Truman Declines to Comply: Examining the Loyalty program

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
1 class period
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
This lesson uses primary documents to support an examination of the use of subpoenas by legislative bodies to demand testimony and the power of presidents when refusing to cooperate.  The lesson can be done as individual or pair work initially and finishes with group and class discussion.

This lesson uses primary documents to support an examination of the use of subpoenas by legislative bodies to demand testimony and the power of presidents when refusing to cooperate.  The lesson can be done as individual or pair work initially and finishes with group and class discussion.

Rationale (why are you doing this?)
  • To provide understanding of legal concept of subpoena;
  • To provide understanding of presidential immunity/presidential prerogative;  

  • To provide understanding of the interconnections among government agencies.


Lesson Objectives - the student will

Explain the idea of and note differences between the concepts of presidential  immunity and presidential prerogative;

  • Define the concept and explain the legal ramifications of subpoenas;
  • Describe the zeitgeist of post WWII/early Cold War thinking regarding the Soviet Union.

  • Explain the functions of the FBI, the President, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUAA) in relationship to Soviet espionage.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1
    Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2
    Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8
    Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9
    Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed
  • Background essay from Truman Library and the Independence School District - Truman’s Loyalty Program


Background Essay - Truman’s Loyalty Program


The Cold War emphasis on containment is often framed in terms of Truman’s foreign policy decisions: the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine in Europe, the Korean War in Asia. Yet containment took on a life of its own in the United States as many Americans grew more and more concerned about Communism on U.S. soil, and even more alarmingly, in government agencies. The rise of McCarthyism in the wake of this fear is well-known. Less discussed, perhaps, is the emergence of a Loyalty Program within the federal government.

Truman’s Loyalty Program has its origins in World War II, particularly in the Hatch Act (1939), which forbade anyone who “advocated the overthrow of our constitutional form of government in the United States” to work in government agencies. After the war, tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union grew, as did suspicion of workers in every government department. Several advisors, including Attorney General Tom Clark, urged Truman to form a loyalty program to safeguard against communist infiltration in the government. Initially, Truman was reluctant to form such a program, fearing it could threaten civil liberties of government workers. However, several factors shaped his decision to institute such a policy. Fear of communism was growing rapidly at home, and in the 1946 midterm election, Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since 1931. To examine the issue, in November 1946 Truman created the Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty, which stated, “there are many conditions called to the Committee’s attention that cannot be remedied by mere changes in techniques… Adequate protective measures must be adopted to see that persons of questioned loyalty are not permitted to enter into the federal service.” In March 1947, Truman signed Executive Order 9835, “prescribing procedures for the administration of an employees loyalty program in the executive branch of the government.”

The Loyalty Program has been criticized as a weapon of hysteria attacking law-abiding citizens. The Attorney General’s office compiled lists of “subversive” organizations, and prior involvement in protests or labor strikes could be grounds for investigation. As the Cold War intensified, investigations grew more frequent and far-reaching. As noted in Civil Liberties and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman, edited by Richard S. Kirkendall, “During the loyalty-security program’s peak years from 1947 to 1956, over five million federal workers underwent screening, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations… the program exerted its chilling effect on a far larger number of employees than those who were dismissed.”

While Truman feared the Program could become a “witch hunt,” he defended it as necessary to preserve American security during a time of great tension. Many Americans agreed with him and applauded his stand against communism and subversion. The historical context of this event is important, for every investigation, every loyalty oath and every questionnaire took place under a backdrop of fear in an uncertain post-war world.

It is common today to look at events like McCarthyism, HUAC and the Loyalty Program as products of hysteria. Yet this hardly was the first time the federal government restricted civil liberties in the name of national security. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts as concerns grew over a looming war with France. During both the Civil War and World War I, individuals suspected of disloyalty faced prison. The liberty vs. security debate is a continuity in American history, and even though we live in a post-Cold War world, some of these issues are still part of the discussion in an age of global terrorism. Truman’s Loyalty Program must be viewed and debated with this understanding, and the understanding that historical context drives presidential decision making.




Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed

Primary Sources and Guide Questions:


This activity consists of four primary documents.


Document 1:  Summons to Harry S. Truman, November 9, 1953


Questions for Document 1:

1. What is a subpoena?

2. Is refusing a Congressional subpoenas a response optional?

3. From whom is the subpoena issued?

3. For whom is the subpoena issued?


Document 2:  Harry S. Truman to Harold H. Velde, November 11, 1953

Questions for Document 2:

1. For what reason does Truman assume the subpoena was issued?

2. Why does Truman decline to comply with the subpoena?

3. Whom does Truman cite as precedent in refusing to comply with the subpoena?

4. What "clearly established and universally recognized Constitutional doctrine" does Truman cite  in refusing to comply with the subpoena (paraphrase, please)?


Document 3: Press Release, November 16, 1953  

Questions for Document 3:

1. Who is the target audience of the press release?

2. What is  the substance of the press release (paraphrase, please)?

3. What reasons does Truman list for declining to comply with the subpoena?

4. What was Truman’s response to the charges made by Attorney General Brownell (summarize, please)?

5. How does Truman feel about AG Brownell (be specific, please)?

6. According to the press release, what is Truman’s greatest disappointment and concern about this affair?


Document 4: Longhand Note, Harry S. Truman, November 17, 1953

Questions for Document 4:

1. In the initial comment regarding the note, Truman states that "the American people have always been for fair play." How does the hand-written note expound on those sentiments?

2. How does Truman explain harry Dexter White’s role with the US  government?

3. How does Truman describe Mrs. Beatley and Whitaker Chambers?

4. In the note, what does Truman imply about the Eisenhower administration regarding integrity?

Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?

Framing Question: Does a U.S. President have an obligation to comply with an Senate subpoena?


Note- This module is organized around four basic steps essential to an inquiry. Please tailor these steps to the needs of your students.


Step 1: Frame the inquiry.


1. Students should restate the inquiry question in their own words, establishing exactly what it is asking. Students might work with a neighbor to predict what possible perspectives might be available on the question.


2. An essential component to discussion of this topic is the historical context. Ideally, this lesson would follow discussion of the end of World War II (including Yalta and Potsdam), the changing relationship  between the UDSA and the Soviet Union, and the impact of McCarthyism during the Cold War. Regardless of where the lesson falls in the scope and sequence of the course, it is important that students understand the larger context. In addition to the framing question, students should generate a list of questions that they need to know regarding Cold War politics, American loyalty, and McCarthyism in order to proceed. These questions should include background knowledge they anticipate needing or related questions that they find interesting. Students will use these questions to help guide how they examine the sources and what additional resources they might request.


Examples of questions for this lesson might include:

*Why was Truman committed to containment?

*Why did Truman find it necessary to establish the Loyalty Program?

*Why was Truman uneasy about the Loyalty Program?

*How did the public react to the Loyalty Program?

*How did foreign policy developments between 1945 and 1950 shape Cold War fears at home?

*In what ways does the Loyalty Program reflect the Cold War fears at home?

*How did the Loyalty Program impact government workers?

*How is the Loyalty Program, which was practiced in the Executive Branch of the federal government, relate to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Legislative Branch?

*Who were Harry Dexter White, Mrs. Beatley, and Whitaker Chambers?

*What is the legacy of the Employee Loyalty Program?

*How might the Loyalty Program relate to current issues?


3. Discuss the above questions as possible historical context points. Students should keep in mind the overall tenor of the Cold War as they examine the document