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September, 1951
A Time of Uncertainty

Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas
Lyndon Johnson

It is a simple Senate document printed on cheap paper that is now darkening after a half century. Twenty pages long, it lists eighty-six staff members who worked on the Senate floor or in related legislative support jobs during the year 1951. The pamphlet includes a detailed description of their responsibilities along with their salary histories. Missing, however, is an introduction to explain why this one-of-a-kind document was created in the first place. The only hint as to its importance is a one-word warning on the cover: “Confidential.”  

What was going on, here?

The year 1951 brought great uncertainty and insecurity to the world, the nation, and the Senate. As of September 1951, the nation was mired in a seemingly unwinnable conflict in Korea. President Harry Truman had fired General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in publicly advocating strategic bombing of China. Meanwhile, Senator Joseph McCarthy was capitalizing on early Cold-War-era anxieties about the spread of communism. Ohio’s Republican Senator Robert Taft was positioning himself for a possible presidential nomination in 1952 by blasting President Truman for ignoring Congress in setting major foreign policy objectives.

Change and uncertainty seemed to paralyze the Senate, where the party ratio stood at forty-nine Democrats and forty-seven Republicans. The position of majority leader, strengthened in the 1930s and early 1940s, had fallen to a succession of  lackluster occupants. Each of these floor leaders, one Republican and two Democrats, served only two years before leaving the Senate. Newly elected assistant majority leader Lyndon Johnson took careful note of this.

Four years earlier, in 1947, the Republicans had gained majority control for the first time since 1933. Although the Democrats had regained the majority in 1949 and barely held it in 1950, many were predicting—correctly as it turned out—that the Republicans would return to the majority after the 1952 elections.

This uncertain environment helps explain our mystery document. It seems to represent the building of a firewall around key administrative and floor staff at a time when no job, no matter how vital or specialized, was secure from the claims of patronage seekers. Recalling the wholesale firings and demotions when the Republicans had taken over in 1947, Democrats hoped to forestall a similar experience in 1953. Perhaps this yellowing document helped, because although there were changes in 1953, they were not as thoroughgoing as in earlier times.  


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