The old South vs. the totalitarian dictators

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany’s Nazis thought of American white Southerners as soul brothers.  But they were wrong.  The Southern Democrats in the U.S. Congress were the Nazis’ sworn enemies.

Fear ItselfIn a previous post, I summarized Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, and his account of how the Southern Democrats both supported and set limits on FDR’s New Deal reforms of the 1930s.  In this post, I carry my reading of Katznelson’s book forward into how the Southern Democrats shaped U.S. policy toward the Axis and then toward the Soviets.

Hitler despised black people, admired the Ku Klux Klan and regretted the defeat of the South in the Civil War, as a lost opportunity to create a society based on inequality and slavery.  He loved the movie, “Gone With the Wind,” which he watched while awaiting the news of the German invasion of the USSR.

While the Old South states were not dictatorships, they were similar to Hitler’s Germany in that all were ruled by a single party with restricted franchise.  In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt received 97 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 99 percent in South Carolina, with some counties reporting not a single Republican vote.  This is equal to what Hitler and Stalin got in their plebiscites.

But although Hitler had great esteem for the American South, this feeling was not reciprocated.  The South was the most anti-Nazi, pro-British and pro-interventionist region of the United States.

Katznelson is not completely sure why.  One explanation is that white Southerners were mostly of British descent, and felt sympathy for the mother country in peril.  There is something to this.  New England Yankees, also of British descent, were strong interventionists.  Ethnic ties never entirely die.

I think that, in addition, Southerners were sincerely devoted to their idea of democracy—limited government, legislative supremacy, state’s rights and individual freedom (for white people), which, for all their racism, was diametrically opposed to Hitler’s totalitarianism.

Also, the South is the only part of the United States with a historical memory of invasion and defeat.  That may have made the Nazi threat seem more real to them than to other Americans.

And finally, I don’t think the South is as war-averse other parts of the United States.   When I did my Army service in the 1950s, the career soldiers were disproportionately Southern, and I don’t think this was for economic reasons.   Southerners regard military service as honorable and worthy of respect.

Be that as it may, the South was united in support for Britain and resistance to Hitler in a way that the rest of the country was not.

Republicans in Congress were mostly isolationists who thought the United States should confine itself to defense of the Western Hemisphere.  Northern Democrats were influenced by anti-British feelings of Irish-American, German-American and Italian-American constituents.   Many Americans across the political spectrum felt it had been a mistake to fight in World War One, and did not want to make the same mistake twice.

Southerners in Congress provided the margin of votes needed to enact Lend Lease, to implement a military draft in peacetime and to begin rearmament.  Absent Southern support, Britain might not have received the supplies necessary to continue fighting, and the United States would have been less prepared if and when it entered the war.

Most historians say the New Deal ended with the outbreak of the war, but Katznelson sees FDR’s war policy as a continuation of the New Deal. The federal government created jobs on a scale that dwarfed the public works projects of the 1930s.   It engaged in national planning on a much greater scale than was attempted under the National Recovery Act.

The original NRA was not an attempt by government to control corporate management, as was done in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, let alone to abolish of private enterprise, as happened in Soviet Russia.  Rather it was intended as a genuine partnership between government, business and labor.

The NRA probably wouldn’t have worked even if the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.  After the immediate danger of economic collapse had passed, corporate leaders turned against any government interference in their prerogatives.   However, the wartime equivalents of the NRA, such as the National Resources Planning Board, worked well because government, business and labor had a common goal—victory.

After the war, President Truman saw Soviet Russia as a new threat, and committed the United States to Cold War with the Soviet Union.   Here, too, the support of the Southern Democrats was crucial.   Many Republicans were still isolationists.  Many Northern liberals were reluctant to dissolve the wartime alliance with the USSR.

Southern Democrats in Congress not only provided the necessary votes for Truman’s policies, but they chaired the key congressional committees having to do with the military and foreign policy.  This was important, because they were supposedly privy to secret information not available to the public.

Here was a seeming paradox.  The South’s historic aim was to limit the power of the federal government to interfere with the states.   But in regard to the government’s activities regarding the outside world, Southerners helped create the powerful, centralized garrison state which still exists today.

The title of Katznelson’s book, Fear Itself, reflects his idea that Americans in the 1930s and 1940s were motivated mostly by fear—fear of economic collapse, fear for the future of democracy, fear of fascism, fear of Communism and fear of the atomic bomb.

Because of these real and perceived threats, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman accepted serious moral compromises—acceptance of Jim Crow in the South, without which the New Deal program would not have been enacted; alliance with Soviet Russia, without which Nazi Germany would not have been defeated; and the peacetime garrison state, based on secret weapons, covert action, loyalty boards and the militarization of American life.

Katznelson thought these compromises were justified by the result.  The United States came through the 1930s and 1940s with the structure of its democratic institutions intact, and the other western democracies emerged free of domination by fascism or Communism.   I can see his argument, but I think American democracy has been greatly and possibly fatally damaged by our acceptance of the garrison state.


The New Deal That Could Have Been by Rich Yeselson for The American Prospect

Pulling back from the brink by Jonathan Bradley for American Review

The Last Lost Cause by Jeremy Kessler Jr. for Jacobin.

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3 Responses to “The old South vs. the totalitarian dictators”

  1. Atticus C. Says:

    “I think that, in addition, Southerners were sincerely devoted to their idea of democracy—limited government, legislative supremacy, state’s rights and individual freedom (for white people), which, for all their racism, was diametrically opposed to Hitler’s totalitarianism.”

    I think this is a good point.

    “And finally, I don’t think the South is as war-averse other parts of the United States. When I did my Army service in the 1950s, the career soldiers were disproportionately Southern, and I don’t think this was for economic reasons. Southerners regard military service as honorable and worthy of respect.”

    As a Southerner I think this is true and not true. I think that most people enter the military for economic reasons and as a result of so many people entering the military (relatives, friends, teachers) that is has thus become perceived as honorable and worthy of respect.

    Economic reasons have been the catalyst of a culture of militaristic respect in the South. Now, after generations, it has become part of the culture. You do not see many wealthy or upper middle-class people in the South joining the military.


    • philebersole Says:

      Atticus, I think you’re right. Economic need, social conformity and patriotism are not as separable as I implied in my post. Someone might enlist in the military for personal reasons, such as to earn money for college, but that doesn’t mean the person isn’t patriotic.

      I have met members of military families—people who serve in the armed forces generation after generation. There are multiple reasons why people do this (or anything else), but the motive of patriotism is certainly central.

      The South does have more of a military tradition than other sections of the USA. I don’t know of any Northern state-supported institution comparable to Virginia Military Institute or South Carolina’s Citadel.

      As an aside, when I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1956, nobody at all was being drafted from Washington County, Maryland, my home county. There were always enough volunteers to fill the draft quota.

      I probably could have avoided being drafted if I had chosen to wait it out. The reason I gave for enlisting was that I wanted to get my military service over with, and didn’t want the draft hanging over my head. My real reason is that I would have felt ashamed to try to get out of something that every other male person my age did.

      Remember, though, that 1956 was peacetime. Would I have been so patriotic if I had come of age in 1942 or 1967? Probably not. I would not have evaded the draft, or tried to get out of military service, but I would have waited for the call.


  2. Thom Hickey Says:

    Thanks Phil. Really enjoyed reading this well informed and illuminating post. Lots more for me to read! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel)


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