The World War II Dilemma
Fighting a global war against an oppressive racial ideology brought to the surface deep contradictions in U.S. society at home, sharply contrasting political ideals of equality and opportunity with the historic fact of slavery and the contemporary reality of segregation and discrimination. That black soldiers were called to fight racism in a segregated military and Japanese-Americans were forced by law into internment camps were only the most conspicuous manifestations of America's continuing racial dilemma.
Between 1941 and 1945 there were Americans who protested such terrible ironies, and the war reinvigorated old civil rights organizations and spurred the formation of new ones destined for a central role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), for example, was founded in 1942 by a small group of black and white activists who pioneered the tactic of civil disobedience that would become such a familiar feature of protest, especially during the 1960s. Many of them had been involved in the religious-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation and were disturbed enough by domestic racial injustice to declare themselves conscientious objectors, even during this "good war." For their part, government agencies operating in the area of race relations during the war years did what was possible to control angry outbursts of intergroup tension, thereby keeping civi1ian and military morale as high as possible. The tangible results
ranged from the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission to the desegregation of the military shortly after the war, long before the rest of U.S. society followed suit.
World war made an international issue out of U.S. race relations as well, and brought global attention as surely to the country's racial hypocrisy as it did to the nobility of those ideals, historically associated with the United States, that were being trampled in Europe. This international spotlight would remain an important factor in debates on U.S. race relations after World War II, as it would in the history of the civil rights movement, because the anticolonial revolutions that followed World War II throughout the Third World, along with the growing U.S. involvement in Indochina, underlined the chasm separating the stirring rhetoric of racial equality from the ugly reality. Racial justice and liberation, in fact, sometimes appeared as or even more likely in Southern Africa than it did in the U.S. South, a confusing and shameful development in light of many emerging states' initial identification with documents like the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Ambitious studies of race relations and riots were conducted during the war years for the explicit purpose of morale-related policy-making. Many of these had lasting influences on the direction of postwar behavioral science. Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, however, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, was the landmark World War II-era study in this field. Myrdal, a Swedish economist, politician, and architect of his country's welfare state during the 1930s, was chosen to head the project because its funders believed an outsider might be more objective on a subject so touchy with Americans.
Carnegie's choice of Myrdal was influenced by individuals who operated on the boundaries between intellectual life, business, and foundations. Beardsley Ruml, for example, treasurer of Macy's and a psychologist who had directed the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial during the 1920s, was a vigorous proponent of behavioral research aimed at solving a multitude of social problems, a vision institutionalized in the 1923 founding of the Social Science Research Council. More than a decade later, Ruml was the first to suggest Myrdal's name. And Lawrence K. Frank, whose formulation of "society as the patient" had struck such resonant chords in World War II work on national character, heartily endorsed Myrdal for both his familiarity with psychiatry's clinical methods and his proven ability to transform theoretical exper-
tise into public policy on a very grand scale. Frank was influential in directing social and behavioral science from a series of high foundation posts: the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, the Spelman Memorial, the Rockefeller General Education Board (1923-1936), and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation (1936-1941). He was so dedicated to synthetic insights and practical applications in fields ranging from child guidance to psychosomatic medicine that Harvard's Henry Murray called him "the procreative Johnny Appleseed of the social sciences."
Myrdal arrived in the United States to begin work on the project in the fall of 1938, long before U.S. entry into World War II. There is no doubt, however, that Myrdal's emotional and intellectual relationship to this massive research project on U.S. race relations was, from beginning to end, decisively shaped by its wartime context. This was certainly the case for most, if not all, of the others who worked on the project. Samuel Stouffer, to mention but one, headed one of the most important military efforts to monitor and influence soldiers' attitudes, the army's Research Branch. During Myrdal's temporary return to Sweden in 1940-1941, he also directed the research for An American Dilemma.
Like Stouffer and other World War II-era social and behavioral scientists who have been discussed in earlier chapters, Myrdal considered World War II a golden opportunity to advance behavioral theories, practical applications, and patriotic service—all at the same time. Myrdal called An American Dilemma his "war work" and pointed out the relevance of the subject to global military conflict. "In my investigation I have the world's problem in miniature: the whole aggression-complex and the circle of prejudices, violence and poverty. At the same time, the race problem is even greater than the war." He also suggested that the proliferation of crises, abroad and at home, was the best argument for an accelerated program of government-supported research and rational state planning.
From the point of view of social science, this [World War II] means that social engineering will increasingly be demanded. Many things that for a long period have been predominantly a matter of individual adjustment will become more and more determined by political decision and public regulation. We are entering an era where fact-finding and scientific theories of causal relations will be seen as instrumental in planning controlled social change. The peace will bring nothing but problems, one mounting upon another, and consequently, new urgent tasks for social engineering. . . . To find the practical formulas for this never-ending reconstruction of society is the supreme task of social science.
The final product, published as a 1,400-page book in 1944, was an emphatic and explicit statement of the World War II ethos. This was the same constellation of beliefs that had characterized military psychology and work on managing international diplomatic and military conflict. It included a commitment to applying behavioral theory and research to the amelioration of pressing social problems through the policy-making agencies of the state (Myrdal termed this "social engineering"); an optimistic belief that interdisciplinary research was essential to enlightened government policy; a rejection of value-free empiricism and methodological obsessions within behavioral science; and the embrace of liberal values such as racial equality and harmony.
Published in 1944, An American Dilemma was hailed as a monumental work of comprehensive, interdisciplinary social science. It dominated both popular and academic debates about U.S. race relations, and the status of black Americans, well into the 1960s. The incorporation of its ideas into public policy was rapid. The Truman administration's 1947 report To Secure These Rights was the first acknowledgment of federal responsibility for civil rights since Reconstruction; it served as ammunition for the solicitor general in cases before the Supreme Court. The report restated Myrdal's thesis, cited numerous wartime studies of intergroup conflict, and pointed to the psychological cost of racial inequality, "a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic belief."
The cost of prejudice cannot be computed in terms of markets, production, and expenditures. Perhaps the most expensive results are the least tangible ones. No nation can afford to have its component groups hostile toward one another without feeling the stress. People who live in a state of tension and suspicion cannot use their energy constructively. The frustrations of their restricted existence are translated into aggression against the dominant group. . . . It is not at all surprising that a people relegated to second-class citizenship should behave as second-class citizens. This is true, in varying degrees, of all our minorities. What we have lost in money, production, invention, citizenship, and leadership as the price for damaged, thwarted personalities—these are beyond estimate.
Ironically, An American Dilemma was so successful, its reception so positive, that many scholars, especially from black universities, found it difficult to secure foundation funding for social scientific studies of race in the postwar era because the perception existed that the definitive statement had already been written. Even so, most, and probably all, of the postwar perspectives discussed in this chapter were indebted to its
model, not infrequently through the direct involvement of their authors in this mammoth research effort.
The experts whom Myrdal put to work writing reports, literature reviews, and monographs included a wide range of social scientists and an equally wide range of topics, from the structure of southern agricultural economics to the incidence of mental disorder within the black community. In An American Dilemma, psychological topics were sometimes addressed directly, as in sections on "Psychic Traits" and the "'Peculiarities' of the Negro Culture and Personality." At other times, psychological concepts were imported into the analysis of historical and political developments from civil rights activism ("The Protest Motive and Negro Personality") to patterns of racial violence ("The Psychopathology of Lynching"). Myrdal's discussion of black community institutions anticipated much of the "social pathology" literature that would appear in the postwar years, suggesting that every facet of black culture, from family to personality, "is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture."
Some of the material that was produced for Myrdal, in order to summarize current research in various fields, was also published separately in book form. Characteristics of the American Negro, edited by Columbia University social psychologist Otto Klineberg, originated in one such monograph. Klineberg had dedicated his entire career to banishing racial explanations from psychology by gathering evidence that cultural determinants (educational opportunities, for instance) were responsible for social differences between groups. Klineberg was also a proponent of the national character concept that informed so much wartime work on enemy morale.
Most important, the central thesis of An American Dilemma served to push future work and policy on matters of race in decidedly psychological directions. Myrdal's main argument was that the dilemma of race for white Americans was fundamentally moral and psychological. "The American Negro problem," he wrote, "is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on. This is the central viewpoint of this treatise. . . . The moral struggle goes on within people and not only between them." Located safely in the United States throughout most of the war, Myrdal worried constantly about his native Sweden's delicate neutrality. Certain that the decisive European battle was for hearts and minds, he carne to see U.S. race relations in similar terms: as an index of struggle within the U.S. psyche. Surely this justified a new approach
to social engineering, one that would attempt to instill democracy "within" persons as well as rearrange social conditions "between them."
Myrdal's wife, Alva, also influenced his choice of a psychological approach. A brilliant intellectual, activist, and diplomat in her own right, Alva Myrdal's serious interests included child guidance, psychoanalysis, and behaviorism. Although she did not draft any of the material in An American Dilemma, the couple shared a long history of intellectual and political collaboration, neatly captured by the image of the desk at which they both worked, which had been designed so that they would face each other while writing. Alva's role in shaping the book was no less important for being formally unacknowledged. She debated each and every point with her husband, just as she had when they were working as coauthors. Her wartime activities, which included advising the OSS as well as making speeches for Swedish broadcast under OWI auspices, emphasized the strengths of U.S. democratic morale. She called for a program of spiritual and ideological preparedness much as Gordon All port and Margaret Mead had. In her written work she drew sharp moral and psychological lines between democracy and fascism.
This contrast became the centerpiece of An American Dilemma. At the core of Myrdal's analysis was the description of a unifying national conscience, a repository of principles like equality and democracy and a source of tremendous respect for individual dignity and the rule of law. Termed the "American Creed," it was destined eventually to triumph against the backwardness of racism and segregation, which Myrdal considered an extreme example of cultural lag. All ordinary white Americans, even the most bigoted, believed in the "American Creed," according to Myrdal, a fact which produced "a volcanic ground of doubt, disagreement, concern, and even anxiety—of moral tension and need for escape and defense."
Racism and segregation, in other words, were covering up the terribly guilty, conscience of the white majority. As alarming as such psychological defense mechanisms were—they provided the foundations upon which racially oppressive institutions were built and perpetuated—Myrdal was certain that psychology, also held the key to undoing racism. In the final analysis, he predicted that white guilt would become the black community's best ally. Since the "American Creed" prohibited the thoroughgoing, official incorporation of racial subjugation into U.S. institutions, surely it could serve a more positive function and actually dissolve the caste barriers that comprised the American dilemma. An
important task of postwar social engineering would therefore be the further investigation of white racial attitudes, so that appropriate reforms could be designed and implemented where they would count most: on the psychic interior.