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When will my turn come? : the civil service purges and the construction of a gay security risk in the Cold War United States, 1945-1955



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In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States was gripped by an intense anxiety about its national security. While primarily triggered by the external threat of the Soviet Union, this anxiety was especially centred on internal threats, real and imagined. Most previous studies have focused on the so-called “Red Scare,” the hunt for Communists and other political undesirables. This was accompanied by a parallel “Lavender Scare,” an assault on homosexuality in American culture, especially public service. Homosexuality had been grounds for dismissal from the Civil Service since the 19th Century, but Cold War anxiety about gays in government became so great that some in the press began referring to it as a “Panic on the Potomac.” Fear of sexual subversion became so integrated into the larger national security obsession that, by 1955, fully 1 in every 5 American workers was subject to a combination of loyalty and security restrictions, related to both political and “moral” categories of unsuitability. Yet this episode has remained a largely forgotten footnote in American Cold War experience. The homophobia that characterized the early Cold War was new, more intense, and unique to that moment in history. Full-scale investigations and purges of suspected gays from the Civil Service began in 1950, but possessed deeper roots in the politics and culture of the era. They were stimulated by a combination of Cold War anxiety, post-war conservatism, and a changing conception of the nature of homosexuality. The effects of the purges would include not only widespread dismissals and intensified repression of gays and lesbians, but also the emergence of gay activism and the concept of a distinct gay minority. The evolving nature of gay identity, especially self-identity, is ultimately central to the thesis topic. This thesis is one of a small, but growing number of works that attempt to comprehensively examine the origins, characteristics, and impacts of the Lavender Scare. It draws on a wide range of sources, including the most recent specialized studies and the best available primary sources, including archival materials, first-hand recollections of events, and newly declassified government documents.



National Security, U.S., Cold War, Homosexuality



Master of Arts (M.A.)







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