How the USA Shifted Left after World War Two

White Knights in Blue-Collar Armour

by Gwydion M. Williams

When the USA joined World War Two, many US citizens wondered why they were suddenly allies of the Soviet Union. Why they were committed to destroying Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which had been widely admired up until then.

The USA as it then was had quite a lot in common with the Fascist powers. It fought the war as a racist power with a segregated army.

History was revised somewhat during the Cold War. The USA found it had to move a long way to the left to cope with the Soviet challenge. It became convenient to pretend that this had always been what they wanted.

This rewriting of history was helped by the bulk of the Hard Left denouncing Stalin for the imperfections of what he had achieved. Not shifting from this notion when experience should have taught them that it is very hard to achieve anything positive in real-world politics. They excuse themselves for achieving nothing and not even holding onto what they had. They still insist that Stalin was inexplicably wicked. And then they wonder why socialism has lost favour!

Stalin was ruthless, certainly. But not without reason. And with vast positive results from a Leninist viewpoint.

Had Stalin been milder, the Soviet Union might well have been overrun by the German invasion. The contrary view comes from Trotskyists who achieve nothing, or Khrushchevites who failed to preserve the grand legacy Stalin left them.

The challenge of a powerful Soviet Union forced the USA to move a long way from its original intentions. British North America had been created to be an extension of England, with pragmatic acceptance into the community of other white settlers who were already there and would adapt to English ways. This didn’t really change when the main colonies rebelled and became the United States of America. It was always intended to be “White Man’s Country”, with Anglo-Saxons dominant among the Whites. White women were necessarily there as well, as the wives, sisters, daughters and mothers of the dominant white men. No one else was wanted, though attempts to get rid of them were not systematic.

The result of the growth of White America was that most Afro-Americans and some of the surviving Native Americans ended up as plantation slaves in the South. In the North, Afro-Americans were mostly denied political rights, sometimes by intimidation but also by legal exclusion. On the eve of the Civil War, most Northern states had laws forbidding Afro-Americans men from voting. They were also not allowed to enlist on the Union side: it was intended to be a White Man’s War. They’d been accepted in previous wars, the War of Independence and the War of 1812. But the War to End Secession was intended to be an all-white matter. Only when the North ran out of suitable white males did they let in blacks.

The crushing of the Confederacy was followed by a brief bout of radicalism that established legal equality for Afro-American men. Votes for women were also considered, but the radicals decided that only one big reform was likely to get through all of the checks and balances of the Constitution. They opted to let the women wait. But even radicals in the North still mostly saw the USA as “White Man’s Country”. Not many people objected when the South restored the old method of intimidating their Afro-Americans so that they didn’t try exercising their legal right to vote. This had been noted by de Tocqueville in the 1830s in his Democracy In America, and it lasted till the 1960s.

The United States accepted votes for women at around the same time as Western Europe and the various European colonies. New Zealand was first and the USA was middling. And votes did not mean equality for women, nor for Afro-Americans in the north who mostly did have a vote after the 1860s. The US military was strictly segregated and Afro-American soldiers never rose higher than Sergeant. Nor did they ever command whites of any rank: the Abraham Lincoln Legion of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War was the first place this happened among US citizens.

Democracy became part of the US ideology from the 1830s. It was not the intention of the Founding Fathers, who sought an oligarchic Republic. But first Jefferson and then Andrew Jackson established that the “White Man’s Country” was also going to be a “White Man’s Democracy”.

Jackson’s vice-president was John C. Calhoun. He went beyond mere inferiority for Afro-Americans, and insisted that they must remain slaves for ever. Argued that slavery was an excellent system, one that whites benefited from. It took four years vicious warfare in the 1860s to defeat this idea, with most of the North repelled by slavery and its many abuses.

Non-white inferiority was the wish of the white majority, including those keen on crushing secession and ending the embarrassingly primitive and abusive system of slavery. It remained solid through to the 1950s.

The USA backing the British Empire in 1917 and 1941 was one “White Man’s Country” helping another that was the root of most of its dominant traditions. Official anti-Imperialism was lukewarm. The USA had repeatedly joined in the humiliation of China, when it tried to act as the equal and independent state it officially was. They did do some educational work, but the avowed aim was to erase the local culture. Process the Chinese into a copy of the USA, though still unequal even then. (I doubt if it’s much different even today, though they put more diplomatically.)

The USA also didn’t push for a quick end to Imperialism at the end of World War Two. They helped France recover Indochina and the Dutch restore their rule in what later became Indonesia.

World War Two was not a war for democracy as we understand it now. Had Hitler not attacked the Soviet Union and had the US-British alliance somehow managed to defeat Germany and Japan, perhaps with the aid of atomic weapons, Imperialism and official racism might have lasted a lot longer. They might still be the norm today.

In my article “Britain’s Purely Imperialist War Against Nazi Germany“, I showed how World War Two began as a rear-guard action by Britain’s ruling class to save their empire. It was not about preserving Parliamentary Democracy, never mind extending it. Churchill’s speeches said a lot about the Empire, but very little about democracy.

I also detailed how Professor Neil Ferguson misrepresented the standard British attitude in his book Empire, which should have been called My Beautiful Imperialism. He uses a stray remark by George Orwell to argue that the British Empire nobly sacrificed itself to defeat the much worse imperialism of Japan and Nazi Germany. It would have been admirable if the rulers of the Empire had intentionally done that. It is pretty much what Professor Tolkien imagines the High Elves doing in his Lord of the Rings, speeding the final end of their fading realms as the price of destroying the Dark Lord and his Ring of Evil.[1]  But in the real world, even Orwell was expecting the British Empire to survive for many decades after the war, assuming the war was won.

Gandhi and the Congress Party refused to support the war without a definite guarantee of self-rule. But the famous Cripps Mission offered nothing more than the meaningless promise that Indians could rule themselves when their current rulers in the Westminster Parliament were confident that the Hindu majority would not oppress minorities. It was obvious that if this was the best offer when the British Empire was on the verge of defeat, then if the British Empire survived the Hindu majority was going to be viewed as unfit for an indefinite time in the future. The House of Commons at that time was dominated by Tories. A Labour landslide of the sort that happened in 1945 would not have seemed possible ahead of time. And Labour anti-imperialism was always lukewarm.

Being offered no freedom for themselves, those Indians who thought about politics broadly stayed neutral. George Orwell was recruited by the BBC as part of a propaganda radio service to try to convince them otherwise. He showed a genuine enthusiasm for this work, though he was offended by the normal routines of office life. But in fact Orwell’s work there achieved nothing.

India got independence after the war, mostly because there was a genuine fear of an uprising if it had been denied. And because the British Empire suffered a string of disasters that left it full of self-doubt. First failure in Norway (where a British invasion was planned regardless of what the Germans had done). Then the Fall of France. Then failure in Crete, and defeat by Rommel in North Africa after some initial successes against the Italians. Finally the Fall of Singapore in 1942, which meant the empire was doomed. Yet it lingered on into the 1950s and fought a vicious war in Kenya before finally accepting that it was doomed.

A global empire based on English culture might have worked – indeed a revised version of it is working up to the present, thanks to the USA. But the British Empire had chosen in the 19th century to reverse the limited racial integration of the 18th century and run their Empire on purely racist lines:

“The high status of Europeans was maintained by not employing Europeans in the government or European-owned businesses below a certain grade, and by seldom allowing Asians to rise above that level.” [2]

Britain’s final few generations of Imperialists were short-sighted fools, hanging on to an unsustainable position of privilege in a thoroughly reactionary manner. Ignoring the fact that lots of Africans and Asians had been to Britain and found that they could rank fairly high there, with no clear colour-bar ever established. There was prejudice, but a rich non-white in Britain would be accepted. Their children could be pupils at fee-paying schools well out of reach for most Britons. Some non-white aristocrats, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, got accepted into British aristocratic circles where very few colonial official would have been admitted. More ordinary non-white subjects of the Empire found active radical and anti-imperialist circles among Britons who assured them their treatment was unfair.

The fact that Britain up to the 1950s was less democratic and egalitarian than the USA also meant that the US pattern of “Democratic Racism” never did get established. Non-whites were few and often rich. When it became an issue with major non-white immigration, an important battle was fought and won to prevent formal racism getting established. This was mostly done by Labour and the Far Left: most of the centre and centre-right preferred to evade the tricky topic. There was occasional use of racism: one group of Tories won a byelection with the infamous slogan “if you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour”.[3] But in the end, most Tories looked to wider Cold-War concerns and would not embrace open racism.

I said last time that the democratisation, de-colonisation and general levelling that happened after World War Two should be credited 60% to Stalin’s Soviet Union, 30% to the United States and 10% to the British Labour Party. This will obviously be disputed. If the British Empire was still mired in the past, surely the United States was gloriously upholding the concept of democracy? Or at least democracy for white males everywhere?

No, on the whole they did not.

US citizens liked their own sort of electoral politics and their own inalienable right to vote. But overseas was something else, with the wrong people sometimes getting elected. This outlook has lasted up till the present day, and no other country has organised as many coups against duly elected governments as the USA.

The USA attended the Nazi-fest of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They upheld democracy only sometimes, and very imperfectly. They upheld it with an assumption of continuing white male hegemony. With a general view that no one should be allowed to use Parliamentary Democracy for un-American ends.

Consider Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech, delivered at the start of 1941, before Japan’s foolish attack on them. Delivered before Hitler’s even more foolish declaration of war at a time when many in the USA just wanted to fight Japan. Roosevelt wanted to support Britain in the war in Europe, but his view was very much of his time, alien times:

“Since the permanent formation of our government under the Constitution in 1789, most of the periods of crisis in our history have related to our domestic affairs. And, fortunately, only one of these — the four-year war between the States — ever threatened our national unity. Today, thank God, 130,000,000 Americans in 48 States have forgotten points of the compass in our national unity.” [4]

Saying “war between the States” was a friendly gesture to the Southern Democrats, heirs to the Confederacy and upholders of racism and segregation. They mostly supported the New Deal, since the bulk of their all-white electorate were poor and needy. For them, the war that most people call the “US Civil War” was always the War Between The States, an assertion that the Confederate cause was a righteous defence of State Rights. Segregation of the races was virtuous. Afro-American – almost always called “niggers” in those days – also got something but always less, on the view that they were an inferior sort of human and less deserving. Roosevelt chose to go along with this, and that may have been the best choice. Had the USA stayed out of the war and had the Nazis then won it, the USA might never have changed. But is also would probably not have changed without the powerful existence of the Soviet Union as an alternative.

The Four Freedoms were a useful advance in the world that then existed. But when Norman Rockwell in 1943 did his well-known portraits of these Four Freedoms, each of them was dominated by a white middle-aged male. Two of the scenes are domestic; the crowds in the other two are all white. Unless I’ve missed something, there is nothing that the typical white racist of the era would have objected to.

Rockwell’s pictures do celebrate Plebeian values, the worth of people who were not rich or well-educated, just so long as they were white. Much of the “Blue Collar” or Working Class section of US society had a genuine commitment to freedom, but didn’t wish to extend it much beyond white males. It wasn’t bad for its time – but without the Soviet Union as a grand antagonist to the USA in the Cold War, would things ever have gone further?

It’s also true that Roosevelt had trouble getting the USA involved in the war in Europe, regardless. He had to make a case in his Four Freedoms speech:

“It is true that prior to 1914 the United States often has been disturbed by events in other continents. We have even engaged in two wars with European nations and in a number of undeclared wars in the West Indies, in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific, for the maintenance of American rights and for the principles of peaceful commerce. But in no case had a serious threat been raised against our national safety or our continued independence…

“While the Napoleonic struggles did threaten interests of the United States because of the French foothold in the West Indies and in Louisiana, and while we engaged in the War of 1812 to vindicate our right to peaceful trade, it is nevertheless clear that neither France nor Great Britain nor any other nation was aiming at domination of the whole world…

“Even when the World War broke out in 1914, it seemed to contain only small threat of danger to our own American future. But as time went on, as we remember, the American people began to visualize what the downfall of democratic nations might mean to our own democracy.”[5]

This confuses the two World Wars, something that has happened ever since. Both the German Empire and Austria-Hungary had extended the vote to all of their male citizens, whereas Britain had only extended it to three in five in the British Isles and denied any sort of self-government to the non-white majority in the empire.

Breaking up the German Empire and Austria-Hungary into smaller fragments was not good for Parliamentary Democracy. Almost all of the successor states had dropped it well before Hitler started his drive to conquer. The big exception was Czechoslovakia, a hegemony of Czechs over many minorities, yet the best of a bad lot. They were abandoned by Britain, which then went to war to defend Poland. In Poland, conventional democracy had been overthrown by Pilsudski in 1926, with general popular approval. Pilsudski’s heirs were distinctly hostile to Jews, though they were willing to assimilate those who would abandon their Jewish traditions and become at least nominal Roman Catholics.

The USA did not go to war in 1916 to defend Parliamentary Democracy, which would probably have developed faster if the Kaiser’s Germany had won. But Britain was seen as a natural ally in 1916, and Franklin Roosevelt continued to see it so:

“We need not overemphasize imperfections in the peace of Versailles. We need not harp on failure of the democracies to deal with problems of world reconstruction. We should remember that the peace of 1919 was far less unjust than the kind of pacification which began even before Munich, and which is being carried on under the new order of tyranny that seeks to spread over every continent today. The American people have unalterably set their faces against that tyranny.

“I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world — assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace. During 16 long months this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of democratic life in an appalling number of independent nations, great and small. And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small…

“Armed defense of democratic existence is now being gallantly waged in four continents. If that defense fails, all the population and all the resources of Europe and Asia, and Africa and Austral-Asia will be dominated by conquerors. And let us remember that the total of those populations in those four continents, the total of those populations and their resources greatly exceed the sum total of the population and the resources of the whole of the Western Hemisphere — yes, many times over.” [6]

Hitler had overrun Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, but would probably have been ready to let them decide their own form of government as part of a general peace. Nor was it likely that he could have conquered or controlled the vast colonial empires that Holland, Belgium, France and Britain controlled. Only the French Empire was on his side, because most of the colonies viewed Vichy France as the legitimate government.

Roosevelt spoke about defending existing democratic regimes. He does not speak of extending democracy. And even this was for the domestic audience, where democracy was part of the rhetoric. Later practice has shown that this has never been a genuine belief of the US elite. No country has organised more coups against inconvenient elected governments than the USA.

Italy’s fascist government was welcomed when it overthrew Mussolini. Had Franco offered to join the war against Hitler, it is unlikely he would have been refused. Despite his neutrality and despite letting Spanish volunteers help Nazi Germany by fighting against the Soviet Union, Franco was protected by the USA for the rest of his long rule. An older dictatorship in Portugal was allowed to be a member of NATO, as was Turkey during its various lapses into military rule. As was Greece during the dictatorship of the Colonels, which the USA is generally viewed as having encouraged and perhaps organised.

What existed in Europe in the 1930s were mostly democratic authoritarian systems. Systems that had closed down open political competition, but did so with the support of the majority, often the enthusiasm of the majority. The idea of choosing your own rulers had been greeted with initial enthusiasm, but when people tried it they found it mostly produced weakness and deadlock. So when competent authoritarians took over, this was generally welcomed. Franco’s Spain was the only real dictatorship, based on winning a Civil War with most of the army but slightly less than half the population,[7] and never tested in a referendum.

Had France and Britain stalemated Nazi Germany, and perhaps later won with US support, it seems unlikely they would have had the same (imperfect) commitment to extending democracy and winding up empires that occurred in the actual war, in which the Soviet Union destroyed about two-thirds of German power. Churchill was scornful of the Soviet Union as late as January 1940, when the Maginot Line seemed secure and the Soviets were having trouble against the Finns, who were even better adapted to cold-weather warfare than the Russians were. He saw it as a confirmation of all of his prejudiced – the same prejudices he had set aside a couple of years later:

“The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Everyone can see how Communism rots the soul of a nation; how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war.”[8]

By the autumn of 1940, things were very different. France had surrendered. Churchill wanted to fight on, but had little hope of victory. He had to widen the war to have any hope of winning it.

If one could go back in time (very unlikely) and if one wanted to see the war end with a compromise peace in 1940 (very moot), one might have drafted a speech for Hitler that might have made all the difference. Something like:

“People of Britain, I never wanted a war with you. I do not wish to harm your empire. Before the war, I was in favour of you keeping all you had, except perhaps for Ireland’s desire for full independence and Spain’s claim to Gibraltar. But since neither country helped Germany when the war’s outcome was doubtful, I see no need to do anything for them.

“The issue is no longer doubtful. France has been defeated and made peace. If you insist on a long war, German power can destroy you. But I do not wish this. I do not want to create a legacy of British bitterness for future German leaders to face, perhaps incompetently.

“Since you made war on me, I cannot let things go back to what they were. But I would be satisfied to have military control of Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal, without demanding changes in how the non-military population is governed. And I want a binding promise that never again will your navy impose famine on Germany or any other countries by blocking imports of food which we have become dependent on. As for Germany’s former colonies, I am moderate on the issue and might be willing to see existing arrangements continue with suitable concessions.

“I do not seek any occupation of any part of Britain, and will gladly withdraw from the Channel Islands. Likewise from France, Holland, Denmark and Norway, as soon as I am assured that any restored exiled rulers will not be hostile. And I must insist that you do not permit Poles or other hostile forces to operate from your territory. You are otherwise welcome to keep them, ship them out to your colonies or otherwise get rid of them, just as it pleases you.”

Such a moderate offer would almost certainly have been accepted. It’s unlikely that Hitler wanted any more. It would at least have been foolish for him to carry on a war in the hope of more. For unclear reasons, he never said it. And so the war widened.

Note also, had the war ended in 1940, millions of Jews would have survived who were in fact killed in the later extermination program. This began when Nazi Germany realised that Britain would not make a compromise peace. Knew that Nazism was either going to win decisively or be crushed utterly, so they had nothing to lose by going to extremes.

Of course the British decision to continue the war had nothing to do with the Jews under Nazi control. These could have continued to be a useful labour force doing ordinary jobs within Germany, had Hitler chosen to play it that way. Most German Jews had fought loyally for the Kaiser, and it’s likely that many would have decided they were German first, had Hitler given them the option. Jews elsewhere would have mostly cooperated in the hope of surviving the war. Instead he chose to deport them to some unspecified location in the east. He create the conditions in which mass extermination occurred, almost certainly with his knowledge and approval.

Mass killing of Jews in Germany, Poland etc. would have been unlikely to have happened had Britain not fought on in 1940. But most people get this reversed and think that this sad consequence of the war continuing past 1940 was the noble and self-sacrificing reason that the British Empire went on fighting.

The British government was fighting to save its Empire, and to preserve the remnants of the global dominance it had had since 1759. It showed a striking lack of interest in the fate of East European Jews, even though the Poles and others told them just what was happening. Only when the war was almost won was it realised that this would make good propaganda. That was one way of evading British guilt.

Another defence is to say that the war was somehow caused by Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. It’s a truly absurd notion, though fed by the bitter resentments of those who thought they were better Leninists than Stalin, and in fact achieved nothing. Stalin could do little to prevent the war, not unless the British Empire was to ally itself with him in late 1938 and early 1939. Stalin sought this. Many Britons wanted it, but the British government seemed intent on going through the motions while making sure that nothing came of it.

It’s moot if even this would have prevented war in the longer term. The war of 1914-18 had left too much unresolved: Germany was neither treated decently nor broken up into the separate elements that had unified in the 1870s. Some sort of Second World War would have been likely even if the White Russians had won their Civil War and there had been no Soviet Union. But if the West’s partner in defeating Hitler had been a right-wing Russia that believed in Imperialism, Racism and hostility to Jews, the post-war world would have been very different and not at all congenial to left-wing causes.

A war was widely expected from the early 1930s, expressed in books as different as Wells’s The Shape Of Things To Come and Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. The boom of the 1920s had given some grounds for optimism, but then there was the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, so people feared that they were on the path for war regardless.

The situation in the late 30s was a bit like the 3-way standoff at the end of that famous Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The older Imperial powers – Britain and France – were keen to save their empires. This applied even to many non-Communist left-wingers like George Orwell, and is set out in his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were out to destroy this hegemony, but for different reasons and with utterly different visions of what should replace it.

In both Britain and France, Centre-Right parties including the British Tories (then ruling as the strongest element in a National Government) felt less threatened by the Nazis than by the left. No one apart from Republican Spain chose to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler used as an advert for his New Order. This already included stripping German Jews of their citizenship and erecting of an absolute dictatorship in place of conventional Parliamentary Democracy. Not to mention the mass killing of more moderate Nazis and some uncooperative conservative politicians in the Night of the Long Knives. (Most accounts nowadays just show the odious Brownshirts being killed: it went much wider than that, removing everyone Hitler felt he could not control.)

Hitler had planned the conquest of large parts of Russia in Mein Kampf, as necessary for Germany’s future. He was likely to try to do it eventually, regardless. Stalin had every reason to fear that the West would stand neutral in such a war, or maybe back Hitler. His response was unscrupulous but highly successful: when the West would not work with him he combined with Hitler to destroy Poland, and then let Hitler and the West weaken each other while he continued to strengthen the Soviet Union. In terms of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he secured the Clint Eastwood role for himself.

Where things went wrong was that the German War-Machine was unexpectedly effective. It overran Poland within weeks, whereas destroying Serbia had taken more than a year in World War One. Then overran France just as easily, and came close to managing the same when Hitler did finally launch his anti-Soviet crusade. Stalin was wrong on this, but so was almost everyone else. Including Hitler: he assumed that his early success was due to inherent superiority and that his enemies would be unable to learn and adapt, as in fact they did.

Facing the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War, the USA were for a time quite happy to be “White Knights in Blue Collar Armour”. They might have taken the phrase as praise, had anyone used it.[9] But all of the talk of Freedom led to strong demands for this same freedom from women and Afro-Americans, people who had been expected to know their place, but could not easily be crushed with the world watching. With Africa full of independent-minded rulers and with the Soviet Union in the 1960s way ahead on women’s rights, it was risky to refuse to change. So they shifted, but later managed to write the shift out of history.

The big trouble with lying is that it is not true. Someone who believes their own lies – as many clearly do in the USA – will blunder by thinking they have a shining past example when in fact they do not. Hence the blunders in Iraq and other places.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2013


[1] This is left much vaguer in Peter Jackson’s films.

[2] Warren, Allen. Singapore 1942: Britain’s Greatest Defeat. Hambledon and London 2002. Page 8.

[3] []

[4] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The Four Freedoms, delivered 6 January, 1941. [] I assume the “points of the compass” refers to the traditional difference between North and South, and also the lesser contrast between East Coast and West Coast.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Spanish election of 1936 was narrowly won by the Popular Front, but most of the opposition supported the military uprising. (Not initially led by Franco: several of the alternative leaders died during the fighting.)

[8] []

[9] As far as I can tell, it is new. I found nothing when I googled for it I do acknowledge an indirect inspiration from an episode of gangster-comedy The Sopranos entitled Knights In While Satin Armour.



  1. The United States was never English. It is now and always has been more German than anything else, and it lost a lot of what English population it had after the Revolution. They went to Canada. I myself grew up thinking I was English and only realized I was a Celt when I got interested in pedigrees.


  2. Britain “went to war” to defend Poland? Reminds me of people who think a protection order defends a woman from a wife-beater.


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