This article first appeared in Made By History. The original can be accessed here.
A hundred different organized groups have urged the Biden administration to reject war with Russia, as tensions mount. Polling shows little public U.S. support for the conflict. But some voices in D.C. would like to see a more hawkish response.
We will see how today’s tensions unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Yet, in a moment like this it is worth reflecting on how peace activism has been marginalized in Washington. This marginalization has its roots in the Cold War, when voices calling for peace — especially those who highlighted how U.S. militarism harmed freedom abroad and at home — were systemically silenced. A key example comes from the work of Charlotta Bass, a Black woman, journalist and peace activist.
Bass, originally from Rhode Island, moved to California in 1910. She began working for Joseph Neimore’s newspaper The Eagle. When Neimore unexpectedly died, Bass took over the paper renaming it the California Eagle. It was one of California’s earliest Black newspapers. From the beginning the paper focused on civil rights issues in the growing Los Angeles metropolitan area; Bass combined journalism and editing with social justice activism. Bass had been a registered Republican for decades, but during World War II, her politics shifted further to the left and she began working with more progressives and leftists, including communists.
She and other progressives grew concerned after the war, as U.S. domestic and foreign policy became increasingly focused on communist containment. She was an early and outspoken critic of Cold War policy and believed that it would lead to a state of permanent war. Perhaps more important, Bass worried that a commitment to anticommunism would be catastrophic for global freedom struggles. She worried that anticommunism would empower the United States to silence its critics, specifically in the civil rights movement, and intervene in independence movements in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In 1948, she became active in Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party run for president. Wallace criticized the Truman administration’s increased militarization, the wedding of the civilian and military economies and its stand against the Soviet Union. The California Eagle became a major venue for criticizing the containment policy and anticommunist harassment, and for publicizing global peace efforts. By this point, Bass had become a recognized leader among global peace advocates. In 1949, she was invited to attend the Women’s Asiatic Conference in China to encourage the United States to open relations, but she was unable to attend.
In January 1950, President Truman announced his approval for building a hydrogen bomb. By that summer, the United States led NATO forces to intervene in the Korean’s civil war. Bass and peace advocates around the world worried about the use of nuclear weapons during the war, especially given that U.S. policymakers, including Truman, did not dismiss the possibility. She also argued that U.S. intervention in Korea came even as U.S. officials ignored or enabled racist violence at home.
That year she was invited to attend the Defenders of Peace conference in Prague. Bass noted that the goal of the attendees was to prevent another world war and the group hoped that the Stockholm Appeal, known pejoratively as the “Ban the Bomb” petition, was the best way to accomplish it. The petition, created in March 1950 by the Partisans of Peace, a group linked to the Soviet’s World Council of Peace, called for international control of nuclear weapons and charging any nation that used them with human rights abuses. Weeks after the start of the Korean War, the petition gained thousands of signatures. When Bass returned home, she used her newspaper to circulate news of the petition and to urge her readers to sign.
Unfortunately, Secretary of State Dean Acheson dismissed the petition as communist propaganda targeting those that advocated it as enemies of the state. Bass noted that Acheson and the State Department were threatened by the petition because of its success and its criticism of U.S. policy.
In 1950, while no law prevented peace advocacy, those who criticized U.S. Cold War policy and its ever-increasing military budget were denounced, harassed and sometimes imprisoned and deported.
For her efforts, she was harassed and followed by the FBI, prevented from traveling overseas, and even in her elder years when she suffered from debilitating arthritis, the FBI considered her a national security threat. Her activism led the FBI to begin monitoring her in 1942. In an effort to link her to a larger communist conspiracy, the FBI gathered evidence that included her opposition to restrictive covenants, advocacy for anti-lynching legislation and calls for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. Her connections to activists abroad and the global peace movement was also seen as suspicious.
Because of her activism, she was unable to secure a visa in 1949 and was not allowed to attend the Women’s Asiatic Conference in China. She did travel to the Prague conference, but her movements were monitored. After the conference, Bass traveled to the Soviet Union to meet again with some of the Russian delegates she met in Prague. The FBI later questioned her about the trip and ordered her to surrender her passport, which she refused to do.
The FBI added her to its security index, which identified individuals who would be detained during a national security crisis. On a few occasions, FBI agents noted that she was not a communist and tried to close her file. But FBI director J. Edgar Hoover rejected that conclusion. In 1946, an informant claimed, without evidence, that she was a concealed communist justifying surveillance which lasted until her death in 1969.
Bass would later write that the United States ignored an important opportunity with the Ban the Bomb petition. She insisted that had the country adopted its basic tenants it would not have devoted so much time and billions of dollars shunning China and the Soviet Union. She and her colleagues had warned that the Cold War, and its first theater of conflict in Korea, was a watershed moment.
Then, U.S. intervention occurred despite widespread opposition, which according to historian Marilyn Young, taught American politicians that permission was not needed to fight a war. It also justified a bloated military budget at the expense of social welfare. And it occurred at a time when anticommunists likened social welfare programs to a communist plot, undermining support for popular and necessary social programs.
By accusing peace activists of allying with the “enemy” and expanding the surveillance state to monitor them, the United States became what Bass had warned about: a nation devoted to war while continuing to deny its citizens the dignity of their basic needs. Today the United States has hundreds of bases overseas and has recently approved the largest military budget in history; meanwhile, millions of Americans have little access to housing, food and healthcare, and systemic racism persists. On the eve of the Cold War Bass warned that justice could not exist in a nation committed to war; unfortunately, policymakers failed to heed the warning.permission.