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Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 69-71

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Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. 369 pp. $35.00.

In a message to the U.S. Congress in February 1948, President Harry Truman linked the domestic struggle for racial justice to America's overseas aims, observing that if the United States wished to "inspire the peoples of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy" or "restore hope to those who have already lost their liberties," the country had to correct "the remaining imperfections" in its "practice of democracy." Truman, the energetic Cold Warrior whose commitment to political and social change is sometimes forgotten, did indeed confront the problem of domestic racial injustice, signing Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that mandated an end to segregation in the armed forces. (The previous year a committee Truman had appointed issued "To Secure These Rights," a report that discussed the persistence of racial injustice in America and argued that the U.S. government must assume responsibility for abolishing it.)

As several scholars have recently suggested, it was not coincidental that the demands of black Americans achieved greater salience with the American people and increasing support within the U.S. government at the same time that the United States was beginning to confront the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union to Western democracy. Many American leaders were persuaded that if the United States wished to maintain its credibility as the leader of the "free world," the country had to put its own house in order. It had become problematic to demand free elections in Poland and Czechoslovakia while blacks could not vote in Mississippi and Alabama. By the late 1940s a growing number of Americans (inside and outside the government) had begun to realize that the failure to construct genuine democracies in Eastern Europe was little different from the failure to do the same in the Jim Crow South.

Building on an earlier book that examined U.S.-South African relations in the 1940s and early 1950s, Thomas Borstelmann of the University of Nebraska has written a wide-ranging, illuminating, and highly significant study that explores how race influenced U.S. foreign policy during the postwar period. The subject of race, Borstelmann notes, came to dominate international and domestic politics after 1945. During this period, colonial peoples sought and ultimately achieved liberation from Western rule, and black Americans began to realize the democratic aspirations they had pursued for decades. Aiming to "trace the ways in which the U.S. government responded to demands for an end to racial discrimination both at home and abroad" (p.2), Borstelmann shows how American racial attitudes shaped the country's engagement [End Page 69] with the developing world and, conversely, how events overseas influenced the domestic civil rights struggle. In the end, the book is particularly enlightening in its analysis of the external dimension of that story, tracing how Washington policymakers looked at the world in "explicitly race-conscious terms" and how "those race-conscious lenses helped shape U.S. relations with the outside world" during the era of America's international preeminence (p.9).

In the opening chapter Borstelmann reminds us that long before Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles occupied center stage, American engagement with the world was shaped profoundly by race, or more accurately, racism. Notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority were deeply rooted in American history. After 1945, when the United States plunged into the maelstrom of world politics, a centuries-long tradition persisted that identified American Indians, Mexicans, Filipinos, and other peoples as inferior. Consequently, when George Kennan, whose antediluvian views on such matters are well-known, told a group of American officers at the National War College in 1952 that it was necessary to seize nonwhite leaders in the developing world "by the scruff of the neck" (p.50) and compel them to stand up to the Soviet Union, he was articulating a long and...