The Little Rock Crisis and Foreign Affairs: Race, Resistance and the Image of American Democracy

78 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 1997

Date Written: September 1997


When President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce a school desegregation order at Central High School in the fall of 1957, more than racial equality was at issue. The image of American democracy was at stake. The Little Rock crisis played out on a world stage, as news media around the world covered the crisis. During the weeks of impasse leading up to Eisenhower's dramatic intervention, foreign critics questioned how the United States could argue that its democratic system of government was a model for others to follow when racial segregation was tolerated in the nation. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was concerned about the impact of the crisis on the nation's international prestige. In the context of a cold war battle for the loyalties of the peoples of other nations, the image of American democracy as a just system of government was thought to be a critical national security issue.

In this context, this paper argues, the impact of race discrimination on foreign relations, a "cold war imperative" for civil rights reform, was one of the factors motivating Eisenhower's handling of the Little Rock crisis. Yet the protection of the nation's image abroad would, at least in the Little Rock case, Cooper v. Aaron, affirming Brown v. Board of Education as the "supreme law of the land." However, as strong as the Supreme Court's opinion was in Cooper about the role of the courts in enforcing equality, the token desegregation upheld in Little Rock made clear that the "equality" ultimately achieved in that case was more formal than substantive. Still, Cooper aided the Eisenhower Administration's efforts to appease foreign critics. To the extent that foreign affairs was a motivating factor in Little Rock, formal equality -- the creation of an image of constitutional equality -- would be enough to satisfy the cold war imperative for civil rights reform.

Suggested Citation

Dudziak, Mary L., The Little Rock Crisis and Foreign Affairs: Race, Resistance and the Image of American Democracy (September 1997). Southern California Law Review, Vol. 70, No. 6, September 1997; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: or

Mary L. Dudziak (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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