The Loyalty of Free Men, Alan Barth, a Washington Post editorial writer, described the so-called “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations” (AGLOSO), which the Truman administration began publishing in late 1947 as part of its wide sweeping federal employee loyalty screening program, as “perhaps the most arbitrary and far-reaching power ever exercised by a single public official” in American history, allowing the Attorney General to “stigmatize” and “proscribe any organization of which he disapproves.”  AGLOSO played a critical and central part of the post-World War II “Red Scare,” far more important, in my view, than the role of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who arrived on the anti-communist scene only in early 1950 well after the Red Scare was underway.  It was a ubiquitous part of the early Cold War/Red Scare atmosphere, so much so that the November, 1956 Elks Magazine began an article entitled, “What the Attorney General’s List Means” by accurately noting that “there are few Americans who have not heard of 'the Attorney General’s subversive list' ” and concluded by summarizing AGLOSO’s clear message:  “There is no excuse for any American citizen becoming affiliated with a group on the Attorney General’s list today.” 

AGLOSO was a list of what ultimately became almost 300 organizations which the federal government began publishing, without any notice to the groups involved, or any hearings, specific charges or evidence, as groups to be considered in connection with President Truman’s March, 1947 federal loyalty screening program, which required that every federal employee or applicant for federal employment, from an agricultural department janitor to the secretary of state, be screened for “loyalty.” 

Although its official purpose was supposedly limited solely to federal loyalty screenings, in fact AGLOSO soon was used throughout the breadth and length of the United States for a wide variety of uses:  it was incorporated into state, city and private “loyalty” screenings (thus hotels used it to ban suspect organizations from room rentals and CBS News to screen employees), the Treasury Department used it to take away tax exempt status from listed groups, the State Department to deprive their members of passports, the Immigration and Naturalization Service in connection with deportations, denaturalizations and entry bans, the Federal Housing Administration (under congressional mandate) to bar AGLOSO members from federally-subsidized public housing and the Veterans Administration to deny AGLOSO members education benefits under the famed G.I. Bill. 

A Texas law even required that no textbook could be adopted for use in the public schools unless the author swore an oath that he was not, and had not been for the preceding five years, a member of any AGLOSO organization (no explanation was given as to how deceased authors, like Shakespeare or Plato, could comply). 

AGLOSO designations had an especially devastating impact upon listed groups because they were accompanied by massive media publicity, which almost inevitably led members and supporters to quit designated groups and to cease providing financial or other assistance, thereby severely weakening or destroying them. As leading Red Scare historian Ellen Schrecker has written, AGLOSO designation was effectively a “kiss of death” for designated organizations.

That AGLOSO was critically important to the Red Scare was the repeatedly expressed private view of top government officials in the FBI and Justice Department, as well as that of numerous contemporary and subsequent commentators.   Thus, in November, 1953, Oran Waterman, the head of the Justice Department unit concerned with AGLOSO designation wrote to his boss, that “if the amount of mail received is any criterion, the public is probably more cognizant of the [AGLOSO] Designation Program than any other aspect of the Government’s anti-subversive work” and it had been “more effective in combating the Communist front movement than any other program”; four years later, the same official noted, “when an organization was designated, it only became a question of time as to its final dissolution.” 

At about the same time, David Irons, Chief of the Justice Department’s “Subversive Organizations Unit,” wrote that “public knowledge” about AGLOSO “has reached the point that many individuals refuse to contribute funds or associate themselves in any manner with a designated organization.”  In a 1956 internal FBI memo, agent C. H. Stanley reported that the Justice Department received 600 inquiries monthly about AGLOSO and that it was “so effective a device” in causing listed groups to “rapidly disintegrate” that “it should not be lightly abandoned.”  In a 1961 memo to the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, J. Walter Yeagley, head of the Internal Security Division, wrote that AGLOSO listings resulted in “eventually destroying” the designated groups.

 Although an individual's affiliations were only supposed to be considered one of the pieces of evidence used to assess their loyalty, in practice they became the dominant element in the loyalty program. As Seth Richardson, first chairman of the Loyalty Review Board (LRB), which supervised the Truman program, told the board in May 1948, “the overwhelming number of cases have to do with membership or affiliation or activity” of employees with AGLOSO-designated groups.  Schrecker has written that “no other event, no political trial or Congressional hearing, was to shape the internal Cold War as decisively” as the loyalty program (whose heart was AGLOSO), while historian Roger Keeran declares that AGLOSO was “the cornerstone of the whole Cold War repression.”

Above all, what makes studying AGLOSO important is that it played a central role in molding an entire cohort of Americans (known as the “silent generation” on college campuses) who feared to join organizations, sign petitions or otherwise express their views, especially because organizations might be designated for AGLOSO at any time, without any additional information about the group, including exactly what they had done that was “subversive” and when they had done it.  Thus, actress Judy Holliday, who, when hauled before a 1952 Congressional committee due to her political activities, declared, “I don’t say ‘yes’ to anything now except [organizations fighting] cancer, polio and cerebral palsy, and things like that.” One federal employee told social scientists who investigated the impact of the loyalty program in the early 1950s that, “If the communists like apple pie and I do, I see no reason why I should stop eating it, but I would.”  

The legacy of AGLOSO, along with similar shameful episodes of political repression in American history, such the as 1919 Red Scare, the 50-year misrule of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the hysteria and repressive measures whipped up by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/ll, helps to explain the relative lack of any serious debate about initial American interventions in Vietnam or Iraq for fear of being labeled “soft” on “communism” or “terrorism.”  AGLOSO and other such episodes have all too tarnished that gleaming word “liberty” which appears on American coins and is supposed to be the central aspect of the American way of life and government.