Book Review: Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights

I read Mary Dudziak’s book, Cold War Civil Rights a few months ago, but since Dudziak just launched her blog, Legal History Blog, I thought I’d reissue my book review.

The book is a must-read for anyone who thinks Las Vegas tourist ads apply to public diplomacy and international relations. If you think media coverage is intense now, consider the impact of coverage forty years ago and its impact on the global information war of the time.

Dudziak establishes the tone of the “us versus them” mentality:

Following World War II, anything that undermined the image of American democracy was seen as threatening world peace and aiding Soviet aspiration to dominate the world…

Nations were divided between a way of life “distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression” and a way of life that “relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.”

Dudziak looks at the impact of race and the civil rights movement in the United States on American public diplomacy and foreign policy. The result of America’s “color bar” on international relations is astonishing, and Dudziak helps contextualize the movement and government responses within contemporary pressures.

Indiscriminate actions against foreign and American dignitaries reinforced the accessibility of race-based norms to all and played into Soviet propaganda and provided a sharp counternarrative that impacted US foreign relations. The U.S. Ambassador, Chester Bowles, to India, speaking in 1952 at Yale University said,

A year, a month, or even a week in Asia is enough to convince any perceptive American that the colored peoples of Asia and Africa, who total two-thirds of the world’s population, seldom think about the United States without considering the limitations under which our 13 million Negroes are living.

As we attempted to project democracy and its emphasis on equality and freedom, in opposition to Soviet tyranny, discrimination in the US was well known beyond our borders. Dudziak presents “With Us or Against Us” examples with Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker as examples, among others. In the case of Baker, State Department officers justified censorship and hardship imposed on Baker by discounting her personal beliefs. Her “derogatory” remarks “concerning racial discrimination in the United States” were deemed to be “presenting a distorted and malicious picture of actual conditions.” If we do not practice democracy, how well will our promotion of it be received? History ignores Ambassador Bowles’s question.

Dudziak documents the ignorance of the impact of US race relations that is eerily reminiscent of recent American political discourses. A Senator, while agreeing with State’s assessment and censorship of Josephine Baker, denied it created a propaganda coup for the other side: “Communists’ propagandizing a state of affairs that does not exist in this country.” Governor Talmadge went further by arguing a response to Communist propaganda is an attempt to “please the Communists.” He claimed that “only one group stands to gain” from the “attacks on the Bill of Rights.” That group was the “Communist Party and its fellow travelers.” Selective and myopic views of society, both locally and globally, caused significant damage to foreign policy and standing, as stated in a brief for the US as Amicus Curiae in Brown v Board of Education:

It is in the context of the present world struggle between freedom and tyranny that the problem of race discrimination must be viewed.

As Dudziak wrote, “Domestic difficulties were managed by US presidents with an eye toward how their actions would play overseas.” Disingenuous or factually misleading statements to justify national policies and opinions are not the mainstay of any single generation. While not intending to be destructive to the nation, these policies have a severely detrimental effect on national cohesion and leadership within the foreign relations. Dudziak implies the race issue in the international press was the seed of negative views of the US. The golden temple of American democracy appeared to fall short, even hypocritical. Locksley Edmunson, writing in 1973, could be speaking of today with our Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and alleged secret CIA prisons when he wrote,

Those states best technically equipped to maintain world order are not necessarily the ones whose credentials recommend them as the most appropriate guardians of a global conscience.

You can read different things out of Mary Dudziak’s book. As a student of public diplomacy, the impact of national policy on foreign policy came through loud and clear due to Ms. Dudziak’s investigation. The take-away? Practice what you preach, or at least be useful in making them think you’re trying to.