Sunday, March 14, 2010

Race and the Cold War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe how the Cold War induced some white politicians to grudgingly support civil rights in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

The commencement of the Cold War, a protracted global political struggle with the Soviet Union, proved as important as any event in changing how white American elites thought about race. The political leadership perceived the Soviets, armed with nuclear weapons shortly after World War II, as set on world conquest. As the colonial empires of Britain and France fell apart, several presidential administrations eagerly pursued alliances with and sought to establish bases in newly born countries across Africa and Asia.

Locked in a bitter ideological war with the Soviets for hearts and minds in new independent states, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations both realized that Southern lynchings of black men and women, segregation and the disenfranchisement of African American voters gave the United States a bad image in countries governed by people of color. With the Soviet Union presenting an image of both anti-imperialism and anti-racism, according to historian Joel Williamson, the United States found itself in a public relations bind.

"The United States, offering itself as both the modern exemplar and the champion of democracy, was faced with the problem of wooing the non-white people of the Third World into the anti-Communist camp while racism ran riot at home," Williamson wrote. This pushed both Democratic and Republican administrations from 1945 to 1960 to be friendlier toward African American civil rights than they might have otherwise.

The paradox of America presenting itself as the land of the free while African Americans faced segregation and violence, particularly in the South, did not escape the attention of even conservative publications like Time magazine, which observed that “in Washington, the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln broods over the capital of the U.S. where Jim Crow is the rule.” Cases of racial discrimination received wide attention not only in the Soviet press, but also in newspapers and radio broadcasts in newly independent nations like India and Ceylon, and in sub-Saharan Africa.

In one incident, Alabama police arrested U.S. Sen. Glen Taylor, running in 1948 for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket headed by Henry Wallace, when he entered the “colored entrance” to a Birmingham church to make a speech. The Shanghai, China newspaper Ta Kung Pao sharply criticized American hypocrisy. “If the United States merely wants to ‘dominate’ the world, the atomic bomb and the U.S. dollar will be sufficient to achieve this purpose,” an editorial said. “However, the world cannot be ‘dominated’ for a long period of time. If the United States wants to ‘lead’ the world, it must have a kind of moral superiority in addition to military superiority.” The fact that this criticism of American race relations appeared in a newspaper in China, a country engaged in a civil war between a conservative dictatorial regime and communists, particularly alarmed the American State Department.


President Harry S Truman came from a regional border state (Missouri) and occasionally used anti-black slurs in private conversation. Writing to his daughter Margaret Truman when he was a senator from Missouri, the future president once complained about black waiters at a Washington, D.C. restaurant whom he described as “an army of coons” who thought they were “evidently the top of the black social set in Washington.” Once in a 1939 letter to his wife, Bess, Truman derided an African American social occasion as “nigger picnic day.” As president, however, Truman worried about the impact of racial injustice in the United States on the Cold War.

Pragmatic electoral concerns also shaped his newly found interest in civil rights. From the 1920s through World War II, millions of African Americans had moved north of the Mason-Dixon line and into the West to escape the harassment of Southern whites and to find better-paying jobs. Since Roosevelt’s second term, African American voters in the North and West largely supported Democrats, and in states like California and Michigan the black electorate could swing close elections. Black resentment over the influence of Southern white segregationists on Democratic Party, however, caused a drop-off in black support for the Democrats in the 1946 congressional races. Truman wanted to win these voters back.

Post-war racial violence, however, also moved the president. Black activists told Truman of an incident in Monroe, Georgia, in which whites fatally shot two African American men. The wife of one of the victims recognized one of the white shooters, so the killers assassinated both of the men’s spouses, as well. Violence against African American servicemen in particular shocked the president. More than 1 million African Americans served in the military during the war. Black soldiers entering the war hoped to win what civil rights leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois called the “Double V” – victory against the Axis Powers and against racism at home. Just as many African American soldiers returning from World War I suffered persecution and lynching upon returning to the United States, several shocking attacks on black veterans made headlines across the nation just after World War II. Black veterans would be outraged by poor treatment they received upon their return to the United States, prompting many to become active in the Civil Rights Movement.

In one incident, the police chief in Aiken, S.C., severely beat Sgt. Issac Woodard, an African American, with a nightstick and gouged an eye out. Woodard had received his separation papers from the United States Army a mere three hours earlier. Hearing of this attack, Truman reportedly said, “My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something!” Truman later said incidents such as the assault on Sgt. Woodward moved him to push for civil rights. Pressed by Southern members of Congress to abandon this stand, Truman said, “My forebears were Confederates.… Every factor and influence in my background—and in my wife’s for that matter—would foster the personal belief that you are right. But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad.”

On December 5, 1946, Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, to which he predominantly appointed racial liberals. The committee issued its report, “To Secure These Rights,” the following October. According to the report, the contrast between the nation’s stated ideas of human equality and the widespread practice of racial discrimination served as “a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic beliefs.” With its eyes on America’s global competition with the Soviet Union, the report warned that “we cannot ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”

The committee recommended a broad range of reforms including enacting a federal anti-lynching statute (designed to get around Southern courts which refused to prosecute violent crimes committed by whites against blacks); a ban on the poll tax (which reduced black voting); prohibiting by federal statute discrimination in private employment; establishing a permanent Commission on Civil Rights; increasing the size of the Justice Department’s civil rights division; and strictly enforcing voting rights laws. The Commission also urged the Justice Department to file lawsuits against housing developments and neighborhood associations that used secret covenants to deny housing to racial and religious minorities; said that federal money should be denied to any public or private agency that practiced segregation; and called for the Congress to integrate all facilities in Washington, D.C., including the public school system. President Truman embraced most of these recommendations in a civil rights message to Congress on February 2, 1948.

At the Democratic National Convention that summer, Southern delegates walked out when a far-reaching pro-Civil Rights plank was for the first time added to the Democratic Party platform. Nevertheless, Truman issued two executive orders on July 26, 1948: one that desegregated the armed forces and another that prohibited discrimination in the federal civil service. During the late 1940s, Truman used his executive powers to empanel a Commission on Higher Education that recommended an end to religious and racial quotas used at universities to limit admission of Jews and blacks. After his presidency, Truman continued to use words like “nigger” in private conversation, dismissed Martin Luther King, Jr., as a “troublemaker” and considered the civil rights movement at least partly inspired by communism, but his presidency nevertheless committed the national Democratic Party to greater support for black voting rights and opposition to segregation.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations,” edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.

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