Theses Doctoral

For Democracy and a Caste System? World War II, Race, and Democratic Inclusion in the United States

White, Steven

Scholars of American politics often assume World War II liberalized white racial attitudes and prompted a liberal shift in the federal government's position on civil rights. This conjecture is generally premised on the existence of an ideological tension between a war against Nazism and the maintenance of white supremacy at home, particularly the southern system of Jim Crow. A possible relationship between the war and civil rights was also suggested by a range of contemporaneous voices, including academics like Gunnar Myrdal and civil rights activists like Walter White and A. Philip Randolph. However, while intuitively plausible, this relationship is generally not well-verified empirically.
Using both survey and archival evidence, I argue the war's impact on white racial attitudes is more limited than is often claimed, but that the war shaped and constrained the executive branch's civil rights agenda in ways institutional scholars have generally ignored. The evidence is presented in two parts: First, I demonstrate that for whites in the mass public, while there is some evidence of slight liberalization on issues of racial prejudice, this does not extend to policies addressing racial inequities. White opposition to federal anti-lynching legislation actually increased during the war, especially in the South. There is some evidence of racial moderation among white veterans, relative to their counterparts who did not serve. However, the range of issues is limited in scope. Second, the war had both compelling and constraining impacts on the Roosevelt and Truman administrations' actions on civil rights. The war increased the probability of any change at all occurring, but in doing so it focused the civil rights agenda on issues of military segregation and defense industry discrimination, rather than a more general anti-segregation and job discrimination agenda. In summary, World War II had myriad impacts on America's racial order. It did not broadly liberalize white attitudes, but its effect on the White House was a precursor to the form of "Cold War civil rights" that would emerge in the 1950s.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Katznelson, Ira
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 1, 2014