1958 September 2

National Defense Education Act Includes Loyalty Oath and Bar to Civil Rights Enforcement


Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) on this day, in response to the Soviet Union’s successful first launch of a satellite (“Sputnik”) in 1957. Sputnik created a national panic over fears that the Soviet Union had moved ahead of the United States in science and technology. The NDEA provided financial support for U.S. college students in a time when there had been no such federal aid. The law, however, included violations of civil liberties and civil rights. The act required that aid recipients take a loyalty oath (see below).  A number of leading colleges and universities objected to the oath and refused to participate in the program. When Congress reauthorized the NDEA in 1964 it dropped the loyalty oath.

In addition to the loyalty oath, Southern segregationists in Congress added a clause forbidding the federal government from using the NDEA to enforce racial desegregation in colleges and universities (see below).

The insidious aspect of all the loyalty oaths of the Cold War era was that they had nothing to do with any specific criminal or unprofessional conduct on the part of individuals required to sign them. Unlike traditional oaths of office, which involve an oath to uphold the Constitution and the law, Cold War loyalty oaths required people to swear that they were not members of the Communist Party and/or other radical parties or movements. Thus, they were oaths regarding membership and beliefs without reference to any actual or planned illegal action.

Other Cold War loyalty oaths included the University of California loyalty oath (April 21, 1950); a loyalty oath for labor leaders in the Taft-Hartley Act (June 23, 1947); a loyalty oath for residents of federally supported public housing (July 5, 1952); and a loyalty oath for Medicare (February 13, 1967), which never went into effect.

The NDEA oath requirement: “…unless such individual…has executed and filed with the Commissioner an affidavit that he does not believe in, and is not a member of and does not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.”

The NDEA civil rights clause: “Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system.”

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