[Marxism] White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 12 09:25:14 MDT 2016

Vol. 38 No. 20 · 20 October 2016
Destined to Disappear
by Susan Pedersen

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American 
International Relations by Robert Vitalis
Cornell, 272 pp, $29.95, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 8014 5397 7

Robert Vitalis tells a great story about how he came to write this book. 
Some years ago, sitting in the Clark University library avoiding grading 
his students’ final exams, he pulled an old history of the university 
off the shelf. Clark played a key role in the birth of the field of 
international relations in the two decades before the First World War, 
he read, especially by founding and supporting one of the new 
discipline’s flagship journals, the Journal of Race Development. ‘That 
can’t be right,’ he thought.

Some more digging told him that it was. The Journal of Race Development, 
established in 1910, was one of a spate of academic journals, 
associations and institutes founded as American social scientists came 
to grips with their country’s expanding global and imperial role. The 
journal’s title, jarring today, reflects perfectly the centrality of the 
category of ‘race’ to political science at the time. During the 
‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919, the journal was rechristened the Journal of 
International Relations without much disturbing its contributors or 
character. A few years after that, it was bought and renamed again by a 
New York-based association of internationalist businessmen, officials 
and academics, the Council on Foreign Relations. Yes, that’s right: it 
became Foreign Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of the foreign policy 

This is just one of the startling and illuminating genealogies Vitalis 
pieced together during the ten years or more he spent researching this 
book. White World Order, Black Power Politics does two things. First, it 
provides a critical history of the institutional development of the 
field of international relations in the United States, from its founding 
at the turn of the century through to the Cold War. This history is 
radically unfamiliar: the ‘origin story’ taught on undergraduate 
courses, which traces the field’s core concepts (realism, liberal 
internationalism) back to Thucydides or Machiavelli or Wilson is, 
Vitalis insists, a post-1945 invention. Instead, at the moment of its 
American birth, ‘international relations meant race relations.’ Races, 
not states or nations, were considered humanity’s foundational political 
units; ‘race war’ – not class conflict or interstate conflict – was the 
spectre preying on scholars’ minds. The field of international relations 
was born to avert that disaster.

A blunter way to put this, and Vitalis is blunter, is that international 
relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in 
a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world. Segregation and Jim 
Crow had done the trick at home, where non-white populations were in the 
minority, but how could white America govern its newly annexed and 
overwhelmingly non-white territories without losing its republican soul? 
A few white scholars thought the task impossible. Indeed, one of the 
most famous – John Burgess, founder of Columbia’s School of Political 
Science and of the Political Science Quarterly – opposed President 
McKinley’s imperial adventuring precisely because it threatened the 
democratic institutions he thought suited to ‘Teutonic’ peoples alone. 
‘American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any 
active, directive part of the political population which shall be able 
to produce modern political institutions,’ he warned. Unless it wanted 
to go the way of Rome, America should leave empire alone.

Most American political scientists disagreed. The Wilsonian moment gave 
them the chance to prove their new field’s worth. True, there were 
those, like the repellent T. Lothrop Stoddard (PhD Harvard 1916), who 
met anti-imperialist appeals with hysterical jeremiads about the threat 
to white supremacy; and in the Year of Trump, we shouldn’t be surprised 
that Stoddard’s incendiary trilogy – The Rising Tide of Colour (1920), 
The New World of Islam (1921), Revolt against Civilisation (1922) – 
proved wildly popular. But the bulk of the profession – what Vitalis 
calls the hump of the bell curve – were confident that they could 
develop institutions that would enable non-white races to progress 
without upsetting fundamental hierarchies. Their racial paternalism 
dovetailed perfectly with the work of the new League of Nations, which 
was building an oversight regime that would guarantee the ‘well-being 
and development’ of colonised peoples while keeping them in imperial 
hands. Many prominent American international relations scholars of the 
interwar years – Harvard’s Raymond Leslie Buell, Columbia’s Parker Moon, 
Chicago’s Quincy Wright – made their names studying that mandates 
regime. American foundations such as Rockefeller and Carnegie were happy 
to underwrite their efforts.

One of Vitalis’s core arguments is that the difference between these 
serious-minded researchers and extremist popularisers like Stoddard is 
more a matter of style than substance, of tone than content. The ‘hump’ 
of the profession may not have raged about whites’ inalienable ‘right to 
their racial heritage’, but Vitalis could find no white international 
relations scholar in this era who directly challenged white privilege by 
supporting equal citizenship rights and colonial self-determination. All 
were, as the historian of anthropology George Stocking put it, 
‘evolutionists’: that is, they assimilated ‘races’ to ‘stages’ of the 
human evolutionary past, and then assumed each had to develop separately 
and at its own pace. After all, these were the principles that governed 
race relations in the United States.

Yet there was another tail to the bell curve, a small, hard-pressed 
group of black scholars who insisted that the problem was not racial 
conflict, or even racial difference, but simply racism: the systematic 
and worldwide denial of equal rights to citizenship and 
self-determination on grounds of race alone. Vitalis calls this group 
the ‘Howard School’: the term captures both Howard University’s 
pre-eminence as a centre of African-American learning at a time when 
white universities would train but not hire black academics, and the 
distinctive contribution of its faculty to scholarship more broadly. At 
a time when international relations was the study not of the anarchical 
relations between the world’s states but of ‘the dynamics of domination 
and dependency among the world’s superior and inferior races’, these 
‘first black scholars (and only them) in a deeply segregated academy 
challenged the fundamental premise of international/interracial 
hierarchy, that different norms applied to different classes of people’. 
Recovering their indefatigable work is this book’s second major 

Vitalis is interested in four scholars in particular: the philosopher 
Alain Locke (PhD Harvard 1918), the historian Rayford Logan (PhD Harvard 
1936), and the political scientists Ralph Bunche (PhD Harvard 1934) and 
Merze Tate (PhD Radcliffe 1941) – though he also notes the contributions 
of the historians E. Franklin Frazier (PhD Chicago 1931) and Eric 
Williams (PhD Oxford 1938), who taught at Howard before returning to 
Trinidad in the late 1940s. Of the main four, all but Tate – the first 
African-American woman to receive a PhD in this field – are today 
reasonably well known, something that can’t be said of the once eminent 
white scholars with whom they argued and sometimes collaborated. Yet 
they are remembered as pioneering black intellectuals, founders of the 
field of African-American studies, not as political scientists. Although 
the American Political Science Association offers a Ralph Bunche award 
for the best scholarly work on ‘ethnic and cultural pluralism’, neither 
Bunche’s work, nor that of his peers, would appear on an IR syllabus today.

We get some sense of that work here: Locke’s early interrogation of the 
concept of ‘race development’ and his attention to Harlem’s significance 
as a diasporic intellectual centre; his, Logan’s and Bunche’s critical 
assessments of the League of Nations’ mandates regime; Bunche’s analysis 
of race as a cloak for economic exploitation in A World View of Race 
(1936); and Tate’s prescient analyses of arms control and Pacific 
relations. But this isn’t really an intellectual history, because 
Vitalis is concerned less with the merits of particular paradigms than 
with the process by which they come to hold disciplinary power: that is, 
how they gain support, draw funding, give birth to institutes and 
journals, and cope with or succumb to challenges from rival frameworks. 
His is a history of struggle, albeit the kind of struggle that happens 
in boardrooms, editorial meetings and the plenary sessions of academic 

It was an unequal struggle, obviously: black scholars were usually 
admitted to the white academy grudgingly or, almost worse, as token 
representatives of their race. Vitalis provides plenty of vignettes to 
illustrate this: white scholars or statesmen angling to find the one 
acceptable black collaborator (‘Ralph Bunche would be excellent but 
perhaps hard to get’); foundations, having decided to put funds into 
African studies, courting and endowing prestigious white institutions 
with no track record in this field instead of Howard (‘an atavism 
destined to disappear’). This account is depressing but not especially 
surprising. More unexpected is the story Vitalis tells of one particular 
white scholar’s episodic and self-interested collaboration with Locke, 
Logan and Bunche.

Raymond Leslie Buell shows up again and again in this story, just as he 
forced his way into countless conferences, journals, colonial governors’ 
offices and League meetings in his quest to shape international 
relations between the wars. Vitalis doesn’t quite know how to deal with 
Buell, who also found ideas of separate development seductive and was 
too hopeful about ‘trusteeship’ regimes. But against his fairly 
conventional liberal internationalist thought must be placed his 
hyperactive and anything but conventional practice. We see Buell 
badgering Locke for contacts in Africa; teaming up with Logan at a 
conference in Williamstown to defend the legitimacy of colonial 
nationalism; exposing Firestone’s reliance on forced labour in Liberia; 
heading off for almost a year of research in Africa (the first 
international relations scholar to do such work); and quitting his job 
at Harvard because he thought he could do more to improve race relations 
as the head of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association. Buell 
could be patronising: he clearly liked seeing himself as a scholarly 
impresario and tried to direct as well as support black scholars’ work; 
Pearl T. Robinson has written wonderfully on Bunche’s simultaneous use 
of, and defences against, Buell’s meddling. But in recovering Buell’s 
complicated relationships with Locke and Logan as well, Vitalis has 
rescued from obscurity one of IR’s most interesting forgotten founders.

Buell’s relationship with the Howard School was unique. He was, Vitalis 
says, the only white international relations scholar to engage seriously 
with African-American scholars as intellectuals. By the time he died 
prematurely in 1946, aged fifty, frameworks were already shifting. His 
bestselling 700-page textbook, published in 1925, assumed that race and 
empire structured the international order; eight years later, a rival 
textbook written by the University of Chicago’s Fred Schuman paid more 
attention to economic rivalries between states. Intellectually, race was 
falling out of favour as a respectable explanatory factor – a shift that 
Vitalis might have been expected to celebrate but does not, for the 
simple reason that he sees this turn to be a racist move as well. But 
his argument here is convoluted, sometimes too heavily ironised and not 
parsimonious, making it possible for a reader to be struck by his vivid 
reconstruction of the era when ‘international relations was race 
relations’ without quite grasping his arguments about the later period. 
This would be unfortunate, because Vitalis’s history of how ‘race’ 
vanished is easily as important – and probably more relevant to our day 
– as his recovery of the work of Stoddard and Buell.

Why did race cease to be the dominant category for the field of 
international relations? Not, Vitalis insists, because statesmen and 
pundits ceased to think in those terms. Even as imperial powers fought 
savage counterinsurgency wars, State Department memos and Foreign 
Affairs articles were describing anti-colonial movements as driven by 
race hatred and racial psychoses. International relations, too, still 
had its virulent racist tail. Lothrop Stoddard was still scribbling 
away, coining the term ‘realist’ to describe those who understood that 
whites (not ‘states’) would fight to preserve their privileges. In the 
1950s, Stefan Possony, later of the Hoover Institution, the journalist 
Nathaniel Weyl and Robert Strausz-Hupé of the University of 
Pennsylvania’s Foreign Policy Research Institute promoted eugenicist 
ideas about black racial inferiority and urged resistance to efforts at 
integration in the United States as part of the European empires’ 
struggle against non-white colonial nationalism across the globe.

But the ‘hump’ of the bell curve just flattened out. Mainstream scholars 
didn’t so much change their minds about race and empire as walk away 
from the question. Part of this shift was generational, as ambitious 
younger scholars turned towards bipolar rivalry as the hot new subject 
of research. The economic crisis of the 1930s and the resulting 
construction of rival economic blocs also drove scholars to think of 
imperialism less as an expression of racial dominance and more as an 
effort to secure markets and resources – an interpretive move Bunche, 
for one, accepted. The horrific racial persecution of the Nazi regime 
had an impact too, delegitimising explicit racial argument within the 
academy. Although some scholars simply substituted ‘culture’ (or, in 
Samuel Huntington’s case, ‘civilisation’) for the now proscribed term 
‘race’, more simply lost interest in the issue.

Vitalis, quoting Toni Morrison, calls this turn away from race ‘the 
graceful, even generous, liberal gesture’, and not with admiration. Its 
effects were profound. With race no longer a master category, American 
race relations no longer figured as part of a global pattern, and those 
who still saw it as such were marginalised. When the MIT political 
scientist George Isaacs published his controversial but very important 
study The New World of Negro Americans (1963), which examined the 
choices and work of black American scholars in the context of the 
breakdown of the global norm of white supremacy, no political science 
journal in the US reviewed the book. When the Ford Foundation began to 
put funds into Melville Herskovits’s programme in African studies at 
Northwestern, Herskovits first had to agree to abandon his plan to have 
‘Negro studies’ and African studies in one centre. Since international 
relations was now not race relations, the way racism worked globally was 
no longer a subject. ‘It was as if department, centre, and institute 
heads had all received the same strategy memos as the Anglo-American 
diplomats who were charged with depoliticising the issue.’

That intellectual shift pulled the rug out from under the Howard School. 
Howard was by 1940 the font for critical thinking about race and empire, 
as well as a crucial node in what Vitalis calls a ‘wholly unique 
counternetwork of leading anti-colonial theorists, public intellectuals 
and future prime ministers of Africa and the Caribbean’. But Bunche was 
called into government service during the war and Eric Williams into 
Caribbean politics soon afterwards (both with considerable real-world 
consequence), and Locke died in 1955. Howard was hit hard by McCarthyism 
too, with many faculty members under investigation; ironically, the end 
of academic apartheid would be another blow. Rayford Logan soldiered on, 
but while he spent much of his time battling for resources for his 
programmes and recognition for his work, he also spent some of it 
subjecting Merze Tate to the kinds of indignity department chairs can 
always visit on colleagues they despise. Vitalis admires Logan, but 
never pretends that department politics were any more enlightened at 
Howard than anywhere else.

The Howard School had no successors. The 1960s would bring ‘race’ back 
into the academy – but mostly through new African-American studies 
programmes, not political science or international relations. Black 
undergraduates today are very unlikely to study or pursue advanced 
degrees in political science; those few who do are taught a history of 
the discipline of international relations that is partial if not 
fictitious, a history in which Logan, Locke, Bunche and Tate (and, for 
that matter, Stoddard and Buell) never appear. Hence Vitalis’s strenuous 
resistance to a narrative of liberal progress. Forgetting one’s history 
is not, for him, a neutral act.

He wants us, instead, to take his genealogies to heart. He wants his 
discipline to understand not only how central the category of race and 
the structures of racism were to its founding institutions and paradigms 
but also to see the erasure of that history not as progress but as 
repression, a wilful forgetting that has if anything made it less 
equipped to comprehend (much less to address) the shocking racial 
inequities that still mark both the American and the global order. Will 
his field listen? I don’t know. Political science tends to be a 
presentist discipline. But if international relations scholars want to 
understand the racial politics that made their field what it is today, 
there is no better place to begin than with this righteously angry book.

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