From Colonial Liberation to Cold War Liberalism: Walter White, the NAACP, and Foreign Affairs, 1941-1955

Kenneth R Janken. Ethnic & Racial Studies. Volume 21, Issue 6. November 1998.

In April 1942, less than a year after the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter by Britain and the United States, which seemingly committed both to a post-war world without colonial domination, Walter White, the Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], dashed off a confidential letter to leading black Americans concerning the plan he was brewing to support Indian independence. White informed his confidantes, who included W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, and journalists and college presidents, that as part of his plan he had met with Lord Halifax, Britain’s ambassador to the United States and former colonial governor of India. Much to Lord Halifax’s bemusement, White told him that he had asked President Roosevelt to declare his support for Indian independence; link his concern for people of colour in Asia with a concern for Afro-America; appoint a distinguished commission, including a prominent and phenotypical African American, to travel to India to reassure Indians of American support for their cause. He then asked his correspondents for suggestions for action that he could place before Roosevelt and for their permission to be nominated to his proposed commission. White indicated that he had sufficient influence with the President to persuade him to act, and most of his correspondents believed this. But W. E. B. Du Bois’s terse reply indicated that he doubted both the extent of White’s influence and the wisdom of a strategy that placed a premium on lobbying America’s leaders: ‘Any duty which the President of the United States may lay upon me, I will be glad to perform to the best of my ability’.

Behind White’s brief exchange with Du Bois are several questions of import that the leadership of the most prominent black organization faced in the war, post-war and Cold-War years: On what basis should the NAACP build solidarity with anti-colonial movements? By what means should it try to influence the foreign policy of the United States government? How should it respond to the post-war anti-communist crusade?

During and immediately alter the war, White and the NAACP made overtures towards an international solidarity movement that pressured the United States and European powers to commit themselves to a world without colonies or neo-colonies. He located African-America in a global context. Furthermore, he argued that problems of discrimination, disfranchisement and violence would not be eliminated in the USA so long as the exploitation of the darker races in the colonies by Europe and America continued.

But by 1951 White had abandoned that solidarity, cut ties with the African-American left, and embraced a liberal anti-Communism that supported USA foreign policy — all in exchange for an evanescent promise of influence in the formulation of domestic race relations policy. True, the federal government made steps towards desegregation as early as 1947, when the President’s Civil Rights Commission (the establishment of which was suggested by White) issued, with Truman’s approval, To Secure These Rights. But the government still viewed with suspicion calls for full equality. Activists for racial equality, and even sympathizers, were often branded subversive. White supremacy was a salient feature of the anti-communist crusade (Egerton 1995, pp. 448-60). White severed the NAACP’s ties with the international solidarity movement and the black American left, partly because he overestimated his own influence and lobbying power; furthermore, reliance on a strategy of lobbying made him and the association vulnerable to ultimatums by the government. This article will examine the foreign policy choices made by Walter White and the NAACP between 1941 and 1955, the year of his death and, coincidentally, the Bandung Conference. It will also highlight the Cold War pressures on black America that helped push White and the association firmly into the camp of anti-communist liberalism.

In the more than three decades that he was associated with the NAACP, Walter White left fingerprints everywhere on the struggle for black equality. His incognito investigations of racial pogroms in the years during and following World War I were vital to the campaign against lynching, providing inside information that helped to steer public opinion against this barbarous act. (With blond hair, blue eyes, and fair features, White could ‘pass’ for white.) In the association’s national efforts White’s work consisted largely of public speaking, fund-raising and cultivating contacts among white journalists and government officials. He had effective access to President Roosevelt, especially through Eleanor Roosevelt, who later joined the NAACP board of directors; established alliances with elected officials at all levels of government, many of whom served on the board of directors, too; and developed relationships with Dean Acheson and others in the foreign policy community.

Walter White’s strategic conception of African Americans’ relationship to the international situation was imbued with the spirit of a political in-fighter; indeed, he spent most of his career as a race leader perfecting a strategy based on lobbying political and social élites. It was a plan that well fitted the period of extreme black political powerlessness. James Weldon Johnson, White’s mentor and predecessor as executive secretary, defined the methods of work and the political choices then available to the NAACP when in 1921 and 1922 the association launched its first major foray into national politics with its campaign for the Dyer anti-lynching bill. The NAACP would concentrate its efforts on persuading those in the inner circle of power: ‘The method is still tact and diplomacy and firm but friendly pressure. Threats will at this time do no particular good and at no other times unless we are fully determined to carry them out’ (Levy 1982, p. 97).

White, who joined the association national staff as assistant secretary in 1918, used his strong organizational skills and ability to function comfortably with élites to develop Johnson’s style of work. He spent a great deal of time with Johnson in Washington, strategizing and lobbying for the Dyer bill. In 1930, the year he replaced the retiring Johnson as executive secretary, White led a successful coalition with organized labour to block the nomination of John Parker to the Supreme Court on account of his anti-black and anti-labour positions. He manipulated Northern senators’ perception of self-interest, threatening them with black voter backlash should they vote for Parker; he campaigned successfully in the 1932 elections to unseat several senators who paid no heed.

The NAACP increased its influence in Congress and the White House, as it relentlessly pursued the passage of a federal anti-lynching law between 1934 and 1940. Ignoring various mandates from the association’s annual meetings to emphasize labour organizing and direct action, White instead courted and cajoled congressmen as well as President and Mrs Roosevelt to get them to back anti-lynching legislation, The NAACP oversaw the drafting of the various bills, and White organized the Senate hearings and elaborate pressure campaigns on elected officials; only a filibuster by Southern congressmen, who did not have to worry about the black vote, prevented passage of the bills. Despite the legislative defeat, White’s and the association’s prestige was never higher.

White’s Quickening Internationalism

When war broke out and it became apparent that the international dimensions of race demanded more active and consistent attention, White tried to transfer his considerable expertise to the world stage. It was an arena in which he was seriously inexperienced. In fact, before World War II the NAACP had exhibited only limited interest in this area, and whatever actions it took generally were a result of individual initiative. The Pan-African Congress movement that blossomed in the anglo-phone parts of the diaspora in the decade after World War I was largely Du Bois’s creation. While the association was the movement’s nominal patron in the United States, Du Bois in fact acted independently and without its oversight. Few in the NAACP grasped the relationship of African Americans to people of colour around the world.

But the drift towards world war inexorably drew the NAACP back into the international arena, as White instinctively sensed the opportunities for race advancement presented by the conflict. Between 1942 and 1944, under the influence of official wartime anti-imperialist rhetoric and the activities of Third World, and especially Indian, nationalists, White’s world-view broadened and his anti-colonial sentiments became more pronounced. He envisioned Roosevelt calling a meeting of leaders of Asian nations and liberation movements that would explicitly guarantee the principle of self-determination for that continent and the Pacific. He thought that the President needed to make a statement that ‘the era of white domination of coloured peoples is ended and that the peoples of these countries can be assured that there will be no post-war economic or other penetration’.

But where White could discuss vital domestic race issues with the President, the White House staff stonewalled the NAACP leader’s attempts to meet with Roosevelt about foreign affairs. White even asked Mrs Roosevelt for assistance — something he had done with success in the past — but she either refused to help or could not convince her husband to meet with White. Despite the enthusiasm of some in the administration, like Sumner Welles and Henry Wallace, Roosevelt decided that support for decolonization was not politically feasible. Although he personally was opposed to imperialism, as a practical matter Roosevelt felt that he could not interfere in something that was ‘strictly speaking, none of my business’.

When the President remained silent on the arrest by the British of Gandhi, Nehru, and other Indian nationalist leaders in August 1942, White cancelled plans to broadcast a message to the Japanese people at the request of the Office of War Information. His short speech was to have emphasized the growing numbers in America who were working to eradicate racism and turn the war into a genuine war against colonialism; in changing his mind, he said that the ‘arrests leave me with nothing convincing to say’. He then wired Roosevelt, demanding that he speak out against the arrests: ‘One billion brown and yellow peoples in the Pacific will without question consider ruthless treatment of Indian leaders and people typical of what white peoples will do to colored peoples if United Nations win’.

White also recognized a large section of public opinion that opposed decolonization. Although he saw some hope in the pronouncements of Henry Wallace, who talked of the war as one of a free world against a slave world, White knew that Wallace and the NAACP were in the minority. In a memorandum for his records, White cited editorial opinion from across the nation stating that this was in fact a war for the spoils of empire. He then adumbrated a line of action:

    We of the NAACP have an enormous task to perform. It is that    of awakening the world to the fact that military victory    over Germany and Japan which brings in its wake a racial    hysteria of this sort will, as surely as the sun rises,    prepare the ground for World War III, which will come as    soon as we have recovered from this conflict.

The only way to avoid such a racial conflagration was to support decolonization and racial equality.

Some of White’s most penetrating observations appeared in A Rising Wind, an account of his early 1944 European and North African war theatres tour, published in early 1945, shortly after he had left for the Pacific theatre, which he visited from December 1944 to April 1945. A Rising Wind was primarily devoted to publicizing the black American soldier and acknowledging both his heroism in the face of such bleak circumstances and the evidence of a growing democratic spirit on the part of white American soldiers who fought alongside black troops.

But with his keen eye for detail and his full enjoyment of playing the role of the ‘voluntary Negro’, Walter White also lampooned the colonial mentality. At a dinner party in London, he stopped his hosts’ hypocritical denunciation of American race relations by discussing his planned visit to India. He wanted to meet Lord Wavell, he stated, but there would be difficulties should the two try to dine at a certain exclusive club in Calcutta. When the other dinner guests asked what could possibly stand in the way of two men dining at the unnamed club, White told them that the establishment ‘boasts that no person of colored blood has ever crossed its threshold. And I am a Negro’. As he then related, ‘There was no further discussion that evening of the race question’ (White 1945, p. 31).

In the closing pages of A Rising Wind, White informed his readers of one of the conflagration’s principal ramifications.

    World War II has given to the Negro a sense of kinship with    other colored — and also oppressed — peoples of    the world. Where he has not thought through or informed    himself on the racial angles of colonial policy and    master-race theories, he senses that the struggle of the    Negro in the United States is part and parcel of tile    struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India,    China, Burma, Africa, the Philippines, Malaya, the West    Indies, and South America (White 1945, p. 144).

On his return in April 1945 from four months in the Pacific, White blistered British, Dutch and French plans to restore their empires in Asia. The government and people of the United States must wake up to the fact, he said, that a re-establishment of the old order ‘inevitably will breed another war’.

White’s ‘Quiet Lobbying’: Strengths and Limitations

After a quick stop in New York to recover from the punishing regimen of his Pacific tour, White prepared for the April 1945 founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. His job — effectively to lead the NAACP’s delegation of himself, Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune in representing the interests of African Americans in the founding of the post-war order — was made difficult by disunity among the three delegates. Du Bois, because of his conversance with the international struggle for racial equality, his grasp of the impact of world affairs on black America, and his history of activism in the cause of world peace, was initially chosen to lead the NAACP’s efforts in San Francisco. In preparation for this meeting, he developed position papers on the post-war world for the association’s board of directors, organized the Harlem Colonial Conference, which brought together leaders of liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and solicited mandates from African-American organizations to be represented in San Francisco by the NAACP.

Du Bois, while encouraged by evidence of the late President Roosevelt’s anti-imperialist convictions, had little faith in the direction of American foreign policy. He felt it of little value to spend a lot of time lobbying the American delegates, though he personally presented to them the NAACP’s positions. In contrast to White, who exuded optimism in A Rising Wind in America’s openness (with some lobbying, of course) to push for decolonization after the war, Du Bois was chary of the country’s international goals. He welcomed victory over Germany, Italy and Japan, but he was highly suspicious that the United States would try to supplant the old colonial empires, especially in the Pacific. His plan was to create public opinion for decolonization by organizing the collective voice of those who were excluded from or marginalized in the conference deliberations; his principal exertions were directed towards establishing contacts with grassroots black organizations and representatives of colonial independence movements and the Soviet Union.

Du Bois’s preparations for the San Francisco conference complemented the more extensive and protracted efforts to bring Africa before the American public and government by the Council on African Affairs [CAA]. Founded as a clearing house in 1937 by Paul Robeson and Max Yergan, the CAA was by 1945 the most influential pro-Africa lobby in the United States, and it had, in Hollis Lynch’s words, ‘a definite stamp of ideological radicalism’ (Lynch 1978, p. 22). It combined research — its monthly newsletter New Africa was the best American source of information about the continent — with public mass meetings, conferences, and material aid drives for African labour and nationalist organizations, and it maintained ties with State Department and White House officials.

The sharp edge honed simultaneously by Du Bois and the CAA was blunted by Walter White when he returned from the Pacific war theatre and resumed command of the NAACP’s preparations for the San Francisco conference. In the process he created obstacles that made it increasingly difficult for others who differed from White to contribute to the association’s efforts. First, White appropriated many of Du Bois’s ideas and, without attribution, claimed sole credit for them. Second, in White’s estimate, spending most of each work day in the company of the other consultants and delegates on the conference floor was valuable and difficult work. Neither Du Bois nor Bethune was capable of conducting this work, he thought; when he had to leave San Francisco for a few days, he sent a telegram to Roy Wilkins urging him to come and take his place ‘because emergencies may arise.… Du Bois and Bethune haven’t stamina to stand pounding job requires’. Rather than an issue of fortitude, however, it appears as if Du Bois at least had a different calculation of the value of politicking.

White’s ‘quiet lobbying’ of fellow consultants — from the American Bar Association and Chamber of Commerce on the right to the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO] on the left — showed significant influence, he thought. ‘Little by little,’ he relayed to the NAACP leadership, ‘a sense of unity developed, on the basis of friendly relations formed by meeting day after day, some staying in the same hotels.…’ He implied that he brought the consultants round to his view on decolonization, a process that culminated in a private meeting between White and Secretary of State Stettinius, the head of the USA delegation. Stettinius wanted to know White’s opinion of the delegation’s performance; White responded, ‘Do you want the truth, or do you want to hear something pleasant?’ He told Stettinius, to no apparent effect, that the United States’ equivocation on the issue of independence for colonies and dependent areas was damaging America’s stature in the world; at a meeting a few days later with President Truman, White said the same thing, with similar results.

To be fair, circulating among the élite was Walter White’s great strength, as was his ability to speak to white America. His interpreting the policies and actions of the NAACP to both groups had been largely effective in the past and responsible for the association’s growth of prestige. White’s approach had worked splendidly in the anti-lynching crusade of the 1930s to shift the public and a majority in Congress against lynching. On another front — culture — White in the 1940s wrought important concessions from Hollywood studio heads regarding the portrayal of blacks in films. But where these exercises in quiet lobbying did in fact result in accumulation of influence, White was apt to exaggerate their importance and claim that they altered the strategic balance of power.

White overestimated what any progressive critic of America’s nascent post-war world policy could accomplish. Before the deliberations in San Francisco had ended, Rayford Logan had already concluded that the deck had been heavily stacked against African Americans and dependent peoples around the world, as had Du Bois; the CAA likewise understood that African Americans had been locked out of the decision-making process. Walter White believed that he could, through his contacts with top government officials, change American policy on issues of human rights and freedom for people of colour throughout the world. He very nearly cancelled his participation in the NAACP’s 1945 membership drive (during which he was to embark on an extensive speaking tour) because in his estimation the ‘future of [the] Negro was at stake’ in San Francisco and ‘[I] cannot possibly leave until those issues [are] settled’. It took a firm message from Wilkins to keep White focused on things like increasing the membership, over which he had some control.

Sharp as he was in tracking and anticipating politicians’ moves, White was simply unable to understand when it came to international issues and their effect on domestic politics. Certainly Du Bois thought so; American diplomats at the San Francisco conference ‘put over certain decisions on Walter by reason of his unfamiliarity with the broader implications’. Rayford Logan believed that several of White’s questionable strategic and tactical decisions flowed directly from this same unfamiliarity and from an inflated sense of his own political influence.

White’s mistaken belief (bordering at times on self-deception) in the extent of his personal influence and his difficulty in accurately assessing the balance of forces on world issues had serious consequences for the NAACP’s foreign policy in the years following the San Francisco conference. He had not in the past held his tongue — it was not uncommon for him to criticize President Roosevelt for temporizing on anti-lynching legislation — but now his propinquity to the sites of power increasingly came at a price. In the decade after the founding of the United Nations, White muted his criticism of American policy on race and decolonization. Simultaneously, and in order to maintain relations with government officials, he amplified his attacks on the black left, which campaigned to put violations of the rights of African Americans and dependent peoples before an international audience.

Between August 1946 and September 1948, when he was dismissed from the association, Du Bois crusaded to bring a petition before either the United Nations General Assembly or its Commission on Human Rights. White agreed and secured the NAACP Committee on Administration’s approval, and by the beginning of 1947 Du Bois and his collaborators had completed the first draft of An Appeal to the World. A collection of meticulously documented and reasoned essays, at ninety-five pages, the petition was a compact statement of the historical oppression and continued exclusion and disfranchisement of people of African descent from American life.

Bringing the petition before the UN proved exasperating and ultimately impossible. One official of the Commission on Human Rights accepted a draft of the petition but would promise only to try and place it on the list of petitions received and would let Du Bois know if he could approach the Commission directly. (He could not.) He subsequently told Du Bois that the Commission had ‘no power to take action regarding any complaints concerning human rights’. Another official told Du Bois that the Commission would receive the petition, but only confidentially — no publicity allowed. (An energetic Du Bois succeeded in arranging a public ceremony when the Commission finally did accept the appeal.) When Du Bois appealed to Warren Austin, head of the US delegation to the UN, Austin told Du Bois that he would be glad to receive a copy of the petition, but that he was unable to bring it before the General Assembly because the deadline had been missed. Even entreaties by both Du Bois and White to Mrs Roosevelt, who was a delegate to the UN, were of no avail.

Undeterred, Du Bois charged ahead and tried to interest other countries in presenting the petition before the General Assembly. (India and Liberia indicated they would assist, but the United States blocked its consideration.) He gave up appealing to the American government. Walter White, on the other hand, still advocated cooperation with the government, almost at any cost, and this difference in approach led to heated controversy in 1947 and 1948.

Eleanor Roosevelt approached White for a memorandum to assist her in drafting the Covenant on Human Rights. Assuming his recommendations would carry weight with the American delegation to the UN, White thought that what Mrs Roosevelt had requested ‘[might] be one of the most important documents which the Association has ever prepared’, and he asked Du Bois to draft it. Unimpressed by her request, Du Bois’s reply to White was characteristically curt: ‘I have no suggestions for Mrs Roosevelt’. Incensed, White demanded that Du Bois deliver to him a specific statement on what the NAACP should recommend to Mrs Roosevelt.

Du Bois once again balked, though he did enlarge on his refusal. Grandiose statements of the kind that Mrs Roosevelt requested already existed in multiples. What was needed was not more of the same but their application when human rights are violated; in this regard, the Commission on Human Rights failed miserably, and the American government, including Mrs Roosevelt, had been of no help. ‘The fact is,’ Du Bois charged, ‘that the United States Department of State is determined that American Negroes shall have no chance to state their grievances before the world. Mrs Roosevelt is following orders.’ If she had sincerely wanted the opinion of the NAACP, she would have asked for it months before; instead, she and the American delegation had in fact discouraged association participation. What Du Bois intuited, but White refused to believe, was that Mrs Roosevelt’s request was designed in part to efface the Appeal to the World.

White was not used to such insubordination, and he forced the issue again the following year, as he prepared to attend the Paris sessions of the General Assembly as a consultant. Again Du Bois demurred, declaring that nothing productive would result from submitting his ideas to the American delegation. His refusal to participate in what he believed to be a charade was a factor in his dismissal from the association; he accused White of demanding total obedience, something Du Bois could never give (Du Bois 1968, p. 336).

To this charge White pleaded guilty. During a break in the UN deliberations in Paris, he penned a refreshingly candid letter to Poppy Cannon, whom he would marry two years later, confessing the extent to which he thought of the NAACP in proprietary terms and saw himself as single-handedly carrying on the struggle of the Negro race:

    They are right in charging that I dominate the Association.    But if I hadn’t done so there wouldn’t be any NAACP. I kept    it alive during the terrible days of the depression when    nearly everybody else was ready to surrender to despair. I    have built it up (only to you would I say this) to its    present power ….     And all this [controversy] descends on me here where I am    waging almost a one-man battle against fear and cowardice    and national opportunism to get something done about human    rights and colonies.

White operated in the best tradition of diplomacy and played to his strength as an interracial emissary. Aboard the SS America bound for Le Havre, the American delegation met twice daily with its advisers, at eleven o’clock in the morning and two in the afternoon, to discuss such issues as atomic energy, human rights and Palestine. The atmosphere was lightened by movies and cocktail parties hosted by various delegates. Eleanor Roosevelt was the star guest at the party White gave in his cabin to show off his new dictaphone — which, unfortunately, did not work. Frank discussion over highballs was the order of the day. ‘I may be wrong,’ White wrote to headquarters, ‘but I believe that the most effective job I can do on this trip is the one now being done under the relaxed conditions aboard ship.’

He fought against powerful odds. The American government, waging the Cold War. automatically opposed whatever the socialist bloc championed. The Soviet Union supported an accord on human rights that enumerated social and economic rights as well as political ones, and it encouraged emerging African nations in their efforts to break free of the Western empires. Thus, the United States vigorously opposed any binding statement of human rights that went beyond formal political rights: at the same time, needing to retain the support of Britain and France, it equivocated its opposition to colonies.

Furthermore, because President Truman wanted to attract the Italian-American vote, the United States stood ready to support Italy’s quest to regain its former colonies of Libya and Eritrea in the guise of trusteeship. White was regularly apprised of the direction of American foreign policy. Rayford Logan informed him in gloomy detail of the prospects for influencing the diplomatic establishment. Though White took it all in — and angered Logan in the process by using his ideas in his syndicated column without any attribution — he continued in his quixotic belief that he alone would be able to make an impact on foreign policy.

During informal gatherings and formal meetings, aboard ship and in Paris, White raised issues of central concern to African Americans in the post-war era: positive action on an expansive definition of human rights and the disposition of the colonies in Africa. He argued vigorously that the United States take the moral high ground. At a meeting of the delegation’s advisers, White criticized the dominant official thinking:

    I took the floor to ask why we always let Russia take moral    leadership; why we couldn’t demonstrate for a change that    the democracies could really fight for freedom instead of    letting our enemies get the jump on us in proving that there    is some value in our way of life.

The effect was ‘electric’, he told Poppy Cannon, and his fellow consultants pledged support for a strong statement to the American delegation urging a ‘more courageous course’ on the issue of colonies.

During the course of his politicking (and far later than Du Bois or Rayford Logan, Du Bois’s successor at the NAACP for foreign affairs) White came to understand that while he might muster the support of his fellow consultants, he stood no chance of changing official American policy. While still aboard the SS America, White had written to the NAACP that he felt it was within his power to shepherd through the UN an effective plan for decolonization. ‘The odds against our point of view prevailing are considerable but I believe we have a fighting chance.’ Having been on the job in Paris for several weeks, however, he reported home that ‘the chief value, as I now see it, of our work here is in putting pressure on various nations, particularly our own, and in getting maximum publicity for our objectives which we seek’.

Cold-War Pressures Cause White to Give Way

American officials tried to silence White, alleging that a memorandum on colonial issues which he had circulated among his fellow consultants and representatives of some non-governmental organizations who also attended the General Assembly session was based on information provided in off-the-record briefings. The memo had discussed probable American positions and criticized the government’s apparent support of parcelling out Italy’s former colonies among Italy, Britain and Ethiopia. Chester Williams, a high-ranking member of the delegation attacked White for ‘serious infringements of confidence’, confiscated the outstanding copies of the memorandum, pressured two consultants, who had until then agreed with White, to change their minds, and threatened to terminate White’s and the other advisers’ access to off-the-record meetings.

White denied that he had breached any confidence and decried Williams’s heavy-handedness. Information that America was veering away from placing Libya and Eritrea under UN supervision and on the road to independence and leaning towards, as White put it in a letter to Mrs Roosevelt, ‘dividing [them] as war booty’ had been widely available since September, before the General Assembly convened. Rayford Logan had called this to White’s attention, and the association had taken the shift into account as it planned its activities in Paris. Furthermore, White would have preferred to present his views to the American delegation in person, but the delegation would not carve out the time, thus making necessary the memo.

He asked Mrs Roosevelt for her understanding, if not for her help:

    I don’t want you to do anything at all about the enclosed    exchange of correspondence between Chet Williams and myself,    but I do want you to have the facts. I would not want    anyone, and especially yourself, to believe for a moment    that I had violated a confidence.

Williams continued to isolate White among the consultants and the NGO representatives. When he had sufficiently cowed them, he offered a carrot to White. He did what he had to do, he wrote to White; White’s memo had ‘produced difficulties for me … I had to take certain actions …’. Williams hoped that the steps he took against White would ‘not affect our personal friendship in the slightest …. I think this can close the matter’.

The two had reached an understanding: White would cease public criticism of American foreign policy, thus allowing him to continue to attend the off-the-record briefings. He must have thought that his concessions were part of a quid pro quo. The previous year, in June 1947, had he not arranged for President Truman to address the monster rally at the Lincoln Memorial that closed the NAACP annual convention? An unprecedented event, Truman’s speech called for federal, state and individual action against lynching, disfranchisement and inequality in education and employment. Had he not also been invited to meet with America’s corporate and political élite to plan the Freedom Train, which transported the United States’ founding documents around the country for public display? Access to the nation’s upper echelons, White reasoned, was crucial to the association’s success because it symbolized the organization’s legitimacy and acceptance (White 1948, pp. 347-52). He was right, of course, but he mistook symbol for substance. Gone were the reasonably politically fluid days when White could lambaste government decisions and still enjoy access to government’s upper echelons. The foreign and domestic Cold War made White’s emphasis on lobbying obsolete because government officials were demanding conformity as the price of access.

Du Bois believed that the NAACP had been ‘loaded on the Truman bandwagon’ and had been tied to ‘the reactionary, warmongering colonial imperialism of the present administration’. The centrepiece of Truman’s policy vis à vis the developing world was the Point Four foreign policy initiative. Unveiled during his first inaugural address and designed to win the loyalty of the world’s non-white population, Point Four — Truman called it a ‘bold new program’ — held out the promise of economic development as a way of stopping the advance of leftist revolutionary movements. It was not to be a new Marshall Plan of massive government aid. Rather, it was to share technical knowledge to help the Third World’s transition to modernity and ease the way for private American investment; in large parts of Africa and Asia, which were still under colonial rule, oversight would remain in the hands of the imperial powers, while the indigenous people would have limited participation at best (Hunt 1987, pp. 159-61; Borstleman 1993, pp. 109-11).

The African-American left, especially the Council on African Affairs led by Paul Robeson, denounced Point Four as double talk, a way in which the United States could continue to prop up colonialism while simultaneously penetrating previously restricted markets in Africa and Asia. But Walter White was an enthusiastic supporter, and he endorsed the crusade to stop international Communism. His efforts to goad Truman into providing famine assistance to India in 1949 reveals how sincerely he embraced anti-Communism as a core value for the NAACP’s foreign policy. White wrote to the President that America needed to alleviate India’s hunger because it was creating conditions for Communism to flourish. Should the government allow Nehru to fail, nothing in the region could prevent communists from taking over all of Asia. ‘The United States will then be even more imperiled.’ His considerable lobbying for food and other economic assistance for India, which ended only when Congress authorized $190 million in loans in June 1951, were uniformly laced with anti-Communism. The State Department, convinced of White’s bona fides, asked him to tour the subcontinent for three months to publicize the importance of India in America’s foreign policy and support anti-Communism in that country.

From Internationalist to Cold Warrior

A major component for White of fighting Communism was stifling criticism of American race relations in international arenas. This is most clearly seen in his attempts to squelch the We Charge Genocide petition written by the Civil Rights Congress for presentation to the UN in 1951. Scrupulously researched and documented (much of the information was culled, as Roy Wilkins noted, from NAACP records), We Charge Genocide reasoned that the discrimination to which African Americans were subjected, in part officially sanctioned, was so severe and pervasive as to constitute genocide under the terms of the Geneva Convention; among the issues that the petition raised were mob violence, assassination of race leaders, denial of the right to vote, extensive material deprivation and mental harm.

The State Department called upon prominent African Americans to denounce the petition as so much communist propaganda. Rayford Logan, representing the NAACP at the Paris UN sessions, refused to do so. Although he felt that the association better represented the opinions of African Americans than did the Civil Rights Congress, he believed that the arguments in We Charge Genocide were compelling and deserved to be aired; the United States could disprove the indictment by launching thorough investigations of the accusations. Channing Tobias and Edith Sampson, prominent African Americans on the USA delegation, felt that it was unfair of the State Department to demand that blacks prove their loyalty by participating in a ritual repudiation of the petition, though each eventually agreed to make a statement ‘as an American, rather than as a Negro’.

In 1948 Walter White had felt frustrated that the United States had sacrificed an airing of the violation of African Americans’ rights to its jockeying for position against the Soviet Union; three years later he agreed unhesitatingly to denounce the petition, even though this caused some discomfort within the association. Hubert Delany, a New York judge and board member of the NAACP, took exception to a denunciation of the petition. The charges were levelled at the United States government, and it, not the NAACP, ought to answer to it. By defending the government the NAACP was becoming a ‘pawn in the hands of the United States in attempting to justify the brutalities outlined in “We Charge Genocide” …’. White disagreed: the NAACP ought to cooperate with the State Department and not worry about who else joined in the attack.

White’s statement evaded the issues raised by We Charge Genocide, arguing that it ‘purposely paints only the gloomiest picture of American democracy and the race question’. Yes, African-American soldiers are subjected to gross injustices in the military, but these are being corrected. True, African Americans are disfranchised in the South, but the Supreme Court has outlawed grandfather clauses and white primaries. White side-stepped the plethora of instances of racial violence, stating simply that ‘measurable gains have been made in reducing racial bigotry’. Abuses that remained were the unfinished business of a democracy. In any event, such a petition would never have been tolerated by an ‘authoritarian government’, and White taunted the sponsor of We Charge Genocide to submit a petition investigating allegations of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union.

White’s statement on We Charge Genocide was a telescoped version of the argument he had made in a cover article for the Saturday Review of Literature, entitled ‘Time for a Progress Report’. The piece was framed around a statement by a Hindu professor who had recently returned to the United States after a decade-long absence. ‘I was startled, amazed, almost overwhelmed by the change in the American attitude toward the Negro and other dark-skinned people,’ the professor said. ‘It is a change I did not expect.’ White highlighted progress since the war, including the abolition of the white primary, headway in the desegregation of higher education, the establishment of commissions on civil rights and fair employment practices, and unstereotyped representations of African Americans in films and television. Furthermore, he claimed, America was undergoing a ‘bloodless revolution of attitudes’, making the country more hospitable.

Yet America was not so open in 1951 that it was ready to hear White’s message of interracial comity, and it appears that White knew as much. Outlining the NAACP’s plan to counteract We Charge Genocide, he told the philanthropist Lessing Rosenwald that his publisher, Viking, wanted him to expand his article into a book of between 60,000 and 70,000 words for distribution in ‘key places’. Yet a full accounting of the facts indicates that White shaded the truth. Viking did not suggest the book; the State Department did; and the key places for distribution were Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, not the United States. Viking reluctantly agreed to publish an inexpensive edition overseas but refused to do so in America, since it believed that there would be no market for it. For the sake of fighting Communism White was prepared, in the words of Hubert Delany. to state that African Americans were ‘making rapid progress and are satisfied with the progress we are making’.

Walter White had embraced the Cold War and locked the NAACP into supporting it. In 1949 the association went on record in favour of the Marshall Plan; in 1951 it backed the Korean War and called for a struggle against the peace movement, which it called communist-inspired; in 1954 it upheld the further militarization of the Cold War by approving pacts like NATO and SEATO. Whereas in the 1930s the association was simply concerned with liberating Ethiopia from Italian fascism (giving no thought to Haile Selassie’s own politics), by 1954 it distinguished between ‘movements that really fight for national freedom’ and those that were oriented towards what it labelled ‘the most savage imperialism of our time: the road of Moscow and Peiping’.

The process of aligning NAACP foreign policy with the Cold War was completed by the time of the April 1955 Bandung Conference, the meeting of heads of state of twenty-nine independent Asian and African countries in Indonesia. (Walter White, a victim to a torrid pace of life, had passed away in March 1955 and did not live to see this historic occasion.) Richard Wright, in The Color Curtain, revealed the stimulus for Bandung as an attempt

    on the part of the sundered and atomized    “coloreds” to reconstitute their lives, to    regain that poise and balance that reigned before the coming    of the white man … Present Asian and African mass    movements are the frantic efforts on the part of more than    one and one-half billion human beings to reorganize their    lives (Wright 1956, p. 73).

Recognizing that some of their number, like the Chinese and Vietnamese, had chosen a socialist path, most conferees decided to overlook differences in orientation and concentrate on the colonial legacies that united them. The NAACP was one of a minority that. while heralding the conference, also, reflected the angst of the American government and cautioned the assembly not to turn towards socialism.


From America’s entry into World War II until about 1948, Walter White led the NAACP to place the predicament of Afro-America in a global context. Colonial peoples’ problems — economic exploitation, political domination, violence — were remarkably similar to those of African Americans. The war, White said, would not lead to world peace if its aim was simply to defeat the Axis powers. Lasting peace would come only if the doctrine and practice of racial superiority were also defeated in the Allied countries, and this meant the abolition of both empire and Jim Crow. National liberation movements and the domestic Civil Rights movement were thus mutually beneficial, and White lent wholehearted support to anti-colonial struggles. But from about 1948 until his death in 1955, White backtracked from this position and decoupled the domestic and international dimensions of race. Civil rights for African Americans now became an imperative in the worldwide fight against Communism; concessions to blacks’ aspirations would win for the USA the loyalty of the Third World, diminish Soviet influence in the developing countries, and preserve the practically unrestricted access to those countries’ resources. As White came to back America’s foreign policy, he also fought to suppress critics of that policy: the African-American left, which continued to link colonial oppression abroad with racial oppression at home.

White’s reversal — and, really, he did not stand alone, as Roy Wilkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and a host of other political and religious figures joined the patriotic and anti-communist chorus (Duberman 1988, pp. 343-9; Hamilton 1991, pp. 237-48) — bears upon both the Cold War pressures on the black freedom struggle and White’s strategic limitations. The United States government successfully imposed a new arrangement on the African-American leadership: limited and gradual embrace by the government of the goal of desegregation in exchange for that leadership’s backing in the domestic and foreign Cold War. The foreign policy community was becoming increasingly sensitive to the worldwide negative attention that Jim Crow was bringing to the United States. Repairing America’s image abroad required concessions to African Americans’ aspirations; the culmination of these Cold-War exigencies was the Supreme Court’s Brown school segregation decision of 1954. At the same time, the potential fallout from such a politically expedient move had to be contained, and this meant the isolation of African-American radicals like Du Bois and Robeson, who denounced American racism as fundamental to American capitalism and demanded far-reaching changes in the country’s polity and economy (Dudziak 1992; Von Eschen 1997, pp. 145-66).

White, always keenly atuned to political currents, could not help but sense America’s direction as the Cold War intensified following Truman’s 1948 election. In 1949 the NAACP failed to get important legislation concerning housing passed. Southern congressmen opposed an amendment to the bill that forbade discrimination in public housing, of course; but they were unexpectedly joined even by sympathizers of the NAACP, notably board member Republican Senator Wayne Morse, who broke ranks with the association on the fundamental issue of provision of government services on a non-segregated basis. On a mass level, the government treated even expressions of sympathy for civil rights as potentially subversive, with federal employees questioned as to why they owned recordings by Paul Robeson or why they opposed the Red Cross’s segregation of banked blood. At the level of leadership, Paul Robeson’s 1949 appearance in Peekskill, New York, was disrupted by anti-communist vigilantes, with the tacit endorsement of officials; the following year his passport was confiscated. In 1951 Du Bois was arrested on charges of being a foreign agent.

These attacks, combined with government threats to cut off access to official circles should he not cease his own criticism of USA foreign policy, convinced Walter White that the survival of the NAACP as a respected and influential organization in the country’s inner circle was at stake. To preserve the association’s status, White took up cudgels against the black left, abandoned support for anti-colonial struggles, and predicated his appeals for civil rights upon the need to improve America’s image abroad as part of a fight against international Communism. But, as Penny yon Eschen shows, at a time when the federal government — the Brown decision notwithstanding — was willing to concede very little by way of racial equality, ‘by acquiescing in a narrowed civil rights agenda, many civil rights leaders forfeited the means to address’ the need for structural change (von Eschen 1997, p. 149).

Certainly White’s fear of loss of access was well placed. That he saw such access as the principal method of conducting the fight for equality, however, underscores the limitations of this strategy. An outstanding interracial politician, White was especially effective during the New Deal and World War II, when some of the nation’s leaders were favourably disposed towards African Americans; several of the gains White noted in ‘Time for a Progress Report’ owed at least part of their realization to his efforts and work.

But White’s style of work did not transplant well into the chilly climate towards civil rights and decolonization that existed in Cold War America. The country’s élites were not inclined to listen to White’s appeals for fair treatment. They might have paid attention had he exploited the government’s fears of international embarrassment on issues of racial discrimination, but White chose not to do so (White 1955; Dudziak 1992). Furthermore, he reassured worried officials that the NAACP, unlike other black leaders, ‘does not advocate civil disobedience as an effective technique for solving the race problem’. In effect, he guaranteed that, although the NAACP might continue its hard-won access at its current level, it abdicated its duty to press for wide-ranging change in the way the government operated at home and abroad. That duty would be seized by the generation of black leaders who surfaced in the years to come.