1941 June 30

AG Biddle Creates First List of “Subversive” Organizations


Attorney General Francis Biddle on this day created the first “attorney general’s list of subversive organizations,” and distributed it to the FBI for use in investigations of people suspected of disloyalty. Biddle’s list is important because most people believe that the first list was authorized by President Harry Truman, on March 21, 1947, as part of his federal loyalty program. But in fact, it originated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Biddle’s initial list included the German-American Bund, which was suspected of pro-German, pro-Nazi sympathies and possible activities; the Communist Party; the American Peace Mobilization, a group that opposed American intervention in World War II and included Communist Party members; the National Negro Conference, a left-wing civil rights group; the American Youth Congress, a left-wing young peoples’ political group; and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, a left-wing civil liberties group. Subsequent iterations of Biddle’s list included more organizations.

All of the lists of alleged subversive organizations involved many civil liberties violations. Groups were not allowed to contest their names being on the list. Nor did the Justice Department provide evidence of why a group was listed. Groups were listed mainly because of their ideas — all but a few were left-wing organizations — without any evidence of illegal activity, such as espionage or treason. Individuals suffered blacklisting and the loss of their jobs and job opportunities because they were or had once been associated with a listed organization.

Biddle’s first list had a toxic long-term impact on civil liberties. In the Cold War other groups created their own lists, which also used guilt-by-association and damaged both individuals and groups, many of whom had done nothing more than express opinions critical of the U.S. from a left-wing perspective. The House Un-American Activities Committee published a Guide to Subversive Organizations and Publications on March 14, 1951. American Business Consultants, a private group founded by two former FBI agents, published Red Channels on June 22, 1950, a report on alleged Communists for communist-sympathizers in the radio and television industries. Red Channels led to a number of people being fired and blacklisted.

Learn more: Robert Justin Goldstein, American Blacklist: The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (2008)

Read the classic book on the insidious Cold War practice of  “naming names:” Victor Navasky, Naming Names (1980)

Learn about the creation of the blacklist under President Truman’s Federal Loyalty Program here.

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

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