Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 566-568
[Access article in PDF]
Cold War Civil Rights:
Race and the Image of American Democracy
Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, by Mary L. Dudziak (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
One of the most powerful, dramatic, and visible struggles for human rights in the modern world appeared with the civil rights movement and its fight for racial equality within the United States. Confronting a brutal legacy of slavery and lynching, an oppressive context of racism and segregation, and the violence of mob attacks and policy brutality, those who engaged in this struggle did so in a country that claimed not only to believe in certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all, but also claimed to be the leader of the free world. Civil rights activists' efforts were watched carefully by the nation and by the world, and now are described and analyzed for us all with masterful skill by Mary Dudziak in Cold War Civil Rights.
This book focuses on the impact of international relations upon the domestic civil rights movement within the United States from the Truman to Johnson administrations, paying particular attention to the US-USSR Cold War rivalry. Dudziak asserts that the Soviet Union effectively used every attack upon, or discrimination against, African-Americans as a ready source of critical propaganda to the whole of US values. Dudziak argues that this Cold War criticism sometimes inhibited progress when activists were accused of playing into the hands of enemies but in the end proved to be so effective in embarrassing the United States and presenting obstacles to its foreign policy in the contest to win the hearts and minds of those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that it deserved major credit for helping to facilitate the struggle for racial equality at home and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In doing so, Dudziak provides a model of scholarship. Her work represents detailed archival research at its best, demonstrating the value of those painstaking and often lonely efforts in exploring the secrets tucked away within boxes of declassified memos and reports in the National Archives, Library of Congress, presidential libraries, and private papers. The book is also beautifully written with clarity, force, and verve, a personal passion for the subject, a willingness to confront controversial issues, sophisticated interpretation, and a judicious use of quotations that allows the participants to speak directly, rather than having words put into their mouths. Of particular importance, Dudziak marvelously frames her discussion of the US civil rights movement in the international and Cold War context in such a way that raises, discusses, and illuminates larger issues that help us to understanding how the struggle for human rights proceeds.
Progress in the evolution of human rights, for example, often has occurred in the wake of marriages of convenience between politics and principle. That is, governments may support aspects of human rights not necessary because of belief or merit in the argument of the worth and dignity of each person, but rather because political factors pressure them to do so. For those who doubt this, Dudziak's Cold War Civil Rights provides ample evidence for reflection. She demonstrates in great detail how the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson often became reluctant supporters of desegregating the armed forces, sending federal troops to enforce Supreme Court decisions dealing with desegregation, or speaking on [End Page 566] behalf of new civil rights legislation due to pressures at home such as securing particular voting blocs, gaining support for other legislative agendas, or creating the image of a decisive leader, and especially in attempting to respond to political pressure from abroad. Criticism from foreign countries sharply accused the United States of not living up to its promises or its democratic principles, she argues, and thus came to be not only embarrassing to the nation and its image, but presented serious international pressure and political liabilities particularly in the...