How the Cold War Warmed Up a Legal Revolution

‘Common Law’ Features Professor G. Edward White
G. Edward White

UVA Law professor Ted White’s scholarship has won numerous awards, including final listing for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Photo by Mary Wood

October 15, 2019

World War II was the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century, and also marked a turning point for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States, as University of Virginia School of Law professor G. Edward White describes in the latest episode of “Common Law.”

The second season of the UVA Law podcast, hosted by Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, is sharing stories about “When Law Changed the World.”

White, a legal historian and torts expert, recently concluded a series of books on the evolution of law with “Law in American History Volume III: 1930-2000.”

Fighting the Axis powers during World War II — primarily Germany, Japan and Italy — made Americans more focused on preserving freedom at home.

“What it looks like [to Americans] is a bunch of totalitarian ruffians, seeking to conquer the world and impose their regimes on everyone — which are completely devoid of freedom for individuals, in which the rulers of the state control every facet of life — and can one imagine America being comparably occupied and having rulers like that?” White says. “This is a titanic struggle, if you will, for control of the world.”

As the Cold War began and the Soviet Union became the new enemy, the need for the United States to live up to its perceived role as leader of the free world was more important than ever.

That conception started to play out in U.S. jurisprudence, as the Supreme Court began to increase protections for civil liberties such as free speech, and for civil rights.

The military was still officially segregated when World War II ended, and segregation was embedded in American culture, particularly through Jim Crow laws.

“That ends up being increasingly embarrassing because the Soviet Union exploits it,” White says. “The Soviet Union says, ‘Well, you know, if Americans are so dedicated to freedom, then how come the freedom doesn’t extend to African Americans?’”

During the episode, White outlines the cultural evolution in society and in the courts that changed the status quo.

White, a David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law, has published 18 books and has won numerous accolades, including final listing for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

His first two volumes in the “Law in American History” series, covering from the colonial era to the Civil War and from Reconstruction through the 1920s, were published in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts, including Amazon Alexa devices.

Listeners can follow the show on the website commonlawpodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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