The challenge to a variety of political and social issues distinctly characterizes the post World War II (WWII) era, from the mid 1940’s through the 1970’s, in the United States. These issues included African-American civil rights, women’s rights, the threat of Communism, and America’s continuous war effort by entering the Cold War immediately after the end to WWII. These debated issues led to the birth of multiple social movements, collectively referred to as the New Left, rooted in liberalism.
In response to the New Left, a strong brand of conservatism, collectively referred to as the Right, arose to counteract these movements. Despite opposing ideology and convictions, both the New Left and the Right interchangeably used righteous language of freedom, morality, Christianity, and human rights, particularly in the issues of African-American civil rights, women’s rights, Communism, and the U. S. war effort in the Cold War, to justify and promote each of their respective agendas. While the U. S. chieved victory during WWII in the name of democracy and equality, African-Americans continued to experience domestic segregation. This led to the emergence of a New Left movement fighting for African-American civil rights and a counteracting Right movement attempting to maintain racial segregation in America. Two of the most prominent figures in the struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. and Strom Thurmond, each justified and promoted their agenda through righteous language which appealed to their respective followers.
After being arrested and imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 for leading a nonviolent protest in support of African-American civil rights, King delivered his famous open letter, known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, to white clergymen who had asked him to shut down his campaign. The letter possesses numerous connections between morality, Christianity, and African-American civil rights when he states, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey just laws….
Segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful…. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred value in our Judaeo-Christian heritage. ” He justifies African Americans’ willingness to break the discriminating laws of the time and promotes eliminating segregation through these connections.
This language allowed King to appear as the righteous one in the minds of many and he consequently gained the support of millions of African-Americans throughout the nation and white Christians in the North. Strom Thurmond, a conservative Rightist who led the State’s Rights Democratic Party or Dixiecrats, gained wide support for segregation and racial conservatism through language linking segregation to the preservation of human rights and liberty.
In his 1948 Platform of the States’ Rights Democratic Party, he links the U. S. Constitution to the individual states’ rights to choose their respective legal status of segregation when he states, “We believe that the Constitution of the United States is the greatest charter of human liberty ever conceived by the mind of man. We oppose all efforts to invade or destroy the rights guaranteed to every citizen of the republic…. We stand for segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race….
We unreservedly condemn the effort to establish in the United States a police nation that would destroy the last vestige of liberty enjoyed by a citizen. We demand that there be returned to the people to whom of right they belong, those powers needed for the preservation of human rights and the discharge of our responsibility as democrats for human welfare. ” This powerful language, connecting segregation to human rights and liberty, justified violence and racism for many white southerners and promoted Thurmond’s agenda of maintaining segregation.
During World War II and shortly after, millions of American women experienced new freedom as they lived and worked in the public sphere due to the federal government’s campaign to recruit them to produce goods for the war effort. This new rhetoric directly differed from traditional ideology of republican motherhood and paternalism in which the man is the head of the household, works in the public sphere, and women live in the private sphere instilling virtue into the children while maintaining the household.
With the United States’ immediate entrance into the Cold War following World War II, came a dramatic right shift in American politics and rhetoric. This included a return to republic motherhood in which political discussions and the media, through shows like “Father Knows Best”, encouraged women to express their patriotism by staying at home and raising families. Naturally, this right shift led to the continuance of discrimination based on gender. The National Organization of Women (NOW), an organization of the New Left, challenged such discrimination.
The organization’s 1966 Statement of Purpose states, “The time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders… The time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.  This righteous language, specifically mentioning human rights and freedom as the basis for their movement, justified NOW’s actions of campaigning, lobbying, and protesting and promoted their agenda of earning equal rights for women. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Right leader, organized STOP ERA, an organization which halted the ratification movement of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She challenged NOW by incorporating women’s (human) rights and morality into the justification and promotion of her agenda.
In her 1976 Interview with the Washington Star, she states, “The voters recognize ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) as a fraud, and they’re against it. They recognize it as a takeaway of women’s rights; they recognize it won’t do anything good for women, and so they’re against it. ” When asked if women gaining legal equality in New York would take away their rights, she responded, “The New York state support law is a beautiful law. It says the husband must support his wife, and the husband must support their minor children under age 21.
It’s perfectly obvious that when you apply the ERA to that law, it becomes immediately unconstitutional. So ERA takes away the right of the wife to be supported and to have her minor children supported. Obviously, this is an attack on the rights of the wife and the family. ” When asked if she thinks people were being forced to hire unqualified women over more qualified men, she describes a specific example in the Chicago Police Department and concludes, “It’s hurtful to men, it’s hurtful to women and it’s hurtful to the community.
And it will do nothing but demoralize and destroy the police force. ” Thus, both NOW, an organization of the New Left, and Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent figure in Right conservatism, incorporated righteous terminology like human rights, freedom, and morality to promote and justify their directly opposing goals. America’s continuous participation in the Cold War eventually led to the highly controversial U. S. entrance into the Vietnam War in 1964. The two main issues of debate between the New Left and Right at this time were U. S. involvement in the war and the threat of Communism.
Ronald Reagan, who later became one of the Right’s most praised figures, delivered his Rendezvous with Destiny speech in 1964 with numerous references to freedom, morality, and Christianity in the context of supporting pro-war and anti-communist ideology. He uses language of freedom to discern democracy from Communism when he states, “There is only an up or down – up to man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order – or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom security have embarked on this downward course.
Shortly after, he claims freedom and morality agree with the necessary war effort, Vietnam at this particular time, against Communism: “If you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based upon what we know in our hearts is morally right, we cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters’. And finally, he references two of Christianity’s most influential figures, Moses and Jesus Christ, to justify the bloodshed of war: “If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin – just in the face of the enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? ” Reagan’s language of freedom, morality, and Christianity justified and promoted the general conservative Right’s agenda of the time: pro-war and anti-communism.
Contrastingly, Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), used language of morality and freedom to challenge the conservative Right’s pro-war agenda. In his 1965 speech The Incredible War, he says, “The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestiges of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy…. The President says that we are defending freedom in Vietnam. Whose freedom? Not the freedom of the Vietnamese. The first act of the first dictator (Diem) the U. S. installed in Vietnam as to systematically begin the persecution of all political opposition, non-Communist as well as Communist…. Not even the President can say that this is war to defend the freedom of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps what the President means when he speaks of freedom is the freedom of the Americans. What in fact has the war done for freedom in America? It has led to even more vigorous governmental efforts to control information, manipulate the press and pressure and persuade the public through distorted or downright dishonest documents such as the White Paper on Vietnam…..
But the war goes on; the freedom to conduct the war depends on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well. ” Potter’s incorporation of morality and freedom into his speech provided justification and promotion of an anti-war movement, a common agenda of the New Left at the time. Thus, despite directly opposing goals on the main issues of the post WWII era, specifically African-American civil rights, women’s rights, Communism, and the U. S. ar effort in the Cold War, both the New Left and the Right won over substantial numbers of Americans due to their righteous language and claims to freedom, morality, Christianity, and human rights. Debates over which side was truly righteous remain entirely subjective because both sides called for questionable and controversial action but both recognized the need to justify and promote their respective agendas through claims of righteousness, a trend which still persists in America today.