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  • Behind the atomic Curtain: School desegregation and territoriality in the early Cold War
  • James T. Sparrow (bio)

The early Cold War was, infamously, a time of political retrenchment, when anticommunists exploited popular fears and national security pretexts to squelch the democratic energies of the Popular Front. Left-led unions and civil rights organizations alike purged their leadership of any communist affiliation, while professional anticommunists pushed other organizations on the Left to do the same or land on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. Support for left-liberal causes such as anti-fascism, labor rights, gender equity, and racial equality provided red flags for investigators and agitators on the prowl for evidence of internal subversion.1

Yet it was precisely in these years that the largest and arguably most central of Cold War institutions—the armed forces—rapidly desegregated, after serving for decades as a bulwark of Jim Crow. Years before the constitutionality of school segregation was infamously rejected in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court had responded in the late 1940s to the legal strategy of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) by striking down segregation in interstate transportation, racially restrictive covenants, and higher education.2 These cases had gradually set the stage for Brown, which then took years to implement—and even then, it was implemented with great unevenness and incompletion. But by [End Page 115] the spring of 1955, when the Supreme Court in Brown II politely requested that schools move toward desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” the Army, following on the heels of the Air Force and Navy, had already become one of the least segregated institutions in American life.3

This remarkable proliferation of advances for the early Civil Rights movement betrayed policymakers’ newfound attentiveness to international pressures in the Cold War, as Mary Dudziak has pointed out.4 Neither interest group leverage nor social movement mobilization can explain the timing of these early successes, given the larger context of repression. But if international pressure was a necessary cause, it could not have been a sufficient one. Time and again the postwar Congress displayed its indifference to global public opinion, particularly regarding race relations, right up until the breakthroughs of the mid-1960s. The White House and the State Department took greater notice of world opinion. Efforts to preempt communist revolution in the decolonizing “Third World” made discretion and sensitivity regarding racial diplomacy a carefully cultivated (if discreet) virtue among those ministering to foreign affairs from 1945 onward.5 Even so, the niceties of image management did not necessitate thoroughgoing desegregation. Something else was in play, particularly when it came to matters falling under the banner of national security.

What was at stake that could have prompted desegregation at such an early date, and in such sensitive sites, even when international pressures were ineffective or inapplicable, as was clearly the case for both military desegregation and the school desegregation cases discussed in this essay? One overlooked but crucial factor was territoriality: the mode of institutionalizing power by which the federal government articulated, hardened, and policed the boundaries of its jurisdiction as a consequence of its expanding authority under the permanent emergency conditions of the Cold War.6 The systematization of territoriality within the interstate system had been rigidifying since at least the First World War, but this ultimately global process played out within the United States according to the particular sequence of political developments by which the U.S. suddenly assumed a leading role on the international stage in the middle years of the twentieth century. [End Page 116]

During the great Constitutional crisis over federal supremacy in the late New Deal, prompted by the Court Packing debacle of 1937, the Roosevelt administration had eventually won acceptance of national economic regulations by framing them within the rubric of interstate commerce. This allowed Southern democrats, ever jealous of “states’ rights,” to deflect issues pertaining to segregation and other racial matters while guaranteeing the permanence of a modern national welfare state. The coming of World War II and the United States’ sudden ascension to the role of great power altered that compromise subtly but permanently, placing the requirements of meeting the national...