- The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena
Thomas Borstelmann's The Cold War and the Color Line is a masterful narrative that contextualizes the U.S. civil rights movement within an international setting. It contributes—along with Mary L. [End Page 532] Dudziak's Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002)—to a growing literature showing how the Cold War was essential to the successes of the U.S. civil rights movement. But by recasting the years from 1945 to 1990 also as a period of global struggle by billions of nonwhites trying to regain freedoms taken away by whites, Borstelmann clarifies andunderlines the vital role of race in midcentury domestic and international politics.
After World War II, the eyes of the world were indeed upon the United States, watching to see how legitimately it could claim to be the "leader of the free world." When Secretary of State James Byrnes criticized the Soviets in 1946 for denying free elections in the Balkans, the Soviets shot back that the same right was denied to "the Negroes of Mr. Byrnes' own state of South Carolina" (p. 75). Jim Crow—aptly called America's "Achilles' heel before the world" by Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge—undermined U.S. claims of moral leadership since it, too, was a "totalitarian state" for African Americans (p.76). Domestic racism also weakened U.S. vows of political commitment to the newly independent nations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Before the landmark civil rights legislation, Cold War presidents faced the embarrassment of having nonwhite foreign dignitaries rudely harassed or dismissed in a racially segregated America. The casual, everyday racism of any white person thus endangered U.S. policy objectives to win the alliance of nonwhite, decolonized nations (p.126).
Historians Brenda Gayle Plummer and Penny Von Eschen have each noted how African Americans drew inspiration from the independence movements in Africa, but Borstelmann tells this story from the perspective of U.S. presidents and elite policymakers. While his research—which focuses on archival materials from presidential libraries—is similar to that of traditional diplomatic historians, his purview is wider and more ambitious. Like Plummer and Von Eschen, Borstelmann seeks to erase the artificial barrier between U.S. foreign and domestic relations. By exposing the racialized worldviews of presidents and their policymakers, he helps us see more clearly why they responded as they did during an era of global independence movements. This racialized worldview helps explain why the U.S. federal government, for the very same reason of preventing the spread of Communism, supported an independence movement for American blacks and sabotaged independence movements of nonwhites outside the United States. He suggests that caring about freedom for European [End Page 533] whites helped the cause of freedom of U.S. blacks, but came at the expense of nonwhites fighting for freedom in Vietnam, South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Guatemala, Iran, and Congo.
Following presidential records provides a richness of detail—and Borstelmann is particularly excellent at picking out juicy quotes—but a weakness of this methodology is producing a story too closely wedded to the presidential perspective. While he is angered by the cruel indifference and hypocrisy of Eisenhower, Borstelmann's focus on the presidential worldview may be why he explains the limits of Cold War–driven civil rights as primarily the result of the racism of the various presidential administrations.
Like many today, Borstelmann sees civil rights as a moral issue, but he shows how many Cold War presidents and policy elites saw it as simply a political one. Notably, Eisenhower—as well as Kennedy, Nixon, and Bush—cared about human rights for African Americans insofar as they affected the U.S. image abroad. Accustomed to seeing nonwhites in servile roles, Eisenhower, Bush, and initially even Kennedy did not see racial hierarchy as a problem. Nixon, embracing an amoral, realpolitik vision, purposefully ignored...