At the Water’s Edge

Irvin Oliver
Apr 25 · 11 min read

Racism’s threat to U.S. national security

The water’s edge Sen. Vandenburg was talking about was oceanic, not memorial.

U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg said Americans must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” Senator Vandenberg then supported President Harry Truman’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the creation of NATO.[1] This Republican senator’s support for a president’s priorities from the other party helped solidify those initiatives into the foundation for the United States’ fight in the Cold War. Senator Vandenberg’s cooperative bipartisanship notwithstanding, the concept that domestic politics and foreign policy should be two separate arenas has never been true — even during the Cold War. Still, it speaks to an idea that there is an American unity in their global outlook, and domestic matters are less relevant in international affairs. That idea is false, and we need to view this issue through the lens of national security.

(25) The Legacy of Senator Arthur Vandenberg — YouTube

The racial and ethnic divisions of the United States pose a threat to our national security to a greater degree than ever because of advances in social media and the more extensive evolution in how Americans consume information. These two factors clarify that the interplay between foreign and domestic is constant, growing, and requires our attention. It is a national security imperative that the United States cooperate in reconciling the social and political divisions that risk further dividing Americans. The interplay between “foreign and domestic,” though, is nothing new. A quick look at the early history of the United States shows the foreign and domestic confluence.

Foreign Policy and the Rise of Domestic Political Parties

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (3b16611r.jpg (378×640) (loc.gov))

The Jay Treaty, which resolved lingering issues between the young United States and Great Britain after the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris, is one of the first examples of the interplay of domestic politics and foreign policy. The agreement that Chief Justice John Jay negotiated with Britain bitterly divided Americans along the solidifying factional lines. Federalists, including their leader Alexander Hamilton, supported the treaty while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican faction opposed it.[2] The Jay Treaty, one of the United States’ first international agreements, was one of the primary reasons for establishing American political parties, which came from the opposing factions. The treaty exposed the political divisions that already existed in early American political discourse.

Ironically, the Federalist Papers’ two authors who addressed the risks of factions and how federalism mitigated those risks were in the opposing factions, with James Madison one of the treaty’s fiercest critics.[3] This issue of foreign policy significantly affected the development of American domestic politics. Foreign policy issues have continued to influence domestic politics.

Concerns about Europe’s policy towards the United States and the Confederacy during the American Civil War and the United States’ failure to join the League of Nations, among other examples, are demonstrations of how the foreign and domestic are inseparable. American domestic politics go hand in hand with American foreign policy; American domestic politics also have international effects.

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” — Matthew 5:14 (KJV)

People have long imagined America as the city on a hill about which Jesus preached.[4] John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barak Obama have all used the same imagery to describe the United States. The world has long watched the United States, and the United States’ actions have influenced the course of world events — for good and for ill. Racism is a part of American politics’ DNA. The most troubling result from an international perspective is how the American domestic experience influenced Germany in the 1930s.

(25) President Reagan’s City on a Hill — YouTube

The way the United States treated Native Americans throughout the 19th century, American support for Africans and Black Americans’ enslavement and the establishment of Jim Crow laws inspired Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party. Hitler was clear in stating how the United States treated these people based on nothing more than the social construction of race was his muse.[5] The Nazis studied and admired how the United States codified Black Americans’ secondary status into law; Jim Crow was literally the blueprint for Germany’s racial laws in the 1930s.[6]

The abysmal way the United States treated Black Americans through Jim Crow and segregation, and the internment of Japanese-Americans, was a stunning paradox in the global fight against fascism. The record of Black Americans and Japanese-Americans still choosing to fight for a country that treated them as ‘less-than’ is a credit to the more vital ideals which are the foundation of America. Nevertheless, this paradox of a foreign policy promoting liberalism and domestic enforcement of Jim Crow was a continuing weakness of the United States throughout the Cold War. When the telephone and television became the fastest forms of media, the United States found its domestic politics further affected and impaired its foreign policy.

“And you are lynching Negroes!”

1930 Soviet magazine “Bezbozhnik” cover showing a lynching from the Statue of Liberty (2) Home / Twitter

The American race problem was a weakness the Soviets sought to exploit throughout the Cold War. The competition between communism and democracy divided the world and compelled the United States and the Soviet Union to wage their ideological war in the world’s periphery — the Third World.[7] Outside of Europe and North America, the ethnic makeup of the world ensured the checkered record of race relations in the United States would play a role. Soviet propaganda extensively used American news reports of the struggle for civil rights to counter American calls for liberalism, democracy promotion, and human rights; American leaders failed to square images of Selma, Alabama with these ideals.[8] Soviets could retort, “and you are lynching Negroes!,” which their American counterparts were unable to parry. The Soviet Union also used the domestic fight for civil rights in the United States to draw Third World countries into its sphere of influence, and there is some evidence the Soviets had some success with this approach.

During the Cold War, as former colonies gained their independence, large swaths of the world aligned with the Soviet Union, like most of Africa, or chose to be non-aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union. This limited U.S. access and influence. Even though the United States welcomed decolonization, the American inability to draw these newly independent countries into its sphere of influence created a security threat, necessitating intervention in the Third World to contain communism. The American paradox stymied its success with much of the Third World during the Cold War.[9]

Passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, respectively, helped reduce — but not eliminate, the American paradox of racist domestic politics and a liberal foreign policy. They did, though, help refute the Soviet line of attack while not fully resolving the lingering disgrace long-term structural effects of America’s original sin.[10] Racism and Jim Crow’s systemic effects in housing, voting, justice, and how Americans all too often view each other continue to pose a threat. Today, the difference is that the United States’ adversaries have tools unavailable during the Cold War.

2016 Was a Sequel, and 2020 Was a Defeat

Americans’ preferences for their news sources has worsened some of the schisms in American society, creating opportunities for disinformation and putting American democracy at risk.

The recent efforts to exploit these long-lived seams in American society represent the threat these seams pose to the United States’ strength. The proliferation of social media and the evolution in how Americans consume information has created an opportunity for malign actors, both state and non-state, to spread disinformation and negative news in a way the Soviets never imagined. Russia’s disinformation campaign in 2016 was effective to a certain degree.[11] This disinformation campaign used the internet, information outlets, and social media companies to sow discord, depress voter turnout, and prey on many Americans’ latent nativism and xenophobia. The fear of “losing their country,” antipathy towards government and politics, and the fear of waves of immigrants sweeping into the country were tools of the 2016 campaign that was a sequel to the Soviet efforts of the Cold War.

While most of the Russian disinformation campaign did not influence most Americans, the campaign and other related factors probably helped shape the election outcome.[12] The Russian campaign’s effects are arguable, but they nonetheless point to the risk that the American inability to confront its history of racism poses. If left unaddressed, future information campaigns may prove to be decisive in their subversion of American democratic institutions.

There are several reasons why foreign attempts to interfere in the 2020 election fell short, but one lacked effort. The national response to election security was robust, proactive, and rapid.[13] Adversaries, however, are likely to see the possible success of 2016 as a potential payoff in a future election. The after-effects of this disinformation — the rise in Americans believing far-fetched conspiracy theories and election fraud lies — fueling a more significant erosion of trust in government, are the goal of future adversary campaigns.

Preparing for the Future

Countering this national security threat requires a comprehensive approach at the federal, local, and grass-roots levels — a truly Whole of Nation approach. First, a reconsideration of the role and rules surrounding social media companies is necessary. Over half of Americans report getting their news information from social media sources, which is likely to increase as more Americans rely on mobile devices.[14] Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is an excellent place to start. Technology and how Americans use it since the Telecommunications Act that contains the Decency Act became law over 25 years ago. Section 230 absolves internet content providers of what users share on their platforms.[15] Not considering content providers as publishers may have made sense in the World Wide Web’s early days. Still, today it is akin to not holding someone accountable for giving a bullhorn to someone else so they can yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Regardless of anyone’s sentiment on the merits of Section 230, one would have trouble arguing against revisiting technology laws that are a quarter of a century old.

At the local level, Americans must learn the uncomfortable truths about American history. American history is not all sweetness and light; there are dark episodes in our national past that still have ramifications today. Learning more fully about Manifest Destiny and its effects on Native Americans, the failure of Reconstruction, and the laws that continue to shape social and economic inequalities along racial lines is critical if American society is to debate how to resolve the effects of these issues today. Too many Americans only have a superficial understanding of who and what America is. A history that begins at Plymouth Rock and ends on the deck of the USS Missouri is no history at all.

Finally, American society has a grass-roots role to play. Make no mistake about it — systemic racism exists. In so many cases, racism is so subtle as to not be noticeable by anyone. The current moment has opened our eyes to many of the examples most Americans ignored — Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are stark examples of this change.[16] The stereotypes that surround America’s ethnic minorities are subtle yet powerful. Too often, society caricatures people instead of looking at them as unique individuals.

These stereotypes typecast too many Americans into roles, perpetuating an American caste system that harms American democracy. Overcoming this is the most challenging obstacle. It requires Americans to reject these long-held views of each other. Hollywood has a significant role to play. Changing how old media, like television and cinema, portray people of color is critical. Quite simply, Americans need to see more “Jakes from State Farm,” people of color doing everyday things like selling insurance.[17] Seeing more people of color doing things Americans typically do not expect to see them do will help overcome stereotypes. This is a long-term effort; ethnic stereotypes had a long development and will take time to fall apart.

(25) Back In The Office | State Farm® — YouTube

Domestic American affairs and American foreign policy have always been linked and interdependent. Each influences the other, and both have had international effects. Today, American democratic institutions face a persistent security threat from state and non-state actors who seek to weaken those institutions from the inside. Racism and the American unwillingness to confront its impact on society creates an opportunity for adversaries to wreak havoc on the American body politic through disinformation campaigns. These campaigns rely on open access to spread that disinformation, an ignorant American society gullible enough to believe it, underpinned by historical ethnic stereotypes that only serve to confirm the worst of what Americans think of each other. Failed disinformation campaigns of 2020 suggest Russia’s success in 2016 will continue to encourage global adversaries and domestic conspiracists to exploit the seams racism creates throughout society. Inaction risks ceding the home-field to these nefarious actors, worsening the health of American political institutions. Action at the federal, local, and grass-roots levels is necessary to secure the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

[1] U.S. Senate Biography of Arthur H. Vandenburg, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Painting_32_00042.htm#:~:text=In%201947%2C%20at%20the%20start,the%20Marshall%20Plan%2C%20and%20NATO, as of February 28, 2021.

[2] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin Press, 2005, Ch. 27.

[3] Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote Federalist Papers Nos. 9 and 10, respectively, which specifically address the risk of political factions and how a federal system would mitigate those risks. See Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/full-text (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[4] Abram Van Engen, “How America Became a City on a Hill,” Humanities, Winter 2020, Vol. 41, №1, https://www.neh.gov/article/how-america-became-city-upon-hill#:~:text=Winthrop%20%E2%80%9Cpreached%20to%20the%20emigrants,in%20putting%20the%20world%20right..

[5] Alex Ross, “How American Racism Influenced Hitler,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/30/how-american-racism-influenced-hitler (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[6] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, New York: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[7] Apologies if the reader finds the term “Third World” offensive. For reference, see: B.R. Tomlinson, “What Was the Third World?” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 38, №2 (April 2003), https://www.jstor.org/stable/3180660?seq=1 (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[8] Julia Ioffe, “The History of Russian Involvement in America’s Race Wars,” The Atlantic, October 21, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/russia-facebook-race/542796/ (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[9] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War, London: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 132–133.

[10] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, New York: Liveright, Ch. 1.

[11] Mary Clare Jalonik and Eric Tucker, “Senate Panel Backs Assessment That Russia Interfered in 2016,” Associated Press, April 21, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/d094918c0421b872eac7dc4b16e613c7 (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[12] Nate Silver, “How Much Did Russian Interference Affect the Election? It’s Hard to Say,” FiveThirtyEight.com, February 16, 2018, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-did-russian-interference-affect-the-2016-election/ (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[13] Scott Jasper, “Why Foreign Election Interference Fizzled in 2020,” The Atlantic Council, November 23, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/why-foreign-election-interference-fizzled-in-2020/ (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[14] Eliza Shearer, “More Than Eight-in-Ten Americans Get Their News From Digital Devices,” Pew Research Center, January 12, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/12/more-than-eight-in-ten-americans-get-news-from-digital-devices/ (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[15] Valerie C. Brannon, “Liability for Content Hosts: An Overview of the Communication Decency Act’s Section 230,” Congressional Research Service, June 6, 2019, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/LSB10306.pdf (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[16] David Lazarus, “Column: The Aunt Jemima Brand, Rooted in Slavery, Was in Fact ‘Selling Whiteness,’” LA Times, June 17, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-06-17/aunt-jemima-racist-stereotypes (Accessed February 28, 2021).

[17] Jeff Conway, “’Jake From State Farm’ Actor Kevin Miles: From Sleeping in His Car to Starring in Super Bowl Commercials,” Forbes, February 11, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffconway/2021/02/11/jake-from-state-farm-actor-kevin-miles-from-sleeping-in-his-car-to-starring-in-super-bowl-commercials/?sh=517aa7aecb9b (Accessed February 28, 2021).

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