Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Race Relations, United States

In many ways, the Cold War helped accelerate the civil rights movement in the United States. In the midst of World War II, Gunner Myrdal noted in his seminal 1944 work An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy the paradox of fighting for democracy abroad while failing to achieve full democracy at home. In the early Cold War years, President Harry S. Truman did attempt to improve the race issue through the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 and other civil rights initiatives. Looking abroad, Truman and his advisors hoped to ally with as many countries as possible against the communist bloc. This often meant being friendly to colonial powers, white supremacists in South Africa, and despots in the developing world.

A most striking example of race as a Cold War issue occurred in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" ruling that had legalized racial segregation. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled that public schools could no longer prohibit black and white children from attending the same school. President Dwight Eisenhower was at best ambivalent about the ruling, advising the nation that change required patience. However, the president was forced to act in 1957 when the Central High School in Little Rock, attempted to fulfill the Brown ruling by integrating nine black students into the all-white institution. Pandering to the segregationist voters, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus took actions to prohibit the African American students from entering the school. The nation—and the world—witnessed on television a white mob blocking the students' access to Central High. Faubus and Eisenhower engaged in a showdown that eventually led to the president calling up the National Guard to enforce the court ruling. Eisenhower, in a nationally televised speech on 24 September 1957, justified his action in Cold War terms: "At a time when we face grave situations abroad because of the hatred that communism bears toward a system of government based on human rights, it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world." National Guard troops remained in Little Rock for the entire academic year, and the incident served to propel the civil rights movement forward.

At the same time, the anticolonial movement raged on throughout Asia and Africa. The Soviet Union exploited poor race relations in the United States to win support in the developing world. The United States was also trying to win over the newly independent nations while not alienating its Western allies. This led to desegregation in Washington, D.C. One embarrassing situation occurred during the administration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when Chad's new ambassador was refused service in a Maryland restaurant. Desegregation was vital for the United States during the Cold War if it wished to solve the American dilemma.

Interestingly, however, some historians have argued that the Cold War was not a war against communism but rather one for the preservation of white supremacy. Labeling anti-colonial opponents as communists gave U.S. policymakers a free hand to slow the course against colonialism and, in the words of Gerald Horne, "gave white supremacy a new lease on life." The Council on African Affairs accused the United States of trying to replace European imperialism in Africa, and following the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, African Americans organized protests in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and New York. In Africa, as the decades progressed and the civil rights movement achieved great success, it became increasingly difficult for American policymakers to justify their support for colonial Portugal or apartheid-ruled South Africa. In the end, minority white rule in South Africa came to an end, as did Jim Crow in the United States.

Valerie L. Adams


Further Reading
Dudziak, Mary. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.; Horne, Gerald. "Race from Power: U.S. Foreign Policy and the General Crisis of 'White Supremacy.'" Diplomatic History 23(3) (1999): 437–461.; Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
 

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