Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative
61 Pages Posted: 27 May 2008 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017
Date Written: 1988
At the height of the McCarthy era, when Congressional committees were exposing "communist infiltration" in many areas of American life, the Supreme Court was upholding loyalty oath requirements, and the executive branch was ferreting out alleged communists in government, the U.S. Attorney General filed a pro-civil rights brief in what would become one of the most celebrated civil rights cases in American history: Brown v. Board of Education. Although seemingly at odds with the restrictive approach to individual rights in other contexts, the U.S. government's participation in the desegregation cases during the McCarthy era was no anomaly. Rather, by the early 1950s, American leaders had come to believe that civil rights reform was crucial to the more central U.S. mission of fighting world communism. Based in part on diplomatic research in State Department archives, this article demonstrates that Cold War motives influenced the U.S. government's involvement in Brown and other cases.
Originally published in 1988 in the Stanford Law Review, this article was the first publication to use State Department records to examine the relationship between Cold War foreign relations and civil rights in the United States. Diplomatic records illustrate the growing concern among American diplomats and political leaders after World War II about the impact of race discrimination on the U.S. image around the world, and the global critique that the United States could not be an effective "leader of the free world" as long as the nation blatantly denied rights to its own peoples. This research confirmed the suspicions of Derrick Bell and others who argued before these records were opened that foreign affairs affected U.S. government civil rights policies, and it helped illuminate the world-wide impact of the civil rights movement. This research was expanded upon in Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2000), and in books and articles by other scholars. The larger body of work on race and foreign relations is an important aspect of efforts by historians to "internationalize" the study of American history.
Thanks to the Stanford Law Review, the article is now available on SSRN so that it will be easily accessible on-line.
Keywords: civil rights, desegregation, Cold War, foreign relations, Brown v. Board of Education, McCarthy era
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