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During the Cold War, the Soviets were quick to publicize any incident of racial hostility in the United States. Since violence by white Americans against minorities was the perfect foil to America’s claim to be defenders of freedom, news of these occurrences was exploited to full advantage by the Russians. But how did the Soviets gain primary knowledge of race riots in small American towns? Certainly, the Soviets had reporters stationed stateside, in big cities like New York, but research reveals that the ...
During the Cold War, the Soviets were quick to publicize any incident of racial hostility in the United States. Since violence by white Americans against minorities was the perfect foil to America’s claim to be defenders of freedom, news of these occurrences was exploited to full advantage by the Russians. But how did the Soviets gain primary knowledge of race riots in small American towns? Certainly, the Soviets had reporters stationed stateside, in big cities like New York, but research reveals that the majority of their information came directly from U.S. media sources.
Throughout this period, the American press provided the foreign media with information about racially charged events in the United States. Such news coverage sometimes put Washington at a disadvantage, making it difficult for government officials to assuage foreign reactions to the injustices occurring on U.S. soil. Yet in other instances, the domestic press helped to promote favorable opinions abroad by articulating themes of racial progress. While still acknowledging racial abuses, these press spokesmen asserted that the situation in America was improving. Such paradoxical messages, both aiding and thwarting the efforts of the U.S. government, are the subject of The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War.
The study, by scholars Richard Lentz and Karla K. Gower, describes and analyzes the news discourse regarding U.S. racial issues from 1946 to 1965. The Opinions of Mankind not only delves into the dissemination of race-related news to foreign outlets but also explores the impact foreign perceptions of domestic racism had on the U.S. government and its handling of foreign relations during the period. What emerges is an original, insightful contribution to Cold War studies. While other books examine race and foreign affairs during this period of American history, The Opinions of Mankind is the first to approach the subject from the standpoint of press coverage and its impact on world public opinion.
This exhaustively researched and compellingly written volume will appeal to media scholars, political historians, and general readers alike. By taking a unique approach to the study of this period, The Opinions of Mankind presents the workings behind the battles for public opinion that took place between 1946 and 1965.
On a dusty Georgia side road on a hot July afternoon, four African Americans—Roger Malcolm, George Dorsey, and their wives—suddenly found the road in front of them blocked by a mob of twenty unmasked men. The two men were dragged to the side of the road; their wives were told to stay quiet in the back seat of the car. But when one of the wives recognized a captor and called out to him by name, they were brought over to join their bound husbands. Screams pierced the air as the gunfire erupted. Within minutes it was over. All four were riddled with bullets, their blood staining the dirt. Dorsey was a World War II veteran. And Dorothy Malcolm was seven months pregnant. The motive? An incident in which Malcolm accused his white employer of raping Malcolm's wife.
Although word of the shooting was passed on to the sheriff shortly after the incident, it did not reach an Associated Press bureau, in Atlanta, forty miles away, until the following day. The New York Times put the AP report on page one a day after that under the headline, "Georgia Mob of 20 Men Massacres 2 Negroes, Wives; One Was Ex-GI." But the news did not stop there. While many in the United States condemned the Monroe murders, the Soviets did as well. Moscow's New Times, a weekly published in nine languages and distributed in more than one hundred countries, sneered at the "hypocritical dithyrambs" of the U.S. press about black victims receiving equal justice before the law, a theme that resonated strongly with the emerging independence movements in Asia.
Anticolonialism had appeared in the wake of World War I and was greatly stimulated by the Second World War. Japanese conquests in Asia caused "bitter disgust with colonialism" and wiped out "the prestige of the white man." The first major strides toward independence in the post–World War II period came not in Africa, but in Asia, partly because Asians had gained civilian and military experience under Japanese occupation, and quantities of arms became available to the new governments or dissident forces after Japan was defeated.
Colonies began to win freedom starting in 1945 as Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch, although their military clashes continued for years. Others followed: the Philippines secured independence from the United States in 1946; Pakistan and India emerged a day apart from partitioned India in 1947; then, in 1948, Burma, Ceylon, Israel, and the two Koreas became independent under American and Soviet auspices.
In this period, racial practices that most Americans regarded as strictly domestic matters engendered international scrutiny and condemnation. There was reason now not to shrug off the faultfinding: Racism was anathema to citizens of the states that emerged in the postwar period. They regarded colonialism and racism as essentially the same, and their perspective had to be taken into account lest news of Jim Crow in America tip the scales in the favor of the Soviet Union in its competition with the United States for hearts and minds in the former colonies.
Although the Soviets are typically considered to have had the edge in prop aganda during the Truman presidency because of their ability to control information, the reality was far different. Soviet propaganda leaders themselves thought Great Britain and the United States were making a concerted effort to discredit and undermine the favorable image of the Soviets in the aftermath of the war, putting the Soviets on the defensive. In dispatches to Moscow, Soviet diplomats based abroad emphasized that with the end of the war, "'Anglo-Americans have not curtailed but enhanced their propaganda apparatus,' retargeting it to the 'ideological struggle against [the] USSR.'" Those same representatives were envious of the skillful propaganda put out by the West and the financial resources apparently dedicated to it. In a report prepared for the Central Committee, the British propaganda structure was described as "a truly grandiose, multifaceted, and far-flung organization, embracing almost all the corners of the world." In contrast, Soviet propaganda materials sent abroad were described as "mostly primitive in their content, ineptly composed, and cannot interest the foreign reader."
Following Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, the Soviets moved to aggressively counter Western propaganda efforts. At its first briefing on overseas propaganda after Churchill's speech, the Central Committee's Foreign Policy Department was asked to "drastically step up the work of demolishing the anti-Soviet designs of the Anglo-Americans." A conference on propaganda was convened the next month at Stalin's request. By now, the West was "perceived as being engaged in a global and relentless ideological offensive" for the purpose of engaging in a new war against the USSR.
The commission that grew out of the conference concluded that the Soviets had to go on the offensive. It criticized the Sovinformbureau (SIB), one of the many departments responsible for disseminating foreign propaganda, for failing to penetrate U.S. media by "inadequately using the bourgeois-democratic, socialist, labour press and other channels to disseminate information about the Soviet Union." The recommendation was to emulate what were perceived to be successful Western propaganda efforts: "Let us take British intelligence. We must see how they are doing their own propaganda. We should also penetrate well, and if necessary, we could bribe bourgeois newspapers. We could say to them 'if you publish this or that, we will pay you adequately.'"
As the quote indicates, the Soviets failed to understand the American mass media system. According to Vladimir Pechnatov, the Soviets "did not make any distinction between official Western propaganda (which was both curtailed and restrained vis-à-vis the U.S.S.R. in 1945–1946) and the more openly anti-Soviet private mass media, which was regarded by the Soviet Union as government-inspired." Thus, the Soviets attributed the extent of the anti-Soviet sentiment as indicative of U.S. government efforts rather than expressions by the domestic media of freely held opinions.
Despite the Soviet impression, the Truman administration had its own propaganda difficulties. The Office of War Information, which included Voice of America, was terminated at the end of the war, and its "sharply reduced" activities were transferred to the State Department. The House of Representatives even eliminated all funding for the information program, but Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall managed to persuade the Senate to restore it. Conscious of the deepening Cold War and "the deplorable state of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the United States and its policies," members of Congress wrote charter legislation in 1947 for an information agency. The initial appropriation was only $15 million, but it rose to $47 million by 1950; agency personnel increased from a low of about 2,500 employees to 4,370 in 1950 (13,000 had labored for the OWI).
As a result, the Voice of America began broadcasting in Russian in 1947 to counter Soviet propaganda. A major Newsweek article informed readers of the VOA's "worst headache"—the racial issues. "It cannot sidestep ... a story of an American lynching which it knows Moscow will exploit"; VOA could only hope to minimize the damage by persuading listeners that such atrocities were rare. In fact, as an American academic wrote in the New Republic, the Red propaganda about race was based on actual abuses, not falsehoods. Moreover, he went on to say, for most of it "Soviet specialists cheerfully quote numerous American authorities." The anti-American messages were promulgated not only by Soviet organs dealing with news events, but also in motion pictures, cartoons, and even plays (one was set in a town in the postwar South).
The U.S. press attempted to persuade readers to heed what foreigners were saying about the American racial problem. The New York Times quoted the actor Raymond Massey to the effect that "'the entire world' is watching America and the way it handles its racial and religious minorities." Massey raised a timely objection to what happened to hundreds of thousands of black veterans who, after returning home, were "stripped of [their] human dignity." (The sentiments were Massey's, of course, but, more crucially, it was the Times that chose to print them.) For its part, Time magazine offered the observations of a Nigerian student who wrote a book about his seven years spent in the United States. He scored a telling point by exposing the imbecility of training a white American doctor to go to Africa to treat ill Nigerians while refusing to train a Nigerian to go home to do the same.
America's failings included insults to diplomats and dignitaries of color, although these were rare in the Truman years since few dark-skinned diplomats were posted to Washington. When the Ethiopian minister Ras (Prince) H. S. Imru was Jim Crowed, it became front-page news. Imru had been invited to attend an address by Truman at Constitution Hall but was evicted from the diplomatic section, and relegated, according to the New York Times, to a section "reserved for his race." The State Department apologized, but the Ethiopian legation demanded the offending usher be punished. That would miss the larger point, responded a Times editorialist: the usher "was only implementing what is a condoned practice"—segregation—in the capital that does not reflect the will of most Americans. What should be done was put the District of Columbia "in step with the more enlightened areas of the country."
Similarly, when Haiti's Minister of Agriculture François Georges was turned away from a hotel in Mississippi, where he had been invited to a conference, the Pittsburgh Courier not only objected to the insult, but pointed out why America needed to counter "Soviet attacks against its democracy." But it could not do so when Washington ignored such incidents.
Contempt for the quality of Georgia justice was laced through a brief item in the New Republic about white jurors who took eight minutes to acquit a prison warden and four guards of charges of murdering eight black convicts. It recited the testimony of prosecution witnesses that the warden had forced the prisoners to flee by firing shots at them, and that several of them had been killed while crawling under the prison building for protection. Stories of this type caused Cedric Dover, a professor at the New School for Social Research, to warn of unintended consequences. Journalists were "trying to be helpful" by reporting "how well we were defeating the oppression of minorities," he wrote, but they were making "foreigners aware of these flaws in our democracy. 'The feeling abroad is that there is a lynching a day.'"
That belief was greatly exaggerated, but the reality was grim. The Tuskegee Institute counted seven lynchings for 1945 and 1946, while the Pittsburgh Courier tallied twenty-nine from VJ Day in 1945 to 1947. Whichever figure was correct, there was unquestionably serious racial violence, in North and South alike, in 1946 and 1947.
And lynching was but one manifestation of racism. New Times (Moscow) sketched a devastating (and generally accurate) picture of the "thralldom" of black Americans: They were "paid less than whites for the same kind of work," barred from public accommodations and from voting in many states, subject to lynchings, and so on. "Black slavery," it summed up, "virtually still exists in this highly developed country."
New Times used a death at the Lincoln Memorial to reinforce the point. The incident involved a forty-three-year-old black man, James Walls, who hung himself "just below the armchair of the liberator of the Negro slaves." According to the Washington Post, from which the New Times presumably got the story, Walls was actually found in the basement of the memorial, where he worked as a laborer. But placing the body "below the armchair" of Lincoln strengthened the symbolism and the New Times's point. The article sought to make his death more than one man's tragedy by accusing the police and press of not investigating his suicide, ascribing it to fear the revelations would have revealed "slave market practices" that tortured black lives. The New Times was able to make that accusation because the Washington Post itself hinted that there might be more to the suicide. Walls's wife said he was not depressed, and his coworker said he was in normal spirits shortly before he took his own life.
President Truman himself regarded America's failure to assure equal rights to black citizens "as one of its weakest points in the struggle with communism," his aide Clark Clifford recalled; he realized such attacks "needed to be challenged" since American successes and failures echoed loudly "in every corner of the world."
U.S. black leaders were bringing pressure to bear on Truman, who responded, in part, by creating a civil rights committee. In 1947 the committee submitted its report, To Secure These Rights. It decried lynchings; police brutality against minorities; the judiciary's failure to uphold equal justice; the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the denial of the ballot to minorities; segregation in the armed forces; and inequality in employment, public and private education, housing, medical care, public services, and public accommodations. The committee urged the federal government to do more to protect civil rights and recommended measures to abolish poll taxes and to end discrimination and segregation in the military and in interstate commerce.
The report was debated in the national press. Newsweek opened by recounting the horror felt by Truman (and many others) on learning of the Monroe murders. These were just one category of America's failures. Others included denial of equal justice, inferior facilities for blacks in the South, discrimination in employment, and the limited access of blacks and Jews to northern colleges and universities. Time's list differed slightly, but its purpose—demonstrating the "wide and continuing gap between U.S. deeds and U.S. ideals"—was the same. While predicting many of the recommendations "would remain pious hopes," Time also hailed the report as "a sharp and much-needed prod to the nation's conscience."
The NAACP applied its own prod to the administration. It took to the United Nations "a frank and earnest appeal to all the world for elemental justice" for black Americans. The force behind the petition was supplied by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading African American intellectual, who enlisted a number of luminaries to draft and line up support for the document. Afraid the UN might not accept the petition, Du Bois leaked it to the New York Times and other major newspapers. The Times, in its report, concluded that it "is not the Soviet Union that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi" and its racists.
Not surprisingly, the Russians supported the petition, but as the Truman administration desired, it was effectively buried. While the appeal never had the airing at the United Nations for which Du Bois had hoped, it did achieve more than the Truman administration wanted it to. The petition was widely endorsed by Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Belgium, Haiti, Mexico, Norway, China, and the Soviet Union, among others, and it received much press coverage, domestic and foreign. In addition to the Associated Press and United Press, "Greek, Russian, French, Italian, Indian, Danish, Chinese, English, and Norwegian newspapers requested copies of the petition in order to turn out stories." Editorial reaction was "generally favorable," but some U.S. papers were displeased that the nation's racial faults had been exposed. Significantly, it pushed the Truman administration into strengthening the civil rights arm of the Justice Department.
On February 2, 1948, Truman requested Congress to establish permanent civil rights bodies and strengthen existing civil rights statutes; provide federal protection against lynching; protect the right to vote; establish a Fair Employment Practice Commission; prohibit discrimination in interstate transportation facilities; provide home rule and suffrage in presidential elections in the District of Columbia; authorize statehood for Hawaii and Alaska and greater self-government for island possessions; and settle the claims of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Recognizing the message's propaganda value, the government made it the Voice of America's lead story of the day. Moscow did not praise Truman for his action, of course, but chose instead to accuse him of wilting under the coercion of civil rights opponents.
As important as Truman's international problems were domestic politics. The black vote gained in importance as revolts confronted Truman from different directions. From the left, former vice president Henry Wallace ran as the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1948, declaring that "segregation and discrimination of any kind or character have no place in America." From the right, delegates from Mississippi and Alabama bolted the Democratic Party for adopting a strong civil rights plank, triggering the Dixiecrat rebellion, and later nominated South Carolina's Governor Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate.
Excerpted from The Opinions of Mankind by RICHARD LENTZ KARLA K. GOWER Copyright © 2010 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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