To some younger readers of this blog, the title of this post may seem strange. They do not realize how many lives and careers were wrecked because people refused to sign loyalty oaths. Today seems an appropriate time to revisit this topic, to offer some history as a cautionary.
On this date in 1962 the Weavers, a popular folk-singing quartet which included others the great Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert, were barred from appearing on the Jack Paar Show because they refused to sign a loyalty oath.
During the period of McCarthyism with its passion to root out Communists, both Hays and Seeger were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Both refused to testify on whether or not they were or had been members of the Communist Party, Hays citing the 5th Amendment and Seeger the 1st. They and the other members of the group found themselves barred from appearing on TV and radio, and Seeger was handed a conviction and had his activities limited until his conviction was overturned in 1961.
And yet, for all of our focusing on the use of loyalty oaths as an artifact of McCarthyism, they long pre-date the 1950s and continued well into the 1960s.
I do not propose to give a thorough history of loyalty oaths. Understand that such an oath is distinct from the Pledge of Allegiance, and was considered a legally binding statement, which if you swore falsely either about your previous actions or if you abrogated by subsequent actions subjected you to the penalties for perjury.
And yet, and yet.
It is odd that in a period after the Supreme Court had ruled (in 1943) that school students could not be required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony, the Federal Government would lead the way, to be followed by state and local governments and private organizations, to the requirement of loyalty oaths of different kinds.
Please keep reading.
There are constitutional oaths of office, that of the President being spelled out in Article II of the Constitution (and the language of that oath does NOT include the words "so help me God") and for all other offices being outlined in Article VI (an article which also declares that there shall be no religious test for any office under the Constitution).
It seems reasonable to require such an oath or affirmation (in deference to Quakers and others who do not swear) as a requirement for office, elected or appointed.
Loyalty oaths went further.
They attempted to bar people from office or even employment as a punishment for holding certain political beliefs. In fact, mere membership in the Communist Party and other left-wing organizations was for too many years a criminal offense - and yet there is no similar history of criminalizing mere membership in right wing organizations, even though the evidence is far greater of actual criminal actions in groups such as the KKK, some self-declared militias, etc.
I did not officially become a Quaker until 2003, having made the decision to apply for membership in my Meeting for Worship in October 2002.
I ceased reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the same time I decided to no longer recite the New York State Regents Prayer, during the Fall of my sophomore year in High School, in 1960.
I have been required to swear or affirm on numerous occasions
- when I enlisted in the US Marine Corps
- when I have appeared as a witness in a criminal trial
- as a member of a jury pool
- in applying for certain jobs and scholarships
- in applying for federally backed mortgages and student loans
- in certain other legal proceedings
In each case except entering the Marines that oath or affirmation was merely to formally declare under penalty of perjury that the information I offered was true. In the Marine Corps it was to support and uphold the Constitution.
In the 1960s there was the infamous Attorney General's list of subversive organizations. One often was presented with a statement to sign that one had not been a member of such an organization, even if one's participation in said organization had been before the organization was placed on that list. This list was used not only by governments from local to federal as a condition of employment, but also by many private employers. In some cases, because of government contracts, the private employers were required to obtain such statements, in other cases they did so for their own reasons.
I refused to interview for any such positions, and in one case when an employment agency had mistakenly sent me to such a company, I asked to see a copy of the list. When they could not produce one, I pointed out that they were placing job applicants under jeopardy because absent reading the list how could possibly know if in signing the oath we were not make a false statement. I walked out of that interview and ceased working with that agency.
It may be hard to realize, but in many states it was impossible to become a public school teacher absent signing such an oath.
In some states the list of prohibited organizations included many civil rights organizations.
For what it is worth, to my knowledge no organization of which I have been a formal member was ever on such lists. That was not the point.
If membership in such an organization was not itself illegal, this was punishing people for thought, to my mind a clear violation of the 1st Amendment on several grounds, those of speech and of association.
Could I have signed such an oath without perjuring myself? Almost certainly if the question was merely one of membership.
But what about of association with people who belonged to such organizations?
What about attending meetings out of curiosity?
What about reading literature, some of which may have been mailed to me simply because my name had appeared in the newspaper?
Let's take the last. I am fairly prominent as a blogger. As a result I wind up on email lists of all sorts. Thus in 2009 I suddenly began receiving tons of emails from certain Tea Party Groups. I regularly get press releases from across the political spectrum. As a teacher of government and politics I signed up for emailings from a number of political parties, which somehow got me invited as a "supporter" of George W. Bush to a number of events.
We saw in the last administration the perversion of the legal system for political purposes - whether it was the scandal of the US Attorneys, the prosecution of Don Siegelman, or non-governmental actions by the likes of Sinclair and Clear Channel in terms of what they provided or banned for political purposes. Think of Clear Channel attempting to crush the Dixie Chicks because of the statement of Natalie Maines that they did not support all of what Bush was doing, and you will have a vague parallel to what entertainers like the Weavers experienced during the period of blacklists and loyalty oaths.
After all, we had had the Hollywood Blacklist - figures in the movie community whose names were on an actual list beginning in 1947 that barred them from participating in the cinematic industry because of actual or suspected membership in "subversive" organizations. More than 150 people lost employment, not all actors.
That power of that list was broken in 1960 when the Oscar for best original screenplay was awarded to one Robert Rich for Spartacus. Rich was a pseudonym for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and the power of the black list was effectively broken.
After September 11, 2001, we saw something of the national paranoia that during the post World War II period had led to loyalty oaths, and one should probably remember that the institution of such oaths in the Federal government was done in the Truman administration, which also gave us both the NSA and the CIA. What we saw then pales when compared to what happened during McCarthyism.
Some would seek to institute loyalty oaths again.
Some want to punish their political opponents, retroactively if possible.
If you were a radical or ever did something that they can paint as "extremist" some on the right want to attempt to destroy years later, regardless of the good you may have done since then. It does not matter if the action was simply stupid - Jane Fonda sitting at the controls of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun - or actually criminal - the actions of Bill Ayers in the 1960s - they seek to use that to attempt to destroy you not only politically, but also economically, to take away your ability to earn a living, to deny you the ability to express your point of view.
I will not sign a loyalty oath.
I have deliberately broken laws in civil disobedience, during my activities in civil rights and in protests against Vietnam.
I was never arrested for those activities.
I have acquaintances who span the political spectrum. One teammate on my high school Cross-Country team was a Nazi. I dated a young woman who was an undercover organizer for the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Hell, at one point I even dated the daughter of the Bulgarian Ambassador to the United Nations.
Many of the positions I have taken politically are anathema to some in this nation.
I have no trouble publicly criticizing political figures, whether I voted for them (Obama, Kaine, Webb) or against them (Reagan, both Bushes, George Allen, Ken Cuccinelli).
I do not say the Pledge because my loyalty is to the Constitution as I understand it.
If I will not recite the Pledge, I will not require my students even to stand for its recitation, and should that cost me a teaching job, so be it.
If I will not recite the Pledge, which carries no criminal penalties for refusing to recite how, it is logical that I will not sign a loyalty oath beyond what is constitutionally required for certain offices.
I will not swear. I will affirm under penalty of perjury that my words are true.
Too often loyalty oaths have been used to divide us, to act punitively both restrospectively and prospectively towards those with whom we disagree, whose influence we would seek to diminish if not eliminate.
On this date in 1962 a gifted group of folk singers was denied an appearance on a television show because they would not sign a loyalty oath.
That was wrong then.
It was wrong before then, and continues to be wrong today.
I thought it worth a few words to remember some of the darker parts of our more recent history.