Early Cold War Liberalism

Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [Brown v. Board of Education] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.
~ James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (from Corey Robin)

The following two passages are from quite different writings. But both describe the early Cold War atmosphere. It is strange to read about that long ago time. I only have a childhood’s glimpse of the ending of the Cold War. The generation following mine has no living memory at all of that era.

The first passage below is from Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. She wrote the book in the late 1940s, but the foreword wasn’t written until later and published in the second edition in 1961. The Cuban Revolution had just happened and there now was a Communist government at America’s doorstep. That worried her.

This was a Cold War wake up call for Americans, from conservatives to liberals, Lillian being the latter. Communism was no longer a distant political system to be debated as abstract theory. Four years after she wrote in distress about Communist influence, the 1965 Civil Rights Act was passed. The Cold War forced the hand of the political elite, for fear of what would happen if the Civil Rights Movement became further radicalized.

The second passage is from John Hartley’s introductory essay (“Before Ongism”) to a work by Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (from the 30th Anniversary Edition). Hartley puts Ong’s academic work into perspective. Ong was beginning his academic career just as the Cold War started, following the Second World War. That was a new era for America, then a rising global power.

In the 1940s, the CIA was formed and the FBI took on a greater role in national security.The Cold War was seen as a potential total war and one of the emerging weapons was propaganda, media manipulation, and an oppressive variety of culture war. In the 1950s, Americans fell under influence of domestic covert operations like that of CIA’s Operation Mockingbird and FBI’s COINTELPRO. Also, America came to be dominated by McCarthyism. The Civil Rights Movement, even as it was having legal successes, was increasingly targeted. It was seen as a breeding ground for Communists and radicals.

American universities were a battleground. Long before the protests of the 1960s, the CIA and FBI were focusing intently upon academia, both in looking for threatening activists and for potential recruits. The CIA was also interested in shaping academia and its influence. The CIA used its funds to promote particular artists, writers, and thinkers. Some professors were even spymasters.

This was the world that Walter J. Ong entered. There is no evidence that he knew about any of it, but it certainly shaped everything around him. The US government understood that ideas had power. Lillian Smith wasn’t part of that Cold War academic world, but she did have a 134 page FBI file. She was considered dangerous because she wielded ideas to promote change and all change was deemed dangerous to those in power.

The mid-twentieth century was a time when liberalism, both as a liberal ideology and liberal arts, was simultaneously striving and constrained. It was being carried along by far greater historical and political forces.

* * * *

Killers of the Dream
by Lillian Smith
Foreword (1961)
pp. 15-17

And its relevance for this hour we are living in astonishes me. For what was based on intuition, on a kind of prophetic guess, is now boldly actin itself out on a world-size stage. I had felt the curve of approaching events but I could only warn, I could not prove. And now here it is: the new African nations, the hatred of colonialism, and the Communists’ shrewd exploitation of this word so fatefully tied to “the white man” and to Western democracy—and to everyone’s future.

When I wrote those chapters I was afraid—I am more afraid, today—that we may not break our bondage to past errors in time to win the confidence of young nations who need our help. And whom we desperately need. I watched with a sense of horror—I am still watching—the hands of the Southern clock (and the American clock) move with the death-slowness while the world clock speeds along as if stuffed with the energy of a rocket.

And now, there is Cuba. Ninety miles away, a Communist government. How could it have happened! Why are we so blind to each disaster as it begins slowly, slowly, and then rushes toward us! Is it complacency? But what causes this kind of complacency, so unreal, so without substance? Why are we suppressing anxiety, denying danger? Why apathy—when we desperately need moral energy? Why flabby spirits when we need iron strength?

Colonialism was once a harsh exploitation of peoples; today, it is a symbol stalking the earth. And men live and die by their symbols. To Asia and Africa—and Cuba, yes—the word means shame and degradation, it means dehumanization, poverty, pain. And here, in this great country whose people love freedom and respect men as human beings, colonialism’s twin brother, segregation, not only lives but wields power, and earth-shaking decisions are made by its followers. But the new nations of Asia and Africa are making earth-shaking decisions, too; they have it within their power to do so not only in the United Nations, not only in secret sessions with Russia and China, but in the secret rooms of the people’s memory.

Why can we not see the pattern laid out so plainly before our eyes? Ghana . . . Mali . . . Guinea . . . Tanganyika . . . Kenya . . . Liberia . . . Nigeria . . . Mauritania . . . Republic of Chad . . . Republic of Niger . . . Angola . . . Southwest Africa . . . Nyasaland . . . Southern Rhodesia . . . Northern Rhodesia . . . Mozambique . . . Sudan . . . Somalia . . . Central African Republic . . . the Congo . . . Bechuanaland . . . South Africa . . . Malgasy . . . Basutoland . . . Swaziland . . . Gabon . . . Republic of Ivory Coast . . . Senegal . . . Ethiopia . . . and others and others. Mixed together, as I have jumbled them here, the free and the not yet free, they are Africa below the Desert, Africa in struggle with itself, Africa smeared by old bleeding memories, reaching out for a future called “Africa for the Africans” which may turn into mirage because of a too urgent hunger to become. Too urgent? Yes. For starvation can be exploited by unscrupulous leaders; it is easier to arouse hatred of others than love for one’s own freedom and future; it is easy, to, for these leaders in their difficulties to appeal to color just as southern demagogues did when the South was in chaos after the Civil War. We should not be surprised if we hear in African accents words about Black Supremacy, just as we still hear in southern accents words about White Supremacy. The fine concept of the human being may get lost in the shuffle and we may face  a black racism just as white racism is disappearing. this is possible although it would be tragic error.

But whatever wisdom or irresponsible ambition their leaders may show, these new nations need us: our financial and technical aid, our moral support, our acceptance of their citizens as human beings.

But we cannot give them support or acceptance, no matter how eloquently we may offer it, until we rid our own country of racism and its primitive rites of segregation. The President may try, the State Department, the USIA and Peace Corps may try, but no matter what they do or say, the offer of help and friendship will be without psychic and moral substance as long as we practice segregation here at home. And at the critical moment, many of these nations, too, will turn to communism, rejecting what they call “white democracy.”

Our President and his executive office can achieve much; and the State Department is not without the means to persuade; and the Peace Corps, with its young members’ person-to-person contacts which transcend governmental activities, will be of service in overcoming misconceptions and resentments. But to change our foreign relations wsith asia and Africa our symbols must change. For neither we nor they are animals: we live by our symbols as do they: we cannot change their feelings about us as long as we are acting out, symbolically, the concept of White Supremacy in schools and parks and movies and churches and buses and restaurants.

Why don’t we see this? Is there a tendency to blindness in those who overvalue their whiteness? Sometimes, I think so; even in those who cannot be called racists there is blindness. If we were not blocked off by our racial feelings would we not realize that segregationists, South and North, are our country’s dangerous enemies, even when unwittingly so? Would we not realize the threat they are to our survival as a strong free nation? For the sake of a mythic belief in the superiority of their “whiteness”—a strange mad obsession—they are willing to drag us to the edge of destruction because they have actually lost touch with reality. Think of the irony, the terrible absurdity of those racist U.S. Congressmen investigating everybody’s subversive acts but their own—when it is what they are doing by their blunt, stubborn refusal to give up segregation that is pushing us closer and closer to disaster.

* * * *

Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition
by Walter J. Ong
“Before Ongism” by John Hartley

Without wanting to overstate it (as American supremacism, for instance), there is a vein of political philosophy running through the literary-historical scholarship of mid-century America. The mood extended well beyond Harvard. Across the country, literary scholarship seemed determined to give substance to Walt Whitman’s post-Civil War vision for America’s “democratic vistas”; 13 a vision newly urgent in a post-World War II world. Richard Altick at Ohio ( The English Common Reader, 1957) and R. F. Jones at Stanford ( The Triumph of the English Language, 1953) come to mind. 14 Most notable, perhaps, was Yale, where American Studies was established in the same period, not least for political reasons. American Studies was:

an enterprise that would be, among other things, an instrument for ideological struggle in what some among them termed the American crusade in the Cold War, and what others among them saw as virtually a second civil war. (Holzman 1999: 71)

A leading figure in this enterprise was Norman Holmes Pearson, who, like Perry Miller at Harvard, was a secret agent for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) – precursor of the CIA – during World War II. Where Perry’s protégés at Harvard included the Jesuit priest Walter Ong, Pearson’s at Yale included James Jesus Angleton, who learnt there the craft of practical criticism of decontextualised documents. Angleton went on to apply it as chief of counter-intelligence at the CIA, where he remained for a generation (Holzman 2008). While at Yale, as Terence Hawkes has pointed out, Angleton was much influenced by the New Criticism, especially as practised by William Empson (1930), whose theory of the irreducible ambiguity of expression served Angleton well in his search for double meanings as evidence of Soviet “double agents,” within the CIA itself. His obsessive search for spies turned to domestic suspects during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, among them the liberal and countercultural elite of American society, including Martin Luther King and Edward Kennedy. Hawkes draws the parallel between literary criticism and counter-intelligence:

When agents may be recognized as “turned”… they themselves become “texts” which demand complex analysis. A sensitivity to ambiguity then becomes a crucial weapon. The improbable but undeniable impact of modern literary criticism on practical politics has no better model, and Angleton later described his work in counterintelligence as “the practical criticism of ambiguity.” (Hawkes 2009)

Strangely, it seems, the study of rhetoric, of literary theory, and the practical criticism of arcane texts at Ivy-league colleges, intersected both personally and institutionally with the career of high-stakes political Americanism during the crucial period of its global ascendancy. As a Jesuit, presumably Ong was not involved in the counter-espionage shenanigans of active spy-masters like Perry, Pearson and Angleton, but he was brought to prominence in an intellectual environment where literary history, linguistic analysis and an expanded doctrine of the USA’s “manifest destiny” were brought into alignment.