Interview with Penny von Eschen

On February 29, I had the opportunity to interview Penny von Eschen, a professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and author of Race Against the Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (1997). Our interview was more of a conversation, and so here are some points I took away:

We spoke a lot about the identity of the black anticolonial activists (Walter White, for example), how they were a specific group of people, critical of capitalism, but not necessarily aligned with the Soviet Union. The nature of this group is in contrast with the looser coalition I have labeled the “liberal internationalists,” which encompassed the liberal spectrum, including the black anticolonialists, individuals like Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck, as well as people like Henry Luce, who would break with the liberals during the Cold War. Von Eschen described the Cold War split as being exemplified by Henry Luce, the “American Century,” economic institutions and the Truman Doctrine on one side and Henry Wallace on the other, who looked to implement a “worldwide New Deal” by raising global living standards through decolonization, also demonstrating the pervasive fear of another Great Depression. Von Eschen also described the radical anticolonialists being destroyed in the early years of the Cold War, and so liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck had to find new alliances by pursuing anti-communism.

Professor von Eschen gave me a nice overview of the newly independent India in the early Cold War, how they rejected the capitalist-based version of American democracy and instead pursued a new kind of democracy that was not based around the concept of redistribution. Von Eschen pointed out that India was already having meetings about non-alignment during 1947, a policy that Americans couldn’t understand, but instead insisted that India must have been “duped by the communists.” (This lack of understanding reminded me of the American failure to comprehend the Indian move to civil disobedience during the war with the Quit India movement.) India would become the biggest voice in the Korean War against partition, and were firmly against the Truman Doctrine. Von Eschen also pointed me towards the individuals in the State Department, like Chester Bowles, who were sympathetic towards India, but were overruled by the Department’s firm military alliance with Pakistan.

Von Eschen urged me to place India’s consideration of independence within the larger geopolitical scope. We discussed wartime anticolonialism as an “extension of Wilsonian internationalism,” which was interrupted by the Depression. Von Eschen described Wilsonianism as being an anticolonial ideology, focused on making the world safe for American democracy and capitalism, while restricting the British and French control of the world. Thus, Wilsonian internationalism was based in American national interests.

Professor von Eschen recommended that I look at Alan Brinkley’s new biography: The Publisher: Henry Luce and his American Century (2010) and Erez Manela’s book: The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2009).