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Harry S. Truman

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Those of us who are now responsible for the operation of the civil service system must adapt ourselves to conditions

which arise out of the fact that our government must discharge complex duties and responsibilities in comparatively short periods of time. . . .

We have the high privilege of demonstrating that the democratic concept of open competition

can be maintained by our government in the midst of a highly complicated world society.

Harry S. Truman, 18841972.  33rd President of the United States, 19451953.  Typed Letter Signed, Harry S. Truman, one page, 8” x 10˝”, on stationery of The White House, Washington, [D.C.], January 4, 1947.

President Truman uses the anniversary of the Civil Service Act to presage his controversial loyalty program, which he established by an executive order some 2˝ months after he wrote this letter. 

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began in the years following World War II.  Many, both in Congress and out, feared Communist infiltration of the United States, especially the government.  Congress investigated Communist influence in Hollywood, and several states banned Communists as school teachers.  In response to persistent charges that Communists operated in federal agencies, Truman appointed a Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty in November 1946.  Its members included Harry B. Mitchell, the President of the Civil Service Commission, to whom Truman wrote this letter.  Four months later, on March 21, 1947, a month after the Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty issued its report, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which prescribed procedures for the administration of an employees’ loyalty program in the executive branch of the government.  He did so nine days after he asked Congress for aid to Greece and Turkey, which were threatened by Communism—the policy of containment that became known as the Truman Doctrine.

In Executive Order 9835, Truman noted that each government employee “is endowed with a measure of trusteeship over the democratic processes which are the heart and sinew of the United States.”  He said that it was of  “vital importance” that federal workers “be of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.”  Although the vast majority of federal employees were loyal, he noted, “the presence within the Government service of any disloyal or subversive person constitutes a threat to our democratic processes.”

The order established procedures for preliminarily screening both employees and applicants.  It also provided for a full investigation for sensitive positions and for other positions if derogatory information surfaced.  The head of each executive department and agency was “personally responsible for an effective program to assure that disloyal civilian officers or employees” were not retained.  Loyalty boards in every federal department and agency, or alternatively the Civil Service Commission, would review every employee based upon FBI investigations and the Attorney General’s designation of “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive” organizations.  Employees would be dismissed if there were “reasonable grounds” to doubt their loyalty.  Employees could appeal dismissals to a Loyalty Review Board under the auspices of the Civil Service Commission.

At his press conference on April 3, 1947, Truman explained his basic philosophy of loyalty.  “I am not worried about the Communist Party taking over the Government of the United States,” he said, “but I am against a person, whose loyalty is not to the Government of the United States, holding a Government job.  They are entirely different things.  I am not worried about this country ever going Communist.  We have too much sense for that.” 

It was in this context, knowing of the forthcoming loyalty program, that Truman wrote this letter to Mitchell.  On its face, the letter innocuously commemorates the signing of the Civil Service Act in 1883.  But, given what Truman and Mitchell both knew at the time, it says much more.  Trumanʼs inner thoughts appear from his careful reference to “a highly complicated world society”—a world infected, in his eyes, with Communism—and from both his emphasis on the government’s need to “discharge complex duties and responsibilities in comparatively short periods of time” and his insistence that the government should annually reconsiderthe objectives which should be kept in mind in the further development of this system.  He writes, in full: 

My attention has been called to the fact that January 16, 1947, will be the 64th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Service Act.

It seems to me that it is very appropriate that each year we take note of this anniversary for the purpose of considering the progress which has been made in the development of a civil service system for the federal government, and also for the purpose of thinking through once again the objectives which should be kept in mind in the further development of this system.

There is no question but that the career service in the federal government does rest on a very sound foundation.  For this fact, we are deeply indebted to those who, over a period of more than 60 years, have fought vigorously for the achievement of such a goal.

Those of us who are now responsible for the operation of the civil service system must adapt ourselves to conditions which arise out of the fact that our government must discharge complex duties and responsibilities in comparatively short periods of time

The only way in which we can respond to this challenge is to make it possible for our operating officials, throughout the government, to become partners with us in the administration of the civil service system.  Working together, we have made real progress in the achievement of this objective.  I feel confident that we will continue to move forward along these lines in the year which lies immediately ahead.

We have the high privilege of demonstrating that the democratic concept of open competition can be maintained by our government in the midst of a highly complicated world society.

An earlier draft of this letter in the Truman Library files shows one significant change in this letter from the original draft—the words “a sound concept” were replaced with the word “ourselves” after the word “adapt” in the fourth paragraph.  The notation on the draft is not in Trumanʼs handwriting, but it expresses his thought, since he signed the final version.  This change shows that Truman meant to say that the people in the civil service system, not the system itself, had to adapt.  Hence Truman’s hint about the loyalty program:  The system was “a sound concept,” certainly enough, but Truman went beyond the concept to the civil servants themselves.

The loyalty program turned out to be one of Truman’s most disappointing acts.  Truman aide Clark Clifford told author Carl Bernstein that the program was essentially political—that Truman dismissed any real domestic threat of Communism and that there were comparatively few disloyal government employees.  Against his better judgment, Truman acceded to political pressure from a Congress, fixated with subversives, that appeared ready to require perhaps even more intrusive investigations into the personal lives of government employees.  To demonstrate the nonpartisan nature of the program, Truman appointed Seth Richardson, a prominent conservative Republican, to chair the Loyalty Review Board.  The program had the salutary political effect of robbing Republican critics of their complaint that the Administration was soft on Communism.  Truman nevertheless said in his Memoirs that the program was necessary and that it “did give anyone who was accused as fair an opportunity to have his case adjudicated as was possible under the climate of opinion that then existed.”  He acknowledged, however, that in operation the program “had a lot of flaws in it.”  Harry S. Truman, Years of Trial and Hope 280 (1956).  Author Robert J. Donovan, who covered the Truman White House for the New York Herald-Tribune, called it misguided. Robert J. Donovan, The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 19451948: Conflict and Crisis 292 (1977).  Privately, Truman admitted to friends that the program was a mistake.  Years later, in an interview with Merle Miller, Truman insisted that he had always opposed loyalty oaths, which he described as “a bunch of damn nonsense . . . .  You canʼt force people to be loyal by making them sign a piece of paper, and it was the experience of my people . . . my family that made me be against loyalty oaths.  And I have always been, was when I was President and before and am now.”  Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman 79 (1974).

This letter has two horizontal mailing folds, neither of which affects Truman’s bold 3” black fountain pen signature.  Mitchell has initialed the letter in the upper left corner, and his receipt stamp is in the blank area below the typed date.  The letter has light foxing, what appears to be a coffee stain affecting the imprinted portion of the letterhead, and staple or binding holes in the blank margin at the upper left.  There is also a stray black fountain pen mark that affects portions of the typed text in the last two paragraphs.  Overall the letter is in very good to fine condition.

Unframed.

 

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