Claudia Jones Against the Korean War

Claudia Jones delivering a speech in Japan (Schomburg Center)

Peace was a central aspect of the post-World War II Black Freedom Struggle, partially because the nuclear bomb was only ever used against people of color. It was also used as leverage to contain the ambitions of newly decolonized states in Asia and Africa. The growing militarization in the United States, and its containment policy during the Cold War, was inherently racist because it justified the use of force in decolonized states to secure resource extraction for American capitalists and suppress left-wing governments. For Claudia Jones, American militarism distracted from domestic social programs and movements meant to secure equality and justice. She also argued that war endangered women by making demands for their reproductive labor to secure cannon fodder, and devalued their labor in the work force in the constant demand for war material. Claudia Jones came to believe that global peace was a prerequisite for the liberation of Black and working people and for women. When war broke out in Korea, she insisted that women had to become the vanguard of a peace movement to secure liberation.

By the time American forces engaged in the Korean Civil War in the summer of 1950, American domestic and foreign policy was devoted to containing communism at home and abroad. The peace movement was a central tenet of postwar Communist Party (CPUSA) policy, in part because the Soviet Union declared a “Struggle for Peace” movement, but also because of the fear of nuclear war. Because of its link to the Soviet Union, the Cold War peace movement was regularly harassed by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Activists like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ben Davis all faced legal harassment because of their involvement. This government pressure led several civil rights organizations and activists to mute their criticism of American Cold War policy and focus instead on domestic policy. Several organizations also purged radicals from their ranks to protect themselves from government harassment.

Claudia Jones remained undeterred and actively opposed American Cold War policy. By the postwar years, Jones was already a leading theoretician in the CPUSA and influential in defining the Party’s peace platform. She believed that women were war’s greatest victims, and the greatest hope for peace. Only months before the Korean war, Jones articulated this in her article “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace.” In it she argued that the “bi-partisan” policies of the Truman war machine were alienating the American people because of its drive toward nuclear supremacy. When Truman announced his plan to pursue a hydrogen bomb, a peace group based in Sweden began to circulate the “Ban the Bomb” pledge that would put all nuclear weapons under international control and ban the construction of new ones. Jones saw the petition as a tool to organize churches, unions, women’s groups, and civil rights organizations behind a common goal.1

She wrote that the danger in American militarism was not simply for Americans; the growing military might of the United States threatened peace abroad and at home. She instructed communist cadre to “arouse” women’s “sense of internationalism” and free them from the “agents of imperialism” that sought to send their sons off to war. War, she argued, was a tool of “monopoly capitalism” to secure its own power, divide working people against each other, and secure women’s obeisance within the domestic realm. Her answer was to build a coalition of women globally to push for disarmament, refuse to send their children to war, and embrace socialism. For Jones, capitalism required war, and the only true way to secure peace was socialism.2

With the outbreak of war in Korea, the global nuclear threat appeared imminent. Neither American military leaders nor Truman discounted using the bomb, and Truman even suggested that it was a possibility. Jones felt a greater urgency to organize women against American war-makers and on behalf of the Korean people, as well as the people of Vietnam, where the United States was increasing its involvement in the French war. In another article, “For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace!,” Jones insisted that there was a growing anti-war sentiment among American women, especially in working-class homes, as the American death toll in Korea began to mount. She quoted one mother in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose son became the first quadruple amputee of the war, that the War Department referred to his injuries as “slight” and his morale as “excellent.” The mother found it insulting and angrily made her protests to the press.3

Jones paid particular attention to Black women because, she argued, they were the most exploited by war industries and racist policies at home. To ask Black mothers to send their children to war, without protections against violence at home, was an insult. Jones argued that “lynch law” practiced in the United States manifested in the arbitrary court martial and “wanton shooting” of Black troops in Korea. She wrote that several mothers forwarded letters from their sons in Korea to the White House and the NAACP to urge intervention because of poor treatment in the military. Only three years after the alleged integration of military forces, Jim Crow continued to be practiced and lynch law left Black troops as scapegoats to a failing military strategy.4

Jones insisted that containing women was one way capitalists sought to restrict their participation in social movements, and limit progress toward the emancipation of working people, women, and Black Americans. Scholars have often misinterpreted communist women’s emphasis on women as mothers as an expression of maternalism. This focus on organizing women around both the home and children did not embrace essentialism. Rather, communists argued that the home was a site for radical social change and revolution. To undermine expected gendered ideologies in the home was a revolutionary act, and thus the home, and not just the shop floor, was a location to launch socialist revolution. In addition, to imagine that women’s reproductive labor was not (and is not) a political tool was short-sighted. At a time when containing communism was also interpreted as containing women’s social, economic, and political activism, resistance to that was in itself a political act.

Jones used her bi-weekly “Half the World” column in the Daily Worker to continue to push women to organize around peace. She claimed in an April 1951 column that American women cheered the firing of General Douglas MacArthur after he defied orders to extend the war front to the Chinese border. Calling MacArthur a “reactionary warlord,” Jones claimed that Truman was forced to fire him because of the peace movements influence. Though Truman did not change his mind on US involvement in Korea, she claimed that his actions provided women an opportunity to voice their demands for a negotiation and troop withdrawal from the country. In another column, she instructed cadre that they had to spread their message among more women who, she believed, were blinded by the true causes of war — monopoly capitalism’s goal to dominate working people, people of color, and women globally. In her columns and articles, Jones insisted that women, especially Black women, were the backbone of social justice movements, and that capitalists needed to silence women in the peace movement to secure their power.5

Jones would pay dearly for her continued involvement with the CPUSA and in the peace movement. She was arrested twice and threatened with deportation. Her second arrest in April 1951, along with several other CPUSA leaders, led to a lengthy trial and appeals process. After her conviction under the Smith Act, a law that made it illegal to advocate or belong to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government, Jones addressed the court. She questioned why the courts used her own writing to convict her but refused to read any of it into the court records. She suspected that the court knew she was right. She believed that her article on International Women’s Day and peace and another one on women in the peace movement were the reason she was arrested in the first place. She claimed that these articles simply advocated a global women’s peace movement and an end to the murder of Korean babies. Jones would serve nearly one year in a segregated prison after which she was deported to England. She believed that the legal harassment she and her comrades endured was because peace threatened “monopoly capitalism” and white supremacy, and that women’s power to organize for social justice scared capitalists seeking to secure power.

  1. Claudia Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” (1950) Political Affairs, pp. 32-33.
  2. Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” p. 34.
  3. Claudia Jones, “For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace!” (1951) Political Affairs, p. 151.
  4. Jones, “For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace!” p. 153.
  5. Claudia Jones, “Half the World,” 2 April 1950, 22 April 1951, The Daily Worker.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

Comments on “Claudia Jones Against the Korean War

  • A pioneering collection of verse was published in 1955 called Give Me A Child, by Sarah E. Wright and Lucy Smith combining militant statements against war and for Black freedom — received much praise from Black and white progressive artists and intellectuals. Both writers were close to the Communist Party, although not members.

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