Brown as a Cold War Case
Posted: 25 May 2004
In 1954, in the midst of the Cold War, school segregation was thought by many to be un-American. Brown v. Board of Education, a major international story, was thought of as a blow to Communism because the case would enable peoples of color around the world to believe that democracy was a just system of government. American legal history texts often discuss Brown and the Cold War in separate passages, as if they were unrelated to each other, however this essay argues that Brown is best understood as part of Cold War history. Cold War concerns help explain the U.S. government's role in the case, for example. The Justice Department's brief in Brown argued that school segregation undermined U.S. prestige in other countries, harming U.S. foreign relations. The Supreme Court had been grappling with Cold War concerns in its McCarthy-era cases, so these arguments were made to a receptive audience. Formal legal change in Brown aided the U.S. image abroad, whether or not actual desegregation followed. While some treatments of Brown see the case as an illustration of the inevitability of legal progress, the Cold War context helps us to see Brown's historical contingency. This history also illustrates the fact that seemingly domestic American histories have international dimensions, and it underscores the importance of internationalizing American legal history.
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