Truman Doctrine and the Civil Rights Movements, 1947-1963

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In 1946 Greek monarchists and Greek communists
battled for control over their nation’s government. This was a domestic conflict;
yet it drew the attention of the international community. Foreign nations sided with the
Greek party whose domestic ends would agree best with the foreigners’ national ones.
Thus Britain supplied arms and assistance to the Greek monarchists. Yugoslavia backed
the communists. The Greek civil war demonstrated that national and ideological boundaries meant
little in the foreign relations of the Cold War.
By the middle of the 1940s events suggested that to respect the sovereignty of the governed
was easier to state on paper than to exercise on the ground. American and British leaders
had issued the Atlantic Charter in 1941. In it, they strived to universalize the political
practice of self-determination. In late 1944, nevertheless, the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin
had agreed to Winston Churchill’s request that “Greece” would be “90 percent for
Britain.” In return, the British Prime Minister observed Russia’s influence in parts of
Eastern Europe. The Greek civil war that irrupted immediately at the end of the Second World
War undermined this settlement. It also drew further attention from the international community.
While many contemporary diplomats and historians agree that Stalin was a devious negotiator,
he did not intend for the derailment of his backdoor deal with Churchill. By the end of
the war Stalin’s zeal for spontaneous world revolution was nil. He expected his communist
allies to follow their cues from Moscow. Yugoslavia as a satellite state of the Soviet Union was
no different. Stalin, Churchill and Truman all assented to the perspective that Yugoslavia
would play a minor role in post war relations. Josip Tito – the so-called “benevolent
dictator” of Yugoslavia – disagreed. Tito lacked Stalin’s conservatism for world revolution.
In the Greek civil war he discovered an opportunity to expand the ends of international communism.
In opposition to orders from Moscow, Yugoslavia supplied military assistance to the Greek
communists. By March 1947, the Greek communists had the upper hand on their national foes
and foreign British enemies. The Second World War had crippled Britain financially. She
lacked the monetary will to continue the fight in Greece. British officials turned to the
United States. Tito used the perception that Yugoslavia was
politically an insignificant nation – solely a satellite of the USSR – to his advantage.
By disregarding the commands from Moscow and intervening in Greece Tito increased hostilities
between Russia and the U.S. since the latter power viewed Stalin as the brain of the communist
world. As American and Russian diplomatic forces engaged in heated discussion, and concentrated
on one and the other, Tito gained the opportunity to enhance Yugoslavia’s national autonomy.
The American state department so focused on Moscow disregarded the possibility that in
this conflict Yugoslavia was a rogue nation. Instead the United States perceived Yugoslavian
behavior as a sign of Soviet expansionism and aggression. The observations of Soviet
expert George Kennan further encouraged the idea that Yugoslavia was not acting on its
volition. Kennan predicted that the Soviets intended to expand its political and military
power into the rest of Europe. Russia’s communism and support for colonial self-determination,
Kennan assured U.S. leaders, was a ruse for world domination. He reported to the Truman
administration that the Russians would not respond to reason. Any compromise the US made
would signify to Russia a US weakness. Force was the only language the Russians understood.
American leaders decided that to contain communism where it already existed the United States
would have to substitute for the British and assist the Greek monarchists.
In March 12, 1947 President Truman addressed Congress and the rest of the nation. He announced
he would put into practice Kennan’s strategy of containment. He informed Americans that
the U.S. would increase military presence and spending in Europe, “To ensure the peaceful
development of nations” and that they remain “free from coercion.” Even though the
role of United Nations was to assure this, in 1947 the U.N. was unprepared to help Greece.
Truman assured the American public that to depend on the U.N. “shall not [help the
US] realize our objectives… unless we are willing to help [directly] free peoples to
maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements
that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.” This was the heart of the Truman
doctrine – a call for the United States to play an active role in helping people internationally
to establish democratic governments. The fear of Soviet expansion inspired the
Truman Doctrine. In reality it was a Russian weakness – its inability to control its
Yugoslavian satellite – that triggered the US escalation. The use of American force by
way of the Truman Doctrine would expose U.S. weaknesses domestically. Americans’ determination
to protect the rights of people internationally whom dictatorial-minority governments threatened
increased the responsibility the federal government owed to its citizens (note here that the fourteenth
and fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution had been in existence for more than seventy
years but rarely enforced). The Cold War was seen as a conflict between two superpowers
– the first world, the US, against second world, the USSR. The underdeveloped nations
– the “third world” – was the booty of victory for either the American or Russian
nation. As we saw in the anecdote of the Greek Civil War, this was not always so. The threat
– real and imagined – that each of the superpowers posed to one and the other encouraged
less powerful nationalities to demand the rights that American and Russian Cold War
rhetoric promised. In 1946 blacks in the United States South
lacked political freedom. All white primaries kept African American candidates out. Literacy
tests created obstacles for black voters to register. Economic reprisals were strategies
used on individuals stubborn enough to engage in the democratic process. African-American
who successfully registered to vote could have their mortgages recalled, gas cutoff,
or lose employment. If poverty was not reason enough for a black man and woman to surrender
their political rights, physical violence was food for thought. Severe beatings and
lynching of African Americans was not unusual. The reason to perpetuate such brutality on
black people was beyond the political. If a black man looked at a white woman, this
was cause. In the summer of 1955 a group of white men kidnapped and murdered a fourteen
year old boy in Mississippi. His name was Emmett Till. His crime was whistling at a
white girl and bragging of having a white girlfriend in his hometown of Chicago. His
murderers were found innocent by an all white jury. One year later they admitted to the
murder in Look magazine. This was the way of life in the New South. When Reverend George
W. Lee registered to vote and encouraged his congregation to do the same, he received a
letter. It read: “Preacher, instead of you preaching the Gospel, what you say you were
called to do, you are preaching to Negroes here in Humphreys County to register and vote.
You had better do what you claim that you were called to do, that is, preach the Gospel.”
Reverend Lee ignored the threat. A few months before the murder of Emmit Till in Mississippi,
Reverend Lee suffered a shotgun wound that “tore off all the side of his face.” His
crime was registering to vote. In 1946 blacks in the United States South
were second class citizens. They were forbidden to drink water in fountains for “Whites
only.” They could not bath and suntan in the same beaches and swimming pools as whites.
In public busses they sat in the back while whites sat in the front. If there were no
vacant whites only seats law and custom dictated that a black man or woman should surrender
their seat. In the winter of 1955 Rosa Parks absolutely denied her seat to a white passenger
– even though the bus driver ordered her to do so. For her transgression of Alabama
segregation laws she was arrested. Black children attended separate schools than white children.
Even though this segregation was supposed to be separate but equal – according to
the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson (1893) – African American schools had outdated
books, lacked facilities conducive to learning and black students confronted educators who
reminded them daily that they were sub-humans who would amount to nothing intellectually.
Beyond political disenfranchisement and economic exclusion African Americans battled against
psychological warfare. Racial discrimination at home put into question
the credibility of U.S. ideology internationally. (And white prejudice against blacks was not
just a Southern way of life. White northerners suffered from similar biases). When in 1942
blue-collar whites in Detroit opposed the presence of blue-collar blacks in the work
place and in white neighborhoods, a three day race riot irrupted. Vice-President Henry
Wallace criticized the behavior of Detroit whites. He pointed out that white violence
against blacks contradicted the democratic ends that the US fought to protect in Europe
and the Pacific. There was much truth to this. During the war, Japan did not hesitant in
using these ideological contradictions to their advantage. In 1942, the Japanese reported
news to the Dutch East Indies and India about the lynching of African Americans in the United
States. This information the Japanese disseminated among European colonies – that is, the victims
of European imperialism to persuade them that the United States was no different than European
nations. It is no wonder that Ghandi contemptuously pointed out that “Both America and Great
Britain lack the moral basis for engaging in this war [against fascism] unless they
put their own houses in order… They have no right to talk about protecting democracies
and protecting civilization and human freedom, until the canker of white superiority is destroyed
in its entirety.” White supremacy was perceived as a weapon of totalitarianism for African
American and other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups. As nationalist movements gained strength
in India, Vietnam and other former colonies of Europe around the world the U.S. became
susceptible to their criticism, contempt and accusations of hypocrisy.
In 1947 the Truman Doctrine speech warned of a world divided by two forces with irreconcilable
ways of life. He never mentioned the Soviet Union or Joseph Stalin by name. Instead, at
one end was the faceless and nameless “totalitarian” state. It denied its subjects a “way of
life” “based upon the will of the majority.” It “relies upon terror and oppression, a
controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.”
To combat this unnamed expansion of totalitarianism Truman volunteered the Federal Government.
He asserted “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who
are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe
that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe
that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential
to economic stability and orderly political processes.” By the summer of 1948 Truman
had began a new military draft – demanding some 10 million men to register for military
service. The new draft added to the Truman Doctrine a military component. The civil rights
activist A. Philip Randolph advised his black and white audiences “to quarantine a Jim
Crow conscription system.” Containment was the strategy applied to arrest the spread
of communism. For the civil rights movement communist totalitarianism was less of an immediate
threat than white supremacy. The latter obstructed the reach of democracy and self-determination
to blacks. Randolph demanded the federal government “to change its policy on segregation.”
If it did not he cautioned “in the interests of the very democracy” the United States
struggled to protect, “I would advocate that Negroes take no part in the army.”
Truman issued Executive Order 9981 that same year and ended segregation in the U.S. military.
It was assumed by the majority of the American public that the totalitarian state in the
Truman Doctrine speech was Russia. For the individuals who lived and endured the cultural,
political and economic ways of Southern segregation this totalitarian state was the one who allowed
the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Council and similar white supremacist organizations
to terrorize black American citizens. Already during the Second World War black political
ends were “Victory at Home as well as Abroad.” An NAACP leader told the Senate in 1945, “Throughout
the Pacific I was told with grim pessimism by Negro troops that ‘we know that our fight
for democracy will really begin when we reach San Francisco on our way home’” Some African
Americans had drawn clear parallels – in terms of racial thinking, segregation, and
open physical oppression – between the Nazi government and the state governments of the
South. During the period from 1944 to 1946 when United States leaders like Secretary
of State James F. Byrnes struggled to persuade Russia to allow free elections in Eastern
Europe one NAACP representative insisted that “culturally and economically” African
Americans in importance “surpasses the masses of the Rumanians, Bulgars and Poles for whom,”
leaders “demanded ‘free and unfettered elections’ at a time when this right was
being denied to millions of Americans.” In the mid-1950s when Byrnes was Governor
of South Carolina before the Supreme Court decision to end school segregation passed,
he had already determined he would not comply. He promised his voters that “South Carolina
will not now, not for some years to come, mix white and colored children in our schools.”
Many leaders who supported the Truman Doctrine internationally refused to apply its ends
domestically. The diplomacy that followed the Second World
War made domestic issues international ones. In 1945, the NAACP submitted a petition of
grievances to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. It declared, “This protest
is to induce the nations of the world to persuade this [US] nation to be just to its own people.”
In 1947 WEB DuBois wrote An Appeal to the World. This was an address to the United Nations
where he cautioned, “It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi.”
In 1947, as the U.S. prepared to provide assistance to Greece, Truman acknowledged to the Black
Press that he was aware of the political and diplomatic leverage that the Cold War granted
African Americans. “More and more we are learning how closely our democracy is under
observation.” He conceded “We are learning what loud echoes both our successes and our
failures have in every corner of the world. That is one of the pressing reasons we cannot
afford failures. When we fail to live together in peace the failure touches not us, as Americans
alone, but the cause of democracy itself in the whole world. That we must never forget.”
Even a bigot like Truman understood what was at stake by the federal government ignoring
the crimes of white supremacy. The Soviet Union was conscious of the American
Achilles Heel. It intended to win the hearts and minds of people in non-industrialized
nations – the former and present colonies of Europe. And it intended to win the hearts
and minds of the oppressed within the United States. So at the end of the Second World
War the Soviet Union proposed making a crime of the “advocacy of national, racial and
religious hostility or of national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt as well as of any action
establishing privilege or discrimination based on distinction of race, nationality or religion.”
This did not just apply to the colonies of European nations. It applied to the many Americans
who lacked self-determination within US borders. By 1947, the US State Department emphasized
that about half of all Russian propaganda against the US focused on white-black relations.
During the 1930s when almost all labor organizations remained segregated or rejected African-American
blue-collar workers, the Communist Party of the USA opposed Jim Crow and white supremacy.
The CPUSA drew black workers by advocating racial equality. Important black political
leaders like WEB DuBois and black entertainers like Paul Robeson and sport figures like Joe
Louis had connections with the CPUSA. Regardless of the threat that communism posed after 1945
communist organizations provided black Americans a means to achieve social justice in the U.S.
While it is very probable that many CPUSA leaders cared less about black equality than
about the triumph of communism internationally it is as probable that many blacks cared less
about the triumph of communism internationally than making the American dream a reality.
As the CPUSA used African American, African American used it.
African American leaders remained conscious of the stigma of being labeled a communist
even during the heyday of communist membership. Therefore civil rights activists took ideological
and political precautions– that is, the majority of the battles for civil rights during
the 1930s and 1940s happened at the legal and academic level and not the public. It
was difficult for many anti-communist “witch hunters” to demonstrate that the black struggle
for civil rights was a communist plot. In fact, civil rights activists demonstrated
by their actions and words that the ideas of the founding fathers inspired their struggle
for civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King told an audience in the early 1950s, “We are
here in a general sense because first and foremost we are Americans citizens, and we
are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning.” In 1961, King
honored the university student non-violent demonstrators for sitting at segregated lunch
counters. They intended “to save the soul of America” King declared. The students
were “taking our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep
by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of
Independence.” For African American Civil Rights activists
to align themselves with a communist organization was risky. For many liberals (supporters of
the New Deal) and conservatives (southern supporters of states’ rights and segregation),
in the aftermath of WWII, when Russia’s expansionist behavior in Europe threatened
American interests, the anti-communist movement targeted communists within and outside the
US government. These politicians utilized laws that had been established prior to 1945
against the domestic threat of fascism. In one section of the Hatch Act (1939), for example,
the law allowed federal employers to deny jobs to members of organizations that advocated
the overthrow of government. The Smith Act (1940) demanded that noncitizens register
their addresses and fingerprints. Voorhis Act (1940) forced foreign organizations to
provide information of their activities to the federal government. These laws the anti-communist
movement hijacked to contain and destroy American communism post-1945. For African American
to ally with communism would have only made their ends – civil rights and de-segregation
– less attainable. Still this did not mean they could not use the ideological conflict
between the United States and the Soviet Union to gain social justice in their country.
The Americanism of the civil rights movement was lost on the advocates of States’ Rights.
In the election of 1948 the States’ Right Party would have majorities in four southern
states. They contended that the civil rights movement in the south was a communist conspiracy.
Yet by that point, it was too late. Academics and lawyers had delegitimized white supremacy
at the highest levels of government. As one Supreme Court Chief Justice noted in the aftermath
of the Brown case – which de-segregated public schools in the South – “the Court
was thoroughly conscious of the importance of the decision to be arrived at and of the
impact it would have on the nation.” The decision did not arrest law enforcement officials
from discriminating against blacks. J. Edgar Hoover continued to work hard to prove Dr.
King was an American traitor and communist. The FBI’s investigations revealed no evidence
of King’s political transgressions. Hoover did find King’s extramarital affairs. He
did not hesitant in smearing King’s image. By the 1950s, the White Citizens’ Council
too charged that integration of schools and public facilities was “nothing more and
nothing less” than “a strategic campaign of the world communist movement.” The White
Citizens’ Council represented only 20% of the American South. They took advantage of
the communist hysteria to convince the 55% that were on the fence about desegregation
– only 25% were in favor of integration – to oppose it.
The economic retaliation of the White Citizens’ Council hurt supporters of the civil rights
movement. African-Americans who registered to vote, who advocated school integration,
who were NAACP members (or had friends or relatives that were members), and or who preached
equality experienced the economic reprisals of the White Citizens’ Council. Banks denied
loans. Black merchants could not even purchase goods with cash from wholesale houses if sellers
suspected them of favoring civil rights. Insurance companies in the south canceled policies.
Employers dismissed employees. Landlords evicted renters and banks recalled mortgages. White
supremacists beat, terrorized and killed black citizens. King’s strategy of non-violence
however was dancing to the rhythm of the Cold War. The brutal tactics of the White Citizens
Council and the nonviolence of the Southern civil rights movement made clear that the
former was on the side of totalitarianism and the civil rights activists on the side
of democracy. These economic, political and physical attacks
had negative consequences for African-Americans in their immediate lives. The domestic communist
hysteria politically made the battle for the civil rights movement a difficult one. However
in the environment of the Cold War for a minority of US citizens (recall that the White Citizens
Council represented only 20% of the Southern population) to deny self-determination to
the majority was the equivalent of adding an ally to the enemy’s camp. More important
to our discussion it contradicted the promises of the Truman Doctrine.
The Yugoslavian presence in Greece increased tensions between the US and USSR because the
former was committing itself to defend democracy from totalitarian takeovers and prevent Soviet
expansion. While the US did not defend democracy everywhere indiscriminately, there were a
number of places where the US had to protect its credibility and practice the ideology
it preached. Greece was one place. Korea and Vietnam were other places where U.S. perceived
they had to defend democracy. Ascertaining the security of African-American civil rights
within the United States was also a requirement of the Truman Doctrine.


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