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.

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