Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000

The following is a book review of Mary L. Dudziak’s, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000. This review examines the impact of Cold War foreign affairs on U.S. civil rights reform.

Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000

Book Review by Tom White

Mary L. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights is a fascinating examination of how post World War II civil rights were shaped by the context of the United States foreign relations. Dudziak’s treatise, which begins with the Truman administration, and follows the efforts of the U.S. government through the mid 1960’s, explores how the U.S. State Department went to great lengths to portray to an international audience a carefully crafted image of America, one which spoke of racial progress and touted the achievements which were possible through democracy. The U.S. government had become acutely aware of how U.S. racism abroad affected its image, especially in Asia and Africa, where it sought to instill confidence and cultivate future allies. Dudziak Cold War Civil Rights is an insightful examination of the U.S. state department’s propaganda counter-offensive, its efforts at silencing dissenters, while at the same time trying to win “the world over to democracy.”[1] Dudziak chronicles the United States government efforts at addressing international criticism on civil rights at home, in which “paradoxically, [these] international pressures would soon simultaneously constrain and enhance civil rights reform.”[2]

Dudziak argues that prior to World War II, “narratives on twentieth-century America have tended to treat civil rights and foreign relations as two separate categories”[3] which were unrelated to one another. America’s perspective of viewing itself in such a compartmentalized fashion would soon change, beginning with the Truman administration. Truman realized early on in his presidency “that race discrimination harmed U.S. foreign relations.”[4] Following the murders of several blacks at the hands of white extremists, Truman realized the impact that domestic racism had on foreign relations. Other countries were watching America, and as the Cold War heated up between the United Sates and the Soviet Union, “the Soviets made effective use of U.S. failings.”[5] The Truman administration believed that anything which undermined American democracy consequently was a threat to world peace.

The Truman administration was made constantly aware of how foreign nations viewed the United States through its foreign embassy staffs. When foreign diplomats of color visited the U.S. and encountered discrimination, this information would soon add further credence to what other countries had suspected about America’s feelings towards people of color. The U.S. government understood that “race discrimination undermined the nation’s prestige abroad, threatening its Cold War leadership.”[6] If other non-white countries were going to have any faith in democracy the United States would have to find a way to reassure them that America was not a country of white supremacists.

To accomplish this goal, the U.S. government engaged in a propaganda effort aimed at placing “American race relations in the best possible light.”[7] The U.S. government produced propaganda pamphlets for distribution overseas which touted the strides made in racial equality, while at the same time striving to paint communism as the most imminent threat to world peace. Realizing that these efforts alone were inadequate, the U.S. government also sought out prominent black speakers for overseas speaking engagements intended to bolster international public opinion. While efforts of the U.S. state department aimed at shaping America’s narrative overseas were ongoing, the U.S. government was faced with an equally daunting task from critics within America’s own ranks. Prominent black critics of U.S. race relations who traveled overseas such as W.E.B DuBois and Paul Robeson “posed a powerful challenge to the government’s narrative of race in America”[8] and as a consequence the U.S. state department placed travel restrictions on them, curtailing their travel and ability to reach an audience.

While the U.S. government’s efforts to tell a progressive story continued, “the counternarrative of racial oppression continued to make headlines”[9] worldwide. Civil rights organizations also realized “that race discrimination harmed U.S. interests in the Cold War”[10], and used America’s vulnerability on the world stage to pressure U.S. leaders into civil rights reform. U.S. leadership, realizing that propaganda without some meaningful civil rights progress would not alter America’s image overseas, began a series of meaningful civil rights reforms not simply because it was merely a morally correct action to take, but because they believed discrimination was damaging to U.S. foreign relations.

In 1947 President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights released a report that stated “the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has had an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries.”[11] As a response and a means to counter the negative image perceived by foreign nations, a series of civil rights reform began which were intended to sway international perceptions. In 1948, “Truman issued Executive Order 9981”[12] which led to meaningful racial integration within the armed services. Furthermore, the Truman administration also became involved many landmark desegregation cases such as Brown v. the Board of Education, Shelley v. Kramer, Henderson v. United States, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, and Sweat v. Painter. The Justice department argued that segregation must be eliminated because “in these cases [segregation] damaged U.S. prestige abroad and threatened U.S. foreign relations.”[13] The result of pursuing such landmark civil rights reform provided the U.S. government not only with just the kind of positive international propaganda it had hoped for, but it also served in countering the negative publicity being espoused by the Soviets. Dudziak makes a strong argument linking civil rights reform immediately following World War II with foreign relations, particularly when international support was considered absolutely crucial for U.S. stability.

In the latter half of the 1950’s under the Eisenhower administration, international pressure once again would play a pivotal role in civil rights reform. President Eisenhower had assumed a gradualist approach to civil rights reform, believing that “you cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws”[14], and given time Americans would eventually come around to desegregation. The Eisenhower administration, however, would have to revisit its gradual approach to desegregation as television cameras began broadcasting events as they unfolded from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when under federal orders black students tried to enroll at Central High School. The world watched as armed national guardsmen tried to control unruly crowds, watching as black students were harassed when they tried to enter school grounds. According to Dudziak, the Eisenhower administration’s previous lack of action regarding the principal of equality was a leading factor leading up to the crisis which developed at Little Rock. However as “U.S. embassies around the globe sent dispatches to the State department detailing the international impact of events in Little Rock”[15], the Eisenhower administration abandoned its gradualist approach in favor of decisive action by sending in federal troops. Dudziak once again argues effectively that foreign relations were the root cause behind Eisenhower’s response and not his own beliefs regarding civil rights reform. Eisenhower discarded his gradualist approach in favor of more decisive action because “the national interest”[16] and international pressure required him to take action.

President Kennedy, like his predecessor Eisenhower, had not placed civil rights reform high on his agenda when he assumed office. But unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy sought to avoid the same mistakes as Eisenhower by not hesitating to take decisive action early on in his presidency for civil rights when it became necessary. Civil rights leaders were quite aware of the power of international pressure for instigating civil rights reform, and under Kennedy’s tenure as president civil rights leaders took advantage of the media to push for reform through direct progressive action. Freedom Riders, Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, the Montgomery March, and the civil rights crisis at Oxford, Mississippi all played out on international media, but unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy’s decisive action “had a profound [positive] effect around the world, most of all in Africa.”[17] The civil rights movement according to Dudziak was effective in leveraging “international concern to increase pressure on the Kennedy administration for civil rights reform”[18]. Again Dudziak makes the compelling argument that despite the Kennedy administration’s own civil rights priorities upon entering office, it was international pressure which proved pivotal in accelerating civil rights reform, culminating in landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.

While foreign relations did play an important role in pressuring presidential administrations to engage in civil rights reform, foreign relations also at times served to constrain civil rights reform as well. One of the most prominent ways in which foreign relations constrained civil rights was in linking it to communism; this strategy was especially effective during the cold war environment  when “anticommunism was more important to Congress than civil rights”[19]. In fact Dudziak points out that “segregationists argued that efforts to abandon racial segregation were communist inspired”[20], and even used red-baiting as a means to silence critics of segregation.

One prominent and outspoken critic of segregation who attempted to speak out internationally was the actress Josephine Baker. The U.S. state department, in concert with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its U.S. embassies, engaged a series of smear campaigns intended to silence her, in an attempt to manage “the narrative of race and American democracy”[21] being projected globally. Josephine Baker’s saga according to Dudziak “in some ways [is] simply a global counterpart to the red-baiting that was so pervasive within U.S. borders during the cold war”[22], and was just another example of how the U.S. government sought to constrain the voices of African Americans overseas. Another method employed by the U.S. government aimed at controlling America’s image overseas was the imposition of travel restrictions on civil rights dissenters. Two classic examples were the confiscation of passports by prominent critics such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois without any valid legal justification. In fact in the case of Robeson according to State department officials, his passport restrictions were based on “his frequent criticisms of the treatment of blacks in the United States [which] should not be aired in foreign countries.”[23]

Finally, in one of the last examples in which Dudziak examines the impact that foreign relations had in constraining civil rights reform, Dudziak focuses on the Vietnam War. Dudziak argues that as the conflict in Vietnam escalated, “Vietnam had eclipsed civil rights as a defining issue”[24] and as a consequence although civil rights was still a critical federal issue, it no longer was the precarious issue that it had been previously in U.S, foreign relations. As a consequence the United States was being defined more by its actions in Vietnam, and less by its racial discrimination at home. It seemed as long as America was engaged in the conflict in Vietnam, civil rights activity would be overshadowed by the war.

Mary L. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights makes a compelling argument for how domestic racial progress was influenced by America’s foreign relations and perceived global reputation. Dudziak examination is a fascinating look at the U.S. government’s efforts at crafting and trying to maintain an image in order to advance worldwide democracy, while at the same time battling racial injustice at home. Dudziak’s examination is more than just the important Cold War narrative of race in a America, but is the story of the critical role that foreign relations played in both constraining and enhancing civil rights reform in a Cold War America.




Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.


[1] Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000), 100

[2] Ibid, 11

[3] Ibid, 15

[4] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 15

[5] Ibid, 27

[6] Ibid, 39

[7] Ibid, 49

[8] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 61

[9] Ibid, 77

[10] Ibid, 43

[11] Ibid, 80

[12] Ibid, 86

[13] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 91

[14] Ibid, 120

[15] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 125

[16] Ibid,132

[17] Ibid, 165

[18] Ibid, 178

[19] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 89

[20] Ibid, 28

[21] Ibid, 76

[22] Ibid,

[23] Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 62

[24] Ibid, 248

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