Window on Freedom

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Brenda Gayle Plummer, ed. Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs 1945-1988. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 272 pp. $19.95, ISBN 0-8078-5428-X.

Summary

Window on Freedom traces the relationship between race, primarily the African American experience, and foreign policy between 1945 and 1988. The eleven essays in this collection specifically seek to argue that the civil rights movement in the United States both informed and was informed by events and perceptions worldwide. The primary paradox for America, that it claimed to be a nation of freedom and democracy yet had a history of denying essential human and civil rights to women and people of color, became a primary weakness in Cold War America as a source of propaganda and accusations of hypocrisy. Window on Freedom recognizes that there is comparability between the condition of African Americans and the “human condition beyond America’s shores” (Plummer 3). The book takes as a theoretical starting point the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored An American Dilemma, by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist asked to provide a 1940s version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth century study.

The findings of the Myrdal report revealed to the world that the United States was not without its own racial problems, and worse, seemed to be employing a double standard thus hindering its moral influence to foreign observers. An even bigger blow to the U.S. image abroad was W.E.B. DuBois’ 1947 petition “An Appeal to the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and An Appeal to the United Nations for Redress.” The petition documented a state of grievances so egregious that the Soviet Union knew could easily be exploited and propagandized which forced the United States to realize that racial equality was no longer a domestic matter (Lauren 30).

Soviet propaganda concerning American race relations took on greater importance during the 1950s, particularly as the civil rights issue became tied into Communism domestically. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC), with the encouragement and support of the Communist Party, set forth to reiterate the ongoing history of lynching, segregation, and unequal practices set forth in “An Appeal to the World.” However, the CRC’s “We Charge Genocide,” went beyond describing events to firmly placing blame at the government’s door. Further though, CRC president William Patterson tied the mistreatment of black Americans to “the complex and desperate needs of the Communist Party of the United States” (Anderson, 96), thereby connecting American racial issues to world politics and broader reformulations of human rights.

By the time of the Kennedy Administration, not only were officials concerned with Soviet propaganda, but also building relationships with African nations to stall the potential spread of Communism. Using the example of African diplomats’ inability to find quality housing or eat in restaurants due to entrenched discriminatory practices in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, Michael Krenn provides another example of the intersection of domestic racism and international policy. Their experience reveals “the conflict between America’s pronouncements of its commitment to civil rights and equality and the reality of its highly segregated society; the conflict between the African American and official U.S. viewpoints concerning the relationship between the domestic race situation and the nation’s diplomacy; and, overarching all of this, the conflict resulting from America’s attempt to fight a two-front war—against racism at home and communism abroad” (164).

Running throughout Window on Freedom is the concept of white supremacy and its influence on policy at home and abroad. As Gerald Horne suggests, the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii, both racially motivated, led to the 1890s and the nadir of African American political power. Importantly, Horne argues that “this low point also coincided with the extensive colonization of Africa by means of open warfare and so-called punitive expeditions” (49) formed in the belief that it was right of those of European heritage to dominate others. By World War II, Japan recognized this weakness which allowed it to present itself as another alternative to U.S. hegemony (52).

Within twenty years, white supremacists had launched an attack on Third World nations, thus mixing a prejudice born of domestic experience with foreign policy. The segregationists led by George Wallace, argued that not only did decolonization reveal the inability of Third World nations to govern themselves, but the black leaders of these nations had an ingrained hatred of whites that would undermine segregation in America, and failed to support efforts to tide the spread of communism (Norr 148). In this logic, segregationists tied foreign policy to local efforts to maintain segregation, but also to larger issues of communism and the Third World.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

For a collection of essays, Window on Freedom is highly cohesive. The thesis—that the civil rights movement in the U.S. had deep ties to the international community and vice versa—is argued coherently throughout. As a tool for understanding that argument, Window on Freedom is a worthwhile addition to civil rights scholarship. At the same time, however, this focus drives a certain degree of similarity among the essays. In particular, Mary L. Dudziak’s essay, “Birmingham, Addis Ababa, and the Image of America” could have been eliminated from the volume as it restates the main points already made throughout the volume and really brings little new to the table. Apparently, Plummer attempted to include two essays per topic—World War II, Cold War, the Kennedy administration, and the Vietnam/Post-Vietnam era—and it is indeed surprising that she was unable to include a stronger piece on the civil rights in the early 1960s.

Further, each of the scholars cite each other frequently and at length, leading to obvious questions about the state of the field: is this line of inquiry really so narrow that this is necessary? Are these essays seminal works in a growing field? Or is there much more work to be done in these essays to broaden the scope of research? Given that the essays appear to be well-researched and certainly well-written, Window on Freedom is overall a solid piece of scholarship, thereby suggesting that these authors are breaking ground and thus collaborate with each other, in print at least, to make compelling arguments.

Finally, with the exception of Lorena Oropeza’s essay on Chicano anti- Vietnam War activism and passing references to Asia, the civil rights movement as described in Window on Freedom is, as is often assumed, an African American issue. However, as scholars begin to recognize other angles to the story, further elaboration on the Chicano experience and others is necessary as part of both the domestic analysis of the civil rights movement as well as the international policy perspective. Certainly as these scholars reveal, there is great potential for richer, more extensive investigation of the complex issues of civil rights and U.S. foreign policy.

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