Words have meaning,
words have consequences
The Role of International Affairs in Reducing Racial Inequality in the USA in the Years 1877-1981
by Sean Gabb
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
The Modern state system came in to existence with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This made an absolute distinction between the internal and the external affairs of a country. An independent country was expected to pursue its interests in the world, as it saw them and as it could, and other countries were expected to take account of that alone and nothing more.
So long as this system continued with reasonable purity, America’s internal affairs were entirely its own business. For example, in 1823, President Monroe told the Spanish not to try re-conquering their lost South American colonies. He spoke of the Americas as a zone of independence from colonial rule, asserting, as a principle,
that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers…
There is a possible contradiction between preaching freedom abroad and maintaining black slavery at home. But this had no bearing on the acceptance of the ’Monroe Doctrine’ by the Great Powers, which all had colonial empires based on racial supremacy.
The year 1877 is significant in America history, as this was the year in which the Federal Government ceased to interfere in the affairs of its Southern States, and these States began to construct the system of white racial supremacy known as “Jim Crow.” It is also a useful starting point for charting the rise of America to world supremacy. In the years before 1914, the Americans regarded opposition to European colonial rule as a prime foreign policy objective. They resented British/Indian control of the far East and they were strongly opposed to any division of China between the European colonial powers. They preached an ’Open Door Policy’ for China in which none of the white powers would have political control.
Again, this concern for the independence and self-determination of others was inconsistent with their own internal policies. As put by Paul Gilroy in the introduction of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, "the American civil war did not end in 1865." Until the 1960s and even later blacks remained systematically at a legal and social and economic disadvantage in America. In most of the Southern States, blacks were not allowed to vote or to sit on juries, public and most private services were racially segregated, racial intermarriage was made illegal.
But this was an age of omnipresent racial feeling and no-one accused the Americans of open hypocrisy. The contradiction between internal and foreign policy only became a potential embarrassment after America’s entry to the first world war in 1917. President Wilson called for war so that the ‘world be made safe for democracy.’ He then published his Fourteen Point manifesto for a just and lasting peace. His preamble states that the War is to ensure
…that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.
Another of his ideas was the League of Nations. Its Covenant is not an anti-colonial document. But Article 23(b) does require is Members to
undertake to secure just treatment of the native inhabitants of territories under their control.
In the end America did not sign the treaty of Versailles and did not join the League of Nations. American domestic affairs remained insulated from foreign affairs. Wilson himself did much to keep them so. The early twentieth century saw a grown of racial consciousness among American blacks, and a number of charismatic leaders emerged to press the case for black equality. These included intellectual activist W. E. B. Du Bois, entrepreneur C. J. Walker, National Equal Rights League founder William Monroe Trotter, and activist Wells-Barnett, and Marcus Garvey, founder of The Universal Negro Improvement Association. These men wanted to attend and address the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Wilson ensured that they were kept out.
By the 1930s, we see a growing realisation of the conflict between foreign and docmestic policy. Look, for example, at chapter 26 of Harper Lee’s classic novel To kill a mockingbird. It is the 1930s and a teacher in the protagonists’ school denounces Nazi mistreatment of the Jews in Germany. She seems completely unaware that the Nuremburg decrees may have compared rather well with the ‘Jim Crow’ system in which she lived.
The Second World War was the time when this divergence between internal and external policy became an open embarrassment. The American government had denounced the mistreatment of the Jews in Germany and had also denounced the Japanese atrocities in China after the Manchurian crisis (1931). Together with Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt published the Atlantic Charter in 1941. This is a ringing endorsement of universal human rights. In Article 6, they hoped
to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.
At the end of the War, the Americans cooperated in setting up the Nuremburg tribunal which tried the surviving Nazi leaders for crimes against humanity. At the same time Jim Crow continued unchallenged in the southern states. Indeed, the American armed forces were segregated with separate black and white units.
Embarrassment headed towards crisis with the beginning of the cold war. The Soviet Union preached an end to colonial rule all over the world and absolute racial equality. It insisted in having much of this written into the founding documents of the United Nations. Bearing in mind how it treated its own national minorities, the Soviet Union was not entirely honest in this advocacy. But this was unimportant. The Soviet Union was a police state which allowed no opposition, and foreign communists could be trusted to help cover up its crimes.
What matters about the Cold war for America is that its race relations became a serious embarrassment to its foreign policy. In order to oppose Communism the Americans had to preach their own versions of human rights which included all the usual liberal freedoms – i.e. freedom of speech, freedom of association, equality before the law, and so forth. It also needed the cooperation of an increasing number of non-white post-colonial governments. At every opportunity the Soviets tried to embarrass the Americans by drawing attention to their internal race relations.
Take, for example, the memorandum written in June 1963 by Thomas Hughes, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research at the State Department. He summarises some of the main themes of Soviet broadcasts to the Third World: Capitalism provides a natural environment for racism, which will never end so long as the American system needs cheap labour; the federal government’s policy of limited intervention in Southern conflicts is tantamount to support of Southern racism; the United States cannot claim to be the leader of the free world while hypocritically refusing to support civil rights within its own borders.
Hughes adds that, most politically damaging, Soviet broadcasters were arguing that American domestic policy toward its black citizens was ‘indicative of its policy toward peoples of color throughout the world.’ Emerging African, Asian, and South American nations, in other words, should not count on Americans to support their independence.
The journalist Walter Lippmann had noted in 1957 that
the work of the American propagandist is not at present a happy one….[Segregation] mocks us and haunts us whenever we become eloquent and indignant in the United Nations…The caste system in this country, particularly when as in Little Rock it is maintained by troops, is an enormous, indeed an almost insuperable, obstacle to our leadership in the cause of freedom and human equality.
We can write the history of the American civil rights movement purely in terms of domestic politics. We can for example write about the Brown decision and ’Massive Resistance’ and the crisis in Little Rock. Of course this is entirely legitimate. The struggle for racial equality has deep roots in American history and may well have triumphed even had there been no other countries in the world. However it does seem reasonable to see an international dimension in the rapid progress of racial equality after the 1940s.
The Federal government was keen to enforce the Brown judgment, partly because it was a command from one of the branches of the federal government. It may also be the case that the federal power structure was dominated by men who disliked the existing status quo in the South, but the decline and fall of the ‘Jim Crow’ system in the South was undeniably useful for Americas’ fighting of the Cold War.
According to Thomas Borstelmann, American officials often sought
to try to manage and control the efforts of racial reformers at home and abroad…They hoped effectively to contain racial polarization and build the largest possible multiracial, anti-Communist coalition under American leadership.
By the 1970s the Soviets could still speak about American racism, but they could no longer cause serious embarrassment when the Americans reached out to non-white elites in the third world. Indeed, by the 1980s, America was far more embarrassed in Cold War terms by its support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, than by its internal policies. And because South Africa was of such strategic importance in the Cold War, even some anti-communist American blacks were willing to look the other way. See, for example, the black Conservative Max Yergin. In 1953, he wrote:
[T]he South African government deserved the world’s understanding, rather than scorn, for its policy of apartheid.
As said, it may be that the history of the decline and fall of racial inequality in America can be written from a purely internal point of view. Certainly from the period before the 1920s, America existed in a completely ‘Westphalia’ system. It could behave as it pleased at home and preach as it pleased in the world at large. But from the 1920s, and especially from the 1940s, the old order of foreign relations began to break down, and a country’s internal affairs became relevant to its foreign policy. Bearing in mind what has been said above, it is a valid hypothesis to say that the peculiar state of American international relations after the Second World War had some bearing on its internal policies regarding racial equality.
 From President Monroe’s seventh annual message to Congress, 2nd December 1823 – available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/monroe.asp
 Secretary of State John Hay and the Open Door in China, 1899-1900, US Department of State, Office of the Historian – available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/hay-and-china
 As found in: X. Malcolm, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, pp.3, Penguin Group, 1965
 Making the World “Safe for Democracy”: Woodrow Wilson Asks for War, available at: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4943/
 President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, speech, the 8th January 1918 – available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp
 The Covenant of the League of Nations – available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp
 ‘African Americans—The league of nations and the pan-african congress,’ Encyclopedia of the New American Nation – available at: http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/A-D/African-Americans-The-league-of-nations-and-the-pan-african-congress.html#ixzz43XKwobls
 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Arrow books ltd, 1989 , Chapter 26.
 The Atlantic Charter, the 14th August 1941 – available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/atlantic.asp
 State Department Memorandum, Thomas L. Hughes to the Secretary of State, 14th June 1963 – reproduced in full at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/07/09/civil_rights_coverage_how_the_soviets_used_evidence_of_racial_strife_against.html
 Walter Lippmann, ‘Today and Tomorrow: The Grace of Humility’, 24 September 1957, Washington Post: A15
 Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: 2-8, quotation on page 2.
 Quoted, Rebecca Davis, ‘Selling apartheid: new book lays bare South Africa’s propaganda war,’ The Guardian, 15th September 2015.
Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. Under the name Richard Blake, he has written eight historical novels for Hodder & Stoughton. These have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. They have been praised by both The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Star. He has produced three further historical novels for Endeavour Press, and has written two horror novels for Caffeine Nights. Under his own name, he has written four novels. His other books are mainly about culture and politics. He also teaches, mostly at university level, though sometimes in schools and sixth form colleges. His first degree was in History. His PhD is in English History. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.
Tel: 07956 472 199
Postal Address: Suite 35, 2 Lansdowne Row, London W1J 6HL, England
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