“I am pretty sick of the whole theory of American self-righteousness,” Joseph C. Harsch, a Washington reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and commentator for the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS), wrote to a friend in 1944 as the Allies were planning the peace:
We are the pretty innocents of the world who never grab anything while naughty Britain and wicked Russia look after their own self-interests and security. Nonsense! We aren't going to get anything out of this war. No? We are just going to take all the islands in the Pacific which happen to be all we need to guarantee our naval and air control of that Ocean.Footnote 1
The midwestern Harsch was not a radical leftist but a liberal internationalist—socially and ideologically in the mainstream of his cohort of diplomatic reporters at mid-century who believed the United States must remain a leader in the global community after World War II. His newspaper was among the most highly regarded in the nation, and his radio spot gave him a broader popular audience. He continued, “My only contention is that we have the appearance of greater morality only where we can afford to be more moral—which isn't as often as we like to believe. Sometimes I think that we are the world's greatest hypocrites.”Footnote 2
The transition from waging war to waging peace, as it was called then, has been described as a time when both mainstream liberals and conservatives believed that political ideology trumped economic concerns: that the United States cared more about combating communism than acquiring markets and raw materials.Footnote 3 The United States was a force for good and supported self-determination for all nations, this dominant thinking is supposed to have held, and people struggling for independence ought to understand the United States was not an empire like the Soviet Union or Great Britain.Footnote 4 Ideas about the role of Western imperialism that U.S. government propagandists in the 1940s and 1950s worked so hard to disavow did not become widely accepted in the U.S. until the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, and then mostly in academia.Footnote 5 Yet those ideas were privately discussed and widely accepted in the 1940s and 1950s in diplomatic reporting circles, among the very people responsible for shaping Americans’ perception of foreign policy.Footnote 6 Press coverage of foreign affairs had gained new importance since World War II, with the Washington Post assigning a full-time reporter to cover the State Department for the first time in 1946. The size of this cohort of diplomatic reporters fluctuated, but the trend since the war was growth; whereas only about three newspapers had covered the State Department full-time before the war, twelve to fifteen were regularly on the beat after, with another dozen political writers, bureau chiefs, and columnists completing the group discussed in this article.Footnote 7
A story of unthinking Cold War patriotism has been the dominant narrative about mid-century journalists, and content analysis—rather than archives—has been the dominant methodology in media studies. While content analyses are crucial to understanding what the public was reading, they often cannot describe why or how the stories were written.Footnote 8 In his 1970 book The Press and the Cold War, James Aronson, a journalist of mainstream and later leftist publications, argues that the press is an arm of government power, rather than a watchdog, a theme that sociologists, political scientists, and linguists—all practicing in the relatively new field of communication studies—have taken up in ensuing years. The sociologist Herbert Gans, in his 1979 Deciding What's News, finds what he calls journalists’ “enduring values” of “ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, individualism, moderatism, social order, and national leadership,” all of which necessarily shaped reporters’ outlook.Footnote 9 In their 1988 work Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky name this system of values the “propaganda model,” positing that several filters—including concentration of ownership, effects of advertising, and dependence on government “flaks” for information—determine what news gets reported and how.Footnote 10 Since then, the idea of government propaganda has been at the center of political communication studies on the media, and most scholars agree that foreign policy reporters practiced “the journalism of deference” in this period, as William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang describe the reporting on Iran from 1951 to 1978.Footnote 11 Because so much news coverage in the 1940s and 1950s—especially in Time magazine—did reflect a narrow, black-and-white Cold War mindset, it has been easy to blame or dismiss a generation of reporters as gullible, deferential, or patriotic.Footnote 12 Important works have painted reporters in this period in the broad strokes of having a more passive “Cold War mindset,” adhering to a “Cold War consensus,” or “embrac[ing] dichotomous black-and-white thinking.”Footnote 13 Reliance on government sources, news stories, and journalists’ memories obscures that story about the men who consciously determined the dominant foreign policy narratives.Footnote 14 Among the few to push back against this dominant narrative is historian Steven Casey, who has explored the complex relationships between the government and news outlets during the Korean War and demonstrated that “both institutions were far from monoliths,” using a broad archival base to explain how complicated public opinion was during the Korean War.Footnote 15 A recent turn toward history of the media among political historians has brought an archivally based focus to an influential group that believed itself to be writing the first draft of history.Footnote 16 Under-used archival sources from the crucial period in which the United States created its Cold War policies show a complex story about anticommunism and suggest that few reporters, in Washington at least, held illusions about the lofty goals of American foreign policy, nor were they duped by officials. Archival papers do not show a natural, patriotic consensus but instead demonstrate how newspapermen's social lives, which in Washington were indistinguishable from their professional identities, created a climate that delineated the range of opinions acceptable for public consumption and tolerated greater criticism and frankness only behind closed doors. Because so much information was shared in private spaces, the reporters who wanted to remain on the diplomatic beat of their newspapers—and on the invitation lists required to do that job—needed to maintain a trustworthy reputation.
There was no national consensus on liberal internationalism after World War II. In addition to competing with strains of isolationism that had never disappeared, internationalists had disagreements and divisions among themselves—about degrees of interventionism, military preparedness, and the extent of U.S. participation in supranational organizations like the United Nations, to name just three cleavages.Footnote 17 Among this diplomatic-reporting cohort of friends and club members who ate together, worked together, and put on skits together, there were broad consensuses forged in the physical spaces of Washington, though: internationalist and Atlantic-oriented. The consensus about foreign policy was not that communism was evil and must be stopped. Most diplomatic reporters took the threat of communism seriously, but not so seriously they could not joke about it and make it a laughing matter. Instead, these diplomatic reporters’ chief concern, shared with many policy makers, was that Western Europe, saved twice already in a thirty-year period, must be preserved and allowed to thrive. To thrive, it must have ongoing access to the world's raw materials, from its own former colonies and other developing nations, which would require American leadership to maintain traditional colonial power dynamics. The private discourse among the white men of the press perpetuated affinity for white, Western nations, which in turn shaped their printed narratives. Meanwhile, the voices of dissent and critique coming from the Black press, socialist press, and occasional political leftists—all of which anticipated the revisionism of Cold War historians—were not allowed to penetrate the segregated sphere that white, male reporters created for themselves in the physical spaces of Washington: at the Mayflower Hotel for background luncheons with public officials, in the Statler Hotel ballroom for Gridiron Club banquets, or at private “seminars” with public officials.Footnote 18
Hypocrisy was a common theme of reporters’ private journals, letters, and conversations. Wallace Deuel, one of Harsch's many friends in Washington's diplomatic press corps, wrote in a similar vein as Harsch on hypocrisy. Deuel was also from the Midwest and during World War II had taken a leave of absence from the Chicago Daily News to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, then briefly for the State Department setting up operations in occupied Germany.Footnote 19 Several times in his post–World War II notes and letters, Deuel compared Americans’ attitudes on sex with their attitudes on foreign policy—that is, that they “do the same things everybody else does, but they honestly don't realize/think they do.” He wrote in private notes in February 1946, “Americans have no idea what their conduct looks like to other people, and are sincerely outraged when the others call things by their right names.” Deuel and Harsch had both been based in Europe for periods before the war and were especially attuned to international attitudes, as were most of their fellow diplomatic reporters. They spent as much time developing sources on Washington's Embassy Row as at the State Department, to the chagrin of the State Department. “The others, for their part, see little but the rankest kind of hypocrisy in the American attitude,” Deuel continued, referring to foreigners. “You can do anything you like, provided you don't call it by its right name or give your real reasons for doing it. This is particularly the case with regard to power.”Footnote 20 While the white men of the mainstream press did not critique foreign policy in terms of race, as members of the Black mainstream press did, they nevertheless had a realpolitik assessment of U.S. motives that were considerably less altruistic than readers believed, or as triumphalist as traditionalist foreign policy historians ventured at that time.Footnote 21
The Washington press corps’ social spaces allowed journalists to create a worldview that acknowledged the hypocrisy of the U.S. government in private but seldom in print, while ignoring their own. As diplomatic reporters gathered to discuss America's position as a new kind of imperial power, as they had been doing since the war, the public/private divide of their social and professional spaces helped create one conversation within Washington and another for public consumption. The published record, which did not always reflect the knowledge and thinking of journalists, has colored the way historians have thought about journalists achieving a Cold War–based consensus.Footnote 22 Consensus was not natural but was built by networks of reporters in the physical spaces they controlled in the capital. Reporters recognized a hypocrisy in America's postwar power grab that they kept to themselves for professional reasons, so as not to alienate readers and newspaper executives, and for personal reasons, to prove their trust and loyalty in a closed group. Uncovering the private conversations permits a better understanding of why there appeared to be a sphere of consensus among reporters in the first draft of Cold War history and why, in private, the sphere was much less circumscribed than was publicly evident at the time.
Background Sessions of Trustworthy Men
Clubs, physical spaces, luncheons, and stag (men-only) banquets made Washington an insular town where it was easy to have one conversation within the city's limits and another facing the public. Literal boys’ clubs—facilitating relationships between members, bonding them together through annual rituals, and creating outsiders—played an important role in establishing newspaper norms and consensuses, in determining what should be reported or withheld, and what constituted legitimate news. Like in the business world, described by the historian Pamela Walker Laird in Pull, elite reporters used private clubs to maintain control over their profession and—in closing themselves to reporters with different backgrounds and experiences—reinforced the echo chamber.Footnote 23 The constant fellowship and togetherness of white, male reporters could then inhibit dissent outside that circle.
While private conversations and elite club memberships had dominated the capital since its founding, the background reporting sessions between reporters and officials that were such a staple of early–Cold War reporting had their origins in World War II.Footnote 24 The war provided an important precedent for the reporters who would then go on to report on the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and the practice of background and off-the-record sessions confounds the idea of a press that believed itself to be at the height of objectivity in this period.Footnote 25 The practice of objectivity in journalism—the professional norm since the 1930s—was meant to protect reporters from charges of bias by prescribing that they gather attributable evidence. Early twentieth-century press critics had accused journalists and media organizations of being propagandists: in the Progressive Era, for capitalism and big business, and in World War I and the Russian Revolution, for the government.Footnote 26 As a result, journalists in the 1920s moved toward professionalism and objectivity to restore the public's faith in the media. Objectivity included skepticism toward sources, using a variety of sources to create a fair portrait of the news, and attributing news so that readers could form their own judgments about its reliability. The World War II background sessions, from which reporters could not attribute material, meant they and their news organizations were expected to take responsibility for printing information from government sources they often mistrusted. From its inception, the practice threatened the ideal they had of objectivity. Yet because of World War II, these private meetings between reporters and officials became a standard way for officials to convey information and for reporters to come to understandings with each other and their sources.Footnote 27 On a practical level, the men running the war were too busy to provide confidential information on an individual basis; background conferences were more efficient. And unlike a press conference, which anyone accredited to the department could attend, private meetings included only the men that the other reporters trusted.
“Newsmen,” as they called themselves, did not have a sense of community obligation or fellowship toward women reporters, who were deemed less trustworthy and who were usually excluded from the discourse. In November 1941, a U.S. senator from Maine was so impressed with the ability of a female Washington correspondent to keep a conversation confidential—since, as he put it, “We sometimes think that women have trouble in keeping secrets”—that he wrote her publisher to compliment her.Footnote 28 Men were presumed trustworthy until proven otherwise, as some men inevitably were; meanwhile, a woman keeping a confidence was so unexpected that it occasioned a letter of praise. Issues of trustworthiness that had seemed merely important before the war could be justified as life-and-death matters of national security, especially after the introduction of nuclear weapons in 1945. In a letter to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes late in 1945, his friend, the columnist Joseph Alsop, characterized the issue of trust as the difference between “those newspapermen who are, so to speak, only of press conference caliber, and those whose background, training and reliability fits them for fuller disclosure of the facts.”Footnote 29 His barely coded language was clear: women, African Americans, foreigners, and unconnectable (out of Washington's mainstream) white men were “only of press conference caliber.” The true gentlemen of the press, however, could be entrusted with sensitive information. Even newspaper publishers or editors who had women on their staffs did not risk assigning them to the growing foreign policy beat because they would have missed the important private sessions and conversations from which they were excluded. That quirk of diplomatic reporting meant greater homogeneity among the reporters covering that beat than any other area in Washington and, in turn, created more homogenous—often masculine—news frames.Footnote 30
Early examples of the new system of exclusive information sharing indicate the precedents set, including the players involved. An important official source during and after World War II was George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff who would become Secretary of State in 1947 and namesake of the European Recovery Program (ERP), or Marshall Plan. On a Friday morning late in October 1942, Marshall held what one columnist called in his diary a “small conference hand-picked.”Footnote 31 Marshall's office was filled with what he and his Washington advisors considered to be trustworthy men, and his agenda was obvious to that hand-selected audience. “Evident purpose … to clear up confusion over divided command in South Pacific,” the columnist Raymond Clapper wrote in his notes.Footnote 32 In the South Pacific, the Allies’ offensive Guadalcanal campaign had been ongoing since August and would last until February of the following year. While the campaign was ultimately an Allied victory, news out of the South Pacific that year was often bleak, and the competing strategies that Ernest J. King of the Navy and Douglas MacArthur of the Army advocated sowed anxiety at home about divided factions. Even when there was good news, as at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, which the Allies won, there was rivalry. Clapper had heard of the rivalry from the Under Secretary of the Navy himself, James Forrestal, who had told Clapper off-the-record while having a private lunch with him in June, “Navy men a little bitter at Army publicity over Midway….”Footnote 33 Marshall, by holding “seminars,” as the men first called these innovative sessions, was trying to fix some of these public relations issues. He was successful. The morning after Marshall's conference, the New York Herald Tribune ran a front-page story about the Army's appreciation of the Navy. The article cited a thank-you letter Marshall had written to King for safely convoying troops through enemy waters and quoted from the letter that, “In this war, as in no other in our history, the Army and Navy are fighting together….”Footnote 34 The feel-good story elided the bitterness between the branches that was common knowledge within Washington and brought reporters into active complicity with the government.
In addition to only including men, these seminars included only white reporters, since reporters for the Black press were outsiders to their newspaper brethren. In fact, newspapermen of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which determined access to the congressional press galleries at the Capitol building, banned Black reporters from entry until 1947, and only relented then because Congress intervened.Footnote 35 One conversation at a secret Pentagon meeting with Marshall and reporters on August 25, 1943, demonstrates why the men would have believed they needed this unacknowledged precedent that no Black reporters should be included in background sessions. According to a Washington Post reporter's private memo to his publisher, Marshall “was particularly forceful on the subject of negroes in the Army. He said that they were no good as combat troops, as the last war proved, and that it was getting to be a terrific problem as to what to do with this class of troops.”Footnote 36 Not only the troops, but also the Black press itself came under scrutiny as an “other” in the same conversation. Marshall had continued, according to the memo, “With this situation existing, the negro press was screaming about discrimination, while responsible army men know that these troops cannot be trusted in combat.”Footnote 37 The Black press, this line of thinking promoted, were irresponsible “screamers,” the last sort of men who could be included in a hush-hush meeting. Black newspapers had a history of public advocacy, long recognizing that the objectivity for which the white press strived was itself racialized, and this ironically, yet unsurprisingly, made them appear biased to white officials like Marshall and his boss, Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to wage a private campaign against Black newspapers during the war.Footnote 38 Roosevelt and other officials were especially annoyed at the “double-V” campaign—victory over fascism abroad and over racism at home—begun in the Philadelphia Tribune, which had widespread purchase among African Americans during World War II.Footnote 39 Meanwhile, the Army at this time was promising to rectify discrimination and trying to promote a narrative of racial harmony, and those were the statements that the white press published. The racist comments officials made in background sessions within the walls of the new Pentagon complex remained there.
Reporters wrote up their notes with “top secret” or “confidential” typed at the top of each page. By the end of the war, the officials who participated in this new, confidential information economy understood that top secret meant only “to be withheld from the public,” not from other influential and trusted newsmen, who were essential to building policy consensus. For instance, when the future Secretary of State James F. Byrnes returned from the Yalta conference in February 1945 and briefed Turner Catledge, a New York Times reporter and later its managing editor, Catledge wrote his editors: “What he told me was, of course, in the strictest of confidence so far as he is concerned, but he knew I would pass the essential parts of the information along to my associates on The New York Times.”Footnote 40
Within a few years of the advent of background sessions, the guidelines governing them became known within the capital as the “Lindley Rule,” after Ernest Lindley, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, who was a frequent background dinner participant and organizer. As with most new social systems, naming the guidelines was important to ensuring their continuation. The ground rules remained unwritten, though, until Alfred Friendly of the Washington Post wrote a widely circulated memo for his staff in July 1958, defining rules for quoting sources. The memo was so famous in reporting circles that it was remembered and reprinted forty years later in Nieman Reports, a journalism trade publication.Footnote 41 Under his definition of “For background only,” Friendly wrote:
This convention, also known as “Without attribution,” “The Lindley Rule,” “The Rule of Compulsory Plagiarism,” or simply as “Don't quote me,” is a common one and is used—or should be—when a person of considerable importance or delicate position is discussing a matter in circumstances in which his name cannot be used for reasons of public policy or personal vulnerability.
Friendly then outlined the obvious problem with background sessions: “It is often abused by persons who want to sink a knife or do a job without risking their own position or facing the consequences to themselves.… In some cases, however, the ‘background only’ procedure is legitimate and provides an honest, worthwhile story which could not be obtained in any other way.”Footnote 42 From the beginning of background dinners, reporters were wary of sources who were settling personal scores or launching trial balloons—leaking a policy to determine its popularity before committing to it. Reporters traded in information, though, meaning that obtaining some worthwhile stories outweighed the risk of abuse and ensured their silence when officials called for it. But the very background system that ironed out dissent itself remained a contentious practice. In a 1966 oral history interview, Chalmers Roberts, the Washington Post's diplomatic reporter since 1953, recalled an early meeting that his predecessor as the Post's first diplomatic reporter, Ferdinand Kuhn, had skipped, “on the grounds that the Secretary of State had no business operating this way. If he wanted to say what he wanted to say, he should say it on the public record. A lot of people felt that way. This was then really a new technique, but naturally we bent to it because we couldn't escape it,” Roberts admitted.Footnote 43 Once background dinners became part of routine reporting in Washington, there was no escape. Because their livelihood depended on it, these white, male reporters—the only ones privy to outside information—tolerated having one conversation within Washington and another that was public-facing.
Saving Western Europeans, “A First Class People”
On May 10, 1947, the Gridiron Club dinner—the elite off-the-record session that topped them all—took place, two months after President Harry Truman requested from Congress a $400 million aid package for Greece and Turkey. In his speech, the president had outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine, an interventionist policy that called for defeating communism wherever it emerged.Footnote 44 The dinner provides a glimpse into the range of acceptable conversation that could take place in Washington's private spaces, as well as a broader vision of how these spaces reinforced dominant views. The Gridiron Club, founded in 1885, was a group of the most elite Washington journalists, as determined by themselves, who twice a year put on a banquet with skits and song parodies poking fun at policy makers and politicians.Footnote 45 The Gridiron Club's spring 1947 banquet had all the elements that typified those dinners: attendance by nearly every top government official, influential reporter, and publisher; a dress code of white tie and tails; terrapin stew, the Club's signature dish; performances in blackface; and jokes about foreign policy that revealed the depth of understanding of the limits and even demerits of U.S. intervention that these same men did not acknowledge in public writings.
In 1941, the Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who would become famous for expanding the internationalist wing of the Republican Party and helping to establish the United Nations, had written a magazine story about the history of the Gridiron in Liberty magazine, praising its men and making a case for its importance. “It is doubtful whether any other group of fifty private citizens have wielded a greater indirect influence upon the public questions which the glow of the Gridiron has illuminated—although any conscious thought of ‘exerting influence’ is farthest from the Gridiron thought or purpose,” Vandenberg wrote, continuing:
But one of these Gridiron “skits,” as they are called, may succeed so conclusively in projecting the innate absurdity of something in the national prospectus that even its sponsors may conclude not to risk a national reaction in kind. I think I have seen exactly that thing happen more than once in the twenty-six consecutive dinners which I have been lucky enough to be invited to attend.Footnote 46
While we do not know if the spring 1947 dinner provoked policy changes, we do know it was an opportunity for 500 of the nation's elites to come together in Washington, in the midst of a foreign policy sea change, and work through the new consensus.
During the May 1947 dinner, the foreign affairs skit—a staple of the Gridiron show—jabbed at the Truman Doctrine, with Truman and Marshall at the head table. One of the chief criticisms of that policy was that the more communistic a country was leaning, the more money it would receive, so that it behooved a country to pretend to be more susceptible to communism than it was. Communism was a laughing matter. The skit took place in the fictitious kingdom of the cannibals, the only place where Truman Doctrine aid supposedly had yet to reach. The stage had a man-sized kettle over an electric fire, a gaudy throne for the cannibal king, and a palm tree with a prop payphone in it. The chorus of cannibals for this skit were all wearing blackface, which was a common Gridiron costume. Amateur minstrelsy was a tradition in white men's fraternal organizations and, as the historian Rhae Lynn Barnes argues, was also “integral to domestic and international imperialism.”Footnote 47 Skits like these seamlessly connected domestic racism to the racism of pro-colonial foreign policy. The scene opened with the cannibal king, played by Lewis Wood of the New York Times, saying to the cannibal treasury secretary, played by Peter Brandt of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Mister Sekatary of de Treasury, you look lower dan a Chinese dollar.”Footnote 48
“Chief, I aint any lower dan de royal trashury. We is plumb broke,” Brandt responded, in the dialect written out in the script.
In the skit, the secretary of the treasury informs the king about the Truman Doctrine, prompting all the cannibals to sing about it to the tune of “The Riff Song,” from the operetta The Desert Song. This number included lyrics about the cannibals getting “paid just to keep the Reds away/Soak Uncle Sam for a billion bucks or so,” as well as a call to “Massa Truman, save us please from Old Red Joe.”
The Gridironer playing Soviet premier Joseph Stalin then entered to sing about the glories of the Soviet Union, until the Gridironer playing Secretary Marshall arrived for a duet with Stalin to the tune of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from the popular Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun. Here is Marshall, halfway through the song:
I can drop a rocket into your hip-pocket.
I can bounce uranium right on Russia's cranium.
Stalin: I can use a Trojan horse.
Marshall: You mean THAT GUY HANK?
Stalin (spoken): Da!
Marshall: We think he's rank.Footnote 49
“Hank” referred to Henry Wallace, part of the late Franklin Roosevelt's Brains Trust and now persona non grata in Washington. Wallace was seen as someone reciting the Soviet propaganda line that U.S. economic aid was politically menacing—supporting “British imperialist policy,” as he called it in a widely reported speech.Footnote 50 The realities of imperialism were not meant to be spoken out loud, as Wallace was doing, but only in off-the-record luncheons and songs. A Wallace character soon entered the scene dressed as a Boy Scout to sing “You Can't Win the Peace with a Gun,” to the tune of “You Can't Get a Man with a Gun,” also from Annie Get Your Gun. Wallace was supposed to be seen as a ridiculous, naïve dupe, since the common agreement by now in Washington was that guns—or missiles—were necessary to winning the peace. Peace was waged, as war was, with uranium, on Russia's cranium, so to speak.
The skit ended with the arrival of a Gridironer playing the State Department advisor John Foster Dulles, who was still six years away from becoming Secretary of State, but who at that time was being mentioned for that job in the hypothetical Republican administration that polls favored to win in 1948.Footnote 51 The syndicated columnist Marquis (Mark) Childs, playing Dulles, sang that the United States was coming after the British Empire to the tune of “California Here I Come”:
The Turks and Greeks said, Don't be late,
Save us from an awful fate.
Leave your dollars at the gate.
British Empire here we come.Footnote 52
Empire, in particular, was a common point of contention in discussion of America's proper role in the post–World War II international order. In February 1947, Marshall had spoken off-the-record to diplomatic reporters at a session at the same hotel about one of the main hypocrisies that the United States was facing in its postwar task: imperial power. Wallace Deuel summarized Marshall's assessment in his notes: “Long critical of the British Empire, the U.S. must now accept responsibilities for doing at least some of the things the British have done in the past.” Deuel then quoted Marshall directly as having said, “It causes quite a wrench in your thinking.”Footnote 53 Throughout the period of U.S. wartime and postwar expansion, there was acceptance of how problematic imperialism was, as the United States publicly declared that it believed in self-determination for free peoples but also supported its Allies, the colonizing French and British. Empire was inescapable, no matter how much a wrench it threw into one's thinking. British Empire, here we come.
In a front-page Christian Science Monitor article in late April 1947, Joseph Harsch characterized the Truman Doctrine as an “uneconomic and ideological struggle with Russia,” which, fortunately, he believed, was already being abandoned in favor of an economic and non-ideological one. He wrote about the “major shift” from a weak and costly plan to one that focused on “the heart of western civilization, which is western Europe.”Footnote 54 A reader—a World War II veteran living in Princeton—wrote to Harsch that Americans were not being told the real story of why the country was opposing Soviet expansion in Western Europe. He doubted that what the U.S. had in mind really was improving the conditions of Europeans but instead its own interests, which could lead to backing “regimes which will first protect their and our interests,” rather than improving political and economic conditions. The United States had done this in the past, he noted. “If we do it in the future, our hypocrisy will one day become evident, and I fear for our nation in the storm which will break.”Footnote 55
Harsch did not address all of the reader's concerns in his response, but he replied with a frank discussion of the difference between what leaders said publicly and privately. He wrote:
May I say that so far as I have been able as a reporter to determine the real reason in the minds of Washington's top diplomatic planners for our resistance to communist expansion it is the conflict of economic and political interests. The ideological argument is used for the purpose of obtaining Congressional action and popular approval, but in talking privately to the men who make policy I find this issue usually played way down and frequently ignored all together.Footnote 56
Harsch went so far as to say that the U.S. would be having similar concerns about stabilizing Russia's borders if it were ruled by Peter the Great instead of Stalin. Harsch's response—that “the anti-communist crusade is a device” and that even if Truman was not clear on that point, Secretary of State Marshall was—was likely of little comfort to the reader, who may have hoped for a similar frankness on the front page of his chosen newspaper.Footnote 57
Daily newspapers covered the many variables that went into foreign policy, and insiders discussed hypocrisy among themselves, but only outsiders, like the most famous iconoclastic reporter of this period, I. F. Stone, stated the hypocrisy outright.Footnote 58 “Only naivete and ignorance can accept Mr. Truman's pharisaical self-portrait of American policy,” Stone wrote in 1949. “A government which constantly bypasses the UN, curries favor with Peron, does business with any number of military dictators in Latin America, deals under the table with Franco, interferes in Italian elections, and supports reactionaries in Greece has too many motes in its own eye to preach a dubious freedom in Eastern Europe and China.”Footnote 59
One month after the Gridiron dinner, Marshall announced the second major foreign policy initiative of the Truman administration—the increase in economic aid to Europe that Harsch had reported on in April—in a June 1947 commencement speech at Harvard. The Marshall Plan, as it became known, required a major public relations effort to get passage through Congress.Footnote 60 The historian Thomas Borstelmann in The Cold War and the Color Line has demonstrated that the Cold War consensus was based in a white supremacy that valued Western Europeans over colonial peoples.Footnote 61 This was, indeed, the consensus actively built in the Statler Hotel. The affinity that reporters and foreign policy elites felt for Western Europe and the importance placed on maintaining strong ties with Atlantic allies had roots in a worldview that privileged whiteness—that condoned blackface.
In selling the ERP to white reporters, the Under Secretary of State, Robert Lovett, emphasized, according to Deuel's notes from a background session: “The Europeans are ‘first class people.’ ‘The fundamentals of life are still there.’ The land is there, technology is advanced, etc. ‘Damn it all,’ he can't see why it can't be saved. It was ‘one of the nicest places in the world.’”Footnote 62 The Marshall Plan was envisioned as aid only for these “first class” people. Lovett framed ERP as a way for the United States to export surplus capital, a distinctly revisionist understanding. He explicitly put the British Empire analogy into the context of a search for markets, the heart of what William A. Williams would call the tragedy of American diplomacy. Deuel wrote detailed, confidential notes of the meeting, noting that Lovett had said, “America's position now is analagous [sic] to that of Britain after the Napoleonic wars. Capital is accumulating in the U.S. at a terrific rate. The British exported capital then, we can do it now. But fiscal stability is required in the places to which capital could be exported.”Footnote 63 Indeed, private conversations in this period shared more similarity with the Cold War revisionist discourse of economic determinism than with the traditionalist narrative they ostensibly reflected.Footnote 64 That is, reporters helped maintain the fiction that the United States was not building an empire, or searching for markets, or promoting colonialism as a way to maintain access to raw materials in colonies, even when they discussed those motives among themselves. The administration was not propagandizing them into patriotic anticommunist submission. Indeed, in this early phase of the Cold War, the government's propaganda efforts were barely developed, and the institutions designed to support Cold War foreign policy were still nascent.Footnote 65
Despite what the administration said publicly about its priorities, and regardless of the deeply ingrained anticommunist attitudes of much of the country, the threat of communism was secondary in Washington. Within Washington, the narrative was about having rubber, tin, sugar, and manganese from European colonial holdings, factors sometimes acknowledged in print but that appeared more often and more bluntly in private notes. It was about saving a first-class people, since it would be ridiculous to prioritize those uncivilized peoples who barely had “Sekataries of de Trashury.” Underdeveloped areas, as they were called, did receive aid from a separate allocation of money in 1949 with the Point Four Program, which assisted nations where the technology and institutions were not advanced enough, the reasoning went, for the economic aid then being given to civilized nations. From the beginning, though, the Point Four program was intertwined with the U.S. project to procure minerals, even as the government recognized the need to distance itself—rhetorically, certainly—from racialized exploitation.Footnote 66 Seventy years later, we remember the Marshall Plan and have all but forgotten Point Four assistance, which reflects the amount of money and press coverage each received.Footnote 67 The legacy of the Marshall Plan was one of European recovery, while the legacy of the Point Four program ended up being a less savory narrative of access to raw materials and developing industry for the West, with little of the promised uplift or poverty relief for the recipient nations.Footnote 68
Outside the Sphere
The discourse that was private among the white, male journalists whom the diplomatic press corps comprised, and kept out of white newspapers, was clearly visible in the Black press, whose reporters had no invitations to lose and few social functions with State Department dignitaries. A front-page headline from September 1946 in the Atlanta Daily World, “Africans Stay Poor While Europeans Rob Rich Mines,” ran above a story from the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for Black newspapers that meant the story had wide distribution. The article began with the explanation that, “Poverty stricken Ashanti people must remain poor while their wealthy mineral mines are robbed by the British.”Footnote 69 The exploitation by European colonial power, which publicly was only part of the discourse of the Black press, was privately under discussion and de-emphasized by the white press. No white newspaper could have run a similar story and had its reporter ever again invited to an off-the-record or background session. The white writers for socialist newspapers, like Stone, who did make those critiques, had long been purged from insider gatherings.Footnote 70 The Black press publicly characterized anticommunism from the beginning as a project of U.S.–British imperialism. One columnist in the influential Chicago Defender wrote in May 1946 about the quest for oil in the Middle East:
The truth is that behind the curtain of Kremlin-baiting lurked a couple of unsavory characters who were engaged in a little drama of their own. They could be named Wall Street and London City, respectively identified as U.S. and British imperialism. Their joint aim is to plunder as much of the wealth and resources of the Near East as they can.Footnote 71
These articles were written before the passage of ERP, legislation that most high-profile Black organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), ultimately endorsed, though not without registering disapproval of its inherent racial bias. W. O. Walker of the Cleveland Call and Post, in a column that was then also excerpted in the Baltimore Afro-American, wrote:
[T]he Marshall plan is nothing short of being the biggest appeasement effort ever put forward by the American government to save England and several other European countries in which American banks and investment houses have large financial holdings. … As I see it, the Marshall Plan simply is trying to provide a breathing spell for these European nations until they can better organize themselves to take more wealth out of the hides and lands of their exploited people.Footnote 72
Walker was a fairly radical columnist, but even influential Black activists in the mainstream who supported the Marshall Plan spoke of its discrimination, which was overlooked in the white press. During initial congressional hearings on the funding of the ERP in February 1948, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while he supported the Marshall Plan, he thought it should be applied more broadly to non-European countries also affected by the war. The page-one headline in the Atlanta Daily World proclaimed about that testimony: “Aid Others Beside Europeans—White.”Footnote 73 “Let Marshall Plan Help All, Senate Told,” was the Baltimore Afro-American's more subdued version.Footnote 74 Some version of the story seems to have appeared in every major Black newspaper over the next ten days.
White's testimony seems not to have been mentioned in the mainstream white press at all, except at the end of a story by Alfred Friendly in the Washington Post summarizing the testimony of several Marshall Plan supporters and noting only that White had “urged the Marshall Plan as a step in ‘human kindness.’”Footnote 75 Meanwhile, the New York Times, the publisher of which was friends with the financier Bernard Baruch, printed Baruch's testimony in favor of the Marshall Plan in full around the same time. Baruch's statement is one of the only times “colonies” appears in the same story as the Marshall Plan in a major white newspaper during the congressional hearings, and the context was not one of racial critique.Footnote 76 Instead, Baruch said that the United States should take measures that would indicate to the world: “We stand ready to assure a market for the productive labor of all peoples for the next five years. Bring out the resources that lie in the ground. Go out into your colonies and the far reaches of the world and tap their riches. Produce! You will be able to sell it all.”Footnote 77 The Times seems otherwise to have been silent on the colonial issue, the critique of the Black press not penetrating the sphere of consensus built in white Washington around support for the Marshall Plan.
In March 1948, the Chicago Defender decided to take the same line as the NAACP: to endorse passage of the Marshall Plan, with the caveat that “some effort must be made by our government to extend this foreign aid to the non-white nations who have suffered as much from the ravages of war. … The Negro republics and the colonial peoples should be counted in the budget for world peace.”Footnote 78 The caveat was not one the white press embraced or seems even to have covered, apart from noting the necessity for Western Europe to increase production from its colonies to be able to take full advantage of American plans. The diplomatic reporter Ferdinand Kuhn had a front-page story in the Washington Post, based on a report by the President's Committee on Foreign Aid (the Harriman Committee), which ended with a list of nine necessary natural resources in alphabetical order, from bauxite to tungsten, and where specifically those resources could be obtained. The headline read: “U.S. to Seek Rare Minerals from Europe,” but the article specified in its first paragraph that the materials were from “Europe and its colonies” (emphasis added), the most important of which was Belgian Congo. Of the list of nine specific materials that came from the Harriman report, only one actually came from Europe—tungsten, from Portugal, the cost of which was deemed too high to make it attractive to the United States anyway.Footnote 79
The Marshall Plan was controversial in Congress, which is why there was such a huge promotional effort, with critics on the floor of the Senate most often making arguments based on domestic labor being disadvantaged, domestic consumers being disadvantaged, or an isolationist foreign policy. Less well remembered are the critics who echoed those of the Black press. For instance, when the isolationist Senator William Langer of North Dakota gave a speech saying that Great Britain was using American dollars to “exploit further colonial Africa,” the content of the speech was covered only by the white press in the Chicago Tribune, at least among large-circulation regional newspapers, and in several Black newspapers.Footnote 80 The Chicago Tribune was often voted the least reliable newspaper by Washington correspondents—meaning the white correspondents who were polled—and at one point State Department officials discussed whether they could just leave out the Tribune man from a luncheon they were organizing to discuss the Marshall Plan's administration. (They decided that they could not, since he wrote for a major white daily: “I don't see how we can gracefully leave him out.”Footnote 81)
The historian Penny Von Eschen has demonstrated that the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan curbed the ability of Black leaders and the Black press to speak out against U.S. policy abroad.Footnote 82 Compared to the white press, though, the Black press was publicly willing to step outside the spheres of consensus and legitimate controversy.Footnote 83 Even as Black editorials grew more muted later in the 1940s, as Von Eschen argues, Black public intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois continued their criticism and were covered by the Black press. Their critique, therefore, was still part of the mainstream public conversation among African American newspaper readers. DuBois also had a regular column in the Chicago Defender, which he used in November 1947 to discuss the Marshall Plan:
The report of the European conference on the Marshall Plan brings forward again the role of colonies. If we are not careful we will fail to realize how the value of the raw material in colonies in this new era of capitalism, may easily stop the broad plan for colonial emancipation laid down by the charter of the United Nations at San Francisco.Footnote 84
The sphere of legitimate controversy was wider in the Black press than in the white press, although each group recognized the same facts in private conversation: that raw materials in colonies were valuable, not to the colonized but the colonizers. Why did it matter if Indonesia went communist? Not because communism was godless and evil, but because, as a State Department source told Wallace Deuel in November 1949 on “BACKGROUND,” which the reporter wrote for himself in capital letters in his notes: “Indonesia is vitally important because of its strategic position, its production of vital raw materials—which are especially important for the success of ERP—including foodstuffs [and] rubber and tin and sugar.”Footnote 85 The Marshall Plan could only work if the structures of colonialism remained intact, in contradiction to the public U.S. commitment to self-determination for all peoples.
Even those Black journalists who distanced themselves from radicals like DuBois and his alleged communist affiliations, as many did, agreed with his main points and were not, in fact, afraid to say so in print. DuBois gave a speech in April 1949 in which he said if the U.S. government's lies about Soviets were “similar to the lies which Americans have been taught to believe during the past three hundred years about the Negro, God help America!”Footnote 86 Arthur Fauset, in a column in the Philadelphia Tribune, commented, “One need not be a Communist to agree with Dr. DuBois. And no man should be accused of being disloyal to our country for pointing out such a telling fact. It is time for us Americans to be willing to face the truth and to do something about it other than point the finger of blame in the other man's face.”Footnote 87 Again, that idea of American hypocrisy commonplace in the Black press and the Black experience occurred only in private for the white press. In private, the acknowledgment of U.S. hypocrisy is often breathtaking. One of the most striking examples is a 1942 letter that Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the New York Times publisher and a pro-British internationalist, wrote—but did not send—to Life magazine. Life had been critical of Britain trying to maintain her Empire, arguing that it was preventing the Allies from opening a second front in the war. Sulzberger wrote in this never-mailed letter, “If the British were to use the same method we employed in solving our own Indian question it would produce photographs for Life even more circulation-building than slaughtered Chinese or Nazi executioners at work. But that isn't quite fair; times have changed since we cheated and tricked and finally mowed down the men, women and children that we called Indians….”Footnote 88
The mainstream liberal internationalist reporters of the 1940s and the 1950s can only be regarded as somehow less jaded or more patriotically naïve about the United States and its history and motives if the opinions they chose to keep behind closed doors or in the unsent files of their archives are ignored. Further, white reporters did not acknowledge unsavory facts, not for fear of being accused of disloyalty to their government, but of disloyalty to each other and to the Western Civilization they cherished, not to mention the readers on whom their livelihood depended. They needed to remain within the framework of American self-righteousness to keep their audience and their jobs, not because of blind patriotism or misplaced fealty to objectivity. As the Christian Science Monitor reporter Joseph Harsch wrote in 1953 to a Columbia University history professor who inquired about an article: “The events as I, and I think most of my colleagues see them, sometimes run counter to the current of American folklore. Were I to write the story of Washington today exactly as I see it I would soon alienate much of my audience and in the process, deprive myself entirely of an audience.”Footnote 89 The folklore dominated that “story of Washington” that Harsch and his colleagues told.
Foreign policy strategies shifted during the early years of the Cold War, as cabinet members and a president came and went. But with each new policy came a similar conversation—one that appeared different in public and in private. For instance, in January 1951, when Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander of the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the New York Times's Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, wrote a summary of a “very small confidential meeting today at luncheon” with the general at the Statler Hotel. He sent it to the Times's managing editor in New York “for the Publisher's private eyes and yours.”Footnote 90 In that memo, Krock wrote of the necessity of building up fifty or fifty-five NATO divisions in Europe: “That is because only Western Europe and its colonies, possessions and related allies in the Eastern Hemisphere can furnish the things we need, and Western Europe is the cradle of our civilization. If it goes India will follow soon, for example, and where will we get our manganese?”Footnote 91 In the 1960s, these material reasons behind military buildup became part of the Marxian critique of U.S. foreign policy, which later made it seem as if mainstream liberal intellectuals and journalists had not realized the economic imperatives behind postwar foreign policy earlier, or had been duped. Reporters were not duped. The seemingly radical idea of economic determinism was accepted in the mainstream within Washington. But it was usually kept there, off-the-record, without filtering into the common understanding of the period.
The private conversation among white, male diplomatic reporters in Washington was not so radical that it would have perfectly tracked onto the arguments of Black newspapers, Soviets, or revisionists—that U.S. foreign policy was primarily driven by corporate greed. Behind closed doors, diplomatic reporters were not critiquing capitalism, which at the time they would have still equated with democracy. But they were acknowledging the economic interest that the United States had in other territories, and that expansionist, pro-colonial interests trumped any ideological concerns about anticommunism. After all, in hindsight, when the Cold War ended and global communism no longer seemed like a threat, the United States did not suddenly pull back from its overseas commitments, instead redoubling efforts to gain footholds in resource-rich countries.
Historians have the opportunity to challenge more deeply and contextualize the newspaper articles we rely on so heavily in our work. Published articles are artifacts, created under circumstances that need to be understood and interrogated before we make assumptions about the perspectives of either the writers or the news outlets behind them. Washington Post diplomatic reporter Chalmers Roberts, in a 1966 oral history interview, gives us a chilling warning: “They take too much of the official record to be the fact of the thing. But, God knows, that's the problem of all history.”Footnote 92