Howard University and U.S. Foreign Affairs during the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, 1933-1945

By Muse, Clifford L., Jr. | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Howard University and U.S. Foreign Affairs during the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, 1933-1945


Muse, Clifford L., Jr., The Journal of African American History


As the premier black institution of higher education, Howard University during the critical years 1933-1945 had attracted to its campus many outstanding African American scholars, educators, and students. These individuals came to constitute one of Americas most dynamic intellectual communities. During the years from 1933 to 1945, members of the Howard University community examined, evaluated, and expressed their approval or disapproval of U.S. involvement in international events that were rapidly unfolding. Through public pronouncements, the media, and individual activism, they advanced their views. In certain situations, there were even attempts to effect U.S. foreign policy. Historically, African American pronouncements affecting United States foreign policy had been severely curtailed, and foreign policy issues, until recent times, have traditionally been viewed as "off-limits" to non-whites. However, African Americans have spoken out in the area of foreign relations and have attempted to influence the di rection of U.S. foreign policy when it was perceived as affecting the lifestyle and existence of people of color. This essay identifies some of the major international issues during the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) presidency that were evaluated, discussed, and debated at Howard, and what action, if any, was taken or initiated to affect the outcome of any U.S. policy or position.

IMPERIALISM, THE ARMS RACE, AND INTERNATIONALISM

Three general topics of interest examined at the university were "imperialism," "the arms race," and "internationalism." As the nations of the world moved toward armed conflict during the 1930s, individuals at Howard saw "imperialism and the arms race" as old evils leading mankind to destruction. Lyonel Florant, a Howard student activist and socialist, attended the first World Student Congress Against War and Fascism held in Brussels, Belgium, in December 1935. Florant and his supporters were able to force the adoption of resolutions against imperialism. (1)

A powerful Howard voice critical of imperialism was President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. During the 1939 opening university convocation, Dr. Johnson criticized the past record of systematic expropriation of the resources and manpower in Africa, India, and China by the major European powers. (2) He questioned the justification for continuing such practices and asserted that the moral imperatives of democracy and humanity demanded that the European powers give up their "exclusive control and manipulation" of these areas. (3) Also during the mid-1940s, some Howard students expressed support for the dissolution of the European colonial empires. Eighty students, seventy-six of whom were young women, responded to a survey conducted by the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Thirty-seven of seventy-six respondents favored the dissolution of the British empire; thirty-nine students felt that its continuation "was necessary for the maintenance of peace." (4) It is interesting to note that twenty-three students "had no opini on" on African colonies, but the majority felt they should be granted "independence after a period of preparation." (5) Seventy percent of the respondents felt India "should be given her freedom," while a few believed a period of preparation "might be necessary." (6)

The escalation of the "arms race" was criticized by both President Johnson and Rev. Francis J. Grimke, a former Howard trustee. Rev. Grimke decried the military crassness prevalent in the world during a 1935 address at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Rev. Grimke warned his audience that permanent world peace would remain unachievable until the "greed for gain and lust for power" were eradicated. (7) Echoing similar sentiments in a 1940 address at the Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. Johnson insisted that a conscious increase in military power, be it armaments or armies, couldn't "insure democracy at home or abroad. …

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