A worldwide vision, from Nicaragua to South Africa
They were activists with a deeply conservative vision of the world order. They supported white rule in South Africa, backed the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua, and opposed returning the Panama Canal.
But their global activism was carried out from Anytown, USA.
For these were everyday American citizens who gathered in church basements, hosted visiting speakers in local meeting halls, and spread the word through low budget pamphlets and newsletters.
Now, Rutgers history professor Jennifer L. Mittelstadt is exploring these homegrown movements of the 20th century that showed remarkable ability in the pre-internet era to coalesce around foreign policy issues, build powerful networks, and draw the attention of influential policymakers.
Mittelstadt is working on a research project she calls "Sovereignty and Subversion: The Global Agenda of the Grassroots Right," with support from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The research will lead to a forthcoming book that she describes as a “political history of ideas and the movement fueling those ideas.”
“It’s a story that hasn’t really been told,” Mittelstadt says. “We know a lot about conservatives at the highest levels of government and we know a lot about conservative activism on domestic issues.
“But we don’t know a lot about the worldview of everyday Americans on the right, and how much they influenced foreign policy.”
It’s a topic Mittelstadt never expected to explore. A scholar of 20th century U.S. history, and the author most recently of The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Harvard University Press, 2015), she has written and taught extensively on the U.S. military, government welfare policies, and women and gender issues.
But she was drawn to this latest project from her own experience growing up in a conservative family in Missouri. In the 1980s, her grandparents’ St. Louis-area church packed shoeboxes with deodorant, shampoo, and tiny Bibles for the Contras who were battling the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua in a major Cold War conflict.
“The project originated out of my own personal experience and becoming curious about my own grandparents who were evangelical Christians and very interested in politics,” she said.
Mittelstadt noticed an intriguing overlap between her grandparents’ church and a larger national movement. The care packages assembled by churchgoers were shipped to the Contras with the help of the Eagle Forum group led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, known for leading the battle in the 1970s against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Mittelstadt, her curiosity piqued, examined the Schlafly archives and noted she had been speaking on foreign policy issues going back to the 1950s. That led her to other groups and an archival trail that went back to the Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union.
“Lo and behold, I am suddenly back in 1917,” she said.
But her research shows that anticommunism—while certainly a major rallying cry for grassroots conservative groups—was by no means the sole focus. The 1920 founding of the League of Nations, for example, prompted many conservatives to warn darkly of a worldwide government bent on subverting traditional biblical values. Throughout the 20th century, Mittelstadt says, the grassroots right was motivated by what it saw as "internationalist" threats to white Western culture and American sovereignty.
“Grassroots Americans on the right merged anticommunism with other agendas, including white supremacy, xenophobia, and antisemitism, mobilizing them all to serve various agendas across the globe,” she wrote in a summary of the project.
Indeed, her research will examine the activities and motivations of groups like American Friends of Rhodesia, which backed white minority rule in the African nation now known as Zimbabwe. And she’ll pay particularly close attention to how these groups created their own information networks and pipelines that both influenced and were influenced by high-level elected officials and other leaders.
“This is a culture of people who were very interested in doing their own research,” Mittelstadt said. “They spent a lot of time teaching each other about the world, writing letters to one another, and self-publishing newsletters.”
Their activism, she said, likely helped lay the foundation for the rise of right-wing media, and eventually, Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement, with its "America First" approach to foreign policy and distrust of international agreements and organizations.
"That did not just come out of the blue,” Mittelstadt said. “It comes from the very culture I am examining.”