When white nationalists march in American streets, it becomes fodder for anti-American sentiment abroad. (Steve Helber/AP)
Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

In recent weeks, dog-whistle politics have felt more like rebel yells. White supremacists descended upon Charlottesville flying Nazi Germany and Confederate battle flags — both representing nations that declared war on the United States. Since then, debates about the removal of Confederate statues from San Diego to Baltimore and the president’s lukewarm rebukes of white supremacy have splayed the nation’s festering racial divide before the world.

Adversaries such as Iran and Venezuela have seized on this opportunity to call out American hypocrisy on racism and equality. Iran’s supreme leader, who has previously criticized police brutality in black American communities, took to Twitter to admonish the United States for “meddl[ing] in nations’ affairs” instead of managing its own problem with racism. And Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claimed that the White House was the power behind the marching “white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and fascists.”

This international critique is not new. During the 1940s, enemies of the United States targeted domestic racism as a vulnerability ripe for exploitation. It is a charge the United States is especially vulnerable to, as racial injustice at home undermines its claim to the world that it is a champion of democracy and human rights. Once the United States loses moral authority on these issues, the justification for its foreign policy goals and national security interests is severely compromised, placing the country in the unenviable position of either pursuing its interests hypocritically or finding a new ideology to espouse.

Iran and Venezuela are pulling from a playbook developed in Nazi Germany. In the early 1940s, the German propaganda machine implemented a strategy to highlight racial inequality and injustice in the United States as a means to create deeper divisions within a segregated military and demoralize servicemen, causing them to question their part in the war effort. This approach became a template for wartime propaganda that other nations used in ensuing conflicts.

During World War II, Germany used psychological warfare to capitalize on the rampant racial animus in the United States. It airdropped leaflets on black American troop positions that accused the United States of using them as “cannon fodder” in the “rich (white) man’s war.” In one leaflet, German propagandists showed a picture of a black man being chased by a white man wielding a lead pipe, which was “later used in finishing him off.”

German leaflets like this one, titled “Race War,” were dropped on Allied black troops fighting in Italy. The text reads: ‘Fleeing Negro, who is already hurt, is chased by Detroit mobsters. Lead pipe (center) was later used in finishing him off.’ (Psywar.org/Lee Richards)

The back of the leaflet read:

are created free and equal
Yes, that is what the declaration of Independence says.

Well, it’s just Ballyhoo, always was. The white bosses want your peace-loving, hard-working colored boys just as

In World War I they promised your father’s racial equality as a reward for fighting the war.
What did they get? What did you get?
The lousiest jobs. The lousiest flats. The lousiest pay. The lousiest chances.

Poverty, Unemployment, Race, Riots, Lynching, Hanging and Burning!
The general contempt of all Whites in the U.S.A.


The leaflets dropped on white soldiers were much worse. While the material aimed at black soldiers drew their attention to racial discrimination, the German propaganda machine targeted one of white men’s worst fears: the sexual violation of white women by black men, usually a contrivance used to justify the lynching of black men.

One of the most horrid leaflets produced during the war appears to be a rough pencil sketch of a deceased soldier in a trench next to charred bushes (as seen here). But when the leaflet was angled a bit to catch more light, it revealed a black man having sex with a white woman (seen here) — an explicit suggestion that while white servicemen were off fighting the war, their women were left home unprotected from black sexuality and savagery.

Japanese propagandists sought to demoralize white soldiers and Marines fighting in the Pacific by depicting white women being brutalized by black men. (Psywar.org/Lee Richards)

Across the Pacific Ocean, Japanese military propagandists were taking note. Looking to strike the same tone in targeting white American soldiers, they released a leaflet of white women being beaten and sexually assaulted by black men in a factory. The card was titled “Scenes From the Home Front” and read, “Is it getting as bad as all this? Yap, Negroes are the boss of the town now.”

To influence black soldiers, Japan also used shortwave radio propaganda. The broadcasts were intended to reach not only black soldiers throughout the Pacific but also black citizens in the United States. Scholars Sato Masaharu and Barak Kushner found these Negro Propaganda Operations “often depicted the actual situation in the US: lynchings, discrimination against Blacks and other minorities, Jim Crow laws, etc. … in order to communicate concrete evidence of the United States’ hypocrisy.” Japan used black prisoners of war in these broadcasts, hoping to further their propaganda efforts by treating black soldiers with the respect they didn’t receive at home. As a result, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover expanded monitoring of black Americans in an attempt to detect anti-American and Japanese sympathies.

The German and Japanese propaganda efforts are notable for tailoring their messages to American soldiers based on race. Not only did this approach intend to exacerbate racial tensions within the military, but it also sought to expose the glaring racial flaw in the American narrative. In this way, race-based targeting took aim at the will of individual service members while also attacking the nation as a whole.

At the start of the Cold War, the Soviet Union picked up where the Germans and Japanese left off, focusing its efforts on degrading American international and moral standing. The Soviet press publicized racial terrorism occurring in the United States, which professed to be a champion of freedom and equality, and chastised it for not ensuring justice for black victims. Historian Mary Dudziak notes that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was prescient in its belief that racism in the United States would be a major Soviet propaganda weapon — the Russian newspaper Trud recounted an incident in Louisiana where a white mob went unpunished after it tortured, lynched and set a black war veteran aflame.

Viet Cong leaflets attempted to influence black servicemen by drawing parallels between the U.S. military’s actions in Vietnam to the Ku Klux Klan’s actions in the American South. (Psywar.org/Lee Richards)

In the Korean War, North Korea spread leaflets to black soldiers that recounted instances of black men being beaten by law enforcement in the United States, admonishing them to “go home where you can fight for your own rights as a human being.” And in the 1960s, the Viet Cong appealed to black soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War by saying the United States was carrying out the same atrocities in South Vietnam as the Ku Klux Klan was doing to their families back home.

The international press began widely publishing stories about American racism. For example, ambassadors from sub-Saharan African nations and the Caribbean were routinely denied service when attempting to dine or reserve hotel rooms in the United States.

In 1961, a Maryland restaurant’s refusal to serve the ambassador to the newly independent Sierra Leone caused a scandal, and President John F. Kennedy had to personally apologize. When the press asked the owner about it, she replied, “He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill n—- to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”

American political leaders realized that racism was a danger to the nation’s interests, and it should be of little surprise that the desegregation of the armed forces and the Brown v. Board decision occurred once the nation’s moral duplicity became an international focus. The Great Society legislation of the 1960s and a period of relative peace tamped down other nations’ exploitation of the United States’ racial divide.

But today, intolerant immigration policies, religion-based bans, persistent and entrenched racial disparities, and claims that KKK and neo-Nazi groups are filled with “very fine people” keep the nation exposed to accusations of hypocrisy, moral corruption and weak leadership. As a 1961 issue of the Afro-American noted: “As long as any type of racial discrimination remains in the United States, the world will know about it, for, this senseless and indefensible practice is superb fodder for anti-West propaganda mills.”

Slavery is our nation’s original sin. And racial inequality and injustice are its open wounds. As such, racism is a threat to our security, interests and well-being. This is a reality that other nations have long endeavored to exploit. That they have not succeeded is a testament to our nation, but it’s also a clarion call that the sounds of rebel yells must be drowned out to preserve the union.