Cold War Civil Rights

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Mary Dudziak. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)



Cold War Civil Rights discusses the relationship between American racial policy and foreign policy and diplomacy during the post-World War II era through the mid-sixties. Mary Dudziak demonstrates the interaction between domestic and foreign policy as international attention focused on discrimination in America. Racial injustice in the United States simply did not square with the narrative of American democracy projected to the world, and segregation, racial violence and protest, lynching, economic and social inequities were well publicized overseas. They provoked global outrage in European nations and in third world countries, weakening America’s image abroad. The American racial paradigm fueled the anti-American Soviet propaganda machine as well. “At a time when the United States hoped to reshape the postwar world in its own image, the international attention given to racial segregation was troublesome and embarrassing. …The need to address international criticism gave the federal government an incentive to promote social change at home.” (12)

Dudziak argues that the government sought to control the image of America projected overseas through presenting the narrative of race in America as one of progress toward racial equality. She characterizes the government’s story as one of the triumph of good over evil. “The lesson of this story was always that American democracy was a form of government that made the achievement of social justice possible, and that democratic change, however slow and gradual, was superior to dictatorial imposition.” (13) She cites the USIA pamphlet, The Negro in American Life, published in the early 1950s as one of the best-developed presentations. This pamphlet reveals the nation’s failings in the context of the redemptive possibilities offered by democracy. After exposing the hypocrisy of racism, The Negro in American Life proceeds to present a benign picture of contemporary conditions for African-Americans, citing the presence of wealthy businessmen, professionals, landowners, and then acknowledging that much remains to be done, however, the gap is closing. Democracy made the achievement of social justice possible. The story demonstrated the Cold War argument of the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism. (51)

The government also sought to control the voices of dissent from American blacks overseas. Richard Wright, James Baldwin and other authors and artists relocated to Paris and frequently challenged American racial conditions and policies; the FBI placed them under surveillance. The State Department confiscated the passports of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson after they criticized American racism abroad. Prominent singer and dancer, Josephine Baker had fled to Paris in the 1920s when discrimination in America limited her career to stereotypical vaudeville roles. She used her celebrity status to call attention to conditions of racism in America; however, having given up her citizenship by the 1950s, the government had no overt recourse to restricting her. Instead, they sought to discredit her through public investigation of possible ties to communism, silencing the local press in foreign countries where Baker spoke, and creating behind-the-scenes methods to discredit her both internationally and in the United States.

Even while the government sought to control the overseas message, presidential administrations during this time period recognized the need to demonstrate that the Cold War imperative also demanded social change. Dudziak characterizes this effort to salvage the image of American democracy abroad as “fighting the Cold War with Civil Rights reform.” (79) When President Truman formed the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1947, the committee’s report cited three reasons for redressing civil rights abuses in the United States, including the fact that discrimination damaged U.S. foreign relations. He urged Congress to pass civil rights legislation that would outlaw lynching, protect voting rights, and establish a permanent civil rights commission, suggestions that failed because of the preponderance of Southern democrats on relevant committees.

Foiled by Congress, however, Truman utilized the power of the executive and legislative branches to position the federal government ideologically. He desegregated the US Armed Forces by Executive Order, and his administration became the first, as well, to file amicus curiae briefs supporting NAACP cases before the Supreme Court. The briefs emphasized and re-emphasized the damage that racial segregation at home caused to America’s fight against world communism. Support for the argument abounded and the briefs included quotations from Soviet newspapers such as, “Coloured America is not allowed to mix with the other white America, it exists within it like the yolk in the white of an egg. Or, to be more exact, like a gigantic ghetto.” (93)

Dudziak traces the interrelationship between the Cold War imperative and civil rights reform through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as their administrations protected the narrative of racial progress during the most volatile period of the civil rights movement. Dudziak believes that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were among the factors that helped the idea of American racial progress to take hold overseas. The government hastened to construct its message in a pamphlet entitled for the Dignity of Man, illustrating the document with interracial photographs depicting a middle-class, integrated world—a mythical dwelling place for most African-Americans in the mid-sixties.

Foreign coverage of American racial problems diminished. Despite urban riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and “the cacophony of protests for social change,” the American government appeared more as the solution to American problems than as the cause of inequities. “The irony was that the impact of race on U.S. Foreign relations, and therefore the Cold War imperative for civil rights reform, would wane even as American racial conflict showed no signs of disappearing.” (239) Part of this decline in the attention to American civil rights issues was due to the rise in concern regarding American militarism abroad. The war in Vietnam took center stage, pushing civil rights issues out of the international limelight.


Lee Ann Ghajar, Fall 2005

Dudziak opens a little-explored category of analysis through uniting civil rights and diplomatic history. “We see that the borders of history are permeable, that American soil cannot contain the story of American history.” (252) Her argument for the interactive element between foreign and domestic policy is well-framed and carefully delineated. America’s image abroad required responding to the civil rights crisis, and presidents and their administrations managed that response. Progress on civil rights equated to progress in foreign affairs. As Dudziak points out, however, grassroots movements created the original thrust to place civil rights on presidential agendas. "The international character of the movement and the role of foreign affairs in moving government policy might seem to take civil rights far from the strategy meetings of the SCLC, CORE, and SNCC, and far fromthe grassroots activism at the heart of the movement. Yet it was the movement that generated this worldwide interest. And the world reciprocated, placing new poer in the movement's hands." (202)

Dudziak does not challenge the accepted narrative of the civil rights movement in America, but describes events as the backdrop for discussion of their political and diplomatic ramifications. Kennedy is portrayed as the reluctant civil rights president, whose commitment to civil rights grew throughout his administration. “When demonstrators faced Bull Connor’s brutality in Birmingham, the blows they received pushed race in America firmly onto the Kennedy administration’s foreign affairs agenda.” (250)

Dudziak disagrees, however, with Taylor Branch’s discussion of the Kennedy commitment in Parting the Waters. Branch argues that the Kennedy administration remained in the camp of expediency on civil rights issues, despite the extraordinary attention the movement demanded from the administration. Kennedy's oratorical skills had created a public image of a civil rights hero; insiders, including Martin Luther King questioned the depth of his commitment. Dudziak, however, relies on sources, including Kennedy advisor Harris Wofford, who believed the president's commitment to civil rights deepened prior to his assassination. (201)

Dudziak argues as well, that while the Cold War facilitated progress in civil rights, it also truncated reform. “Soviet manipulation of American racial problems ensured that race in America would be an important Cold War narrative. …When the international gaze later shifted to Vietnam and to civil unrest, the international leverage for civil rights reform receded." (251) As she points out, racial inequality remained, the progress towards implementing school desegregation, equal housing, voting rights, equal employment, and other legislative, judicial and executive guarantees was slow to nonexistent. As Johnson left office, a civil rights backlash began, not only in the south, but across the country, in response to more than a decade of civil unrest that had begun with a non-violent approach to civil rights and evolved into a cacophony of dissent. At home and abroad, Vietnam and a quest for law and order eclipsed the much of the practical manifestation of civil rights ideology. As international attention shifted away from civil rights, so did the government's impetus to implement change.

Dudziak’s sources are extensive and include international newspapers, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, State Department and USIA records, to cite a few. The scope of her resources support the extent to which American racism and America’s image and therefore, message abroad, were intertwined. And while counteracting Soviet propaganda became a main focus of the U.S. government, repercussions against racial injustice in America were by no means confined to Russia and its satellite countries, but extended throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. leeannghajar, fall 2005

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

It is a refreshing trend in recent historical works to step back and look at "bigger picture" history. So often historians become mired in their small expertise and fail to look at the trickle-up and trickle-down influences that end up creating a much wider and more inclusive context. Dudziak's book, while oversimplified both in content and in style, is such a work. She is very convincing in her argument that the American civil rights movement was monitored intently overseas, and was used extensively for anti-American propaganda. Likewise, the United States government struggled to turn the upheaval into pro-democracy propaganda and was very worried about alienating emerging democracies (especially those in Africa). Discrimination caused major diplomatic faux pas, as black diplomats were subjected to the same rejections and humiliations as African-Americans. It became clear that it was in the best interest of American foreign policy to support civil rights reforms and promote equality.

Though she has published extensively, "Cold War Civil Rights" feels stylistically like a former dissertation with carefully structured chapters, each utilizing a specific set of source material. That is not to say that the book is not useful or convincing, merely that the structure and style of the book feels like the work of a less experienced historian.

For all the emphasis on linking domestic and foreign policy, which in regards to the civil rights movement Dudziak does quite well, she could have added more contextual detail about the wider scope of world history and the history of the Cold War. Often, it appears as though the period is one in which something happens in the United States, the world reacts, and the US tries to control the reaction. In reality, things were much more complicated than that, and it would have been helpful to see that in her work. Is the Soviet propaganda about civil rights different during periods of especially high tension, such as the Berlin Airlift, or Sputnik (briefly mentioned, as it coincided with the crisis in Little Rock)? Since the newly formed African republics were so concerned about discrimination in the United States (and since these nation-states were highly courted as potential Cold War pawns) what prevented them all from simply aligning with the Soviet Union? A broader picture of world history, one in which foreign policy was less reactionary, would have improved the book.

Still, Dudziak's book is eye-opening, especially for the reader who is accustomed to seeing domestic and foreign policy discussed in vacuums.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

Dudziak offers a useful contribution to the scholarship on the Civil Rights movement by placing the federal government’s actions in the context of foreign as well as domestic policy. For the purposes of this work, the foreign tends to drive the domestic, although by the 1960s she states that members of the Civil Rights Movement were leveraging international opinion to the best of their ability.(201) While Dudziak successfully demonstrates that the language of foreign policy needs was used in federal documents, such as the executive branch’s amicus brief regarding Brown, it is not clear the extent to which this was as much a practical use of policy over moral suasion.

One of the strengths of Dudziak’s approach to the international response to the Civil Rights Movement is that it is truly global. She draws on newspapers and documentary responses from North and South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. Moreover, she pays particular attention to the responses in non-white nations. The work would have benefited from a closer examination of the differences in reaction by European and post-Colonial nations; there are clearly differences, but they are mostly addressed in discussing the concerns of African, Indian, and Asian individuals about the treatment of non-whites in the United States. The reactions of European nations would have benefited from some scrutiny (other than West Germany, which was apparently reluctant to criticize).

The shift which Dudziak identifies around 1960, characterized by greater freedom to dissent and the ability of outspoken critics to travel with less interference from the government, seems to correspond with the transition Brown-Nagin sees from the dominance of pragmatic civil rights leaders to those favoring direct action. Dudziak attributes at least some of this increased freedom of expression to the end of McCarthyism.(154) This is clearly not the only cause of these changes, although perhaps for Dudziak it seems the most important to her argument.

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

Cold War Civil Rights provides a complement to—as Dudziak is careful to say, not a substitute for (14)—to domestically-focused works on civil rights between World War II and the late 1960s. She demonstrates well how discrimination in the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South, in the context of the Cold War and decolonization provided an additional impetus for the federal government to side with activists in a way it often had not previously.

As Erbelding notes in her 2010 critique and as Dudziak notes in her new preface for the 2011 edition, Cold War Civil Rights is a work of "America in the World" history—pioneering in its time—and not the transnational approach that has largely supplanted it. Hence, it focuses largely on domestic reactions to international events and not as strongly vice-versa. One place where this becomes an issue is in the reading of international newspapers; in a lot of cases, Dudziak cites the newspaper and its coverage of civil rights in the United States, but does not go further into the context of that newspaper. Is it a source like many 20th-century U.S. newspapers—supposedly non-partisan and objective? Or is it a partisan paper? Was its editorial stance mostly pro-U.S. or anti-U.S.? While this is certainly not a fatal flaw, it does call into question some of the evidence.

Overall, though, this work provides a solid, digestible wrinkle in the story of civil rights in the United States in the global context—one that future scholars can deepen to understand not just civil rights but the ideological battles of the Cold War.

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