The Cold War and Displaced Persons as "Victims of Communism"

Young DP Gazing Idealistically over the Side of a Ship at Ellis Island

These documents represent a small part of the larger field of Cold War history. In particular, they help us to see a key transition in modern American history: the shift from perceptions of the Soviet Union as a valuable, though perhaps eccentric ally, as it was seen during World War II, to perceptions of the Soviet Union as the main locus and origin point of Communism, the enemy of the free world. There had been waves of anti-Communist sentiment in American society prior to World War II, dating back to 1917, the time of the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless, during World War II Americans suspended their judgment and even gave Josef Stalin the affectionate nickname “Uncle Joe”, despite the fact that, by this time, he had already caused the death of millions through agrarian reorganization and man-made famine in the Ukraine, as well as through brutal purges of his political enemies. As World War II ended and the “Iron Curtain”, as Winston Churchill termed it, descended across Eastern Europe, the US and its allies realized that Stalin intended to reduce the Eastern European nations to satellite states, essentially subject to the will of the USSR.  Politicians and cultural commentators recast the US in the role of leading defender of democracy against this new threat, and became more and more open in their vilification of Communism.

  • How do these documents reflect this cultural shift? Are the US bishops opposed to Communism throughout the war, or do you see a change in emphasis in the documents written after World War II?
  • How do the US bishops speak of the Eastern European nations in these documents? What do they say is happening to the Church in Communist countries?  
  • Do you think the US bishops’ anti-Communism exceeded even the fervent anti-Communism of most mainstream Americans during the Cold War?
  • What special motivation might the US bishops, and other Catholic figures, have for opposing Communism?

During the Cold War, Communism was spoken of as the enemy of key Western values like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Interestingly, the Catholic Church itself had only recently come to fully embrace these values, as during the nineteenth century many Catholics viewed liberal values as a suspicious product of secular modernity. Newer Church documents emphasized the dignity of the human person, and the evil of totalitarianism (whether Nazism or Communism) because it attacked that basic dignity. Displaced Persons, who were often technically able to return to their Eastern European homelands but unwilling to do so because they feared Communist rule, were considered, by the US bishops and others, as living proof that Communism was an inhumane system. Some Soviet ex-POWs, former prisoners of the Nazis, went so far as to commit suicide rather than face punishment in Russia (since being captured was, according to official Soviet ideology, tantamount to treason). One document in this series, “A Technique for Fighting Communism in the USA”, strongly recommends that the propaganda potential of DPs be exploited, and that they be touted through the US as “Victims of Communism”.

  • Is this idea compatible with a real concern and regard for the DPs’ physical and spiritual well-being? How else could the DPs have participated in the struggle against Communism?
  • What do the DPs themselves think of Communism, according to these documents? Why were the DPs also sometimes regarded with suspicion, as being possible vehicles of Communist influence?
  • How do the US bishops’ reaction to the spread of Communism compare to their statements and pronouncements on more recent events?

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