Paul Robeson and the Cold War

By Nelson Peery

Presented by Nelson Peery to the Paul Robeson Conference at Lafayette College, April, 2005
We regret to inform you that Nelson Peery passed away in 2015.

For information on his books, email


Dr. McCartney, fellow delegates, brothers and sisters, all my profound thanks for the privilege of speaking with you today. As one who lived through and participated in the struggles of the 1940s and 1950s, I am happy to see a ground swell of inquiry and appreciation for such a remarkable human being as Paul Robeson.

The subject -- Paul Robeson and the Cold War -- is a very necessary inquiry. It is more than an effort to stand a distorted history on its feet. More importantly, it is an inquiry into the role of an outstanding individual in relation to an idea and a mass movement whose time had come.

The Paul Robeson known to America's common Black folk was not the Robeson of the stage, screen or concert hall. Ours was a Robeson who sang in the trenches of revolutionary Spain, who believed that we, the people, could impose peace on the warmongers. This Robeson believed we could achieve the four freedoms - freedom from want, freedom form fear, and freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and create an America worthy of its people.

Ours was a Robeson who challenged presidents, defied congress, faced fascist lynch mobs, and walked the picket lines with us. Our confidence in and love for that Robeson was shown as we Black workers hoisted that big, smiling man onto our shoulders. Shouting and singing, we carried him down the aisle at the Cleveland convention of the National Negro Labor Council. This Robeson matured in the crucible of the Cold War and it is this legacy we want to examine today.

Every leader is conditioned by their social and historical context. The mechanization of southern agriculture, the ending of World War II and the development of the cold war was the context for the evolution of our Paul Robeson.

World War II was the greatest catastrophe in human history. When that war ended, 60 million were dead and countless millions were injured. With European and Asian means of production bombed into oblivion, the gaunt hand of starvation clutched the throat of victor and vanquished alike. Only America emerged unscathed, with her industrial capacity four times greater than before the war.

The arch segregationist - South Carolina's Governor Jimmy Byrnes - now Secretary of State, and the new president, Harry Truman, cleared the government of the few remaining Roosevelt idealists. Creating a new administration from southern "good old boys" and career military men, official America turned away from its stated war aims of freedom and democracy and toward what they considered its manifest destiny -- world domination.

On July 16th, 1945, President Truman attended the meeting of the big three, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain, at Potsdam, Germany. He was handed a message confirming the successful test of the atomic bomb. The United States no longer needed the Soviet Union to defeat Japan. The turn from co-operation to confrontation was instantaneous. Truman joyfully called the bomb "the greatest thing in history," and Jimmy Byrnes set in motion the drive for the American century. The Cold War, with all its consequences for the African Americans, began.

The defeated, but still powerful, pro-Roosevelt loose coalition of intellectuals, labor, small farmers and the African American freedom movement mobilized to defend the peace. Peace could only be defended in the context of a struggle to expand democracy. However, there could be no further democratic development in any sector of American society without dealing with the "American dilemma." The special question of African American equality lay at the heart of every struggle to expand democracy. Paul Robeson had long been active in the fight for peace. More importantly, by the beginning of the Cold War his name was legendary in the struggle for civil rights. As the fight for peace and African American equality merged, Robeson emerged as the leader.

America in 1946 was more violently segregated than South Africa. The isolation of and brutality against the African Americans was worse than against the "untouchables" of India. Such senators as Rankins, Eastland and Bilbo -- the arch segregationists -- made common cause with the cold warriors and prepared to confront the new liberation movement.

Before the blood of Black men fighting for democracy -- from Pearl Harbor to Bastogne -- was dry on the battle-field or diluted into the seas, powerful forces opened a terror campaign to drive the African Americans "back into their place" -- the cotton patch, the kitchen, the labor gangs -- those dark and damned places of unrequited toil and servitude. We weren't going back. Having fought for others freedom we knew what freedom was. We were not going back.

With a fury and brutality born from centuries of race hatred and privilege, the cold warriors attacked the new Black veteran led movement as it emerged from the womb of a world war for freedom.

In January of 1946, one hundred fifty black veterans, some from my outfit, the 93rd Infantry Division, waving their discharge papers marched through Birmingham, Alabama, demanding the right to vote. Sheriff Bull Conner's dogs and cops attacked them. By the end of the month the police had murdered five of the leaders.

Not a week went by without a lynching or some other form of mob violence. Between June of 1945 and September of 1946, fifty-six African American veterans were lynched by white mobs. The actual death toll was far greater. The Klan, as part of and in league with the police, had developed a terrible new weapon. Outspoken Blacks simply disappeared. The African American press carried long columns seeking help in locating a disappeared loved one. An appeal to the sheriff was asking the goat about the cabbage.

From the slums of Los Angeles to the racial ghettos of Baltimore, from the segregated neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota, to the teeming center of New Orleans, this movement, led by veterans, burst forth as a morning sun.

This scattered movement desperately needed a spokesperson, a leader. We were under terrible physical attack. We needed a leader who was unafraid of such attacks. Cold War propaganda befuddled the thinking of most people. The unending barrage equating communism to oppression beclouded the reality that the American capitalist system was the system oppressing and lynching the African Americans. We needed a leader who was clear and focused on the goal of freedom. We needed a leader who could speak to the conscience of the world. Above all, we needed a leader who would instill in us a sense of self worth that had been so badly distorted by centuries of slavery and discrimination.

Possessing the characteristics demanded by the movement, the mantel of leadership fell upon the broad and capable shoulders of Paul Robeson.

Official America, hell bent on world domination, pulled out all stops in the anti communist propaganda campaign. Any ideology, including anti communism, is shaped and understood in the context of a particular nation's history. In the 1940's the dominant American ideology was summed up as, "this is a white man's country."

Communism, with its threat of social equality, integration and brotherhood, stood as its antithetical and mortal enemy. In other countries, anti communism was directed against a rebellious class or an "alien" ideology, depending on the history of the country. In America, anti communism was, above all, anti Black. As the Rankings and Bilbos skillfully merged anti communism with anti-Black, the mob murder of Black women and children was equated to the defense of democracy. Arming nuclear weapons to back up the demand for the right of the Bulgarians to vote while praising with faint damns the lynching of Black Americans who attempted to do so here, appeared perfectly logical.

The wretched condition of the African American masses gave the lie to State Department propaganda about freedom and democracy. Robeson knew this was the Achilles heel of the new American imperialism and it was here that he concentrated his fire. As a bone lodged in their throats, the imperial chieftains could neither ignore nor spit out Paul Robeson. Known and admired around the world, he spoke with a voice stronger than the Pentagon's radio and with a ring of truth the world could not ignore.

Like a purse snatcher running down the street shouting "stop thief!" - the government loudly proclaimed minor concessions to Black America in hopes of confusing the world. Their every ploy was frustrated by the reality of mob violence and unbending segregation. In desperation, the government turned to its last reserve - the established Black leadership. As the irresistible force of this historically evolved movement for freedom began to clash against the immovable object of American white supremacy, the first casualty was the veneer of militancy cloaking the officialdom of Black America. The vast majority of the Black so-called leaders and intelligentsia had already performed a biblical-like washing of hands at the feet of Senators Bilbo, Rankin and McCarthy.

Seldom in history has such a large number of oppressed peoples' leaders rushed with such craven haste to declare their allegiance. Happy for the opportunity to distance themselves from Robeson, Black officialdom mobilized their Lilliputian army in hopes of tying down the giant.

Scrambling over one another to denounce Robeson, this orchestrated farce resembled the disgusting minstrel shows of yesteryear. This minstrel show wasn't working. Polarizing the African American community, it became a laughing stock in Europe and the socialist bloc used it to their advantage. Out flanked by the realities of life in Jim Crow America, the government, with deliberate speed, called off the campaign and for the moment contented itself with lifting Robeson's passport.

How do we account for the fury of the Cold War attack against Robeson? Our blood soaked history gives the answer.

Nat Turner, even for those who never heard his name, is deeply embedded in American social consciousness. The rebel's slaughter of fifty-seven white men, women and children, conjured up an enduring horror of the militant Black. On the other hand, the unspeakable brutality of the white reaction to Turner's rebellion bore down on the backs of the better-situated house servant, craftsman and field hand alike. This brutal application of collective guilt explains the caution of the official Black leadership. Any error on the part of an individual would bring on collective punishment. As the better-situated freedmen evolved into an unstable, bureaucratic, Black bourgeoisie, they never forgot the torment and loss of privilege that resulted from what they considered a foolhardy, desperate move on the part of field hands. They resolved that it would never happen again. They saw the Cold War as an opportunity for Black Americans to advance by again proving their loyalty. The other camp saw the Cold War as an opportunity to force concessions from an otherwise unbending enemy.

The government looked upon Robeson as an insurmountable obstruction to their cold war propaganda. The compromised Black leadership looked upon him as a Nat Turner with the potential of exposing them all to the lash and fury of the mob. Since Robeson would neither retreat nor surrender, he would have to be destroyed. He could not be destroyed without the complicity of the Black establishment.

Few, today, remember their names.

For those of us who lived and struggled when Robeson was persecuted and ostracized, it is heart warming to see a postage stamp, read the articles and books and attend a conference dedicated to illuminating and understanding his life. We know from history, that when an era ends, there is a tendency to present and honor the people's heroes of yesteryear -- minus their revolutionary vitals. Seriously honoring Paul Robeson demands defending and maintaining his revolutionary spirit.

The era that produced a Robeson, an era that was produced by a Robeson, is gone forever. His beloved African Americans no longer exist as a compact group described as a "People." The glue of violent, legal, color defined segregation held us together and apart from the rest of America. That and that alone created the African American people. That glue has been legally dissolved. The forms, the social relations have changed. The unresolved problem and the vision of its resolution live on.

The prisons are filled with Black men and women. Black unemployed and working poor have become a Roman-like proletariat in the rotting urban rust belts. Aids are pandemic in the poor Black neighborhoods. None of these problems can be resolved on a racial basis - although some reformers are reluctant to give up this cash cow.

Today, in the tradition of Robeson, dedicated men and women are confronting the deteriorating social and economic conditions of African American workers. Perhaps they do not fully understand that not just the African American workers, but also the entire country is facing a great new social revolution. All revolutions begin as fundamental changes in the economy. Since the old society no longer conforms to the new economy, social destruction begins. At the crisis point of social destruction, a political revolution occurs. Power is shifted from one class to another and the process of social reconstruction begins.

New technology in production is creating a new social and economic class with the Black poor as its heart. Its social face is the deteriorating neighborhoods and the wretched existence of the millions of homeless wandering aimlessly through our streets and alleys. It is a class of temporary, part-time and contingency workers, working at or below minimum wages, or permanently unemployed. They are gradually forming a new class outside of and incompatible with capitalist society. All the traditional ideological weapons have been turned against them. The Black elite avoids them like a plague. Yet, because they demand social changes consistent with the changes in the economy, they represent the future. Their demand that production without wages must be distributed without money requires a revolutionary transformation of our society. Our country has irreversibly entered this process. Once again, the social motion of the Black poor will determine the battle for American democracy. This time the fate of humanity is at stake.

History will again call forth a visionary, an uncompromising defender of the truth, a Paul Robeson. That person may well be in this room. Those of you who truly honor this great man and the vision he lived for -- pick up his spear where it fell. Continue the struggle.