Journal of Cold War Studies 4.4 (2002) 108-110
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Cold War Civil Rights:
Race and the Image of American Democracy
Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 254 pp. $29.95.
In June 1998 three white men in Jasper, Texas, chained a black man, James Byrd, to the back of their pickup truck and drove along the back roads, dragging him along. This horrifying incident made worldwide news and did not escape the attention of students in a class I was teaching in eastern Germany. I was bombarded with questions like "Why is the United States such a racist society?" Because the topic of my course was "Defining the American Way of Life," I felt compelled to answer. I stressed that the incident was an anomaly and pointed to examples of progress in U.S. race relations. Yet, even though I hoped to provide a balanced portrait of American society, I knew that the image of Byrd's mangled body, not my remarks, would be etched in my students' memories.
The challenge of explaining America to foreign audiences has bedeviled U.S. policymakers for decades. In this long-awaited book Mary Dudziak brilliantly demonstrates the connections between race relations and the U.S. response to the early Cold War. Cold War Civil Rights is a valuable contribution to the growing corpus of work on race and diplomacy. Scholars including Dudziak, Penny Von Eschen, Brenda Plummer, Jonathan Rosenberg, Michael Krenn, and Carol Anderson have shown clear linkages among U.S. foreign policy, civil rights activism, domestic politics, and American national identity.
The broad outline of Dudziak's narrative is a familiar one. During World War II the battle against fascism by a racially segregated country underscored a glaring contradiction in American life: How could the United States present itself as the world's exemplar of democratic freedom while denying basic liberties to millions of its own citizens? Determined to end this hypocrisy, civil rights activists pressed for full racial [End Page 108] equality. Thousands followed their lead and joined organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Civil rights groups hoped that victory over fascism abroad would spark substantive reforms at home.
The onset of the Cold War complicated these aspirations. Americans eagerly embraced domesticity. For many, "normalcy" meant a more placid society devoid of disruptive protests and challenges to established norms. Unwilling to subscribe to this conformity, civil rights organizations continued working for change. Through lawsuits and public demonstrations, reformers demanded the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation.
At the same time, the threat of a resurgent Soviet Union intensified. As Communism expanded into Europe and East Asia and threatened the United States, U.S. policymakers became highly attuned to international criticisms of American social problems. When Communist propagandists publicized incidents of racial violence in the United States, foreign audiences questioned the U.S. commitment to democratic ideals. Determined not to provide additional fodder for the Soviet propaganda machine, U.S. officials supported civil rights legislation and formulated information campaigns designed to counter Soviet accusations of American racism.
Cold War realities both helped and hindered the civil rights movement. As McCarthyism pervaded American society, both supporters and opponents of segregation used anti-Communism to their advantage. Segregationists realized the power of Red-baiting in discrediting civil rights activists. Integrationists allied themselves with U.S. officials attempting to change America's reputation as a racist country. While Walter White and Edith Sampson adopted a liberal anti-Communism that found favor with the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois espoused a radical leftism that was anathema to the foreign policy establishment. Accordingly, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department dispatched White and Sampson on international speaking tours while drastically curtailing Robeson's and DuBois's ability to travel abroad. In addition to controlling who could speak on behalf of the United States, the...