African Americans - Racial reform and cold war ideology

The U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union and its Cold War partners involved political as well as military competition. President Harry S. Truman articulated the need to improve U.S. race relations not only because the Soviets were exploiting the race issue but also because U.S. credibility was at stake. Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, articulated a need for reform and coupled this with the same repression of black communists and other radical black critics of America that generally characterized the early Cold War period in U.S. society. Such activists as Du Bois and Paul Robeson were refused passports. U.S. representatives abroad interfered with American-born dancer Josephine Baker, a French citizen and an outspoken critic of U.S. racial mores. The Eisenhower administration, committed to the reduction of military spending but putting greater emphasis on promoting the economic and cultural superiority of American life, had come to associate winning the Cold War with improving the civil rights climate for black Americans. While Eisenhower was not enthusiastic about desegregation, he was committed enough to the principle of civil equality to support a modest civil rights bill in 1957.

The belief that America's ability to champion democracy depended on its success at practicing it at home continued during the Kennedy years. The Cold War rationale for racial reform was strengthened by evidence that hostile countries utilized negative news about race relations to discredit the United States. In an increasingly decolonized world, where Africans and Asians now headed sovereign states, racial discrimination could no longer be endorsed or accepted. Technological change meant that journalists could record instances of racial violence and broadcast them to the world. The Soviet Union and its allies were not the only critics. Disapproval emanated from nonaligned countries, especially India, and from such conventional Western states as Denmark. In contrast to the world press, pro-apartheid South African journalists played up racial incidents in the United States, especially the exploits of white supremacists. This also constituted part of the embarrassment that necessitated a significant propaganda effort to neutralize damaging racial news stories about segregation.

Members of the intelligentsia and business communities also employed arguments that linked foreign and domestic affairs. In September 1950, for example, the NAACP convened the Breakneck Hill Conference, where senators, UN officials, journalists and broadcast executives, State Department representatives, educators, and activists considered the impact of racial discrimination on the nation's foreign policy objectives. Civil rights proponents, including participants in sit-ins and other demonstrations in the 1960s, also used Cold War arguments to rationalize their challenge to discriminatory statutes. Segregation tainted the U.S. reputation abroad, they claimed, and the limited opportunities for minorities that resulted from it meant fewer human resources available to defend the nation and extend its interests.

U.S. government efforts to counter the bad publicity involved activities sponsored by the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA). These included providing news to international readers, stocking U.S. libraries abroad with what was perceived as balanced information about black life in the United States, and enlisting African-American lecturers and entertainers to travel abroad and entertain or provide information to interested foreigners. Some individuals who toured foreign countries for this purpose sometimes exaggerated the amount of progress made in race relations. The State Department and USIA, for their part, did not deny the existence of racism but rather emphasized what they portrayed as a national commitment to effect change through nonviolent means. The appointment in 1964 of the African-American journalist Carl Rowan as USIA director was intended to emphasize the latter. Rowan had previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs and as ambassador to Finland.

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