Loyalty Oaths

views updated


LOYALTY OATHS administered by colonial, revolutionary, confederate, federal, state, and municipal governments have asked pledgers to swear allegiance to the governing bodies. The contents of such oaths have varied, reflecting the political climates of their times, and often have been required only of particular individuals or groups, such as public officials and employees, persons feared to be subversives, residents of Confederate states, and educators. The best-known loyalty oath is the "Pledge of Allegiance," recited by schoolchildren and at many public events. Francis Bellamy wrote the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. His version read, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Congress's addition of the words "under God" in 1954 came under attack by those objecting that it violated the separation of government and religion.

During World War II (1939–1945), the War Relocation Authority administered loyalty questionnaires to interned Japanese Americans, citizens as well as noncitizens. One of the questions asked respondents whether they would swear loyalty to the United States and renounce allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign power. Those who responded "no," or who qualified their answers—out of suspicion that the question was intended to trick them into admitting allegiance to Japan, or as an expression of bitterness about their confinement—were classified as "disloyal" and subsequently segregated from the 65,000 internees who had responded in the affirmative.

The red scares following World War I (1914–1918) and World War II fueled fears of plots against the U.S. government. Anticommunist panic surged after World War II as the Cold War developed. In 1947, President Harry Truman's Executive Order 9835 created a loyalty-security program that subjected federal employees and job applicants to loyalty and security checks and allowed the firing of employees found to be members of, or sympathetic to, the Communist Party or other groups characterized as subversive. In the 1930s and 1940s, some states, including New York and California, enacted legislation requiring educators to swear allegiance to the state and the nation, and to uphold their constitutions. In the late 1950s, two out of three states compelled loyalty oaths, with some schools and universities augmenting the loyalty requirement, essentially for the purpose of purging communists. For example, in 1949 the Regents of the University of California required all faculty and staff to swear that they were not members of the Communist Party or otherwise aligned with allegedly subversive organizations. The Board of Regents fired thirty-one professors who refused to take the anticommunist oath on the grounds that it violated principles of political and academic freedom.

Laws requiring loyalty oaths did not necessarily entail investigations into the actual beliefs, political associations, and fidelities of oath-takers. Although controversial, into the twenty-first century governments and educational institutions have asked employees to take such oaths. Critics have asserted that loyalty oaths were by themselves ineffective measures of a person's allegiances; that they were so vague as to be subject to broad and possibly capricious interpretations; or that they resulted from the political opportunism of legislators, and from governments' attempts to suppress dissent.


Daniels, Roger. Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Heale, M. J. American Anti-Communism: Combating the Enemy Within, 1830–1970. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Hyman, Harold M. To Try Men's Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Schrecker, Ellen W. No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


About this article

Loyalty Oaths

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article