Catalyst Summer2017
Inquiry

African Americans’ Enduring Opposition to Nuclear Weapons

Interview with Vincent Intondi

Professor Vincent Intondi

Vincent Intondi is an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Race, Justice, and Community Engagement at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland. He is also director of research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute in Washington, DC. Intondi’s research focuses on the intersection of race and nuclear weapons. He is the author of the 2015 book African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement (Stanford University Press).
Photo: Natalie Intondi

How did you become interested in the civil rights dimension of anti-nuclear activism, and what inspired you to write your book?

Vincent Intondi:  For most of my life as an academic and an activist, my work revolved around civil rights and the black freedom movement. Nuclear weapons weren’t on my radar; they seemed like an abstract issue.

But in 2005, I made my first trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I met with atomic bomb survivors. I went to museums and ceremonies. And I was filled with such anger and guilt over what my country had done that when I returned, I realized I needed to find a way to combine these two passions of mine, eliminating racism and eliminating nuclear weapons. I asked my advisor how I could do this, and he suggested trying to answer the question: How did African Americans feel about dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Many colleagues warned me that I wasn’t going to find much of a response because African Americans were—understandably—too busy at the time trying to gain their own freedom and equality. But they were wrong; there was a large response. That’s what led to the book.

 

What did your research turn up?

Vincent Intondi:  Obviously black communities are not monolithic, so not everyone was thinking the same thing. But what I found is that, in many cases, African Americans were looking at the issue of nuclear weapons differently from most white people, through a lens of race and colonialism. After the bombs were first dropped in August 1945, a majority of the American public rejoiced. A Gallup poll conducted the week after showed that 85 percent of the American public agreed with President Truman’s choice. That wasn’t the case in the black community.

Immediately after the bombing, the first to come out against Truman’s decision were atomic scientists, church leaders—and leaders in the black community. Langston Hughes was one of the first to question President Truman’s racism, and what role it might have played. Paul Robeson was asking questions about where we got the uranium to build these weapons; the answer was Belgian-controlled Congo. Bayard Rustin also made a link to European colonialism in Africa, pointing out that the development of these weapons led to the French wanting to conduct their first nuclear test in the Sahara. They were looking at it in a way that many whites simply weren’t.

I also wanted to know what the rank and file thought, so I went through black newspapers from the era, read letters to the editor, and researched sermons given in black churches. I saw a pattern of African Americans thinking and talking about race as it related to the bomb. The most far-reaching criticism initially came from the black popular front.

 

What came of that early criticism and condemnation? Did it inform a broader movement during the Cold War?

Vincent Intondi:  Well, in later years, it wasn’t easy to be critical. After the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the worst thing you could be labeled was “Black and Red.” Groups like the NAACP made a calculated decision on this issue to turn right, embrace anti-Communism, and align with Truman, in hopes of gaining civil rights.

However, leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and others didn’t see peace as a bargaining chip. They saw the start of the Korean War. They saw an arms race with the Russians. They decided to fight against the potential use of nuclear weapons against another people of color in Korea. They were connecting what was happening in the civil rights movement with other liberation movements around the world.

 

What do you most want readers to take away from reading African Americans Against the Bomb?

Vincent Intondi:  That racism and nuclear weapons are not separate issues. For so long, we’ve looked at nuclear disarmament as a white middle-class pacifist issue. And while there are many white pacifist middle-class anti-nuclear activists, African Americans were active in the movement, and saw the liberation of nonwhite people around the world as inextricably linked to their own struggle. We hear a lot about intersectionality today, and how movements are connected. My book demonstrates this intersectionality.

 

How can today’s young activists best connect with these issues?

Vincent Intondi:  I think the best strategy is tying activism about nuclear weapons to other issues. One strategy is to link to the economic conversion argument. For example, how can we talk about broken-down infrastructure in Baltimore and Anacostia, and not talk about how we’re spending a trillion dollars on nuclear weapons? If we can show how that money could be better spent, that can be a key to getting these movements back to where they were in the 1980s. The movement then was relatively inclusive, and one tactic that was effective during that decade was a focus on economics.

It also helps to have a concrete cause, and that cause today could be the United Nations treaty to ban nuclear weapons. A legal framework at the UN to ban nukes in 120 countries is something that people can get behind.

Finally, nuclear activists always ask me what they can do to connect with Black Lives Matter and other civil rights activists. My response to them is, first, just show up for those movements. People will eventually see that you’re there. Don’t go to talk at them but to be an ally. Solidarity will be built and it will be reciprocated.


Listen to Vincent Intondi talk about his book on the Got Science? podcast