The civil rights movement also underwent a transformation. At first, mainstream black organizations like the NAACP and Urban League protested the Truman administration’s loyalty program. They wondered aloud why the program and congressional committees defined communism as “un-American,” but not racism. Anticommunist investigators often cited attendance at interracial gatherings as evidence of disloyalty. But while a few prominent black leaders, notably the singer and actor Paul Robeson and the veteran crusader for equality W. E. B. Du Bois, became outspoken critics of the Cold War, most felt they had no choice but to go along. The NAACP purged communists from local branches. When the government deprived Robeson of his passport and indicted Du Bois for failing to register as an agent of the Soviet Union, few prominent Americans, white or black, protested. (The charge against Du Bois was so absurd that even at the height of McCarthyism, the judge dismissed it.)
From National Security Council, NSC-68 (1950)
A critical document of early Cold War thinking, NSC-68 called for the United States to pursue a global crusade against communism in the name of freedom. Although not made public until years later, the manifesto had a strong impact in government circles and helped to spur a sharp increase in military spending.
The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.... The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the achievement of its fundamental design. There is a basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin, which has come to a crisis with the polarization of power ... and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists.... The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.
The free society values the individual as an end in himself, requiring of him only that measure of self-discipline and self-restraint which make the rights of each individual compatible with the rights of every other individual. The freedom of the individual has as its counterpart, therefore, the negative responsibility of the individual not to exercise his freedom in ways inconsistent with the freedom of other individuals and the positive responsibility to make constructive use of his freedom in the building of a just society.
From this idea of freedom with responsibility derives the marvelous diversity, the deep tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society. This is the explanation of the strength of free men. It constitutes the integrity and the vitality of a free and democratic system. The free society attempts to create and maintain an environment in which every individual has the opportunity to realize his creative powers. It also explains why the free society tolerates those within it who would use their freedom to destroy it. By the same token, in relations between nations, the prime reliance of the free society is on the strength and appeal of its idea,and it feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it.
For the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity. It derives its strength from its hospitality even to antipathetic [hostile] ideas. It is a market for free trade in ideas, secure in its faith that free men will take the best wares....
The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history, more contagious than the idea of submission to authority.
From Henry Steele Commager, “Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s (September 1947)
In a sharply worded essay written in 1947, the prominent historian Henry Steele Commager commented on how the anticommunist crusade was stifling the expression of dissent and promoting an idea of patriotism that equated loyalty to the nation with the uncritical acceptance of American society and institutions.
Increasingly, Congress is concerned with the eradication of disloyalty and the defense of Americanism, and scarcely a day passes ... that the outlines of the new loyalty and the new Americanism are not etched more sharply in public, policy.... In the making is a revival of the red hysteria of the early 1920s, one of the shabbiest chapters in the history of American democracy, and more than a revival, for the new crusade is designed not merely to frustrate Communism but to formulate a positive definition of Americanism, and a positive concept of loyalty.
What is this new loyalty? It is, above all, conformity. It is the uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of America as it is—the political institutions, the social relationships, the economic practices. It rejects inquiry into the race question or socialized medicine, or public housing, or into the wisdom or validity of our foreign policy. It regards as particularly heinous any challenge to what is called “the system of private enterprise,” identifying that system with Americanism. It abandons... the once popular concept of progress, and regards America as a finished product, perfect and complete.
It is, it must be added, easily satisfied. For it wants not intellectual conviction nor spiritual conquest, but mere outward conformity. In matters of loyalty, it takes the word for the deed, the gesture for the principle. It is content with the flag salute.... It is satisfied with membership in respectable organizations and, as it assumes that every member of a liberal organization is a Communist, concludes that every member of a conservative one is a true American. It has not yet learned that not everyone who saith Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven. It is designed neither to discover real disloyalty nor to foster true loyalty.
The concept of loyalty as conformity is a false one. It is narrow and restrictive, denies freedom of thought and of conscience.... What do men know of loyalty who make a mockery of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights?
1. What does NSC-68 see as the essential elements of the “free society”?
2. Why does Commager feel that the new patriotism makes “a mockery” of the Bill of Rights?
3. Is there any connection between the idea of a global battle over the future of freedom outlined in NSC-68 and the infringements on civil liberties at home deplored by Commager?
The Cold War caused a shift in thinking and tactics among civil rights groups. Organizations like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, in which communists and noncommunists had cooperated in linking racial equality with labor organizing and economic reform, had been crucial to the struggles of the 1930s and war years. Their demise left a gaping hole that the NAACP, with its narrowly legalistic strategy, could not fill. Black organizations embraced the language of the Cold War and used it for their own purposes. They insisted that by damaging the American image abroad, racial inequality played into the Russians’ hands. Thus, they helped to cement Cold War ideology as the foundation of the political culture, while complicating the idea of American freedom.
President Truman, as noted above, had called for greater attention to civil rights in part to improve the American image abroad. All in all, however, the height of the Cold War was an unfavorable time to raise questions about the imperfections of American society. In 1947, two months after the Truman Doctrine speech, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a major address defending the president’s pledge to aid “free peoples” seeking to preserve their “democratic institutions.” Acheson chose as his audience the Delta Council, an organization of Mississippi planters, bankers, and merchants. He seemed unaware that to make the case for the Cold War, he had ventured into what one historian has called the “American Siberia,” a place of grinding poverty whose black population (70 percent of the total) enjoyed neither genuine freedom nor democracy. Most of the Delta’s citizens were denied the very liberties supposedly endangered by communism.
After 1948, little came of the Truman administration’s civil rights flurry. State and local laws banning discrimination in employment and housing remained largely unenforced. In 1952, the Democrats showed how quickly the issue had faded by nominating for president Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a candidate with little interest in civil rights, with southern segregationist John Sparkman as his running mate. The following year, Hortense Gabel, director of the eminently respectable New York State Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, reported that the shadow of fear hung over the civil rights movement. Given the persecution of dissent and the widespread sentiment that equated any criticism of American society with disloyalty, “a great many people are shying away from all activity in the civil liberties and civil rights fronts.”
Time would reveal that the waning of the civil rights impulse was only temporary. But it came at a crucial moment, the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the United States experienced the greatest economic boom in its history. The rise of an “affluent society” transformed American life, opening new opportunities for tens of millions of white Americans in rapidly expanding suburbs. But it left blacks trapped in the declining rural areas of the South and urban ghettos of the North. The contrast between new opportunities and widespread prosperity for whites and continued discrimination for blacks would soon inspire a civil rights revolution and, with it, yet another redefinition of American freedom.
1. What major ideological conflicts, security interests, and events brought about the Cold War?
2. What major changes in traditional U.S. foreign policy enabled America to fight the Cold War?
3. How did framing the Cold War in absolute terms as a battle between freedom and slavery influence Americans’ ability to understand many world events?
4. Why did the United States not support movements for colonial independence around the world?
5. How did the government attempt to shape public opinion during the Cold War?
6. Explain the differences bet ween the United Slates’ and the Soviet Union’s application of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
7. How did the anticommunist crusade affect organized labor in the postwar period?
8. What long-term significance did the 1948 presidential election have for the politics of postwar America?
9. What were the major components of Truman’s Fair Deal?
10. How did the Cold War affect civil liberties in the United States?
1. In their ideological war, the Cold War superpowers promoted two very different social systems. Describe them and explain why each superpower felt its social system promoted freedom and social justice.
2. Identify the major ways in which the government used the anticommunist crusade to deprive some Americans of their freedoms.
3. How did Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats use ideas of freedom to justify their positions on civil rights and race?
4. Starting with the Truman Doctrine, explain how the United States promoted its Cold War actions as a global defense of freedom. How accurate was this claim?