When W. E. B. Du Bois Was Un-American
Jan 13, 2017
16 Min read time
W. E. B. Du Bois may be our keenest critic of Trumpism today.
February 1951 was a busy month for W. E. B. Du Bois, who turned eighty-three and threw himself a huge birthday party to raise funds for African decolonization. He also married his second wife, the leftist writer Shirley Graham, in what the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper called the wedding of the year. And he was indicted, arrested, and arraigned in federal court as an agent of the Soviet Union because he had circulated a petition protesting nuclear weapons.
The Justice Department saw Du Bois’s petition as a threat to national security. They thought it was communist propaganda meant to encourage American pacifism in the face of Soviet aggression. They put Du Bois on trial in order to brand him as “un-American,” to use the language of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Du Bois was not in fact a Soviet agent. He was an American citizen using his First Amendment rights to protest nuclear weapons on his own behalf. A federal judge acquitted him because prosecutors failed to present any evidence.
W. E. B. Du Bois may be our keenest critic of Trumpism today.
Nevertheless, the trial and the publicity around it ruined his career. He was left scrabbling to earn enough money just to buy groceries. And the trial hardly ended the state persecution. In 1952 the State Department illegally revoked Du Bois’s passport to stop him from traveling to a peace conference in Canada (and, implicitly, to prevent him from moving to a friendlier country where he was not blacklisted). The Supreme Court restored passport rights for suspected communists in 1958, and three years later Du Bois used his regained freedom of travel to become an expat in newly postcolonial Ghana. But while he was there, the State Department refused to renew his passport, effectively annulling his United States citizenship. The American civil rights icon became a Ghanaian citizen and died there in 1963.
I thought of this history this week when Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, began his confirmation hearings. In 1986 Sessions was denied a federal judgeship partly because he allegedly called the NAACP, which was co-founded by Du Bois, “un-American.” (In his 1986 confirmation hearings, Sessions walked a fine line, saying that the NAACP “take positions that are considered un-American.”) Trump himself has suggested that the government should revoke the citizenship of flag burners, and Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has called for an indefinite world war on terrorism, which he says must begin at home by targeting Muslim Americans. This is the same ugly cluster of ideas that landed Du Bois in court on trumped-up charges sixty years ago: the idea that demanding basic civil rights is tantamount to treason; that protesting national policy means forfeiting one’s citizenship; that darker skin or leftist views make one less American; and that an open-ended global war justifies unconstitutional repression.
The mental picture of an eighty-three-year-old Du Bois in handcuffs reminds us that these ideas have consequences. Du Bois himself, though, fought furiously against persecution. He crisscrossed the country giving speeches, wrote passionately about his trial, and built a small but vigorous coalition that helped preserve social justice causes during a decade that tried desperately to strangle them. In our own moment of threatened repression, Du Bois’s story and his civil rights and antiwar tactics offer important political lessons. Du Bois may be our keenest critic of Trumpism today.
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Du Bois’s opposition to nuclear weapons grew out of his long history of antiwar activism. In 1913, as editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois wrote an editorial titled “Peace” in which he argued that the peace movement could become “a great democratic philanthropy.” But to do so, he said, antiwar activism would have to change its very soul.
Du Bois connected the outbreak of World War I with colonialism, industrial capitalism, and conflict over African territory.
International peace activists, Du Bois claimed, were too focused on establishing treaties and legal bans on war to see the actual roots of it. “The greatest and almost the only cause of war,” Du Bois argued, is Europe’s “‘colonial’ aggression and ‘imperial’ expansion.” If antiwar activists wanted to stop war, they would have to fight the colonial exploitation of native labor and natural resources. This made the peace movement a potentially unparalleled weapon against global racism. Since war was so bound up with conflicts over colonial territory, Du Bois thought the fear of war could be used to convince voters to combat racism and economic exploitation at home and abroad.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Du Bois believed it was driven not by European internal strife but by colonialism, specifically conflict over territory in Africa. In a 1915 essay in the Atlantic called “The African Roots of War,” he connected war and colonialism with industrial capitalism. Du Bois argued that working-class whites in Europe and America were tricked out of feeling solidarity with similarly exploited people of color around the world because they were lured by the promise that, under a system of racial capitalism (to borrow a later term from Cedric Robinson), their whiteness would guarantee them a higher rung in society. In addition, Du Bois argued that they succumbed to the promise that resources looted from the colonies would boost the standard of living in the West. Du Bois therefore described the Great War as an attempt to maintain “industrial peace at home at the mightier cost of war abroad.” The machine guns firing in Flanders kept factory workers from striking in Detroit.
After the United States joined the fray in 1917, Du Bois faced a difficult decision. Black soldiers regularly faced abuse in the segregated army, and he had to balance criticizing the war with improving their conditions. He ultimately chose to support the war. In 1918, despite the fact that he knew The Crisis was under government surveillance as a “seditious” organ of civil rights, Du Bois wrote an editorial called “Close Ranks” in which he asked black men to lay aside their “special grievances” and join the war effort. By doing so, Du Bois argued, they would make an undeniable claim to American citizenship and all the rights it entailed.
Events proved him spectacularly wrong. A shortage of jobs for returning soldiers after the war produced serious racial and economic tensions, exacerbated by the fact that many factory jobs during the war had been filled by Southern blacks who migrated north to the cities. There was also widespread fear of a communist revolt like the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that fear centered on African Americans. President Wilson described black soldiers returning from abroad as “our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” In the summer months of 1919, anticommunist paranoia and white economic resentment led to a series of bloody race riots, primarily driven by white mob attacks on blacks.
Working-class whites in Europe and America were tricked out of feeling solidarity with exploited people of color around the world.
Black soldiers were singled out for particular violence in this “Red Summer.” Many were beaten simply for wearing their uniforms in public. The Louisiana True Democrat captured the anti-black soldier mood in a December 1918 editorial titled “Nip It in the Bud,” which argued that military service had given black soldiers “more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists” and that it was “the right time to show them what will and will not be permitted.” After the first incident of the Red Summer, Du Bois declared in a fierce editorial that “We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. . . . We return fighting.” But given the failure of the war to produce freedom and civil rights, Du Bois’s earlier pro-war stance cost him significant credibility with the NAACP board and the black public. His reputation took years to recover.
Du Bois learned from the episode. He wrote in 1941, “I have lived to know better and my opposition to war under any circumstances has been immeasurably increased.” Nonetheless, when World War II broke out he reluctantly advocated closing ranks again, this time “not in joy but in sorrow.”
• • •
After the genocide and the atomic horrors of World War II, Du Bois hoped the postwar peace, governed by the newly formed United Nations, would diminish racism.
In 1945 he served as the NAACP’s advisor to the U.S. delegation at the UN’s founding conference. He advocated decolonization, but the UN ignored the issue. In 1947 he tried again, launching an NAACP petition to the UN demanding human rights for African Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, who led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rejected Du Bois’s appeal and resigned from the NAACP board in protest. Human rights were not so universal after all.
Du Bois fumed that by ignoring the colonies, the United States and the UN were setting a course for a third world war. He still believed his words from “The African Roots of War”: “If we want real peace . . . [w]e must extend the democratic ideal to the yellow, brown, and black peoples.” Du Bois made this point at various international peace conferences in 1949 and 1950, including a conference he hosted in New York that was disrupted by the CIA and a conference he attended in Paris where two thousand delegates from more than fifty countries marched with half a million French citizens chanting “Peace, no more war!”
At the very height of the McCarthy era, Du Bois tried to keep alive a free and open debate about American military, economic, and foreign policy. He fought, above all, for intellectual freedom.
In 1950 Du Bois was named chairman of the Peace Information Center (PIC), an antiwar and nuclear nonproliferation organization headquartered in New York. Its main activity was publishing a newsletter to inform its substantial mailing list about international peace movements in order to foster global cooperation. (They also sent out stickers for kids to wear.) The PIC soon circulated the Stockholm Appeal, a petition launched by the Nobel Prize–winning chemist and French communist Frédéric Joliot-Curie calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. It was signed by such notables as Marc Chagall, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso, and the future French president, Jacques Chirac. It received 2.5 million American signatures, nearly 3 percent of the voting-age population at the time.
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson took to the pages of The New York Times to call the petition “a propaganda trick in the spurious ‘peace offensive’ of the Soviet Union.” Du Bois responded in the Times that “regardless of our other beliefs and affiliations, we [formed the PIC] for the one and only purpose of informing the American people on the issue of peace.” Du Bois was speaking for himself, he argued, as an American.
The Justice Department disagreed. Federal prosecutors charged him under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, arguing that he and the PIC had to register as agents of a foreign power because their petition began in another country. If convicted, Du Bois and the PIC’s other board members, Kyrle Elkin and Abbott Simon, along with former board member Elizabeth Moos who voluntarily agreed to stand trial and the PIC’s stenographer Sylvia Soloff, faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For the eighty-three-year-old Du Bois, it might as well have been a life sentence.
The government’s principal aim was to silence the PIC and discredit Du Bois, just as the House Un-American Activities Committee forced leftists to recant or go underground. In the court of public opinion, the accusation itself had already accomplished that goal, so prosecutors offered to drop the case if Du Bois pled no contest. The PIC’s goal was to publicize antiwar activism, though, and so in spite of the personal risk, Du Bois chose to fight the charges against him publicly in court.
He knew it would be an uphill battle. In 1950 he had run for senate as an American Labor Party candidate to publicize his antiwar views. He gave speeches to tens of thousands of people and received an impressive two hundred thousand votes. During his campaign, he discovered the role of big money in politics: it cost a fortune to buy ad time in the press, on the radio, and on the new medium, television. In 1951 he knew his legal defense would cost him, too. Justice was not cheap.
Du Bois began fundraising. He made two nationwide tours, speaking to audiences of thousands from Chicago to Denver to Los Angeles. His biggest success was with union workers, college students, and Christians who opposed the bomb. He told them that “Big Business” and its hunger for Third World marketplaces and natural resources would lead again and again to American military interventions abroad. Persuaded that corporate greed helped drive war, more than one labor union appealed to President Truman himself to drop the charges against Du Bois.
Such public speaking was the centerpiece of Du Bois’s defense strategy. He saw his case more as a matter of publicity than a matter of the law. The secretary of state had smeared him in the press, and he believed the Justice Department was holding secret meetings with his colleagues in the civil rights movement to frame him as a communist spy.
So Du Bois fought propaganda with propaganda. Besides his speaking tour, he placed ads in newspapers, circulated petitions, and inspired an international letter-writing campaign to judges, prosecutors, the attorney general, the secretary of state, and the president. He received birthday cards and letters of support from around the world, including from luminaries such as Pablo Neruda and Albert Einstein.
Einstein himself was to be Du Bois’s star character witness. They had corresponded since the 1930s, when Einstein wrote a short piece about racism for The Crisis, and by the late 1940s their antinuclear views aligned as well. When Du Bois was indicted, Einstein offered to do “whatever he could” to help, bringing to bear his substantial fame and the ostensible objectivity of his scientific expertise. Du Bois also planned to testify, using the witness stand as a bully pulpit.
The prosecution had their own star witness, O. John Rogge, a former member of the PIC who had hosted the organization’s founding meeting in his very own living room. When he testified at the trial, Rogge tried to paint his former colleagues at the PIC as communist puppets. Du Bois felt deeply betrayed. However, the judge blocked the speculative parts of Rogge’s testimony, and when the prosecution rested after Rogge finished his story, the judge declared that prosecutors had failed to present any evidence of the PIC’s Soviet ties. He therefore acquitted Du Bois and his co-defendants Elkin, Simon, and Moos from the bench. (The PIC’s stenographer Sylvia Soloff had already been summarily acquitted since she was an employee, not a policymaker.)
Du Bois was immeasurably relieved by his acquittal, but he also believed the judge had been pressured to acquit before Du Bois or especially Einstein could testify. The trial, after all, was supposed to silence dissenters. In lieu of testifying, Du Bois publicized his ideas in 1952 in a memoir about his trial, In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday, which extensively quoted ads, petitions, letters, and his newspaper coverage—in effect reprinting his publicity to generate more visibility for his case. The book also theorized how to protest in a period of repressed free speech, and it put those theories into practice by finding creative ways to circulate dissent—including birthday cards.
• • •
At the very height of the McCarthy era, Du Bois tried to keep alive a free and open debate about American military, economic, and foreign policy. He wrote in In Battle for Peace that he wanted to create “forums” for people to learn about and discuss geopolitics, because the government was trying to “limit the thought processes of American citizens to the four corners of the United States boundaries.” He was fighting, above all, for intellectual freedom.
Du Bois ended up practically stateless in 1961 when the State Department effectively cancelled his citizenship.
In 1951, the same year Du Bois waged his battle in court, the philosopher Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that we can “measure” totalitarianism by whether governments strip their people of citizenship. Despite her own intense opposition to the Soviet Union, Arendt feared that “even free democracies” such as the United States were “seriously considering depriving native Americans who are Communists of their citizenship.”
Du Bois did end up practically stateless when the State Department effectively cancelled his citizenship after he moved to Ghana in 1961. There is no description of this more accurate than what Arendt would call it: intellectual totalitarianism.
Du Bois’s theory of politics in In Battle for Peace is aimed at precisely such repression. He examines how to spread ideas in order to build coalitions like his own motley mix of supporters, which included “Left support” but also “liberals, progressives, and even some conservatives who believe in peace and free speech.” Du Bois’s coalition rejected the ideological binary of the Cold War. He worried that Americans increasingly demanded “complete unity of belief” and objected “to any co-operation at all.” “This attitude,” he wrote, “thwarts democracy and stops progress.” Progressive activists, instead, have to reach out to any potential allies, even ones who “believe in many matters” they do not. In his writing style, Du Bois tried to model this coalitional politics, from reprinting newspaper stories and birthday cards to incorporating commentary from his wife Shirley Graham.
Du Bois held open a small but resilient public space for criticizing American military policy and calling for civil rights at home and abroad. By the end of the 1950s, that conversation had borne fruit, as black activists such as Rebecca Stiles Taylor called for feminist resistance to the bomb, Einstein published his famous 1955 antinuclear manifesto with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and Martin Luther King Jr. framed antinuclear politics as crucial to civil rights. In the 1960s such coalitional activism expanded beyond Du Bois’s wildest dreams. King famously damned the Vietnam War as a racist colonial adventure. The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who ran for president with the Peace Party in 1968, cited Du Bois’s trial as his inspiration.
Du Bois’s battle for peace offers four major lessons. First, we need to make visible the economic and social structures that produce violence at home and abroad. Second, we need to use history to track how and why those structures evolved and how past activists fought them. Third, in a period of ideological polarization and permanent war such as our own, democratic debate and the free circulation of ideas is the first thing to defend. Finally, we must build robust coalitions, across movements and between nations, to resist violence, oppression, inequality, and injustice.
“Peace is not an end,” Du Bois wrote in 1949. “It is the gateway to real civilization.” His democratic ideals remain our best path to peace and justice. Just as Du Bois helped preserve those ideals in the early 1950s, we have to keep them alive today.
January 13, 2017
16 Min read time