At the beginning of the 1950s, public opinion on homosexuality was that it was unnatural and a morally corrupting lifestyle. But it was hardly viewed as a threat to national security. However, opinion quickly changed as homosexuality was touted by politicians as a threat, not only to the American family’s wholesome values but to America itself. Within a few years homosexuals were no longer viewed as the silly pansies of the 1930s but rather by mid 1950s they were perceived as downright un-American.
In 1948, sexologist Alfred Kinsey suggested a more widespread practice of homosexual behavior among men then was assumed by most Americans. Conservatives saw the report as proof of a national moral decline which made the nation susceptible to a communist conquest. Numerous newspapers and magazines of the late 1940s and early 1950s also fed national anxieties by reporting that the communists promoted sex perversion among America’s youth as a way to weaken the country — to clear a path for a communist takeover. In the minds of the paranoid, homosexuals were the source of a potential “fifth column” that would destroy America from within by preventing family formation and fostering moral decay.
So irrational were the times that even usually cogent men like Sen. Everett Dirksen, from Illinois, was caught up in the hysteria. Dirksen claimed that Josef Stalin had obtained a global list of homosexuals seized from Adolf Hitler and was planning on using it to conquer the world through blackmail and deception. While congressional conservatives had convinced Americans there was a communist hiding beneath every bed, it was this fear that a homosexual might be lurking there instead, which fueled the national panic of the 1950s.
The fall of China to the Communists shook Americans to the core. The Republican Party leveraged this fear of world domination by the Soviet Union to regain power in Washington, D.C. The Grand Old Party pointed fingers at the Truman administration for the fall of China by accusing them of allowing subversives to hand over state secrets to the Communists. Among those blamed for the failure of America’s containment of communism were homosexuals employed in civil service. Republican alarmists declared that national security hinged on ridding anyone from government employment who seemed subversive, peculiar or queer.
In March, 1950, Rep. Arthur Miller of Nebraska addressed Congress on what he perceived was the greatest threat to the American people. He stated: “Mr. Chairman, I realize that I am discussing a very delicate subject…I cannot expose all the putrid facts as it would offend the sensibilities of some of you… Make no mistake, several thousand (homosexuals), according to police records, are now employed by the federal government… Recently Mr. (John) Peurifoy, of the State Department, said he had allowed 91 individuals in the State Department to resign because they were homosexuals. Now they are like birds of a feather, they flock together. Where did they go?”
Less than a month later the New York Times reported that the national chairman of the Republican Party, Guy Gabrielson, declared that “sexual perverts” had infiltrated the government and were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.” The exploitation of homosexuals as America’s newest bogeyman had begun in earnest.
Conservatives argued in as much that because the government held homosexuals as unfit for military service, they should be declared morally and psychologically unfit for civil service as well. Public policy decisions on whether to allow homosexuals to serve in government centered on three main propositions: that they were susceptible to blackmail, that psychologists had determined homosexuality to be a pathology and that it was sexual deviancy that harmed children.
Historian David Johnson suggested the real reason for the emerging campaign against homosexuals in the 1950s was simply a conservative backlash against the Democrat administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Republicans, out of power for nearly 20 years, made accusations that by allowing homosexuals to serve in government the moral fiber of the nation was weakened. Republicans asserted that allowing homosexuals in civil service demonstrated how corrupt and morally lax was the Democrat administration. The GOP, by latching onto the issue of homosexuals in government, was able to come out as the party for strong family values. Conservatives relentlessly began hammering the American people with extremist rhetoric, instilling the impression that while some homosexuals might not be communists, all could be blackmailed and coerced into revealing government secrets. Certainly it was in Republican political interests to promote homosexuals as a threat to national security.
In the early 1950s, Congress was urged by a fretful public to hold hearings to investigate the influence of homosexuals and Communists in government. Both were thought to be equally dangerous because they recruited the young and the psychologically weak or disturbed. The House created the Committee on Un-American Activities which eventually became the most powerful governmental agency in Congress. The hearings came to reflect America’s anxieties over Communists and homosexual threats to the American way of life. The Senate created a corresponding committee called the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and his assistant, Roy Cohen, orchestrated some of the worst attacks on homosexuality during hearings held by the subcommittee. McCarthy served as chairman of the Senate subcommittee from 1953 to 1954 and at the height of his hearings he lambasted both Communists and homosexuals as being enemies of the American people.
Both Senate and House committees spent years investigating claims that communist agents had blackmailed homosexuals into revealing state secrets. These hearings were nationally televised and were held to “weed out the traitorous reds and fairies in government.” However, they never identified a single bona fide homosexual traitor in public service. Yet both committees concluded “emphatically that homosexuals posed a threat to national security and called for their removal from all federal agencies.”
Republicans, throughout the 1952 presidential election, exploited American homophobia by campaigning on the notion that moral and political corruption permeated the Truman White House. Republican candidates, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, on the other hand, were portrayed as regular guys. The GOP campaign slogan of, “Let’s Clean House” insinuated that the incumbent Democrat administration was soft on homosexuals and could not be trusted.
The Democrats choice for the White House in 1952 was Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Republicans tarnished Stevenson’s image, by insinuating that Stevenson was an effete “egghead” and slightly “fruity.” He was a divorced former State Department official and rumored to be a homosexual.
That rumor had germinated in the office of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. One of Hoover’s top agents, M. Wesley Swearingen, claimed that the rumors of Stevenson’s homosexuality were started by the director of the FBI because the bureau chief thought Stevenson was a communist sympathizer. Hoover demonstrated distaste for Stevenson and in his personal files repeatedly referred to him as queer. It seems incongruent that the director of the FBI could maintain publicly that homosexuality was as dangerous as communism while in his private life he kept Clyde Tolson as his personal assistant and life partner.