Human Rights - Brown v. board of education and the eisenhower administration



Unlike Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower possessed, at most, a tepid commitment to human rights, and his noticeable lack of enthusiasm evidenced itself in a number of telling ways. First, Eisenhower supported the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in overthrowing or attempting to overthrow governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Cuba (1960, though it was President Kennedy who ultimately authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission in April 1961). Indeed, in the case of Guatemala, the CIA abetted the overthrow of the democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, ostensibly because his government was riddled with communists and constituted a threat to regional stability, although questions of land reform and their impact on U.S. business interests clearly played a role.

Eisenhower occasionally echoed Wilson's commitment to see peoples around the world determine their own form of government, but he did so primarily as part of a broader anticommunist effort. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was particularly strident in his anticommunism, but his rhetorical calls for Eastern European freedom ran into problems in 1956 when Hungarians sought to control their own destiny and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, found such actions unacceptable. In November, Soviet troops arrived in Budapest to quash the revolution. Shortly after the brutal outcome to the episode was apparent, President Eisenhower used the occasion of Human Rights Day on 10 December 1956 to express the nation's "deepest sympathy" for "the courageous, liberty-loving people of Hungary." But that was all; nothing more was done.

The real problem for the administration came in the form of the civil rights movement domestically and the growing attention it received outside the United States. The Supreme Court reversed Plessy in its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in May 1954, a ruling followed in 1955 by the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, and then by the refusal of Arkansas governor Orville Faubus to allow the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in the fall of 1957. A clearly distressed Eisenhower was compelled to call in the National Guard to enforce the court's decision and to protect from mob violence the African American students who were scheduled to attend the high school.

The embarrassment over strident domestic opposition to integration and to the equal participation by African Americans in the nation's social and political systems hurt the nation's image abroad. At the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, as Michael L. Krenn has insightfully noted, the Eisenhower administration ran into trouble with the American exhibit. One State Department memo observed that continuing racial discrimination, along the lines of what had happened in Little Rock the previous year, "clearly result[ed] to some extent in the weakening of our moral position as the champion of freedom and democracy." Wanting to assert the nation's moral superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, but having to concede that there were continuing domestic problems over integration, the State Department sent an exhibit to Brussels, "Unfinished Business," that acknowledged some of the problems still faced by African Americans. Although popular with audiences that visited the American pavilion, "Unfinished Business" closed for "renovations," which was a euphemism for deleting the sections that dealt with segregation and thus raised the ire of southern politicians back home. Senator Herman Talmadge, for example, a Democrat from Georgia, declared that segregation "was an issue for the individual states of America and 'cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be one of legitimate concern to the citizens of other countries.'" Of course, that has traditionally been the argument of all governments accused of violating their citizens' human rights, whether it be the United States in the 1950s; the apartheid government in South Africa in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; China after Tiananmen Square; or the Taliban government in Afghanistan early in the twenty-first century.



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