Russian interference and American racism: From the Cold War to the 2016 election

Soviet pressure during the Cold War pushed America into important reforms. But those didn't go nearly far enough

Published December 23, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Demonstrators march down North Capital Street during protest march within sight of the capitol in Washington, June 14, 1963; Demonstrators protest as they celebrate the verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke along Michigan Avenue on October 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (AP/John Rous/Getty/Joshua Lott)
Demonstrators march down North Capital Street during protest march within sight of the capitol in Washington, June 14, 1963; Demonstrators protest as they celebrate the verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke along Michigan Avenue on October 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (AP/John Rous/Getty/Joshua Lott)

Two new reports on Russian political interference released by the Senate this past week — one from Oxford University, the other from New Knowledge — should fundamentally shift how we view what happened in the 2016 election. At least, if information mattered they would. But we know better than that, don’t we? And so it’s up to us to make that shift happen.

Most importantly, it’s our responsibility to face up to the key role that racism — America’s original sin — played in making us so vulnerable that, as Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote in theWashington Postboth reports "conclude that Russia’s campaign included a massive effort to deceive and co-opt African Americans.”

Indeed, the New Knowledge report stated this bluntly:

Some of the most sophisticated [Russian] efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities. Although they produced content targeting many political and cultural groups, the [Internet Research Agency] created a uniquely expansive, interlinked fraudulent Black media ecosystem consisting of their own sites interwoven with authentic Black media and Black-owned small businesses to a degree not seen with other communities or groups. These efforts exploited organic American protest movements and focused on widespread, pre-existing societal issues.

Although Ifill's main focus was the need to “make it easier, not harder, for Americans to vote," she argued sensibly that “we have to accept that foreign powers seize upon these divisions because they are real — because racism remains the United States’ Achilles’ heel.”

This is hardly news. But willful blindness, ignorance and denial have been part and parcel of white America’s self-understanding from the earliest colonial days. As Sophia Nelson wrote at the Daily Beast, “Americans are still excusing and denying the reality of how our country was forged in 1607, and in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived near Jamestown, Virginia.”

Nelson went on to focus more specifically on what happened after the colonial period, noting that virtually all the prominent founding fathers with the exception of John Adams -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe -- owned slaves.

Ifill, however, focused on more recent history:

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently pointed to segregation and civil unrest as proof of American hypocrisy. This propaganda was sufficiently widespread, and contained enough truth, that leaders of both parties began arguing that segregation undermined the United States’ position in the Cold War, helping to ease the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Both make important points, but there's much more to this history. To Ifill’s point, this wasn’t just a matter of legislation. In 1952, the Truman administration submitted a significant amicus curie brief in Brown v. Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court decision that struck down legal segregation. As Aryeh Neier wrote on Brown's 60th anniversary:

The Truman administration’s brief was highly unusual because of its heavy emphasis on foreign-policy considerations in a case ostensibly about domestic issues. Of the seven pages covering “the interest of the United States,” five focused on the way school segregation hurt the United States in the Cold War competition for the friendship and allegiance of non-white peoples in countries then gaining independence from colonial rule.

The brief, submitted by Attorney General James P. McGranery, said, "The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man…. The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” It also featured an excerpt from a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, described as "an authoritative statement of the effects of racial discrimination in the United States upon the conduct of foreign relations.

This emphasis can be readily understood in terms of George Kennan’s early analysis of U.S.-Soviet relations, in his famous “Long Telegram” and subsequent “Mr. X” Foreign Affairs article,  "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Although he wasn’t speaking directly about civil rights, it’s impossible to ignore how well the issue fits. In the closing sections of the “Long Telegram,” Kennan wrote:

Much depends on health and vigor of our own society…. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués….

We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past.

Similarly, Kennan's Foreign Affairs essay concluded:

The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

Of course, the image presented to the world by the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a far cry from the reality. More than 60 years later, America’s public schools, both North and South, have never been fully desegregated, and have actually been re-segregating in recent decades. One of the early tools of state and local resistance to Brown — the establishment of private school infrastructure — even became part of the backbone of educational policy under America’s first African-American president.

From a crudely pragmatic perspective, American strategy worked — at least in the short run. In the world at large, the United States was able to credibly present itself as genuinely committed to freedom for all. This shift in elite politics produced a watershed in American history, finally signaling a willingness to give meaning to the Civil War constitutional amendments passed nearly a century earlier, with the qualified success of the 1960s period sometimes described as the Second Reconstruction.

The success was genuine, and both sweeping and swift in its culmination, at least on some levels. At the beginning of 1963 — a year highlighted by the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech — Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and declared, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” But as Taylor Branch has noted, by the end of that year, “with segregation losing its stable respectability, [Wallace] dropped the word [segregation] altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing ‘big government’…. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control.”

Forty-five years later, America elected its first black president by a comfortable margin of almost 10 million votes. There is no denying the profound change in American politics and culture that resulted, in part, from the early Cold War threat of Soviet interference — a dramatically different, and highly socially integrative development, compared to the impact of Russian interference in 2016.

Yet there’s another side to the story, in which the results were more similar (or at least more closely connected) than different.

“With Brown and Little Rock, formal equality could protect the image of American constitutionalism even if the reforms supported by the federal government would not lead to meaningful social change in the communities affected,” historian Mary Dudziak argues in her landmark book “Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy”:

Although the Cold War helped motivate civil rights reform, it limited the field of vision to formal equality, to opening the doors of opportunity, and away from a broader critique of the American economic and political system. Racism might be an international embarrassment. Class-based inequality, however, was a feature of capitalism, an economic system Americans were proud of. If what was at stake during the Cold War was the image of American democracy, formal legal equality, carefully described in U.S. propaganda, gave the government what it needed. Once America’s image seemed secure, Cold War concerns dropped out as one of the factors encouraging civil rights reform.

In other words, the erosion or disappearance of those "Cold War concerns" sharply undercut the progress that had been made.

To achieve that progress in the first place required activists to abandon many issues they saw as fundamental, as described by Penny Von Eschen in “Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957.” This was even true for more mainstream liberals associated with the NAACP as well, as described by Carol Anderson in “Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.”

“For too long, civil rights has been heralded as the ‘prize’ for black equality,” Anderson writes. But civil rights law could only speak to overt discrimination. “Human rights, on the other hand, especially as articulated by the United Nations (UN) and influenced by the moral shock of the Holocaust, had the language and philosophical power” that was needed:

In fact, toward the end of the Second World War, the African American leadership, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had already decided that only human rights could repair the damage that more than three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism had done to the African American community. Civil rights, no matter how noble, could only maintain the gap. The NAACP, therefore, marshaled its resources – including a war chest of more than one million dollars, nearly 500,000 members, and access to power brokers throughout the world – to make human rights the standard for equality.

This massive effort has not merely been erased from American public memory: It was never there in the first place. Even the possibility that a liberal organization could think in such “radical” terms has been pre-suppressed from America’s self-understanding, despite how logically it might follow from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech or Eleanor Roosevelt’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When the NAACP tried to follow this path, seeking Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt as partners after World War II, both proved disappointing, due to “the entrenched power of the Southern Democrats and the shallowness of white liberal commitment to black equality,” Anderson recounts. “The struggle was ultimately destroyed, however, by the Cold War and the anti-Communist witch hunts, which compromised the integrity of the black leadership, twisted the definition of human rights into the hammer and sickle, and forced the NAACP to take its eyes off the prize of human rights.”

The civil rights movement that happened in spite of all this nonetheless retained significant ties to that wider universalist vision, derived via Gandhian nonviolence, the "social gospel" and other sources. What it lacked was the deep institutional heft behind such ideas that the NAACP could have provided. As Anderson describes, the NAACP did not adopt a more limited view for ideological reasons. It was not a failure of the liberal imagination on their part that lead them to take their eyes off the prize. It was a practical concern about how to survive in a profoundly hostile political environment, in order to preserve some way forward for the black community. As a result, Anderson writes:

The fight for black equality was now limited to the narrowly confined, traditional arena of political rights and the “Soviet-tainted” goal of economic and social rights – even though essential for true black equality – was overtly removed from the NAACP’s agenda.

Returning to George Kennan, I’ve written before about his view of the Cold War, in contrast to the view of Paul Nitze, as expressed in the once-secret national security document, NSC-68. Nitze saw things much more narrowly, conceiving of nations as the only significant actors and military power as the overwhelming concern. "We fought Nitze's Cold War,” I wrote, “but we won Kennan’s, through the appeal of our culture of openness and freedom, most vividly illustrated in the history of Eastern European resistance movements, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland."

Fighting Kennan’s Cold War would have meant devoting a lot more attention to addressing America's flaws and imperfections — most notably, treating racism with all the seriousness that NAACP thought it deserved. Had we done that, rather than simply trying to do enough to win a propaganda war, we would be in a far different place today. The racial divisions that Russia exploited in the 2016 elections simply would no longer exist, or at least not in anything like their current forms.

Some might think that Kennan’s views are somehow soft, but they’re perfectly in line with Sun Tzu’s classic, “The Art of War,” in which he says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Knowledge is power. Self-knowledge is the ultimate power. And America's willful lack of self-knowledge has brought us to the brink of our undoing.

This month, Take Care and Project Democracy hosted a symposium, "Building an Inclusive Democracy: Towards an Action Agenda," the aims of which are strikingly in tune with the points I raise here. One of those posts in particular, “Defending Inclusion” by K. Sabeel Rahman -- a law professor and the president of Demos -- offers an indicator of the kind of directions we need to explore. Rahman discusses three strategies that “stand out as a way to defuse and then dismantle reassertions of ethnonationalism.” All of them touch on themes I’ve written about here or elsewhere over the last three years.

First, we need narratives and campaigns that can blunt the edge of race-baiting appeals designed to fragment and fracture multiracial solidarities,” Rahman writes. He notes, that "Demos’ narrative research has highlighted how race-baiting, dog-whistle appeals can be defused by highlighting the divisive and strategic nature of these efforts as a way to further enable the exploitation of black, brown, and white working families.”

I wrote last June about this work, which was the product of a year-long collaboration between Demos, communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio (author of “Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy,” reviewed here), and Ian Haney López (author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class”):

The central finding from a year of research, Shenker-Osorio explained, is the unexpected effectiveness of a suite of race-class narratives that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good. Not only can racial justice and economic issues be addressed simultaneously, other issues involving the common good — such as environmental protection — gain support as well, even if they’re not being talked about directly.

“We set out first and foremost to speak to and mobilize the base,” Shenker-Osorio explained, but the messages they came up with also won broad support among “persuadable” voters, who hold a jumbled mix of progressive and reactionary views as well.

In short, this isn't just a defensive strategy. It's also a powerful approach for building a progressive electoral majority.

Second, we need to build independent, autonomous political power for communities of color through deep, long-term organizing on the ground,” Rahman writes. “Current examples of grassroots movements led by communities of color include Fight for 15, which is working to increase the minimum wage, and the Florida Rights Restoration Campaign, which advocates for restoring voting rights for people with prior felony convictions.”

“Third, we need to design new institutions that can defend the idea of a multiracial democracy,” Rehman wrote. “The civil rights movement achieved much of its long-term successes not just through grassroots movement organizing and changes to public norms and values, but through the creation of legal institutions that helped protect communities of color.” The Voting Rights Act is one such example, along with the empowerment of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to oversee state election processes. The restoration of the Voting Rights Act is one of the cornerstones of the House Democrats’ first legislative priority for next year, HR-1.

What all these examples serve underscore is something that should be obvious but perhaps needs to be said: The best way to defend America is not with hardware or software or technical fixes, but by America realizing its highest ideals. Fighting to overcome racism strengthens every facet of American life. A vibrant, inclusive democracy is its own best defense.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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