After World War Two, the United States government faced a problem. Against Soviet pressure in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it wanted to convince the world, especially new nations emerging from colonialism, of America’s moral leadership. Often, it found that its most exasperating opponents were some of its own people. The Unites States was profoundly racially segregated. In many states, blacks were legally relegated to separate and profoundly unequal schools. Businesses followed social or legal rules which barred or degraded blacks.
Courts often functioned with a callousness and brutality of authoritarian regimes. In Cold War Civil Rights, Mary Dudziak shows how international needs prompted the United States to respond to its racial problems. In America’s long struggle to deal with race, leaders had often brought foreign influence to bear. Frederick Douglass had appealed for help in England, arguing that the whole human family needed to address this problem. 1 During World War I, the war to make the world safe for democracy, black leaders had sought to make America safe for Americans, but to little avail.
World War Two marked the turning point. Fighting against regimes that spouted racist ideologies while still segregating its armed forces, America found it had to confront its own moral dilemma (pp. 7-8. ), especially as this dilemma took on strategic implications: Axis propaganda mocked the notion that non-whites could expect justice from racist America. (Pp. 8-9. ) While some voices were raised, the problem went largely ignored. America had not yet committed itself to the ideals that it had sacrificed so much to secure for others. (Pp. 9-11)
The Cold War hobbled the use of foreign influence to aid the civil rights effort. Anyone airing domestic issues overseas might now be linked, often wrongly, to communist agitation. (P. 12) Still, a space remained, in which civil rights was driven by international concerns. America found it had to project an increasingly detailed image abroad. International pressures forced the United States to show itself confronting its racial problems. Often, this meant that international concerns drove the federal government and major social and political leaders to deal with domestic racial issues. (Pp.
13-14) Inherently, national leaders in international affairs were thrust into prominence in civil rights struggles. Professor Dudziak points out that her emphasis on the roles of leaders “should not be seen as an effort to privilege a top-down focus as ‘the’ story of civil rights history. ” (P. 14) The vignette with which she opens the book illustrates how leaders were involved. In 1958, a black handyman in Marion, Alabama was charged with stealing less than two dollars in change from a white woman. Charged solely with robbery, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentence to death.
The case caused an outcry around the world. American businessmen overseas feared losing substantial market leverage if the death sentence was carried out. From around the globe, the United States heard calls to overturn the sentence. In the American government, this international pressure was focused on the American official charged with such concerns, the Secretary of State. John Foster Dulles probably did not care about a black handyman from Alabama, but he could not ignore the dispatches pouring in from American consular offices.
He telegraphed the governor of Alabama, and the governor reported himself ready to respond to the outpouring of interest in the case. The sentence was quickly commuted. (Pp. 3-6) Turning to the story of how international pressure and domestic race relations shaped one another, Dudziak combine colorful details with a command of the big picture. She begins with Truman, who came to office facing racial concerns. Southern whites fought to defend a way of life threatened by the changes the war had wrought. (Pp. 19-23) Eventually, his reelection effort forced Truman to press the civil rights issue.
Hoping he would win voters from the Republicans and the Progressives, Truman’s advisors urged him to speak out on civil rights. His advisors gambled that this would attract black voters, and reasoned that the south would stay safely Democratic. (Pp. 24-25) Accepting this advice, Truman called for civil rights measures that he knew he could not get through Congress. (Pp. 25-26) To his chagrin, southern Democrats bolted and formed their own party, but the strategy worked. Truman carried critical states, polling better among blacks than Roosevelt had done four years earlier.
(P. 26) Truman’s key issue was the Cold War, and Truman found that America’s enemies made racial relations a major story. How could the United States claim that to be a model for emerging nations when America was so segregated? Throughout the world, the news media stressed racial issues. A California court decision striking down an antimiscegenation law was widely reported in the Philippines. (Pp. 32-33) American race problems were constant news in India. (P. 32) Communists focused on race issues, trying to embarrass the United States. (Pp.
38-39)2 And America embarrassed itself internationally when foreign diplomats were barred from various facilities. 3 To beat the bad foreign coverage, the United States tried to tell its own story. (Pp. 44-46) As Dudziak shows, some efforts foundered because the world did not share America’s zeal for anti-communism. Pp. 54-60) Even people the government wanted to enlist in its efforts sometimes balked. Sadly, blacks who failed to meet expectations established and enforced by zealous officials often faced serious pressure, as shown by the cases of Paul Robseon (pp. 61-62), Louis Armstrong (pp.
66-67), and Josephine Baker (pp. 67-77). President Truman desegregated the American military. Frustrated that Congress would do nothing on civil rights, Truman used his executive authority to order the military to integrate. (Pp. 82-90) Important as this action was, Dudziak argues that Truman made an even greater contribution by supporting the efforts of the NAACP’s legal attacks on desegregation. Through its briefs amicus curea and other arguments, the government pushed back the color line, often by showing the courts how important these cases were to American international prestige.
(Pp. 82-114)4 President Eisenhower was frankly reluctant to endorse the great legal case of Brown v. Board. But in September 1957, he had to decide if Arkansas was part of the United States. Orville Faubus called out the Arkansas national guard. In naked defiance of the Supreme Court, he ordered that blacks be kept out of Little Rock’s schools. He argued that tensions were so high that if the schools were forced to integrate, violence would follow. To protect the black students, he would keep them segregated. (P. 116)
As Eisenhower knew, the world was watching Little Rock, and America’s prestige stood in the balance. Huge teams of correspondents from around the world reported each steps of the strange dance of Washington and Arkansas. (Pp. 115-44) After tolerating three weeks of stalling, Eisenhower acted. The 82nd Airborne Division, with fixed bayonets, surrounded Central High School and escorted nine black student inside. (P. 129) Just nine days later, American prestige took another blow: the Soviets launched Sputnik. (P. 145) Roused, the United States dealt with both problems using a single tactic: decisive action.
Space programs were accelerated, and the government moved ahead in Arkansas. (Pp. 145-46) On the legal front, the Supreme Court ruled that the rights of blacks could not be sacrificed to whites who would use violence or the threat of violence to hold them back. (Pp. 146-47)5 John Kennedy came to office as an activist. Unfortunately, he failed to grasp the need for activity in the field of civil rights. Hoping to concentrate on international relations, he was embarrassed and felt undercut by the Freedom Riders trying to desegregate buses in the south embarrassing. (P. 158)
Initially he largely placated southern Democrats. (P. 156) Slowly, however, he learned with newly formed African nations, American standing required pressing civil rights. (Pp. 162-63) Kennedy did act decisively when riots broke out at the University of Mississippi , and much of the world applauded. (Pp 163-66) Still, African diplomats continued to face embarrassments in traveling to and from Washington. (Pp. 152-54, 1167-69)
In 1963, Birmingham. Alabama police used brutal tactics to try to suppress civil right marches. Television images of police brutality (pp. 169-70) raised cries, especially in Africa, that racists were barring all legal change. As Kennedy pressured Alabama, the world applauded. (Pp. 175-78) Feeling the impatience of civil rights activists at home and abroad, in May 1963, Kennedy tried to change the American legal system, which faced new defiance from southerners even as he realized that under traditional American law, the federal government was powerless to act in many civil rights matter. He appeared before a joint session of Congress and called for of bold civil rights laws. (P. 180)
This speech galvanized the civil rights movement at home and abroad. (Pp. 181-83) Throughout the world people praised this new initiative. (Pp. / 185-86) At home, the civil rights movement made the first great march on Washington. Even as new problems arose, it seemed that Kennedy was ready to deal with them. (Pp. 198-99) In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson pressed new civil rights measures through Congress, giving the federal government sweeping powers to enforce civil rights. (Pp. 203-20)
Simultaneously, the federal courts abolished travel restrictions that had limited Americans’ rights to travel overseas. (P. 220) One American who traveled during this period was Martin Luther King, going to Norway to accept the 1964 Nobel peace prize. (Pp. 222-26)6 When Dr. King returned to lead marches from Selma, Alabama, he had a firm and supportive governmental response, communist criticism of American civil rights faltered. (Pp. 234-39 But even then, the civil rights movement was destroying itself. Urban riots brought violence and despair rather than movement.
Dr. King was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The United States fought a war in Vietnam in which its overwhelmingly non-Asian army seemed totally oblivious to the issues of occupying an Asian nation. (Pp. 242-48) The story that Dudziak tells in this book is important to American history. Civil rights and world events did one another during this period. Now, with globalization and the Internet making the entire world essentially local, America needs to consider this period, learn from it, and learn how to apply those lessons to the present. ENDNOTES
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