The Bilbonic Plague has returned

Published 11:13 pm Thursday, January 25, 2018

After the end of World War II, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were escalating. In 1947, President Harry Truman announced plans to send military aid to countries fighting communist insurgencies. But a CIA report of that year reported that “the greatest danger” was not leftist guerillas or even the Red Army, but was “the possibility of economic collapse in Western Europe and the accession to power of Communist elements.” “Accession” meaning through elections. Having lived through the collapse of the capitalist order in the Great Depression, the rise of fascism that had fed off that collapse, and the catastrophic war that had resulted, many Europeans were considering the communist alternative. This was not because they were carefully studying The Communist Manifesto. As they hungered and shivered amidst the rubble of their cities, this was “stomach communism,” a radicalism born of despair. And so, also in 1947, the Truman administration enacted the Marshall Plan, sending reconstruction aid to war-torn Europe, even to our former enemies. This was anything but charity, though; it was one of the opening salvos in the Cold War competition for the “hearts and minds” of the world.

And it was becoming a genuinely global rivalry. Millions of people across what was then called the Third World — Asia, Africa and Latin America — were regaining, or were about to regain, their independence from European imperialists. The question was, would they choose the American or the Soviet system, or neither, as their economic and political model? The answer they gave would determine the fate of entire continents.

In this struggle for hearts and minds, however, the Russians had a not-so-secret collaborator working for them inside the United States. One native born, not foreign born. In his campaign to sabotage America from within, this agent stole no government secrets, though. He mounted no cyber-attacks. He simply existed. His name was Jim Crow, the avatar of America’s own racism. The devious Russians were thus able to deploy the most effective form of propaganda — the truth. The truth being that, for “peoples of color” across the planet, America’s promise of democracy, liberty, equality, and full economic opportunity was denied to people like them inside the US. Far more than Soviet tanks, it was our own system of racial apartheid that posed an immediate danger to “the American way of life.” In 1947, the year of the Marshall Plan, the great scholar W. E. B. Dubois had commented pointedly, “It is not Russia that threatens the United States, so much as Mississippi.” Then, in reference to Mississippi’s vulgarly racist Senator, he added that the threat was “not Stalin, but Bilbo.”

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It’s not a coincidence that the first Cold War president, Harry Truman, was also the president who proposed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction, who integrated the US military, and who extended the wartime Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into peacetime. I don’t doubt Truman’s sincerity on these matters, but I also don’t doubt that his warm-hearted convictions were steeled by Cold War pragmatism.

There are lessons for today in this experience. Though it’s not a Cold War, we are clearly in competition with China, among others, for influence around the world. If we want to sign trade deals, or gain cooperation against ISIS, or encourage the spread of democracy, we need other countries’ good will. So, calling many of them “s**thole countries” might be unwise. But that is what the President of the United States did, even as Xi Jinping smiled serenely and approved still another Chinese investment in Africa.

The Bilbonic Plague of naked, self-destructive racism is back, expressed in our new/old slogan to the world — “Make America Openly Racist Again.” Surely it is clear by now — it is not China that threatens the United States, so much as Donald Trump.
Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.