Free Speech and Religion

What the Cold War Can Teach Us About a Post-9/11 World

October 26, 2011  • Michael Green

The Justice and Society Program tackles extremism vs. pluralism

The United States is engaged in a global ideological conflict, with battlefields that are constantly shifting and a conclusion distant by years if not decades. As the sociologist Eboo Patel has observed, we may be entering an era dominated not by the proverbial twentieth-century “problem of the color line,” but rather by a “faith line” dividing religious pluralists and extremists. Meanwhile, a small but vocal group of cynical public figures and professional demagogues daily warn of the dangers of a fifth column among Muslim Americans. In this environment it is easy for citizens of goodwill to despair at the future of our social fabric.

However, some cause for optimism may be found in the summer of 1950, when the Cold War first turned hot. As North Korean troops swept down the Korean peninsula, and racially segregated* American units were sent to confront them, North Korean propagandists sensed an opportunity to exploit American racial divisions. They had reason to believe they might succeed.

Just a decade earlier, a handful of African American radicals, primarily from the most marginalized black communities, openly supported Imperial Japan’s calls for international non-white solidarity, and following World War II, civil rights activists were routinely accused of holding communist sympathies. It seemed entirely plausible to many white Americans that black citizens might identify with America’s Cold War adversaries in Asia. Rumors quickly circulated that black troops would refuse to fight and that black civilians would sabotage mobilization efforts.

In the war’s desperate first months those fears melted away, as commanders of all-white units welcomed black replacements to plug holes in the front lines. For the next three years, African Americans were integral to the war effort, and desegregation quickly spread to American troops and their families deployed around the world. The vast majority of African American soldiers and civilians dismissed claims that Korea was an international race war. As one later recalled, “That Third World stuff is fine for radicals preaching on the streets of New York, but on the battlefields it isn’t worth a god damn.”

There is one obvious difference between the Korean War era and our own: Government-sanctioned segregation no longer exists. But there are also two crucial similarities. First, relatively few Americans, then or now, have proved receptive to attempts to recruit and radicalize them by those who wish to harm their fellow citizens. During the Cold War, communism was a much greater threat to the United States than within it. The same holds true of religious extremism today, despite the claims of those who seek to exploit domestic religious divisions for political gain.

Second, it remains the case that the most effective way to counter the limited but potentially deadly appeal of violent extremism domestically is to strengthen and promote the inclusion of members of minority groups into the fabric of American social, economic, and political life. Today, religious pluralism is not only a core American value, but also, increasingly, a national security asset.

The White House recently issued a report on the need to foster interfaith partnerships, observing that “violent extremists prey on the disenchantment and alienation that discrimination creates, and they have a vested interest in anti-Muslim sentiment.” The Institute’s Justice and Society Program and other organizations have responded to this need by initiating a series of conversations about the history and current status of religious pluralism in the United States. Particularly in light of the Arab Spring and a recent rise in incendiary religious rhetoric on the campaign trail, we must continue to seek ways to guarantee the future vitality of pluralism and inclusivity in the United States. As both the early Cold War and the aftermath of 9/11 amply demonstrate, promoting inclusion while respecting our diversity can only strengthen our nation and increase the security of all Americans.

Michael Green, program manager with the Institute’s Justice & Society Program, holds a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American history.


*Despite President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order mandating “equality of opportunity” in the military, the armed forces remained overwhelmingly segregated at the start of the Korean War.