By Denise Lynn

February 15, 2022  Washington Post’s “Made By History” perspective section


A hundred different organized groups have urged the Biden administration to reject war with Russia, despite mounting tensions caused by Russia moving closer to invading Ukraine. Polling shows little public support for a U.S. military response, nor has the administration shown any inclination toward one. But some voices in D.C. would like to see a more hawkish response.

We will see how these tensions unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Yet in a moment like this, it is worth reflecting on how peace activism has been marginalized in Washington. This marginalization has its roots in the Cold War, when voices calling for peace — especially those who highlighted how U.S. militarism harmed freedom abroad and at home — were systemically silenced. A key example comes from the work of Charlotta Bass, a Black woman, journalist and peace activist.

Bass, originally from Rhode Island, moved to California in 1910. She began working for John Neimore’s newspaper the Eagle. When Neimore unexpectedly died, Bass took over the paper, renaming it the California Eagle. It was one of California’s earliest Black newspapers. From the beginning, the paper focused on civil rights issues in the growing Los Angeles metropolitan area. Bass combined journalism and editing with social justice activism. She had been a registered Republican for decades, but during World War II, her politics shifted further to the left and she began working with more liberals and leftists, including communists.

In 1948, she became active in Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party run for president. Wallace criticized the Truman administration’s increased militarization, its stand against the Soviet Union, and the wedding of the civilian and military economies. The California Eagle became a major venue for criticizing the containment policy and anti-communist harassment, and for publicizing global peace efforts. By this point, Bass had become a recognized leader among global peace advocates. In 1949, she was invited to attend the Women’s Asiatic Conference in China to encourage the United States to open relations, but she was unable to attend.

In January 1950, President Harry S. Truman announced his approval for building a hydrogen bomb. By that summer, the United States led NATO forces to intervene in Korea’s civil war. Bass and peace advocates around the world worried about the use of nuclear weapons during the war, especially given that U.S. policymakers, including Truman, did not dismiss the possibility. She also argued that U.S. intervention in Korea came even as U.S. officials ignored or enabled racist violence at home.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Dean Acheson dismissed the petition as communist propaganda, targeting those that advocated it as enemies of the state. Bass noted that the petition threatened Acheson and the State Department because of its success and its criticism of U.S. policy.

In 1950, while no law prevented peace advocacy, those who criticized U.S. Cold War policy and its ever-increasing military budget were denounced, harassed and sometimes imprisoned and deported.

Because of her activism, she was unable to secure a visa in 1949 and was not allowed to attend the Women’s Asiatic Conference in China. She did travel to the Prague conference, but her movements were monitored. After the conference, Bass traveled to the Soviet Union to meet again with some of the Russian delegates she met in Prague. The FBI later questioned her about the trip and ordered her to surrender her passport, which she refused to do.

The FBI added her to its security index, which identified individuals who would be detained during a national security crisis. On a few occasions, FBI agents noted that she was not a communist and tried to close her file. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover rejected that conclusion. In 1946, an informant claimed, without evidence, that she was a concealed communist, justifying surveillance that lasted until her death in 1969. Even in her elder years, when she suffered from debilitating arthritis, the FBI considered her a national security threat.

Then, U.S. intervention occurred despite widespread opposition, which according to historian Marilyn Young taught American politicians that permission was not needed to fight a war. It also justified a bloated military budget at the expense of social welfare. And it occurred at a time when anti-communists likened social welfare programs to a communist plot, undermining support for popular and necessary social programs.

By accusing peace activists of allying with the “enemy” and expanding the surveillance state to monitor them, the United States became what Bass had warned about: a nation devoted to war while continuing to deny its citizens the dignity of their basic needs. Today, the United States has hundreds of bases overseas and has recently approved the largest military budget in history; meanwhile, millions of Americans have little access to housing, food and health care, and systemic racism persists. On the eve of the Cold War, Bass warned that justice could not exist in a nation committed to war; unfortunately, policymakers did not heed the warning.


-Denise Lynn is author of Where is Juliet Stuart Poyntz? Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021). She is professor of history and director of gender and Africana studies at the University of Southern Indiana.