1950 September 20

ABA Convention Calls for Loyalty Oath for All Lawyers


The Annual Convention of the American Bar Association passed a resolution on this day calling for an anti-Communist loyalty oath for all lawyers. A number of prominent attorneys attacked the idea, however, and it was never adopted as an official ABA policy. The American legal community endorsed other repressive anti-Communist measures in the Cold War. In 1954 a national controversy erupted over the fact that many witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) invoked the Fifth Amendment. As a result they were labeled “Fifth Amendment Communists.” On June 24, 1954, for example, a special committee of the New York State Bar Association proposed that any lawyer who invoked the Fifth Amendment regarding his or her political associations be automatically disbarred.

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.

Loyalty oaths were a special mania during the anti-Communist frenzy of the Cold War. 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. See, for example, the controversy over the University of California loyalty oath (April 21, 1950). There was even a loyalty oath for Medicare recipients in the original 1965 Medicare law (see February 13, 1967).

Learn more about the Cold War: Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998)

Learn more about the ACLU in the Cold War and other Times of National Crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-rooting-out-subversives-paranoia-and-patriotism-mccarthy-era

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