- The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War
With the tidal wave of first-rate works on the issue of race, civil rights, and U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War that have appeared in recent years, one might wonder whether anything else of significance can be said on the topic. Books and articles by Brenda Gayle Plummer, Penny Von Eschen, Thomas Borstelmann, Carol Anderson, Mary Dudziak, Cary Fraser, Gerald Horne, and a host of others have been published in the last decade or so. Any new scholarship, therefore, faces the somewhat daunting task of finding something original and significant to add to the literature or run the risk of reinventing the wheel. The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War, by Richard Lentz and Karla K. Gower, manages to do a bit of the former and, unfortunately, much of the latter.
Lentz and Gower perform a herculean bit of research in scouring U.S. newspapers and magazines, as well as some English-language versions of foreign print media, in pursuit of their main tasks. They seek to illustrate how America’s race problem was portrayed by the U.S. media to both domestic and foreign audiences and to explore how that coverage simultaneously helped to damage the U.S. image abroad and motivate change and civil rights progress at home during the years 1946 to 1965. Using a straightforward chronological approach, the book focuses on major events in the civil rights struggle in the United States and then summarizes the press coverage from both [End Page 149] U.S. and overseas sources. In doing so, the authors add some interesting information to the existing discussion on race and U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Although most of the scholarship has focused almost exclusively on African-Americans, Lentz and Gower devote separate chapters to the roles played by Native Americans, Latin Americans (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic Americans), and Asians and Asian-Americans in the propaganda battle between the United States and the Communist bloc. This is an extremely important contribution and will, one hopes, spur additional research.
The book also performs a useful role in collating so much of the press coverage at home and abroad dealing with the race issue in the United States. The wide-ranging coverage tracked by Lentz and Gower gives extra credence to the argument that the civil rights struggle in the United States was one of international importance. In addition, the focus on press coverage from Communist China is an interesting addition to the discussion, which so often relies entirely on the attacks leveled by Soviet newspapers and magazines.
Despite these contributions, the book too often re-tills familiar soil. In part, this can be attributed to the authors’ lack of attention to some of the most significant works in the field. They make no references to Plummer’s work; Von Eschen’s 1996 book, Race against Empire; Cary Fraser’s important article on the Little Rock crisis; books by Borstelmann and Thomas Noer analyzing U.S. relations with white minority regimes in Africa; or my 1999 book on African Americans as diplomats in the Cold War. Instead of breaking new ground, therefore, much of the current volume is spent on unnecessarily repeating what is found in these earlier studies. Much the same holds true for the authors’ discussion of U.S. racial attitudes toward Latin America. They present their arguments as significant contributions, without any mention of the works of Frederick Pike, James William Park, or John J. Johnson.
This is particularly unfortunate because other topics, including South Africa, the fascinating role of people such as Carl Rowan (who served as both unofficial critic of American racism and director of the United States Information Agency during the Johnson administration), and the 1964 murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, are either skimmed over or ignored altogether. A particularly troubling example of these...