by Robert Justin Goldstein. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2008. 388 pp. Cloth $34.95. ISBN: 9780700616046.

Reviewed by Erin Ackerman, Department of Government, John Jay College of Criminal Justice – The City University of New York. Email: eackerman [at]


In 1947 President Harry Truman, seeking to undermine congressional Republican stands on fighting domestic Communist threats, issued an executive order creating a loyalty program for federal employees. One piece of information that could be considered in making loyalty determinations was whether an individual was a member of Communist or subversive organizations, or associated or sympathized with those who were members. These organizations were compiled in and publicized by what would come to be known as the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO), which AMERICAN BLACKLIST identifies as the centerpiece of the US government’s efforts to foster the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s.

In AMERICAN BLACKLIST, Robert Justin Goldstein, professor emeritus of political science at Oakland University, presents a political history of the AGLOSO. Goldstein argues that the AGLOSO was “the single most important domestic factor that fostered and facilitated the Red Scare,” predating McCarthy and indeed creating the political tools and repressed public that allowed McCarthy’s rise to prominence (p.xi). This timely work traces the origins, rise, and ultimate demise of the AGLOSO over a seventy year period and illustrates a major example of the dynamic tension between civil liberties protections and national security concerns.

Goldstein’s major contribution is to reconstruct the workings of the AGLOSO and the politics around it through reviewing an immense number of primary sources, some recently declassified, found in national, presidential, agency, and university library archives, as well as those obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. A short bibliographic essay at the end of the book will be a valuable resource for those doing related work on this era or on civil liberties during times of national emergency.

Few histories of this era have examined the AGLOSO closely. Goldstein traces the precursor initiatives to the AGLOSO, the internal political debates over AGLOSO standards, and attempted maneuverings by the Truman and Eisenhower-era Departments of Justice to avoid subjecting AGLOSO determinations to judicial review. Goldstein also briefly examines the roots of government attention to the threat of subversive organizations, reaching back to the nation’s first Red Scare in the wake of the McKinley assassination.

The heart of AMERICAN BLACKLIST, however, focuses on the AGLOSO created as part of the Truman [*176] administration’s loyalty program. At the end of Chapter One and in Chapter Two, Goldstein shows how the AGLOSO evolved from a tool to be used in the narrow context of federal employee loyalty screenings and as one of several potential pieces of evidence, into an officially publicized blacklist used widely by many federal departments, state and local governments, and private businesses and organizations. Targeted organizations had no opportunity to challenge their classifications on the AGLOSO. The immediate consequences of an organization’s listing were that its members and those with whom they associated lost federal (and state and local) government jobs, were denied passports and public benefits, and/or faced deportation proceedings. Listed organizations, whose members and contributors were discouraged from maintaining ties, were denied tax exempt status and often ceased to exist. The broader consequence of AGLOSO was to create a repressed public afraid of entering into associations that might be deemed to be subversive at a later date.

Goldstein discovers a shocking lack of agreement within the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and between the FBI and other federal offices, on the scope, standards and usage of the AGLOSO. AGLOSO initial standards for determination of “subversive” organizations “included some specific criteria, such as advocating the overthrow of the government . . . along with some extremely vague ones, such as ‘consistently opposing the enactment of, or advocating the repeal of laws and measures designed to strengthen and improve the security of the US’” (p.58). As a result, the list came to encompass a broad range of organizations. Those explicitly advocating a Communist model of government were included, as were so-called Communist “fronts,” organizations in which Communist Party members “played significant or dominant roles, often without the knowledge of most members” (p.10). Also included were organizations whose missions for social justice and civil rights included explicit critique of the US government.

Most importantly, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was vested with the primary institutional responsibility to identify organizations for potential list inclusion. This authority, Goldstein argues, “combined with a general lax supervision of the bureau by the DOJ, was used by the FBI during the next thirty years as key basis for its increasingly virtually unbounded investigation of individuals and groups throughout American society, including the widespread use of a variety of illegal burglaries, wiretaps, and other intrusive means” (p.52).

Law and politics scholars may be especially interested in the role of the courts in challenging and constraining the use of the AGLOSO, which Goldstein details in Chapters Three, Four, and Five. Chapter Three starts with the Supreme Court holding in JOINT ANTI-FASCIST REFUGEE COMMITTEE v. MCGRATH (1951) that some listed organizations had to be afforded an opportunity to challenge their inclusion on the AGLOSO. The divisions among justices and between justices and their clerks show a Court divided over the appropriate balance between ensuring civil liberties and supporting a tough stance on [*177] communism. In the wake of the MCGRATH decision, DOJ officials searched for a way to assuage judicial due process concerns without giving listed organizations a full hearing. Ultimately, the DOJ adopted a written challenge system with procedural obstacles so difficult that many groups would or could not make use of it.

Chapter Four marks 1955 as the point at which the tide turned against the AGLOSO. Public attacks by former well-known supporters of anti-communist measures, congressional hearings, and judicial setbacks revealed that political officials and the public were increasingly less concerned with subversive threats within government and society in general. The most important judicial setbacks for the AGLOSO came in a series of cases challenging the use of the AGLOSO in denying federally subsidized housing benefits. One case, featuring the eviction of a veteran who had lost both legs while serving in the US armed forces during World War II, would occupy national headlines and serve to discredit the AGLOSO in the court of public opinion.

These legal setbacks continued for the AGLOSO into the late 1960s and 1970s. As Goldstein shows in Chapter Five, although the list was still officially in operation, many government department loyalty screenings moved away from relying on it. Similarly, the DOJ was reluctant to list additional organizations for fear of triggering a court challenge that would find the AGLOSO unconstitutional in and of itself, instead of finding fault with it on limited or technical grounds. Finally, President Nixon failed in his attempts to revive the AGLOSO, a move which was strongly attacked in congressional hearings as ineffective, an overreach of executive power, and an abuse of civil liberties.

As Goldstein admits, it is difficult to disentangle the AGLOSO from other government initiatives of this era. Goldstein’s focus is on piecing together the record and history of the previously understudied AGLOSO. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the broader history of this period and the other relevant actors and institutions. Goldstein emphasizes the AGLOSO; the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), McCarthy and other players make brief appearances in relation to the AGLOSO, but Goldstein does not engage in comparison that would allow one to fully evaluate his claim that the AGLOSO was “the single most important domestic factor that fostered and facilitated the Red Scare.” Nevertheless, the reader is convinced of the importance of the AGLOSO and can see how the AGLOSO contributed to, or might have exacerbated, other initiatives of this time period.

Goldstein’s account is richly detailed, the product of extensive research and documentation. At times, the level and sheer amount of detail can overwhelm the reader. An important point that Goldstein makes is that the AGLOSO’s standards and procedures were in a constant state of flux from its very inception. Reading about the policy debates, changes, and territorial battles, it is easy for the reader to experience some confusion, as the reader tries to determine what was ultimately decided and how that led to later events. The reader would benefit from more signposts or summaries to guide the way through each chapter and from a separate [*178] concluding chapter that would assist in summarizing and evaluating the mass amounts of evidence presented. For this reason, AMERICAN BLACKLIST will likely be of most use to those already engaged in related research and able to make some of these crucial connections on their own.

AMERICAN BLACKLIST provides a service to political scientists and historians in documenting and describing in careful and exhaustive detail the creation of the AGLOSO, the political gambits and debates that influenced its makeup and operations, its extensive use or imitation at all levels of governments, and the devastating effects on listed organizations and individuals associated with them. The reader comes away feeling that Goldstein has made a case for the pivotal role of the AGLOSO in the Red Scare and the suppression of civil liberties by the sheer bulk of his documentation. The book is an enormous resource for scholars of this time period, those who are examining government interference with freedom of association, and students of executive power in times of war and heightened security concerns. As Goldstein himself notes, the book has obvious connections to civil liberties considerations in light of the War on Terror. Making these connections is beyond the scope of Goldstein’s already massive and detail-rich undertaking, but he offers a rich point of comparison for future work.


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Erin Ackerman.