While most famous for ending World War II, helping establish the United Nations and launching the Marshall Plan, president Harry S. Truman also put in place the first government-sponsored program to ferret out so-called "communist infiltrators" within the U.S. government.
In March 1947, Truman—who died 40 years ago today—signed an executive order that created the "Federal Employees Loyalty Program," which was designed to ferret out government employees potentially spying for the USSR or partaking in "un-American activities." At the helm of this program the president put Hiram Bingham, an American explorer who had discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu and took to his new investigative task in the administration with vigor.
In November 1951, U.S. News & World Report interviewed a seemingly unapologetic Bingham about the loyalty program, whose creation Truman later privately told friends had been a "terrible" mistake. (Despite reviewing employees in nearly every federal department and agency, the program discovered only a few employees believed to have been disloyal.)
Here's what Bingham had to say to U.S. News at the time:
Q. Do you have the feeling that somebody is trying to infiltrate into the government?
A. We know that they have infiltrated. We know ... that confidential government documents were given away. We know that that is the way in which the communists operate. They try to infiltrate and learn what's going on and make trouble.
Q. What about all this that you hear about some employee being accused of not having any information given to him as to where the charges arise from?
A. I have known of cases where a man got a letter telling him that he had been suspended and the reason that he had been suspended was too confidential to tell him. There is something wrong about that, but that has nothing to do with loyalty...
Incidentally, if you look in the dictionary for the terms "loyal" and "disloyal," you will find that one is not just the opposite of the other. A loyal subject is one who is more than a faithful subject. He is a loyal friend who will go to bat for you. A loyal citizen, under the modern meaning of loyal, will do more than is required for his country. He'll put his country first rather than himself. Now, disloyal means something infamous, perfidious, treacherous.
Under the old standards—"on all the evidence, reasonable grounds exist to believe a person is disloyal"—I have had to sign a paper stating that the Loyalty Review Board has found reasonable grounds to believe a person is disloyal! I have hated to do that, because to brand a person with disloyalty is a very serious thing. I don't mind saying that we find reasonable doubt of loyalty. So I am much happier under the new standard.
Q. Do you think that there ought to be any changes in the standard of loyalty?
A. No. I don't think so.
Q. Does anybody keep any check on the disloyal former employees, what becomes of them afterwards, where they go to get jobs, whether they drift back into these Communist-front organizations?
Q. When they are dismissed from the government, they are dismissed because they are assumed to be dangerous, or disloyal, and then they go somewhere else to get a job where they might continue their disloyalty?
A. They have to try to get a job. We never publish the names. We give no publicity to any of our activities. If there's any publicity, it is all given by the man himself or his counsel.
Q. If a government employee within the last six months knew that he was being checked on by the FBI, that his family and home town were being interrogated, could he infer that he was under suspicion?
A. I should think that he might draw that inference. Perhaps that's one reason why 1,800 of the 16,000 resigned before the investigation was completed.
Q. Do you think it's possible that some of these 1,800 quit because they felt that they wouldn't have any chance for a fair hearing?
A. Undoubtedly they quit for various reasons. I hope that nobody quit because they wouldn't get a fair hearing.
Q. But at a time when accusations are made rather freely in high places, sometimes a man can be smeared and never get rid of it?
A. Unfortunately, that's true. I don't know what we can do to prevent it.
Q. Have you any idea from an examination of these cases whether these people are directly connected with foreign governments, or whether they are sympathizers with foreign governments?
A. They never admit it. Of course, in the usual case they deny everything. One of the things you have to do at these hearings is to try to see if they are lying or not. An oath means nothing to the communists. At the hearings we try to find out the truth.
(This interview was abridged from the original. Read the full interview at the Truman Library.)