Whose Country, Whose World Is This: Transnational Perspectives on White Supremacy, Democracy, and the 20th-Century American Right

AHA Session 291
Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Mercury Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Kyle Burke, Hartwick College
Tejasvi Nagaraja, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Warring claims on national identity and global dominance fester and fume at the heart of twentieth century political discourse in the United States, fueled by the ever-dogged demand: whose country, whose world is this? This panel brings together historians who engage with that question in relation to the emergence of the modern U.S. right, focusing on the 1930s to 1960s. We provide a global perspective that puts disparate histories in conversation and troubles the periodization between interwar, World War, and Cold War. We are particularly interested in the transnational circulation of political ideas and practices, the influence and legacy of the interwar global Right, and the manifold operation of white supremacy in the formation and fortitude of conservative political and social movements. Together, our papers parse the collision and involution of “foreign” and “domestic” far right and white supremacist movements in relation to more mainstream conservatism, the willful denial of these connections in defense of American democracy, and at times the outright rejection of democracy by the right as a Trojan Horse for socialism that would bring about the downfall of “the West.” We also consider critiques and rejections of liberal democracy from the left, particularly from Black antiracist and antifascist activists in the heated early years of the Cold War. Our first paper leads in this vein by focusing on African American protest against the 1950s surge in popularity of Confederate symbols in the United States, often euphemistically referred to as a “flag fad” in white mainstream media outlets. In the years leading up to the ‘classical era’ of civil rights, this paper shows, Black activists drew evocative comparisons to the Nazi swastika, highlighted the hypocrisy of American democracy, and linked the fight against global white supremacy to a longer struggle over the legacy of the Civil War. Our second paper takes to task the life and times of Edwin A. Walker, the notorious far-right agitator, former military officer, and militant segregationist perhaps most well-known for surviving an assassination attempt by Lee Harvey Oswald in the months before Oswald shot JFK. Situated within Cold War civil rights historiography and recent trends in fascist studies, Walker’s military service and fringe political activities shed light on globally-circulating ideas and practices of racism, anti-Semitism, anticommunism, and “Americanism” in operation by midcentury at both the margin and center of the burgeoning American right. Our final paper traces the U.S. right’s intellectual critique of democracy from anti-New Dealer polemicist Merwin K. Hart ‘s 1940 opposition to “the arsenal of democracy” to National Review foreign-policy editor James Burnham’s Vietnam-War-era endorsement of trans-imperial “white resistance” to democracy-premised decolonization. The paper puts instances of the right’s outright anti-democratic thought in conversation with what philosopher Willmoore Kendall aptly described as “mixed feelings” for the concept on the right.
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