The Cold War and the Long Civil Rights Movement
There’s a sort of unwritten rule that if you want to criticize the United States you do it at home. . . . We have to prove we’re patriotic. . . .
Here is a man (Robeson) who is making some other country better than ours, and we’ve got to sit here and take the gaff, while he is important enough to traipse all over the country, to be lionized by all these white people, saying things for which he will not take any responsibility.
—Bayard Rustin on Paul Robeson, early 1950s
A decade before President Johnson plunged the nation into a large-scale war in Vietnam, famed African American entertainer Paul Robeson was under siege. His personal and financial fortunes had plummeted after the U.S. government revoked his passport in 1950 because of his outspoken leftist views and his admiration for the Soviet Union. In a climate in which the fear of communism bordered on hysteria, Robeson would eventually succumb to the emotional strain. Although he was one of the most prominent victims of the Red scare, he was not alone. The government similarly harassed thousands of Americans, black and white, who dared to speak out against the Cold War and the domestic campaign against com- munism.1 As a despised minority denied the perquisites of membership in the nation-state, African American activists and organizations were singled out; the latter included the National Negro Labor Council, Southern Negro Youth Council, American Labor Party, Civil Rights Congress, and Robeson’s Council on African Affairs, which continued to link the causes of peace and civil rights.2 Despite unremitting pressure from the FBI, Robeson remained resolute. While Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh’s ongoing war against French imperialism in faraway Vietnam was hardly a salient event for most Americans in 1954, Robeson, a longtime opponent of colonialism, hailed Ho as “the modern-day Toussaint L’ouverture leading his people to freedom,” and he chided African American leaders for their silence in the face of “twenty-three million brown-skinned people” in Indochina struggling for their independence. Robeson queried whether “Negro sharecroppers from Mississippi should be sent down to shoot down brown-skinned peasants in Vietnam—to serve the interests of those who oppose negro liberation at home and colonial freedom abroad?”3
Robeson’s musings presciently reflected the dilemma African Americans would confront in the following decade when the americanization of the Vietnam War coincided with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation that toppled Jim Crow. The suppression of african american activists and artists during the Red scare, including Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and journalists Charlotta Bass and William Worthy, as well as the deportation of radical Trinidadian intellectuals C. L. R. James and Claudia Jones—all of whom criticized America’s Cold War policy—had a chilling effect on civil rights activists’ willingness to speak out against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. Their response to the Vietnam War was further complicated by the fact that many of these early dissenters to the Cold War had ties to the Communist Party.4
The Vietnam War was an offshoot of the Cold War, and for more than forty-five years, Americans lived under “the shadow of war.”5 This Cold War backdrop inevitably had a racial component and therefore profound ramifications on African Americans’ ongoing struggle for civil rights at home, validating historian Mary Dudziak’s assertion that “civil rights reform was in part a product of the Cold War.”6 When African Americans confronted the explosive issue of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, McCarthy- ism was only a little more than a decade in the past. This proximity to the Red scare, combined with the Cold War ethos, which too often conflated dissent from American foreign policy with communism, left an imprint on many veterans of the struggle for racial justice, including Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young Jr., and even longtime pacifist Bayard Rustin. They had witnessed the vilification of an illustrious group of African American leftists, intellectuals, and activists like Robeson, who had linked the African American movement for freedom with the anticolonial movement in general and the Vietminh’s struggle against French colonialism in particular. Now in the prime of their careers, with many of their cherished goals tantalizingly within their grasp, these wily veterans of the African American freedom struggle feared that speaking out against the Vietnam War would earn them a similar fate. their reservations about protesting the military escalation in Southeast Asia were reinforced by the presence of Lyndon Johnson in the White House—a close ally whose magisterial efforts on behalf of civil rights endeared him to most African Americans.
the chasm that developed within the African American civil rights coalition over the Vietnam War was rooted in the early years of the Cold War.7 By the mid-1960s, the more cautious older generation, steeped in the Cold War zeitgeist, was faced with a more emboldened cohort of youthful African Americans who were born in the late 1930s and early 1940s and came of age in the heady years of sit-ins and Freedom Rides. As part of the New left, they embraced a new politics that transcended Cold War dichotomies, and their critiques of the Vietnam War were linked to black nationalism. Instead of anxiously sidling away from Robeson’s and Du Bois’s anticolonialism, these younger activists sought to resuscitate their critiques of American imperialism and preached a similar vision of the interrelatedness of the struggle against racism at home and imperialism abroad. For them, the Vietnam War was merely the latest manifestation of the perennial struggle by people of color to liberate themselves from the yoke of colonial oppression. Unlike their Old Left elders, they did not perceive the Vietnam War through the narrow, dichotomous prism of an inevitable struggle between East and West. These differing perspectives laid the groundwork for the acrimonious debates over the Vietnam War that fractured the civil rights movement during the years of the Johnson administration.8
a thorough examination of the historical antecedents of the war- related rifts within the civil rights coalition is a necessary corrective to the historiographical trend that developed in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. At the time, historians created a facilely narrow template of the civil rights movement that focused on a few charismatic leaders and limited the movement’s years to 1954 through 1968.9 More recently, historians have begun to challenge this narrative of a short, fourteen-year civil rights movement as overly static, claiming that it unduly muddies the longevity, complexity, and radicalism of the movement.10 This short narrative has been distorted by the New Right in an attempt to reverse the movement’s gains and appropriate its legacy. Historian Jacqueline Hall Dowd’s challenge to fellow scholars to extend the boundaries of civil rights historiography has generated a host of questions, particularly about the movement’s earlier and more radical internationalist bent that flourished in the 1930s and 1940s.11 The chill of the Cold War tempered
African Americans’ internationalist view of race relations and truncated the movement’s more radical faction, which likened the fight against racism at home with anti-imperialism abroad. The expansion of the temporal and spatial boundaries of the struggle against Jim Crow, however, sharpened the connections between foreign affairs and domestic racism, which crystallized during the Vietnam War. African Americans’ divisive reaction to the Vietnam War was a by-product of this rupture between the peace and freedom movements that arose during the Red scare, which rendered dissent against american foreign policy synonymous with treason.
Scholars focusing on the so-called long civil rights movement have produced a number of influential studies combining the movement and the Cold War, which share a common chronology and “mutually reinforcing ideological and political contexts.”12 Recent works examining the impact of the Cold War on the trajectory of the civil rights movement have reached different conclusions on whether the Cold War hastened civil rights advances or narrowed the parameters of dissent by taking the issues of economic justice and peace off the table in exchange for piecemeal progress on civil rights. Historians who contend that the Cold War limited the trajectory of the civil rights movement claim that the Red scare elicited a vigorous crackdown against the african american Left, thereby destroying the organizations, individuals, and institutions best equipped to mobilize the masses on behalf of human rights, economic justice, and world peace.13 they also note that the anticommunist hysteria helped segregationists brand the NAACP—the most mainstream civil rights organization—the National association for the advancement of the Communist Party. As a result, the movement was put on the defensive and had to showcase its anticommunist credentials.14
other historians, such as Mary Dudziak, Thomas Borstelmann, and Jonathan Rosenberg, argue that because of the United States’ focus on promoting a positive image to the third World in its relentless public relations campaign against the Soviet Union, the Cold War helped spur civil rights after the thaw of McCarthyism in the mid-1950s.15 They presuppose that elites in faraway Washington engineered the civil rights breakthroughs in the South, and they tend to lessen the impact of grassroots organizing. although it is undisputable that the United States’ concern with its image abroad played a role in ending the embarrassment of segregation, the Red scare split the peace and freedom wings of the african american struggle and truncated the earlier civil rights movement’s alliance with pacifism and anticolonialism.16 There is no question that the Cold War, and the attendant rise of McCarthyism, forced African Americans to be wary of speaking out against Cold War orthodoxy. Historian Adam Fairclough is correct in the following assertion: “on balance, however, the anticommunism of the early Cold War years damaged the cause of racial equality more far than [it] helped,” because it cast suspicion on civil rights supporters in the South as communist sympathizers.17 The legacy of McCar- thyism was a major reason why debates over Vietnam were so divisive and created so many ruptures within the civil rights movement and black America.
At the end of World War II, African Americans were generally united in their optimism about the future postwar world. they hoped that the creation of the United Nations would usher in a world free of colonialism and imperialism, and they expected that the fight against fascism would lead to the amelioration of domestic racial problems. For example, on January 2, 1944, Walter White, the executive director of the NAACP, embarked on a tour of the war-ravaged battlefronts of Europe and north Africa as a correspondent for the New York Post and Life magazine. He later published his observations in a small volume titled A Rising Wind, wherein he optimistically spoke of the opportunity for “the have-nots in the world to share in the benefits of freedom and prosperity, which the haves of the earth have tried to keep for themselves.”18 White’s sentiments were shared by African American leaders and citizens alike, who tended to view World War II through the prism of anticolonialism. The outbreak of the Cold War only a few years later shattered this vision. Confronted by the strength of the incipient Cold War, White jettisoned his anticolonial rhetoric, and the NAACP embraced Cold War liberalism. While many rank-and-file members disapproved when White and the NAACP hierarchy repudiated their critiques of U.S. foreign policy, this tactic enabled the association to escape the Red scare relatively unscathed.19 White’s conversion from antiimperialist to Cold War sympathizer is instructive because it forecast the NAACP’s and black moderates’ support of the Vietnam War during the tumultuous 1960s.20
Although historians have recognized the Cold War’s destructive legacy for the American Left, it similarly stifled African American political expression and the anticolonial consciousness that had sprouted among a broad coalition of African Americans in the mid-1930s, following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. With the thaw in McCarthyism in the late 1950s and the emergence of the New Left in the early 1960s, African American activists who demanded an end to the war in Vietnam would find sustenance and inspiration from an earlier generation of African American journalists, intellectuals, artists, and ordinary citizens who found their voices during the Popular Front of the 1930s and in the celebratory aftermath of World War II, when a new world order seemed possible. only a few years later, however, the brutal repression of the Cold War years would have a chilling effect on political expression. These warring and irreconcilable philosophies were often generational and contributed to the schism in the African American community during the Vietnam War era. in keeping with the intellectual spirit of the long civil rights movement, the origins of these debates over Vietnam must be investigated.