The Global Impact of Brown v. Board of Education: Use of the ruling in Cold War foreign relations

To those who think public diplomacy is something that done outside America’s borders or that cultural relations do not have a direct impact on foreign relations, I strongly recommend Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Dudziak documents the impact of domestic policies in the global ideological struggle to US-domestic interventions by the State Department and USIA to affect domestic policy and practice. For an example of this reality unknown or forgotten by too many, see Dudziak’s essay at SCOTUS Blog, a blog on the Supreme Court of the US. An excerpt is below:

In May 1954, Brown v. Board of Education made headlines, not only in American newspapers, but also around the world.  “At Last! Whites and Black in the United States on the same school benches,” was the headline in Afrique Nouvelle, a newspaper in French West Africa (now Senegal).  In India, the Hindustan Times noted that “American democracy stands to gain in strength and prestige from the unanimous ruling” since school segregation “has been a long-standing blot on American life and civilization.”  For the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, Brown would “go a long way toward dissipating the validity of the Communist contention that Western concepts of democracy are hypocritical.”

The global reaction to Brown was also noted in American news coverage.  The decision would “stun and silence America’s Communist traducers behind the Iron Curtain,” argued the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, for it would “effectively impress upon millions of colored people in Asia and Africa the fact that idealism and social morality can and do prevail in the Unites States, regardless of race, creed or color.”

… When major Supreme Court cases are covered in the world press, they inform the understanding of peoples of other nations about the nature of American democracy.

… The Cold War balance of power itself seemed to turn on the faith of other nations in the benefits of democracy.  Yet in the world’s leading democracy, citizens were segregated by race, and African Americans were sometimes brutalized for attempting to exercise basic rights.

The Soviet Union took advantage of this American weakness. …

We may think that sending our legal ideas overseas helps others, but in this example American justice aided American diplomacy.

I strongly recommend you read the whole article at SCOTUS as well as pick up a copy of Dudziak’s book.

6 thoughts on “The Global Impact of Brown v. Board of Education: Use of the ruling in Cold War foreign relations

  1. Thanks, Matt, from drawing attention to the important the impact of Brown and Dudziak’s book (she’s still teaching at SC Law, last I checked). Brown was the single most important act of PD in American history since World War II. It had nothing to do with what the mandarins of the era considered foreign “policy.” Far from it; depending on the perspective, it was useful to counter Soviet propaganda (Dulles), a violation of states’ rights and human values (Byrnes, SC guv and former SecState), or an unwanted complication (Pres. Eisenhower).Dudziak deserves credit for another accomplishment. Though not the only scholar to tackle the question of race and America’s international influence, it’s how she did it that matters. She told it in great part through the eyes of the old USIA by digging into the agency’s archives with the eyes of the jurist she is. By so doing, she has asked us to reconsider the sources of America’s international influence. It flows, as the book demonstrated, from the courts, Congress, and state and local governments, whatever the Constitution and Secretaries of State may say about speaking with “one voice”. But it also flows more and more the host of non-state actors and citizen diplomats: NGOs, religious organizations, education, travelers of all stripes, and of course, the media.
    What does this mean in practical terms for “policy makers”? I would submit that “policy” – a top-down government mode – not only has become more and more marginalized in the influence business, but also that the very notion of “policy” has marginalized the professionals inside and outside government who eat and sleep it. For true American influence of the positive sort, look not to the Oval Office and Foggy Bottom, and less the Pentagon, but to the court system, religious institutions, NGOs, colleges and universities, television, radio, and certainly, social networking.
    To borrow from a current domestic political phenomenon, there’s a citizen diplomats’ tea party going on whether Uncle Sam and his multitude of “policy makers” care or not. And it’s been happening for a long time. Maybe it’s finally taken a couple of Angelenos from the other side of the continent to concentrate our attention.

  2. IIP Publications has worked with Prof. Dudziak. She contributed an essay entitled “Marshall’s Role in Kenya” to our web publication Justice for All: the Legacy of Thurgood Marshall. See Dudziak also has particpated in an IIP webchat on this topic. See
    We distribute a number of publications on the U.S. civil rights movement including our book “Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement” ( and a new “living book,” Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African American Achievement ( We post new content to the latter each month and ask our readers to suggest future chapters.
    We also expect shortly to launch “You Asked,” a living book in which we request audience questions about American life and farm them out to experts for short, authoritative answers. In the first chapter, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the question “Do Americans Appreciate Other Cultures?”
    Best regards,
    Michael Jay Friedman
    Director, IIP Office of Publications

  3. You are right. Dzudziac raises questions that are unfortunately unknown and remain a mystery for most of US citizens.Thank your for the post and the links that I will share!

  4. Thanks, Christine, for underscoring the subtle point at issue here: the ignorance on the part of Americans — including many foreign affairs professionals — of this fundamental aspect of international relations. While it’s useful to get a laundry list of IIP’s activities with the author, it also serves to remind those of us who care about Matt’s favorite topic, Smith-Mundt.

  5. Greg, thanks for saying it so I don’t have to. This is an example of great work of IIP / Public Diplomacy that is hidden from the American public and Congress.

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