The Lavender Scare began precisely on February 28, 1950. Communists were supposed to be the day’s topic. Specifically, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) allegations that the State Department was crawling with them. Just three weeks earlier, McCarthy told the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he had a list of 205 Commies on the department’s payroll. The next day, he told a Salt Lake City radio station that his list had fifty-seven names in red. The day after that, he released a letter to President Truman asking why only 80 of 300 employees “certified” as loyalty and security risks were gone.
As America moved to a post-war Cold War footing, the country’s political ground was rapidly shifting. The Great Depression and the War both kept Democrats solidly in power since 1933. But since 1945’s victory in Europe and the Pacific, an Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, the Soviets got the bomb, China was “lost” to the Reds, and several high-profile spy cases made headlines at home. The old worries that put Democrats in power and kept them there were gone, and new ones replaced them. Democrats had held the White House for seventeen straight years. They barely kept it in 1948 by a Dewey whisker. But now with the Cold War on, Republicans saw national security as their best hope to come along in two decades, and they went for it.
For the past two years, the State Department’s star diplomat, Alger Hiss fought charges that he was a Communist spy. He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and wound up being criminally charged. Not for spying, but for perjury. Few Americans appreciated the difference. Democratic luminaries lined up as character witnesses — Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter, and Stanley Reed, and former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. Truman called it a “red herring.” The first trial ended in a hung jury. Not so the second.
Hiss’s conviction in January 1950 cemented the reputation of a young California congressman by the name of Richard Nixon as a Communist fighter. McCarthy now wanted some of that action. He gave his Wheeling speech just two weeks after Hiss’s conviction. On February 20, he stood in the well of the Senate for almost six hours and read out, one by one, 81 cases of individuals he said represented loyalty and security risks at the State Department. Two of them were homosexuals.
Loyalty Risks and Security Risks
Let’s pause here and define our terms. As lawmakers and officials brought these questions up, they typically treated them as belonging to two separate topics. Loyalty risks denoted Communists and others who acted to undermine American interests or, more commonly, were suspected to belong to groups that Conservatives labeled as “Communist front” organizations — whether they really were or not. But security risks defined people who were otherwise loyal, but who were seen as not being trustworthy. The most common examples were “alcoholic, blabbermouths and sexual perverts” — the latter term meaning homosexuals. The problem, of course, is that there were no active programs to drive alcoholics and blabbermouths from government service. But it had been a longstanding practice (and policy, in many places) to immediately dismiss anyone found to be homosexual.
That practice was reinforced in 1947 when Sen. Pat McCarran (D-NV) attached an amendment to a State Department appropriations bill giving the Secretary of State “absolute discretion” to dismiss any employee in the interest of national security. The Appropriations Committee, at the same time, warned in a letter to then-Secretary George C. Marshall of a “deliberate, calculated program” to place and keep Communists in high public offices. It also warned that the effort included, “the extensive employment in highly classified positions of admitted homosexuals, who are historically known to be security risks.”
This had the effect of defining homosexuals as security risks. And in official public parlance, security risks, far more often than not, meant homosexuals. This let public officials get by with without having to utter the word homosexual directly.But by 1950, that was changing. Republicans were increasingly willing to say homosexuals when talking about employees in the Truman administration. Democrats, on the other hand, Democrats preferred to deflect that association by using security risks and other benign euphemisms.
The Lavender Scare may have started in 1950, but the purge of homosexuals had accelerated since 1947, thanks to the McCarran amendment. Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy was in charge of that program. After McCarthy began his campaign, Peurifoy denied to reporters that the State Department harbored any Communists, but he did say that 202 employees had been identified as security risks “security risks” since 1947 and had left the department. Peurifoy thought that statement would prove that the State Department had a very effective security system in place. Instead, it was like spilled blood in shark-invested waters.
“The Shady Category”
Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Undersecretary Peurifoy had been called before the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 28 to to discuss the State Department’s budget — which they did for the first half-hour or so. Then the topic abruptly shifted to two other topics. Not long before, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had told reporters that he still believed Hiss was innocent. “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss,” he had said. Republican Senators pelted Acheson and Peurifoy with questions about Hiss. Those questions segued neatly into Peurifoy’s statement about the 202 “security risks.”
Sen. Styles Bridges (R-NH) did most of the grilling. He asked Acheson how many people resigned or were fired as security risks under the McCarran amendment. Peurifoy understood what Bridges was getting at and jumped in. “I might answer that, sir. In this shady category that you referred to earlier, there are 91 cases sir.”
Bridges wasn’t having it. He wanted Peurifoy to say the dreaded word. “What do you mean by “shady category”?
“We are talking about people of moral weaknesses and so forth that we have gotten rid of in the Department.”
“I see,” said Bridges.
McCarran jumped in. “Now, will you make your answer a little clearer, please?”
Peurifoy finally said it: “Most of these were homosexuals, Mr. Chairman.”
“You say that there were 91?” asked McCarran.
“Yes sir. All of them were removed.”
Surprisingly, this testimony barely made a ripple in the press. The Associated Press and United Press devoted just a couple of paragraphs to it. The Washington Post almost missed it altogether. It showed up in the very last paragraph, under a subheading “Other Points at Hearing.” The big story was still about Acheson’s comments about Hiss. One exception was a small evening paper in Los Angeles, which printed an editorial which said, in effect, Wait! What was that?
The following is a quote from an Associated Press story out of Washington, dated February 28, dealing with testimony about the State Department given before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee:
“The Hiss matter came up after Department Undersecretary of State John E. Peurifoy had testified that in the last 2 years the Department has rid itself of 202 employees who were under security investigation.
“He said 91 of the 202 were homosexual cases, explaining that such persons are rated bad risks because they might be blackmailed by spies.”
We confess that we were more startled by that casual statement than by any other revelation that has come out of Washington in many months. … Add to favorite swish occupations: A career in the United States State Department.
But aside from a few editorials in a couple of small newspapers, this revelation prompted very little comment. That changed dramatically in the next few weeks.
“Statistic on Homosexual Cases since January, 1947” via the National Archives.
“These People Are Frightened to Death,” by Judith Adkins for Prologue magazine at the National Archives.
On the Timeline:
Feb 13, 1950: Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy denies there are known Communists in the State Department, but says that 202 employees identified as “security risks” have left the department since 1947.
For February 28, 1950:
|President:||Harry S. Truman (D)|
|Vice-President:||Alben W. Barkley (D)|
|House:||262 (D)||169 (R)||2 (Other)||2 (Vacant)|
|Southern states:||102 (D)||2 (R)||1 (Vacant)|
|Senate:||54 (D)||42 (R)|
|Southern states:||22 (D)|
|GDP growth:||7.3 %||(Annual)|
|Fed discount rate:||1½ %|
Headlines: Secretary of State Dean Acheson defends his loyalty to the U.S. and his remarks about Alger Hiss. Two Klansmen are arrested for killing a retired storekeeper near Birmingham, Alabama. A month-long strike by coal miners brings supplies to the nation’s homes, schools, hospitals, factories and railroads to dangerously low levels. An escaped cougar from the Oklahoma City zoo terrorizes neighborhoods for three days before being captured; twelve hours later he’s found dead in his cage.
In the record stores: “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley, “Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)” by Teresa Brewer and the Dixieland All-Stars, “Rag Mop” by the Ames Brothers, “The Cry of the Wild Goose” by Frankie Lane, “There’s No Tomorrow, by Tony Martin, “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” by Bing Crosby, “I Said My Pajamas” by Tony Martin and Fran Warren, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by the Andrew Sisters, “It Isn’t Fair” by Don Cornell and the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Bing Crosby with Vic Schoen & His Orchestra.
On the radio: Lux Radio Theater (CBS), Jack Benny Program (CBS), Edgar Bergan & Charlie McCarthy (CBS), Amos & Andy (CBS), Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS), My Friend Irma (CBS), Walter Winchell’s Journal (ABC), Red Skelton Show (CBS), You Bet Your Life (NBC), Mr. Chameleon (CBS).
On television: The Lone Range (ABC), Toast of the Town/Ed Sullivan (CBS), Studio One (CBS), Captain Video and his Video Rangers (DuMont), Kraft Television Theater (NBC), The Goldbergs (CBS), Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (CBS), Candid Camera (NBC), Texaco Star Theater/Milton Berle (NBC), Hopalong Cassidy (NBC), Cavalcade of Stars/Jackie Gleason (DuMont), Meet the Press (NBC), Roller Derby (ABC).
New York Times best sellers: Fiction: The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, The King’s Cavalier by Samual Shellabarger. Non-fiction: This I Remember by Eleanor Roosevelt, The Mature Mind by H.A. Overstreet, Home Sweet Zoo by Clare Barnes.
Newspapers (in chronological order):
Associated Press “Acheston denies favoring actions charged to Hiss.” Austin Statesman (February 28, 1950): 1.
Ferdinand Kuhn. “Denies condoning offenses, says he would not tolerate traitors in his office.” Washington Post (March 1, 1950): 1,2.
William S. White. “Never condoned disloyalty, says Acheson of Hiss stand.” New York Times (March 1, 1950): 1,2.
United Press. “Acheson denies condoning acts of Hiss ‘in any way’ The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY, March 1, 1950): 1.
Editorial: “More Light on the State Department.” Santa Monica (CA) Evening Outlook (March 2, 1950). As reprinted in in “Extension of Remarks of Hon. Donald L. Jackson of California in the House of Representatives, March 7, 1960.” 81st Cong., 2nd sess. Congressional Record 96, pt. 14: A1745. Available online here.
Departments of State, Justice, Commerce and the Judiciary Appropriations for 1951. 81st Cong., 2nd sess, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate part 1, Tuesday, February 28, 1950: 581-639. Peurifoy’s testimony concerning the 91 security risks are on page 603. Available online here.