The Bench Responds: Cold War Paranoia and Race

Zunguzungu asks:

Anything interesting to say about the relationship between cold war paranoia and race? Perhaps wiretapping MLK or threats of third world revolution in the US?

Interesting?  Sadly, probably not; turns out that when I’m given 1 hour, 20 minutes to think about and write a response to a question (the structure of my school’s exams), I become even more incoherent than usual.  So: my apologies for the following response, which doesn’t do justice to the myriad ways one could approach the topic.  But I need to get this exercise down, so I’ll give you the unedited version.  Moreover, this is helping me think about these questions more deeply; while I move on to other readings, I continue to mull over the last question, which should help me in the end.


“Cold War Paranoia” covers a lot of territory.  Most obviously, international relations between the United States and the Soviet Union stoked political/military paranoia: fears of the atomic bomb, fears of the military strength of the Soviet Union, fears of communist spies and sympathizers in the United States.  But there were manifestations of other fears during this time, too: fears of changes to gender structures or in race relations.  Some historians, like Ellen Schrecker and Mary Dudziak, have argued that anti-communism was the primary paranoia, occasionally manifesting itself as anti-homosexuality or assertions that the civil rights movement was a cover for communism.  Other historians, such as Robert Dean and David Johnson, argue that ideas about gender shaped–perhaps even structured–how American leaders fought the Cold War at home and abroad; Thomas Borstelmann suggests that Southern fears about race shaped American foreign policy.  The question seems to come down to which was more important: fears of communism or fears of changes to race relations and gender roles and sexuality.  The value of both interpretations is how they reveal an anxious effort, both among elite and “average” white, straight Americans, to define American normality within the crucible of international political pressure and domestic changes unleashed by the New Deal and World War II.  A Cold War culture of consensus in the United States cultivated fears of communism and racial tension and sexual anxiety, setting the context for domestic and foreign policy decisions in the corridors of power and the behavior of white Americans at home.
During the first few decades of the Cold War–from 1947-1972–American policy makers sought desperately to secure American capitalism at home and abroad.  Fearing the “loss” to the USSR of non-aligned Third World countries, US foreign policy makers sought to bring more nations and more people within the Western fold.  As Mary Dudziak shows, anxiety over “losing” third-world countries to Communism led to efforts by the U.S. government to portray positively–or elide completely–race relations at home to the rest of the world, through the use of its various propaganda and publicity machines (particularly government-sponsored films, radio, and tours of American entertainers).  On occasion, anti-communism led to positive developments in American civil rights, such as Maryland’s efforts to desegregate in response to the complains of visiting foreign dignitaries.  But anti-communism also spurred policies directed against any other “radicals,” particularly those of the Civil Rights movement (for instance, Hoover’s belief and incessant efforts to prove that the civil rights movement was a communist front).  Anti-communism drove efforts to hunt down and expunge alleged homosexuals, as David Johnson explores, for their sexuality supposedly made them more susceptible to communism.
At home, Cold War paranoia was also rampant.  As Winkler shows, Americans were aware and increasingly terrified by atomic weapons, rejecting the government’s assertions of its ability to control the atom and defend its citizens.  Middle-class white Americans sought refuge at home, as Elaine Tyler May argues, defining their own policy of “domestic containment” that promised safety, economic security, and sexual excitement within the confines of heterosexual marriage in the suburbs.  Though often frustrated in these objectives, what’s important to note is the general thrust of these efforts: to define and create a normal life, by which was meant heterosexual and middle-class.  That latter characteristic precluded the incorporation of African-Americans, who, as Ira Katznelson shows, had been excluded from the booming growth of the post-war middle-class and its neighborhoods.  Thus, fears of communism led to the definition of normality which excluded African Americans.
Fears of changes in race relations also inspired policy makers.  Thomas Borstelmann shows how much influence southern senators had in shaping foreign policy vis-a-vis decolonizing nations whose racial hierarchy Southerners admired: South Africa, for instance, where apartheid’s strength was the envy of Southerners worried over increasing noises about civil rights at home.  Other policy makers demonstrated the effects of racial thinking in their approach to the civil rights movement; JFK’s administration thought civil rights to be a distraction or “pain-in-the-neck” (in the words of one Kennedy advisor) from the real problem of fighting world-wide communism, as Robert Dean argues.  These policy makers were empowered by their clear sense of how the world should work: for Southerners, with whites at the top; for JFK’s administration, for blacks to keep quite while America dealt with the communists.
Though few historians have explored how fears of changes in race relations affected how “average” Americans thought about communism and the Cold War, but further study might indicate that anxieties about race relations were just as prominent in shaping anti-communist behavior as was anti-communist anxiety in shaping white behavior toward non-whites.

Ask the Bench: World War II and the Aftermath

This week’s readings below.  Hit me.

  • Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear.
  • Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.
  • Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights.
  • Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.
  • Alterman, Eric. When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.
  • LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War.

The Bench Responds: The New Deal State and the Margins at Home and Abroad

From Aaron, this brilliant and fascinating question:

Don’t know if this is the sort of thing you’re working on, but I wonder how you would relate changes in the federal government’s relationship to “underdeveloped” parts of the country (whether geographic areas, like the South, or populations, like immigrants or African-Americans) to the American state’s changing relationship with the “primitive” world abroad in this period; Borgwardt seems like an appropriate point of departure, but I’m unsatisfied with her exceptionalist account (don’t know if you agree, but there it is) even while it seems like she does better at synthesizing that relationship than almost anyone else I know (since the foreign relations / domestic affairs schism always splits up people’s analysis).

Wow–thanks for starting me off easy, Aaron… 🙂  Seriously, this is a great question.  It actually is something I hope to be working on–the relationship between domestic affairs and foreign relations during the Cold War, to be a bit more specific.  But I haven’t got there yet, as my response below reveals.  It’s quite the piece of crap, this response of mine.  I read the question and wrote my response in an hour (that’s how my school’s exam process works: 4 hours to write 3 essays), so that’s part of the reason that it won’t make a lick of sense.  You’ve been warned.


During the Great Depression and New Deal (1929-1941), the Roosevelt Administration pursued a policy of tentative interventionism in domestic affairs and isolationism in foreign affairs.  Political anxiety combined with a commitment to perserving American capitalism to create these policies; victory in war would eventually erase that political anxiety and reject isolationism in favor of interventionism on behalf of American capitalism.

The federal government directly involved itself in the affairs of  marginal people and places at home during the New Deal.  The country’s land- and river-scapes show this interventionism in stark relief.  The Tennessee Valley Administration; Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River; the tree belts and relocation of farmers on the Great Plains–these and other massive state projects changed the landscape and intimately involved the federal government in the day-to-day lives of marginal people in marginal places.  Yet these projects were also limited by political circumstances and the administration’s commitment to capitalism.  As Sarah Phillips argues, A.E. Morgan was unable to realize his great dreams for the TVA–farming co-ops, etc.–because local involvement (particularly of landowners who were already unhappy with the federal government) was necessary in order to get the TVA going at all.  Thus was created the grassroots TVA–not one controlled by the federal government, but by local officials under the eye of local residents.  And on the Great Plains, as Donald Worster argues, the federal government refused to recognize the incompatibility of monoculture farming with such a marginal landscape, instead allowing farmers to continue their extractive practices.  To do otherwise would have signaled an inherent problem with capitalist agriculture–a step too far for FDR, even in his most “radical” experiments after his first re-election.

Indeed, the Roosevelt administration prefered in most cases to keep its hands off of marginal populations at home, allowing both for the replication of existing power relationships and the development of new centers of power.  FDR’s need to maintain friends among Democrats in the South led to a variety of legislation providing “affirmative action” for whites, as Ira Katznelson points out, from the clauses in Social Security that excluded domestic and farm labor (thus disproportionately excluding African-Americans) or allowing segregation in the CCC.  But the administration’s reluctance to get its hands dirty in local politics sometimes opened avenues for the development of what John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing” power, particularly in the development of union strength.  As Lizabeth Cohen shows using the case of Chicago, ethnic communities seized the opportunity to associate themselves with FDR’s administration while simultaneously building a new center of power in more radical union activity, particularly through the CIO.

During the New Deal, FDR’s administration also preferred a hands-off policy vis-a-vis the rest of the world.  The administration pulled inward during the Great Depression, walking out of international economic meetings, instead preferring to deal with its economic–and political–problems at home.  Even in its own sphere of influence, the United States decided to let things alone; Latin America got a brief respite from US interventionism with FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.  And yet, in pulling out, the United States did not necessarily leave the stage empty for other countries to intervene.  Particularly as FDR’s attention turned to the global situation post-1939 (as David Kennedy argues), the United States sought not simply to leave the world be, but to encourage a world in which American capitalism might flourish in the absence of old colonial ties.  As early as the Atlantic Charter, FDR indicated a vision in which old European colonialism would die out, leaving open markets for the American economy.  And so, while the U.S. did not actively engage the peoples and places on the margins of the Western industrialized world, it did not ignore those people/places, instead seeing potential consumers and markets.

Emerging victorious from WWII, the United States would more actively pursue this vision of a world whose consumers could absorb American production.  With the Marshall Plan and American domination of the IMF and World Bank, the United States sought to impress its own brand of liberalism on the rest of the world.  In many ways, this liberalism had been born in the Tennessee Valley, the Great Plains, and the Columbia River, where the federal government had learned to exercise its muscle, but only insofar as to create producers and consumers, thus ensuring the salvation of American capitalism.

Ask The Bench: The Great Depression and the New Deal

New preliminary exam prep strategy: I tell you what I’m reading, you ask me questions for which I should have answers.  I’m hoping these will be conceptual/metanarrative/analytical questions, rather than factual (you can find Wikipedia as easiliy as I can…).  Stuff like “Explain the rise and fall of the New Deal coalition.”  You get the idea.  I’ll post the subject/readings on Monday; you send in questions throughout the week; then I sit down and respond on Friday.  I know, right?  Awesome.

This week’s topic: The Great Depression and the New Deal.  This week’s readings:

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. Vintage Books, 1983.

Chandler, Lester Vernon. America’s Greatest Depression, 1929-1941. Harper & Row, 1970.

Eichengreen, Barry. “The Origins and Nature of the Great Slump Revisited.” The Economic History Review 45, no. 2. New Series (May 1992): 213-239.

Leuchtenberg, William E. The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. Harper & Row, 1963.

Romer, Christina D. “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 105, no. 3 (August 1990): 597-624.

—. “What Ended the Great Depression?.” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757-784.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 2005.

Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. Vintage Books, 1996.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. Cambridge UniversityPress, 1990.

Finegold, Kenneth, and Theda Skocpol. State and Party in America’s New Deal: Industry and Agriculture in America’s New Deal. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980: 1930-1980. Princeton University Press, 1989.

Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Maher, Neil M. Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the. Oxford University PressUS, 2007.

Phillips, Sarah T. This Land, this Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2007.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and Barbara Melosh. “Government and the Arts: Voices from the New Deal Era.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (September 1990): 596-608.

Smith, Jason Scott. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2005. 

Dreaming of Worster

Last night I dreamt that I had been asked to write a response to Donald Worster.  To what I was to respond I can not remember; perhaps his excellent Dust Bowl (the culture of capitalism screwed it all up), or maybe his Rivers of Empire (“hydraulic society” built California and dooms us to a dry death).  In any case, my dream took me to Africa (?), where I guess I was doing research for the review, when I came upon a mustachioed engineer who kicked my dog.  And then I woke up.

Time to take these exams and get this crap out of my head.

Progressives: Nice People

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading/thinking/teaching a lot about the Progressive Era.  And yes, despite what Peter Filene argues, there was such a thing as a Progressive movement and era; a quick scan of the massive amount of legislation (over 100 bills passed at the state level between 1903 and 1905) shows that something was going on.  So there’s a “what”: lots of legislation, most of it pointing in the general direction of improving the quality of life (through cleaner food, better housing, better wages, shorter working hours, direct democracy, etcetera and so forth und so weiter) of a lot of Americans.  There were limits, of course: to how much was done (TR’s unenthusiastic “trust-busting,” the repeal of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, etc.) [for a good explanation of why the limits, see Skowronek re: state capacity].  There were also limits to who was allowed to benefit (immigrants were eligible, but only if they strived for bourgeois Nordic-ness).  That’s part of the “who”; the other part–those who drove and led Progressivism–were a diverse lot, from the new middle-class seeing an opportunity and responsibility in an industrializing/modernizing/urbanizing world (see Wiebe), to elite professionals like Pinchot who sought control, order, and efficiency (see Hays and Haskell), to ex-Populist farmers in the West (see Sanders), to women pushing for suffrage through maternalist rhetoric/ideology (see Skocpol and Sklar) or belief in the family as a model for society (see Rauchway’s first book).

For the why, look to a series of -tions: industrialization, urbanization, immigration, modernization.  Through these -tions, more people were brought into more contact (direct or indirect) with more people from more widely diverse backgrounds (socio-economic, cultural, and “racial”, as the prevailing science of the day asserted).  Middle class smarty-pants, for instance, got an education from European progressives (see Rodgers); Riis’s photos of the miserable pulled middle-class heart-strings; TR dealt with anarchists putting him in the presidency; capitalists dealt with the specter of the IWW.  Through contact (see Rauchway’s second book) came the sense for a need for action: to stave off the revolution or temper the effects of capitalism.  Which fits nicely into my metanarrative of American history (pre-19th century: Birthing American Capitalism; 19th century: Raising American Capitalism; 20th Century: Saving American Capitalism).

And then the Great War.  So sad, not just for the deaths of so many, but also for the lost hopes of Progressivism (see Kennedy).  They hoped for national unity; they got the Red Scare.  They hoped for increased efficiency and state regulation of necessary functions; they got the railroads for a year or so and then gave up.  They hoped to break the back of conservatism; they got a reinvigorated Republican party.  They hoped for American democracy writ across the globe; they got American parochialism that would, perversely, lead the country back to international war (see Rauchway’s third book).

In the end, Progressives may have come from different backgrounds and may have had different objectives, but what they achieved was kinda nice.  Good people.