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The Cultural Origins of the Cold War: “It’s Nationalism, Stupid!”

bookcoverTo Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. By John Fousek. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 253. $49.95 cloth. $18.95 paper.)

Review by Jaclyn Stanke

“Fousek argues that traditional American nationalism, and not anticommunism, lay at the core of this Cold War ideology.” [Full Text]

Jim Crow and the Cold War: Improving America’s Image Abroad.

bookcoverCold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. By Mary L. Dudziak. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 330. $39.50 cloth.)

Review by Jaclyn Stanke

“[Dudziak] argues that for nearly twenty years, countering the problem of race was an important issue in America’s Cold War policy. In particular, the United States had trouble projecting the desired image abroad as leader of the Free World while being accused of denying its black citizens the full fruits of liberty, equality, and democracy.” [Full Text]

 The Cold War may be over, but interest in it has yet to subside. Moreover, the opening of previously inaccessible materials from communist archives and the use of methodological approaches long familiar to social and cultural historians have brought new vigor and imagination to the subject. While works based on newly available documents have certainly allowed a better understanding of the Cold War, it is perhaps the scholarship inspired by social history, cultural studies, and literary criticism that has infused greater dynamism into the field. Such works often examine the connection between US domestic and foreign policies, and pinpoint American culture (or some aspect of it) as a vital, but usually overlooked, ingredient in understanding why and how the United States waged the Cold War. Interestingly enough, this “untraditional” scholarship usually reinforces the orthodox interpretation of the Cold War as an ideological struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. John Fousek’s To Lead the Free World and Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights are two such works.

Fousek, who obtained his Ph.D. in History from Cornell and now serves as associate director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers, focuses his attention on a well-worn topicthe origins of the Cold War. However, he does not look at the reasoning behind American foreign policy decisions between 1945 and 1950 per se, but rather at how and why the American public responded favorably to the Truman Administration’s move from a policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union to one of confrontation. In other words, Fousek looks at the cultural roots of the Cold War and how the foreign policy consensus that sustained US policy for much of the Cold War was forged. At the heart of this consensus, he asserts, stood the ideology of American nationalist globalism.

To trace the development of this ideology after World War II, Fousek approaches the period chronologically, but his debt to cultural studies and literary criticism is evident. The author is concerned with dissecting the “texts” of the major players in his story. Those players include: Truman Administration officials; the mass print media, such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post; the black community, especially the NAACP and Urban League; and organized labor, most notably the United Automobile Workers and the United Electrical Workers. The “texts” under review consist of speeches, pronouncements, letters from American citizens, newspaper articles and editorials, convention minutes and debates, and even advertisements. Following closely what the participants said about American foreign policy, Fousek documents the public debate that ensued, the result of which was American nationalist globalism. Administration officials and the media , however, set the terms of the debate; others, like black America and labor only worked within those parameters.

According to Fousek, a triad of elements eventually made up American nationalist globalismAmerican national greatness, global responsibility, and containment of communism, each of which fell into place as the public debate progressed. Importantly, Fousek argues that traditional American nationalism, and not anticommunism, lay at the core of this Cold War ideology. Moreover, this element was in place long before World War II. He contends that traditional American nationalism embodied an idea–that of a chosen people set apart from the world, infused with a sense of exceptionalism, including the belief of a nation founded upon the ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of man, and charged with a mission to makes these ideals universal. To many, World War II’s outcome signified American greatness and righteousness in cause, thus reaffirming the existing nationalist ideology. It also set in motion the development of the second element of the triad–global responsibility. America alone emerged from the war unscathed. American greatness and power required the United States to take on a leading and active role in the world. Isolationism and merely serving as an example to the world were no longer sufficient. Nevertheless, mounting tensions between the United States and Soviet Union forced a redefinition of America’s global responsibility. At this point, the last leg of the triad fell into place; American nationalist globalism now became anticommunist nationalist globalism.

Fousek carefully points out that the debate’s participants ascribed different meanings to the budding ideology’s attendant elements. For example, at war’s end many black Americans found traditional American nationalism lacking given the persistence of discrimination and segregation. As for America’s global responsibility, the participants debated whether or not this was necessary, as well as what kinds of obligations the United States could or should undertake. The last leg, anticommunism, easily fell into place given the previously established positions on the first two elements.

Fousek also shows how the range of permissible debate narrowed as each element of the ideology came in to place. Those groups, like the NAACP and the UAW, who were willing to speak the language of anticommunist nationalist globalism advanced their positions better than those who rejected it, like the communist-dominated United Electrical Workers or the Leftish former commerce secretary, Henry Wallace. In other words, dissenting voices were subsequently silenced, marginalized, or discounted as “un-American.” He concludes that the end of the Cold War loosened the bonds of American nationalist globalism, but it did not completely undo them, and the ideological core of American nationalism remains. Thus, he warns, “we remain in danger of falling back into an ideological definition of international realities.” His warning evokes a disturbing feeling that he may be right in part. Has the United States traded confronting communism for battling terrorism? The events of 9-11 were certainly real, yet his conclusion (written well before the events) raises serious questions as the United States heads into a war without a foreseeable end to protect and preserve American values against a somewhat intangible enemy.

To some extent, Dudziak picks up where Fousek leaves off in her examination of the Cold War’s impact on civil rights reform in America. Well equipped to handle the topic, she holds both a law degree and Ph.D. in History from Yale, and currently serves as the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law and History at the University of Southern California Law School. Unlike Fousek, her writing style is clear and coherent. Dudziak draws on a variety of sources: presidential records, State Department files (especially embassy reports on the international reaction to racial problems in America), foreign newspaper articles and cartoons, and court cases. She argues that for nearly twenty years, countering the problem of race was an important issue in America’s Cold War policy. In particular, the United States had trouble projecting the desired image abroad as leader of the Free World while being accused of denying its black citizens the full fruits of liberty, equality, and democracy. The government tried—but with little success—to portray the story of race in democratic America as one of progress. Consequently, civil rights reform came in fits and spurts as Washington had to bring reality more in line with its ideological rhetoric. Thus, she argues, civil rights reform was in part a product of the Cold War.

Dudziak illustrates how the totalitarian Soviet government used the postwar reality of lynching and racial discrimination in the United States as an effective propaganda weapon in the early Cold War. In response, the Truman Administration launched its own propaganda campaign overseas, highlighting the progress accomplished since the end of slavery. Many American blacks loudly disagreed, however, and the State Department prevented a number of vocal radical critics and apologists for Stalinist tyranny from traveling abroad by revoking their passports. In the case of former citizens, like Josephine Baker, American embassies worked with host countries to cancel her concerts or prohibit her from speaking on political topics.

Despite the propaganda effort, America’s image abroad did not improve. Some real change in race relations at home had to materialize, and Truman committed himself to civil rights reform. Due to the Dixiecrat faction in Congress, he relied on executive orders to implement desegregation (most notably in the army). Dudziak also reveals the critical role Truman’s Justice Department played in the court cases that eventually paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The Department filed numerous amicus curie briefs in desegregation cases, arguing that Jim Crow laws negatively affected the nation’s image abroad, impeded its ability to wage the Cold War, and ultimately threatened American national security.

The Brown decision undercut much of the international criticism of racism in America. However, Southern resistance to implementing school desegregation, as exemplified by the Little Rock crisis of 1957-58, jeopardized the progress made. President Eisenhower reluctantly sent federal troops to enforce the high court’s decision, which he realized could improve America’s image as well. Interestingly enough, Southern Congressmen consistently argued that civil rights reform was a communist plot to undermine the traditional American way of life. However much they tried to play the anticommunist card, they ended up on the losing end as it became clear that in order to enhance America’s image overseas and its ability to combat world communism, the United States had to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Racial progress required federal action

In the 1960s, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson confronted new developments that reinforced this lesson. First, visiting foreign diplomats from newly independent nations, especially from Africa, experienced the effects of discrimination and Jim Crow laws. Such treatment had potentially devastating effects on Cold War alignments as the struggle shifted into the underdeveloped Third World. Secondly, civil rights activists accelerated their agitation and Southern resistance grew more violent, the images of which were broadcast around the world. Thus, both Kennedy and Johnson realized that in order to win the propaganda phase of the Cold War, real social change had to occur. Whereas, Truman had focused his attention on the courts, Johnson got through Congress comprehensive legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In this regard, then, the Cold War had a dramatic impact on civil rights. Moreover, the response from overseas was overwhelmingly positive. After twenty years, the United States had finally removed race as an issue in the Cold War. Ironically, the country’s overall reputation abroad evinced little change as new image problems surfaced, especially the race riots in America’s cities and student demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.

Dudziak and Fousek have produced notable contributions to Cold War history. Their respective volumes reaffirm the centrality of ideology in this confrontation between East and West. Defining liberty, freedom, equality, and democracythe values that comprised American ideology proved a difficult, if not contentious matter. The significance of these works lay not so much in their defining of America’s Cold War ideology, but rather in what they say about the limits of that ideology. As Dudziak makes clear, civil rights reform, notwithstanding, the vision of racial equality in America encompassed only political and legal equality. It did not address the broader racial problems associated with poverty, underemployment and unemployment, police brutality, and urban unrest in the 1960s. One might add that it perhaps also explains the lack of support and eventual failure of LBJ’s Great Society programs. Fousek too finds that black Americans were more successful in advancing civil rights than labor was in promoting its broader political and social agenda. Both works make clear that as far as waging the Cold War was concerned, the matter of race was more important than class. Thus, liberty, freedom, democracy, and equality for all constituted parts of the American creed, but so did free enterprise, private property, and capitalism.End.

Jaclyn Stanke is an assistant professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina and was one of three recipients of the 1994 Myrna F. Bernath Fellowship Award sponsored by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. A specialist in Russian/Soviet history, she has presented a number of papers concerning U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War.


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