Tuesday, January 27, 1998
The loyalty oath
UCLA’S PAST Please place a sub headline in this book space
By Carol McKay
Daily Bruin Staff
Years before Senator Joe McCarthy began raising panic and
pointing fingers, thousands of employees of the University of
California became involved in the anti-Communist movement that
would later capture the nation’s attention.
The year was 1949. The war had ended three years earlier, the
age of the Baby Boomers was underway, and the world was still in
quiet shock after the use of the atomic bomb.
As competition between the United States and the Soviet Union
became clearer, the American attitude towards Communism also became
obvious. Hatred and fear of the foreign government spread
throughout the country, eventually reaching the UC Regents.
In late March, President Earl Warren and the other members of
the Regents drew up a mandatory oath for faculty to sign, declaring
loyalty to the United States government. The Academic Senate
rejected the oath, and months of negotiations began.
Finally, over a year later, a Senate committee and the Regents
reached a compromise. There would be no required oath, but members
of the faculty would be forced to sign a teaching contract that
specified they were not members of the Communist Party.
The faculty accepted the contracts, and the situation was
Or so it seemed.
When 45 members of the faculty refused to sign the contract,
which was still known by all as the Loyalty Oath, the controversy
"I was outraged," said David Saxon, who was an assistant
professor in physics at UCLA at the time. "I refused to sign the
oath, and I was temporarily taken off the staff."
Like Saxon, dozens of professors, teaching assistants and other
members of the staff, felt that the imposition of the oath was an
infringement on their First Amendment rights.
"It was completely inappropriate, because the view was that
there were not really any members of the Communist party on
campus," Saxon sai. He said he knew of no one who refused to sign
the contract because of Communist beliefs.
"For me," he said, "It was a matter of principle."
History Professor Richard Weiss described the Oath as one that
"squashed critical intellect and attacked dissent," and resulted in
According to an Academic Senate report by the Committee on
Academic Freedom, the University suffered numerous losses: 26
faculty members were "ejected" from the University; 37 resigned in
protest of the oath; 157 staff members were at some point
recommended for dismissal by the president.
"Among the 26 ejected are included figures of international
reputation in psychology, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics
and classics," read the report, which was released in February
"The University lost some very wonderful people," said Saxon,
adding that some who signed the oath left the University for
positions at other institutions without stating their reasons.
Many professors protested through letters to the Regents, noting
the hypocrisy in the forced oaths. "I do not believe that Communism
can be combated by adopting some of its worst principles, and
denying those principles of freedom and justice from which our
democracy draws its strength," wrote one professor.
The oath caused an incredible disruption of programs within the
university, where 55 courses were dropped because of the ejection
of non-signers. Classes were re-arranged, and graduate students
suffered the most with extra loads of research and fewer curriculum
Scholars from across the country took part in protests against
the Oath, including 1,200 faculty members from Columbia, Harvard,
Princeton, Yale and others. Albert Einstein and J. Robert
Oppenheimer also joined in on the protest.
Robert Penn Warren and 46 other potential hirees refused offers
of appointment at the University, and 20 professional societies and
groups recommended to its members to do the same until "tenure
The Daily Bruin reported on the situation and featured frequent
letters to the editor protesting the oath, but according to Saxon,
the student body at UCLA never fully realized the severity of the
"We had a lot of meetings, and the faculty and administration
were very supportive, rallying behind the people who were caught in
the middle. The atmosphere was not a very calm one.
"But I don’t recall a very strong reaction on the part of
students. It happened in a way that made it difficult to
Student newspapers across the country, however, became forums
for discussion. Some feared that the UC system’s actions could be
instituted at their own schools. Others defended the Oath as a
means of protection from Communist influence.
"Communists are not fit to be college professors. By their
commitments to the party line, Communists have sacrificed their
academic standing," argued a special report in the Summer
Northwestern, the student newspaper of Northwestern University.
Saxon remembers the controversy as one that had a "chilling
effect. People were less likely to speak their minds. If they did,
people might conclude that you are unpatriotic or disloyal. There
was a lot of finger-pointing and suspicion," he said.
And sadly enough, he continued, the whole situation was "largely
ineffective. In its own stumbling way, the university did more harm
than good. It sort of shot itself in the foot."
Although Saxon was one of the last remaining non-signers, he
felt that the experience did not harm his standing at UCLA in any
"I didn’t hold a grudge against the university, and I guess they
didn’t hold one against me," said a chuckling Saxon, who would–
after returning from his two-year break from teaching — be named
executive vice chancellor and eventually serve as president of the
university from 1975 until 1983.
"I’m happy to say that once it was over, it was over. I didn’t
spend a lot of time reminiscing about it. I just went back to being
a physicist," remembered the man who would later become the
namesake of the Saxon Residential Suites.
"The Loyalty Oath was a very small incident. It was a period of
great confusion, uncertainty and doubt, and a number of people
suffered tremendously. But it’s most important to understand that
panic can lead to all kinds of unfortunate action."
Saxon said that those who took the oath were simple unable to
see the reality of the situation. "When people lose their bearings
and don’t understand the larger picture, they can do stupid things.
And the Loyalty Oath was a very stupid thing."
Eventually, the Supreme Court of California ruled that the
Regents had acted unconstitutionally, and Saxon, along with the
other non-signing members of the faculty, returned to the
University of California.
The Court cited Clause Three of Article VI of the Constitution,
which declares that "all legislative, executive, and judicial
officers … shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the
Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a
And so the Loyalty Oath controversy ended, still years before
the Red Scare and Hollywood blacklisting began. But the memories of
threatened academic freedom at the University would remain for
years to come.