Saturday, July 22, 2017

'Negro Subversion' : The Investigation of Blacks by the United States Government, 1917-1920

ethos |  The United States entered World War I in April, 1917, amid a German spy scare. There were persistent allegations that Blacks were opposed to the war, in spite of their declarations to the contrary. "ProGermanism among the negroes" was investigated by the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation and the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB) of the War Department's General Staff. 

Efforts were made to discover disloyal motives behind orgnnisatione such as the NAACP and the National Equal Rights League; in the contents of publications such as the Crisis, the Messenger and the Chicago Defender; and in the activities of Black spokesmen such as W E B Du Bois, and Monroe Trotter, Kelly Miller, A Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and Hubert Harrison. No firm evidence was found to support claims that Blacks were disloyal, but investigation of what MIB called "Negro Subversion" became a regular part of domestic intelligence gathering during the war. Reports filed about Blacks were often inaccurate and the resulting misinformation was self-perpetuating. Black draft evasion, which was common, but not always deliberate, and rumours about harsh conditions and high casualty rates endured by Black troops were the subject of numerous reports by the Bureau and MIB, enhancing the misleading impression that there was a well-co-ordinated enemy plan to foment racial discord. The behaviour of Black soldiers was monitored by MIB. Particular attention was given to camp race riots and to the political views of Black YMCA staff. 

Joel E Spingarn, the white chairman of the NAACP, served as a military intelligence officer for 21 months in 1918. He attempted to persuade the General Staff to sponsor federal anti-lynching legislation and began to set up a subsection within MIB to identify those instances of racial discrimination which most damaged Black morale. Spingarn was ousted from MIB after his proposal that Du Bois be brought into military intelligence aroused bitter Black criticism. Had he remained in Washington, the subsequent attitude of federal government toward intervention in the field of race relations might have been different. In the final months of the war, MIB was re-organised and re-named the Military Intelligence Division (MID). 

Efforts of Blacks to travel to Paris to raise the question of race during the peace conference were in most cases foiled by the State Department's refusal on spurious grounds to grant them passports. At the same time, the return from France of Black troops with greater political and racial awareness than before the war was anticipated with some concern by military intelligence officers. The menace of the German agent was swiftly replaced in the American mind by the spectre of Bolshevism. In 1919 radical Black protest and organisation began to be attributed to the influence of the new alien threat. Randolph, Owen and Marcus Garvey were among those leaders watched by the federal investigative agencies in attempts to discover evidence of Bolshevik influence among Blacks. Race riots in Washington, UDC, and Chicago in July served to convince many officials, notably J Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau's Radical Division, that some link must exist between Black protest, racial violence and Bolshevism. MID work on "Negro Subversion" was being scaled down, but the Radical Division maintained its interest in this area in the light of further riots. The climax of the Red Scare was accompanied by statements from the Justice Department that Blacks were part of the radical tide which threatened to sweep America. Blacks did not, in fact, adopt radical politics in significant numbers. However, in the minds of those who ran the investigative agencies of federal government, Blacks were now firmly established as a potentially disloyal and revolutionary element in American society - ever susceptible to, and the likely target of, the advances of subversive propagandists.

fas |   Prior to our declaration of war with Germany this essential general staff agency which is charged with gathering, collating, and disseminating the military information necessary as a basis for correct military decisions existed only in a rudimentary form. In April, 1917, it consisted of a section of the War College Division comprising a total personnel consisting of two officers and two clerks and supplied with only $11,000 by congressional appropriation for the performance of duty vital to the interests of the Army and the Nation. Every other army of importance was provided with a far-reaching military intelligence service directed by a well-equipped general staff agency recognized as a par with agencies charged with military plans, operations, and supplies. As a result of our neglect of this service, the valuable information gathered by the officers whom we had attached to European armies during the first year and a half of the war was never properly used. We were also without accurate data as to the powerful and insidious espionage , propaganda, and sabotage methods with which Germany at once attempted to thwart our military effort.


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