“A Soul-Searing Process”: Trauma
in the Civil Service
The experience of being under loyalty investigation produced a wide range of responses from individuals and had many long-lasting effects—on their economic security, mental and physical health, personal relationships, and civic participation. Many loyalty defendants preferred to remain silent about these humiliating experiences, but examining them is necessary to establish the context in which these people made difficult strategic and ethical decisions about how best to protect themselves.
Individual traumas eventually produced collective responses. During the latter half of the 1950s, critics of the loyalty program convinced many Americans that it needed a drastic overhaul. In the course of making their case, however, critics highlighted some of the program’s injustices and obscured others. They showed how it was exploited as a tool of partisan politics and also how it persecuted low-l evel employees in nonsensitive positions. The exposés rarely featured high-ranking leftist defendants, presumably on the assumption that those were less sympathetic victims and also because those people were especially unwilling to discuss their cases. Prodded by organized minority groups, reformers rightly protested the loyalty program’s discrimination against blacks, Jews, and gays. But its antifeminist bias went unexamined. The loyalty program encouraged obeisance to gender conventions on the part of accused individuals, discouraged female activism more generally, and linked female breadwinning with trauma and shame. In addition to damaging the careers of high-ranking government women, then, there were other, less direct ways in which the loyalty program acted as a hitherto unnoticed force in constructing the rigid gender roles associated with the 1950s. By 1959, a series of congressional committee reports and court decisions had led to the loyalty program’s reform, but some of its most damaging effects remained hidden.
Few loyalty defendants were willing to talk about their cases, at the time or later. A handful of defendants who were cleared, typically low-level employees against whom the charges had been particularly specious, told