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NATO was founded to protect ‘civilized’ people. That means White.

Four historical examples show how much race has always mattered in defining ‘Western civilization’

- April 10, 2022


The invasion of Ukraine has been horrifying to witness.

Early on, some observers repeatedly expressed the idea that the invasion of Ukraine is especially horrifying because, as CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata, who was in Kyiv, put it, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city.” (D’Agata later issued an apology.)

People of color are not surprised. A large body of research finds that Whiteness informs who is deemed deserving of welfare, protectionism, property, security, freedom, humanitarianism and more. NATO’s very inception — too — was birthed through appeals to Whiteness.

To understand the selective empathy toward Ukraine, here are four historical examples that illustrate how race has always mattered when it comes to NATO and the concept of Western civilization, drawn from a large body of scholarship as well as my own dissertation research.

1. NATO was born out of a fear of White slavery

American commitments to NATO were born out of the fear that communism would spread in Europe. However, communism was seen to pose a threat not just to “freedom” — but specifically to White freedom, as historian Tyler Stovall and others have shown.

In the U.S. South, communism was seen as synonymous with desegregation. Looking abroad, arch-segregationist Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.) in 1947 explained his support for U.S. commitments to Europe:

Calling Ukrainian refugees more ‘civilized’ than Syrians requires willful amnesia

2. Defending European democracy meant reinforcing colonization elsewhere

NATO was born as an alliance that protected — and even funded — European colonization. As explicated during the 1948 congressional hearings on the Marshall Plan, the United States believed that Europe’s postwar economic recovery was crucial to resisting communism. Britain, for instance, was to recover through recolonizing Malaya and its strategic resources — rubber and tin. British-controlled Malaya was the second-highest exporter to the United States before Japan’s takeover in World War II. Reestablishing this “triangular trade” was so important that the United States indirectly assisted the suppression of independence movements in colonial Southeast Asia, culminating in the Vietnam War.

As one senator would explain during the congressional hearings:

3. Western civilization is code for Whiteness

In ways similar to the selective empathy shown toward Ukraine today, early advocates of establishing NATO argued that communism posed a threat to “Western civilization” — a dog whistle for Whiteness.

“Race” has never been denoted solely by skin color but has always been defined in ways relying on a wide range of physical characteristics such as the shape or size of someone’s nose, eyes or even skull. It has always relied on cultural markers, such as clothing, diet, behavior, origin, ancestral heritage or other cultural traits to mark one group as distinct and inferior or superior from another.

“Western civilization” is a term that posits liberal ideals as the unique heritage of White people. For example, in 1949, one senator justified the creation of NATO by saying:

This was not an isolated sentiment. Fifty years before Samuel Huntington’s book “Clash of Civilizations,” the term “Western civilization” was the title of history courses. The most famous was Arnold Toynbee’s bestseller “A Study of History,” in which he represents “Western Civilization” as the only civilization exclusively made up of the three White “races” — Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean. (By contrast, he states that Black “races” have not contributed to any civilization).

Because “Western Civilization” was (or is) understood to be exclusively made up White “races,” the term could function as a surrogate term for “Whiteness,” including in the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty: “The Parties to this Treaty … are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples.” (Note: Emphasis is the author’s)

As one senator elaborated in 1949 hearings, this proposal to “defend our so-called western tradition” meant “the culmination of a thousand years [of] the Anglo-Saxon [i.e. White] people.” Unsurprisingly, what makes Ukrainians’ plight so shocking is that “they seem so like us,” so “civilized.”

Check out all TMC’s Russia-Ukraine analysis at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

4. “Slavs” were considered “not quite White”

It is not racist to feel outraged about the crisis in Ukraine. War and imperialism are horrifying no matter the victims. Perhaps journalists are well-intentioned in resorting to whatever sources of sympathy they can arouse to help fleeing Ukrainians. Nevertheless, we should resist building solidarity based on something as exclusionary as Whiteness.

In the United States, Whiteness — initially restricted to Anglo-Saxons — was defined by the constitutional right to not be enslaved. Through the 1800s, non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrants fought against what they called wage slavery in the United States — not on the basis that freedom was a universal right, but on the basis that “only [Blacks] are slaves” and only Chinese labor is “servile.” By becoming “White,” they gained White freedoms. But they also cemented the idea that only Whites are befitting of freedom.

Slavs — Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and others — were likewise considered “not quite White.” One etymological artifact of this history is that the term “slave” comes from the word “Slav.” Even in 1941, George Kennan — famed grand strategist of the early Cold War — called Russians “a XVII century semi-Asiatic people” who were “backwards” and “servile.” In 2018, the Wall Street Journal similarly characterized the crisis as “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past.” The contingency of “Slavs” as “White” was also on display during Brexit.

However, the solution to injustices faced by Eastern Europeans cannot simply be to extend Whiteness to Ukrainians on the basis that they are not obviously refugees … from North Africa.” Observers might instead extend solidarity to all who struggle for freedom, not just those “like us.”

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Amoz JY Hor is a PhD candidate in residence at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the George Washington University, a USC KSI US-Asia Grand Strategy Fellow and a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow. This article draws from his dissertation research on Race and the American Post-War Liberal Order.