Staff Pick: 'Cold War Civil Rights'

What do the civil rights movement and the Cold War have to do with each other? Much more than we’ve ever thought, writes historian Mary L. Dudziak in Cold War Civil Rights.

As the Cold War began, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to appeal to the newly independent former colonies in the Middle East, East Asia, Africa, and Latin America as benevolent world leaders. This entailed not only military and economic campaigns, but propaganda campaigns as well. A favorite tactic of the Soviet Union was to publicize American civil rights abuses against black Americans. Arguing to the black and brown people of the world that the Americans, with their inherently racist system, could not possibly protect the interests of non-whites, the Soviets portrayed themselves as the benevolent alternative. We are not generally aware of the immense international audience that the civil rights movement had and of the massive geopolitical implications that followed. Attempting to discredit American claims of freedom and prosperity for all, the Soviet Union used America’s own domestic racial strife against it in the realm of foreign policy.

Truman moved to counter Soviet propaganda with his own war of information. In its materials, the U.S. Information Agency acknowledged racial problems, but insisted that America was still on the side of progress, democracy, and liberty, and that racial strife was simply democracy-in-action. The government engaged a variety of public figures and entertainers to spread this approved message at the peripheries of Soviet influence, but blacks who strayed from it, such as actress Josephine Baker, were silenced.

The federal government quickly found—during Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces, for example, or Eisenhower’s intervention in Little Rock—that it was easier to gain worldwide acclaim by taking positive steps toward change rather than simply trying to reframe the narrative. Kennedy reluctantly advocated for some civil rights legislation, and Johnson’s administration saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. By the time of Johnson’s presidency, the world had largely come to the opinion that the U.S. government was working sincerely on improving civil rights. (However, when Vietnam began to dominate headlines, civil rights quickly fell out of focus.)

Dudziak’s work is a fascinating account of the interaction of two spheres traditionally held as separate both in popular imagination and historical scholarship, and it gives us compelling reason to continue investigating what else these intersections of domestic and global topics—what historians call transnational history—might show us.

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Regina Munch is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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