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Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy

Posted: 19 Oct 2000  

Mary L. Dudziak

Emory University School of Law


This study explores the impact of foreign affairs on U.S. civil rights policy during the early years of the Cold War (1946-1968). Following World War II, the U.S. took on the mantle of world leadership, yet, at the same time, the nation found itself subject to increasing international criticism. American racism was seen as the nation's Achilles heel. U.S. allies, as well as critics, questioned whether civil rights abuses undermined our nation's international image, and interfered with its leadership of the free world. How could American democracy be held out as a model for others to follow, particularly newly independent nations in Asia and Africa, when within U.S. borders persons of color were lynched, were segregated in schools and public accommodations, and were disenfranchised? When the Soviet Union made American racism a principle anti-American propaganda theme in the late 1940s, civil rights in America became a terrain upon which an important Cold War ideological battle would be waged. Based on extensive multi-archival research, this study argues that concerns about the impact of race discrimination on U.S. foreign relations led presidents from Truman through Johnson to pursue civil rights reform as part of their broader Cold War strategies. While foreign affairs was only one of the factors motivating civil rights reform during these years, it was a crucial factor that helps us to understand why a period of domestic repression - the Cold War - was also a period during which some civil rights reform would take hold.

Suggested Citation

Dudziak, Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Mary L. Dudziak, COLD WAR CIVIL RIGHTS: RACE AND THE IMAGE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, Princeton University Press, December 2000. Available at SSRN:

Mary L. Dudziak (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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