Valencia College Cold War Outline


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The Effect of the Cold War on African-American Civil Rights: America and the World
Audience, 1945-1968
Author(s): John David Skrentny
Source: Theory and Society , Apr., 1998, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 237-285
Published by: Springer
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The effect of the Cold War on African-American civil
rights: America and the world audience, 1945-1968
University of Pennsylvania
The social movement for African-American civil rights i
most studied and celebrated social phenomena of the tw
tury. One factor in explaining the movement’s successes,
usually given little if any explicit attention by civil rights sc
has not been explained adequately. This is the impact of t
on domestic United States race politics, and the process th
the Cold War lessened resistance to civil rights moveme
While past studies of the civil rights movement have prop
sized such variables as democraphic shifts, changes in the
social-movement organizational dynamics, the purpose o
is (1) to stress the contributing importance of America’
struggle with the Soviet Union in the development of black c
and (2) to demonstrate with this important case how th
process model for the study of social movements can be
made more precise through insights from neoinstitutiona
mostly identified with the cultural analysis of organizati
ing the political-process model’s emphasis on agency and
with neoinstitutional theory’s stress on legitimacy can hel
language to explain the Cold War/civil rights connection.
Explaining the Cold War impact on the civil rights revolu
The view from social movement and civil rights studies
Many of our best studies of the civil rights movement simpl
Cold War and international context of development, leavin
factor altogether. Aldon Morris’s The Origins of the Civil
ment,1 for example, explores internal movement dynami
movement organization and resources. Paul Burstein’s Dis
Jobs and Politics2 is oriented more toward explaining the
Theory and Society 27: 237-285, 1998.
? 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
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the movement and quite rightly analyzes a variety of contributing
factors, such as changes in public opinion, but again the international
context is left out.3 When the Cold War connection is acknowledged,
other studies explain in a manner notably lacking in theoretical clarity
or elaboration. In a passing sentence or perfunctory paragraph, these
studies posit a specific human emotion as a motive force in history.
The word that appears over and over again is some variation of
“embarrassment,” where the assertion is that the United States was
“embarrassed” by its racial practices during both World War II and
the Cold War. For over three decades, sociologists, political scientists, and historians, including those utilizing materialist or structural
approaches, have cited embarrassment as the explanation for the
geopolitical impact on American civil rights.4
The use of this term is understandable if we examine the discourse on
civil rights for the Cold War years, since many citizens and government officials did in fact say that they were “embarrassed” or “hu-
miliated” by American racial practices. However, social scientists
have used these terms with no specification of the conditions under
which such an emotional reaction can take place, and no explanation
of why it can have any effect on politics. To say that American political
elites and citizens worked to address the problem of racial equality
because they were embarrassed may be true on some individual level
but it is not a complete explanation.
A more promising approach can be based on the political-process
theory of social movements, associated with Charles Tilly,s Sidney
Tarrow,6 and most relevant to the present study, Doug McAdam.7
The political-process model’s emphasis on “political opportunities” in
explaining movement development allows for incorporation of geopolitical variables.8 However, though he clearly recognizes the importance of the Cold War impact, McAdam devotes only two paragraphs
to this factor in his comprehensive study of the rise and fall of the civil
rights movement.9 He argues that the fact of an “intense ideological
struggle” between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence
over emerging Third World nations strengthened the political position
of American blacks in the United States. Given the “obvious conflict
between this country’s professed democratic values and the reality of
racism at home,” explains McAdam, “American racism suddenly took
on international significance as an effective propaganda weapon of the
Communists.”10 Both McAdam and Tarrow correctly argue that the
situation gave American political elites an interest in civil rights re-
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form.1′ The key to this explanation is the conjunction of power, opportunity, and interests. Various events or social processes cause changes
in the power relations between included and excluded groups, sometimes affording increased “leverage” to the latter.12
McAdam’s emphases on varying amounts of power, and the varying
“leverage” or “bargaining position” accorded to challenging groups are
useful but, like “embarrassment,” need to be clarified and unpacked to
see the connection and importance of the Cold War for the civil rights
movement. The political process model does not specify or clearly
explain (1) why conflicts between political realities and professed
ideals, or ideological struggles between nations, would effect leverage
or bargaining positions; (2) what the term “leverage” means; and (3)
why international propaganda and other communication strategies
played such a central role. What is leverage, and how do we know
when it has increased? Why does hypocrisy change bargaining position? What factors shape the interests of political elites? In summary,
previous civil rights studies have usually ignored or slighted the impor-
tance of the Cold War and have not fully elaborated the link between
the geopolitical aspirations of the superpowers and the full citizenship
of African-Americans.
Explaining the Cold War impact on the civil rights revolution:
Insights from neoinstitutional studies
A clearer picture of the Cold War impact on the development of civil
rights can be seen if we combine the political-process approach with the
neoinstitutional approach in cultural sociology and the sociology of
organizations.13 The fruitfulness of this combination is not a one-way
street, however; just as neoinstitutionalism can give voice to silences in
political-process theory, the latter can strengthen and clarify the former. The key point is to link the Cold War and the civil rights movement by combining neoinstitutionalism’s stress on legitimacy with the
political-process model’s emphasis on agency and opportunity.
Although there is much diversity in the neoinstitutionalist tradition,
most agree that institutions are taken-for-granted cultural rules or
models that shape the boundaries of legitimate social action.14
DiMaggio and Powell therefore argue the social action is more fruitfully conceptualized as following a “legitimacy imperative.” 15 The
point is that even if action is motivated by material or power desires,
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this is not the appropriate starting point of analysis since even egoistic
action is usually pursued with boundaries of socially constructed rules.
The importance of legitimacy for the present case is clear: though the
political-process model does not supply a language for it, the conflict
between America’s professed ideals of democracy and domestic racism
was a problem because it dealt a serious blow to American moral
legitimacy in the world.
There is clearly more to the story than this, however. The United States
has tolerated racist practices for nearly as long as it has professed
democracy. What can neoinstitutionalism tell us about when and how
world legitimacy would matter to the United States? In elaborating the
notion of cultural rule sets, social scientists have emphasized action
following “cultural logics” usually tied to different rule sets operating
at different “levels,” “domains,” “spheres,” “contexts,” or “arenas”
(among other terms). For example, the “world level” and the various
“national levels” are basic distinctions in neoinstitutional theories of
politics.16 Within this basic framework, neoinstitutional studies have
tended to focus on rule sets to such an extent that human beings
seemingly dropped out of the picture. DiMaggio has pointed out this
“metaphysical pathos” in the theory, calling on scholars in this tradition to pay more attention to agency and interest-based action in their
research.17 In building agency and opportunity into the theory, social
scientists such as Friedland and Alford have simply put creative human
actors into these domains; most follow the respective cultural logics
but some will creatively manipulate them.18
This is a step in the right direction, but problems remain if we are to
understand fully the Cold War/civil rights connection. Neoinstitutionalism’s use in empirical analysis is limited by a lack of conceptual
clarity. The theory does not adequately specify the boundaries and
status of rule sets, a problem that ultimately hinders explanation of
change in power relations, such as in the civil rights struggle. Those
working in the neoinstitutionalist approach have no fixed terminology,
but tend to reify metaphors of space, alluding to the existence of rules
operating in or at different “levels,” “domains,” “arenas,” etc. Stryker,
for example, in an important article on legitimacy processes, refers to
“the existence of rules” varying across “institutional arenas” (emphasis
added).19 The uncertain ontological status of the rules becomes a
difficulty for social theory because there are no clear empirical referents to these spatial metaphors. How does a researcher know when an
actor has crossed into a new domain, arena, or sphere? Further, it is
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unclear in the existing literature which level of rules researchers should
expect to be in operation at a given time. Does the White House
operate at the world level or the nation level? Persuasive cases have
been made that there are global and national rules or models for
action,20 but how are social scientists to know which are likely to shape
the interests of a government official? When will a White House administration feel bound by the moral rules of the “international level”
and not those of a more racist “national level?” On this crucial point,
neoinstitutionalism and related approaches are undertheorized and do
not offer clear guidance.
Explaining the Cold War impact: Opportunity, audience, and
We can obtain a more precise analysis, maintain clear empirical referents, and avoid misleading spatial metaphors if we allow for creative,
strategizing actors (such as civil rights advocates striving for full citizen-
ship for African-Americans and Cold Warriors defending democratic
capitalism) and include the notion that each sphere of action is defined
by the perceived audience of that action. We can view social action not
as occurring “in” some space where rules “exist,” but as occurring
“with” – in relation to other social actors who assume a properly
binding quality for some socially constructed rules. In other words,
the ways a political actor conceives and pursues his or her interests will
be shaped by who this actor perceives the audience to be and what the
perceived expectations of legitimate action are.21 It is important to
stress that this does not preclude risk-taking and creativity. A person
or group may choose to act in violation of legitimacy standards to
pursue some goal, though in politics this is often followed by attempts
at cover-ups and spin doctoring.
In conducting empirical research, then, we need to ask which audience
or public an actor perceives as relevant to his or her action, rather than
asking which sphere or arena actors are somehow “in.” Rules vary by
audience and there are many potential audiences for action, so we need
to examine the historical evidence for indications of which audiences
mattered to government policy elites. For the present study, there is
wide agreement among civil rights scholars that there was concern in
the federal government for world opinion (though as I argue below, not
all organizations in the federal government were engaged with the
world audience). We also need to examine through historical evidence
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what those policy elites believed the relevant audiences’ expectations to
be. Here we can see what shapes interests and perceptions of rational
action. While McAdam and many others have emphasized the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, this is
not the crucial point. What is important is that both the American and
Soviet political leaders perceived a shared cultural rule let loose in the
world: humans of all races were of equal worth and equal dignity. They
saw this rule being stringently applied to any country claiming a
leadership role – regardless of that country’s ideology.
This perspective offers conceptual refinement to help us understand
four important dimensions to the Cold War influence on civil rights,
which I explore in the remainder of this article. First, the Cold War did
not give blacks leverage with the entire American state. Historical
evidence shows only those organizations that are regularly engaged
with the world audience, namely the White House and State Department, consistently showed great interest in that part of the external
environment that included world opinion on the civil rights question.
Political actors in these organizations interacted with foreign nations
and thus desired and knew the conditions for international legitimacy;
they therefore lobbied for civil rights and showed leadership and concern that transcended political party or civil rights commitment.
Second, fleshing out and clarifying McAdam’s account with neoinstitutional theory can help explain the White House and State Department’s
great interest in simply communicating to the world about positive
American civil-rights developments. The legitimacy imperative makes
the ability to communicate a paramount interest. In other words, we
can understand why there was great interest in propaganda/”psychological warfare” and the source of the substance of this propaganda, as
well as why American presidents showed greatest concern with civil
rights in the nation’s capital, continually understood as an American
symbol to the world.
Third, this approach helps to explain some civil rights group and
civil rights advocate strategies. The Cold War did give these groups
“leverage” as McAdam suggests, but to understand why, we need to
focus on perceived cultural rules and world audience engagement. It is
these ideas that help us understand why minority groups frequently
petitioned the United Nations (U.N.) with their charges of rights
violation, though the U.N. had no legal power to improve the plight of
black Americans. Similarly, domestic civil rights advocates frequently
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described black civil rights as a Cold War issue for otherwise uninterested American citizens. These symbolic and discursive strategies had
considerable force, but this force is understandable only in the context
of world engagement and a new but taken-for-granted culture of human
Fourth, I argue that an approach that emphasizes agency, audience,
and legitimacy sheds light on why the federal government avoided
open repression of the civil rights movement and of black rioters
whereas many Southern governments were not averse to repression.
Local audiences in the Deep South states tended not to be concerned
with world opinion or with equal-rights issues, and thus the standards
of legitimacy were very different for leaders in states such as Alabama
and Mississippi than they were for White House occupants. Historical
evidence shows that for the White House, any use of troops or outbreaks of violence were desparately avoided, with the standards of the
global audience continually cited as the reason.
In the following pages, I argue these points using primary and secondary historical documents. Much of the evidence comes from political
discourse, which, as John Kingdon reminds us, gives clues of political
actors’ perceptions of their world.22 In addition, I discuss alternative
evidence on the Cold War’s effects on progress toward racial equality;
the cases of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s harassment of civil
rights leaders and American support for colonial powers can further
highlight the utility of the theoretical perspective advanced in this
article. Throughout, my point is not to prove the causal importance of
the Cold War, but to show that the analytical tools of a combination of
McAdam’s approach and a clarified neoinstitutionalism can illuminate
the dynamics of the Cold War influence on political action promoting
civil rights, and thus show the meaning and cultural constitution of
political embarrassment and political leverage.
The end of isolationism and the creation of a world human-rights
Before World War II, the world audience, and particularly the nonEuropean audience, was not a significant factor in American domestic
politics, at least as regarded domestic race relations. The United States
had no coherent foreign policy until World War I, and nations outside
of Europe were treated as less than equals, as uncivilized burdens on
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the civilized nations. Theodore Roosevelt’s references to dark-skinned
peoples as “savages,” and a comment in 1905 that a South American
republic may need “a spanking,” capture the hierarchical model that
characterized American views of the developing world.23 World War I
resulted in the creation of the League of Nations, but the United States
never joined. Had the United States joined, it is highly unlikely this
would have affected American domestic race politics anyway, since
the League, though concerned about minority ethnic populations in
central and eastern Europe, did not express concerns outside this area
and the term “human rights” does not appear in the Covenant of the
League of Nations. Thus, as James Frederick Green pointed out, even
“the wholesale and systematic suppression of human liberty in Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany went officially unnoticed by the League….”24
In engaging the world audience in a time of impending war, as well as
trying to stir the American people to end American isolationism and
support a potential war effort, President Roosevelt catalyzed the institutionalization of human rights for world relations. On December 29,
1940, Roosevelt declared the United States would be an “arsenal of
democracy” and pledged American industrial aid for Great Britain.
Several days later, in a message to Congress, Roosevelt explained that
those fighting the Axis powers were fighting for “Four Freedoms”
(freedom of speech and expression, religious freedom, freedom from
want, and freedom from fear). Roosevelt put more pressure on the
United States by telling the world in the Atlantic Charter of August
1941 that America and the United Kingdom would “respect the right
of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will
live.” In the Declaration by United Nations of January 1, 1942, twentysix countries, including the United states, gave support for a preamble
that began, “Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is
essential to decent life, liberty, independence and religious freedom,
and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in
other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle
against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world…”
(emphasis added).25
In 1945, delegates from around the world put together the Charter of
the United Nations. The document mentions human rights seven
times, including a mention in the Preamble and in Article I, which
affirms human rights and racial equality as major purposes of the
organization.26 Shortly thereafter, Nazis were tried in Nuremberg for
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the new charge of “crimes against humanity.” In 1948, the U.N. approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
All of the above served to institutionalize equal human rights as cultural rules for world society, and failure to demonstrate adherence to
them would undermine a nation’s desires to be a world leader. While
unenforceable, the human rights rules began to serve as an important
global cultural standard of moral legitimacy; as Soysal argues, human
rights could not be ignored.27
During these developments, the United States and the Soviet Union
were becoming established as rivals and competitors for “zones of
influence” in Europe and also in the developing world. It was not the
first time that world powers feared a nation’s apparent expansionist
tendencies, and feared the loss of access to the neutral world’s resources and markets. What was significant was that this struggle would be
structured by new transnational cultural rules of a moral, egalitarian
quality. The fact that the two powers represented very different ideol-
ogies was a secondary matter. The perceived importance of equal
human hights as an institution would shape strategies and actions of
both superpowers.
Rather than simply storming into the Third World with military force
and imposing communism and a Soviet sphere of influence, the Soviet
leaders were careful to respect (or give the appearance of respecting)
the emerging nations’ sovereignty (a basic post-World War II principle)
and sought influence by sowing seeds of distrust of the Americans. The
emerging nations were mostly nonwhite, had developed an acute racial
consciousness after years of colonialism and already tended to be
distrustful of Western powers. American racist practices therefore
provided ample evidence that Americans did not respect the rights of
people of color. The cultural rules of human rights therefore shaped
a propaganda battle of Soviet attempts to prove to the world that
America violated the human rights rules – that America was illegitimate – while the Americans sought to defend themselves from the
charge. As early as June 1945, Truman wrote in his diary, “Propaganda
seems to be our greatest foreign relations enemy. Russians distribute
lies about us.”28 And much of the propaganda highlighted American
racism. In the early 1950s the State Department estimated that nearly
half of Soviet propaganda was on the racial issue.29 For example, in
1963, the Soviet Union broadcast 1,420 anti-American commentaries
about U.S. rights violations in the wake of a racial crisis and rioting in
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World audience engagement and (parts of) the American state
Previous accounts of the civil rights movement have not discerned that
it was only parts of the American state, those engaged with the world
audience, that showed consistent if unenthusiastic leadership on the
civil rights issue and expressed frequent concern with the Cold War
implications of the American racial problem. Combining the politicalprocess model and neoinstitutionalism helps us to understand why the
Department of State was continually expressing concerns over domestic
violations of world human-rights expectations in its communications
with both the White House and Congress. The White House administrations, the shapers of foreign policy, showed similar concern. Congress, however, notoriously isolationist in the first half of the twentieth
century, showed less engagement and less sensitivity for the world
audience, and was the most conservative of the three main branches of
government on civil rights.31
The State Department
The effects of the State Department’s engagement with a rights-focused
world audience are seen in (1) pro-civil rights lobbying by its secretaries;
(2) heightened concern with black civil rights by state officials directly
engaged with the world (those in the U.N. and those stationed abroad);
and (3) in State officials’ willingness to integrate the department.
Secretaries of State often had a high profile in domestic civil rights
concerns. A May 8, 1946 letter from Acting Secretary of State Dean
Acheson to the Fair Employment Practices Commission (or FEPC,
created during World War II to fight discrimination in war industries
and government, and killed by Congress later in 1946), communicated
the problem of the new world audience clearly in a letter that would
become frequently cited by civil rights advocates:
… the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has
an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. We are reminded
over and over by some foreign newspapers and spokesmen, that our treatment of various minorities leaves much to be desired. While sometimes these
pronouncements are exaggerated and unjustified, they all too frequently
point with accuracy to some form of discrimination because of race, creed,
color, or national origin. Frequently we find it next to impossible to formulate a satisfactory answer to our critics in other countries; the gap between
the things we stand for in principle and the facts of a particular situation may
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be too wide to be bridged. An atmosphere of suspicion and resentment in a
country over the way a minority is being treated in the United States is a
formidable obstacle to the development of mutual understanding and trust
between the two countries. We will have better international relations when
these reasons for suspicion and resentment have been removed.
I think that it is quite obvious … that the existence of discriminations against
minority groups in the United States is a handicap in our relations with other
countries. The Department of State, therefore, has good reasons to hope for
the continued and increased effectiveness of public and private efforts to do
away with these discriminations.32
Officials from the State Department stationed in the United States
weighed in with similar opinions when domestic civil-rights legislation
was being considered. During hearings to revive the FEPC in the
Federal Fair Employment Practice Act in 1949, Ernest A. Gross, Assistant Secretary at the State Department, submitted a letter supporting
the legislation on the grounds of the difficulties domestic discrimina-
tion caused in foreign affairs, and included the above 1946 message
from Acheson.33 In 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk put the State
Department formally on record in support of Justice Department
proposals for toughening anti-discrimination rules enforced by the
Interstate Commerce Commission.34
It was when State officials met the world audience face-to-face in the
rights-conscious U.N. that U.S. legitimacy was most palpably threatened, especially as the U.N. focused its attention explicitly on the world
problem of race discrimination. Representative of the political situation were the concerns expressed on November 4, 1947, when Dean
Rusk of the State Department wrote to a fellow State official
[The] first session of the Subcommission [on the Prevention of Discrimination] is a very important one to the United States, principally because it deals
with a very difficult problem affecting the internal affairs of the United States.
United States problems concerning relationships with minority groups have
been fully treated in the press of other countries. This Subcommission was
established on the initiative of the U.S.S.R., and there is every indication that
country and others will raise questions concerning our domestic problems in
this regard.3
This sensitivity was later exploited by civil rights groups, as is shown
We would also expect State officials actually stationed in the developing world to show concern over America’s legitimacy on the rights of
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people of color. In Dudziak’s study of State Department records on
the issue, she found numerous documents attesting to this concern.
American embassy officials in Ceylon, for example, sent a dispatch to
America reporting concern with an “Asian preoccupation with racial
discrimination in the United States.” The American Consul General in
Bombay reported that the “color question is of intense interest in
India.” The Indian press ran articles with headlines such as “Treatment of Negroes a Blot on U.S.” In the Soviet Union, not surprisingly,
the U.S. Embassy reported in 1949 that the “Soviet press hammers
away unceasingly on such things as ‘lynch law,’ segregation, racial
discrimination, deprivation of political rights, etc., seeking to build
up a picture of an America in which the Negroes are brutally downtrodden with no hope of improving their status under the existing form
of government.” An American Embassy official in the Netherlands
reported on a conversation with a Dutch Foreign Ministry official,
who had
remarked that the Netherlands is very unreceptive to anti-American propa-
ganda, whether it emanates from Communist sources or from right-wing
colonial die-hards. However, he added that the opponents of American
policies possess one propaganda theme which is extremely effective through-
out Europe and even more effective in Asia – criticism of American racial
Last, the State Department proved very receptive to the idea of proving
in a direct way to the world audience that America respected the rights
of people of color – as civil rights leaders believed they would be. In
1951, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his colleagues showed, in
civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s opinion, a “splendid attitude”
toward increasing the numbers of black appointments. By 1953, the
department had added almost sixty blacks to the foreign service, in-
cluding an ambassador, and seven Asian Americans.37 Eisenhower
and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought blacks for embassy appointments “in those countries where there is a large nonwhite
population,” and by the time of the Kennedy administration, Secretary
of State Dean Rusk was actively recruiting blacks for foreign service.38
The department also sponsored special trips for American blacks to
speak on the “Negro Problem.” These trips were highly publicized.
After black activist Max Yergan made a speech in Nigeria, the U.S.
Information Service distributed a press release that declared “Yergan
Says Trend In U.S. Race Relations Is Toward Full Civil Rights For
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Since the armed services had an international presence, military integration was an early focus of concern. The use of integrated forces in
the Korean War could make Soviet propaganda uncompelling, though
the Soviets made efforts to force black prisoners to write articles condemning American racial practices. Defense Department officials considered integrated forces to be a symbol to the world of “democracy in
action.” 40
In the same way that American identity claims and the moral rules of
the global audience encouraged black appointments to international
posts, Southern appointments were a liability. Perceived audience ex-
pectations could shape State Department appointments. President
Kennedy’s initial favorite for Secretary of State was Arkansas Senator
J. William Fullbright, but the problem with Fulbright was that he had
signed a Southern Manifesto denouncing the Brown school desegregation decision. This, Kennedy was told, could cause serious problems
in Africa as well as the rest of the developing world. As Kennedy aid
and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recalled, “If as Secretary of State,
for example, he had to take a position against the African States, it
might be received, not on its merits, but as an expression of racial
prejudice.”41 Southern Democrats complained when Fulbright fell out
of the running, and as a compromise, Kennedy chose nonsegregationist
southerner Dean Rusk.42
The presidency
The other part of the executive branch evincing concern for the global
audience included the similarly world-engaged White House administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. This can be
seen in intra-government communications, both within the White
House and in amicus briefs.
Awareness and concern for the world audience regularly appeared in
private White House conversations on the topic of civil rights, and was
an accepted reason to support administration pro-civil-rights initiatives.
In delivering a report of the President’s Committee on Government
Employment Policy on March 25, 1960 to the Eisenhower cabinet,
Chairman Archibald J. Carey, Jr. reminded the secretaries that nondiscrimination “affects our posture in world affairs” and related his
experiences as a member of the United States delegation to the U.N.,
where he listened to “spokesmen of other countries indict our own
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nation for the double standard which has existed here, on the basis of
race, or religion, or national origin.”43 Vice President Johnson told
the members of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment
Opportunity in a 1961 private meeting that he had just returned from a
trip to Africa, and explained to the new committee that “We cannot
overlook the fact that throughout the world the genuineness of our
democracy will be largely gauged by the extent of our progress in the
effort to which this Committee is dedicated.” Kennedy also reminded
them of the world audience.44
In an effort to get more from the already existing civil-rights measures,
Kennedy called for regular meetings of a Civil Rights Subcabinet
Group, where assistant secretaries would meet to coordinate policy.
Notes from one meeting show a typical example of White House concern for the world audience’s equal rights expectations. The secretaries
were told of the actions of racist whites in Tennessee, where landlords
had evicted blacks for registering to vote and store owners would not
do business with them. The minutes from the meeting explained that
“Despite vigorous court action to stop this, a number of Negroes are
living in a tent city…”; this was an urgent problem because “This story,
with vivid photographs, is being used against the United States in the
rest of the world.”45
The U.N.’s cultural rules were considered important enough for argument in legal briefs at home. Truman’s Justice Department brief in the
1948 Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court decision (striking down court
enforced racially restrictive covenants in housing) highlighted the
problem of residential segregation’s effects on foreign affairs in the
U.N.46 The brief argued that the covenants were against American
public policy, as expressed in statutes, executive pronouncements, and
international agreements. It cited the U.N. Charter and U.N. pronouncements on equal rights, as well as statements made by U.S.
delegates and resolutions regarding equal rights at the 1945 InterAmerican Conference on Problems of War and Peace.47
In amicus curiae briefs, the Truman administration also emphasized
the importance of counter-acting Soviet attacks on American world
legitimacy. In Henderson v. United States,48 the brief for the United
States argued that public segregation had “furnished material for
hostile propaganda and raised doubts of our sincerity even among
friendly nations.” The brief quoted the Acheson statement to the
FEPC cited above, as well as critical comments regarding American
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racial practices from Soviet and Polish U.N. representatives. In addition, the brief referred to “caustic” reports in the “unfriendly foreign
press” including one article entitled “The Tragedy of Colored America”
by a Soviet author who likened black America to a segregated, “gigantic ghetto.”49 In a brief for a series of elementary school segregation
cases, Truman’s Attorney General James P. McGranery argued that in
the context “of the present world struggle between freedom and
tyranny … racial discrimination provides grist for the Communist
propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as
to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.” 50
We need not take all expressions of concern for the global implications
of America’s race problem in the White House or State Department
at face value to grasp the larger point of this section. The global
problems associated with the denial of civil rights to blacks were
accepted as real in these world-engaged organizations, and in private
meetings and communications officials frequently mentioned them to
stress the seriousness of the situation.
Civil rights and American propaganda: The importance of
When political elites discussed world opinion of American racial prac
tices, they almost always did so, as the above worries over a photograph suggest, as a propaganda problem. In other words, they viewed
a (bad) global performance before a critical world audience. Implicit
in this worry was the newfound global concern with human rights
especially of nonwhite peoples. Though presidential historians debat
the extent to which the Republican Eisenhower and the Democra
Kennedy were committed to civil rights, they both were continually
tying together propaganda worries and American civil rights. The
legitimacy imperative encouraged and shaped White House administration mobilization for a performance of human rights that include
modest, symbolic, but undeniably real civil-rights gains – all intende
as much for the world as for black Americans. The concern of politic
actors in communication is only captured in a theoretical approach
that specifies legitimacy standards of specific audiences. Concern wit
communication of legitimacy to international audiences can be seen i
(1) creation and mobilization of state communications capacity o
rights issues and in (2) the strategic areas of civil rights focus, mean
to maximize international communicative power.
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In a straightforward propaganda strategy, the American government
saw to it that any movement that could be interpreted as progress on
civil rights was broadcast to the world. Given that European nations
appeared to be almost as concerned about American racial practices
as the emerging Asian and African nations, these positive messages
were given wide exposure. In June 1947, when Truman addressed the
NAACP at the Lincoln Memorial on civil rights issues, the State
Department oversaw the short-wave transmission of the message to
the entire world.5′ Similarly, a 1948 administration report to Truman
on civil rights assured him that America’s propaganda radio, Voice
of America, gave his strikingly progressive Civil Rights Message to
Congress52 “top place, and covered it fully, giving all main points” and
for “twenty-four hours, the Message received full play in all areas.” In
addition, “The Wireless Bulletin carried 610 words to all missions,
including all the recommendations made by the President” and “editorial comments were airpouched to London and Paris.”53 By 1950,
Truman had a Psychological Strategy Board, which also brought “the
race problem” in international propaganda to Truman’s attention.54
Eisenhower presided over specific events of considerable propaganda
value on the human rights issue, but not all of them benefitted the
United States. One that did was the historic Supreme Court decision
in Brown v. Board of Education. The President himself was ambivalent
at best about the decision,55 and mindful of how it would play before
the American Southern audience. He was concerned about how the
issue would be presented in the Republican Party platform in 195
and personally requested that the phrase “Eisenhower Administra
tion” be deleted from a statement of Republican support of the Bro
decision. He denied that he had ever taken an official stand on the
matter, and privately, he felt he was “between the compulsion of dut
[to uphold the Court’s decision] on one side,” and “firm conviction,
on the other….”56 Despite the President’s personal reservations and
concerns with the domestic audience, however, Eisenhower shared
the concern with America’s world performance, grandly told th
world the United States stood for “human rights” while the Soviet
Union represented “force,”57 and Voice of America broadcast detail
of the Brown decision to the world less than an hour after it came
As historian Robert Burk has pointed out, Eisenhower concentrated
civil rights progress in areas of maximum propaganda value.58 He
appointed a special committee to study how to combat Communist
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propaganda, which predictably reported that integration, especially of
the armed forces, promised to be effective, since it would seem to put
America on the side of Third World nations in their drive for national
identity.59 The latter was a growing theme in the films, pamphlets, and
lectures sponsored by the U.S. Information Service, including fiftythousand copies of a report on armed-forces integration distributed in
Vienna in 1952.60 In his memoirs, Eisenhower revealed his concern for
the propaganda issue, explaining why he submitted a reorganization
plan to create and consolidate a U.S. Information Agency (USIA)
from existing international information services to counter the 24-hour,
global Soviet propaganda, broadcast in forty languages. The 1953
USIA was “a non-military arm of defense and a voice of our foreign
policy, both of which would be helpful by achieving genuine understanding among the peoples of the world.”61 Similarly, in his “Annual
Budget Message to the Congress: Fiscal Year 1956,” Eisenhower celebrated the USIA, also warning of “Soviet efforts to divide the United
States from other nations of the free world by twisting our motives, as
well as its efforts to sow fear and distrust,” and declared “I believe it is
of the highest importance that our programs for telling the truth to
people of other nations be stepped up to meet the needs of our foreign
policy.”62 Thus, the legitimacy imperative in the post-World War II
world dictated the creation of machinery to communicate the appropriate American image. And though Eisenhower saw it as wrong and
politically risky to support Brown at home, the Voice of America
broadcast fit with his priority of telling the world audience he played
by its moral/cultural rules. Having the decision to broadcast was an
obvious foreign policy asset, though no clear benefit for domestic
In addition to mobilizing transnational communications capacity, we
can see how the White House concern with showing the developing
world audience that America respected equal-rights rules also led to
substantive actions that benefited the African-American struggle. In
other words, we can see why and how, in McAdam’s words, “The
continuing international tensions of the period imposed on America’s
political elite a certain interest in seeing the country’s racial conflict
resolved in favor of black equality.” 63 A major area of bipartisan civilrights focus that shows the importance of communicating equal human
rights was the high priority given to integrating Washington, D.C.
Certainly the fact that the District of Columbia was not a state aided
its integration. But the evidence shows that integrating the nation’s
capital, a symbol of a nation in the modern world system and thus a
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focus of international attention, was perceived as crucial to impressing
the world audience. This concern is first clearly visible in the Truman
administration. On January 6, 1947, Truman announced in his State of
the Union address that he was creating the President’s Committee on
Civil Rights “to study and report on the problem of federally secured
civil rights, with a view to making recommendations to Congress.”64
While a fascinating document in many respects, the Committee’s report,
To Secure These Rights, is important here for the emphasis placed on the
world audience of American racial oppression. Minutes from the committee’s meetings show a concern for American legitimacy before the
world from the beginning. The group quickly decided that there should
be a specific Civil Rights Act for the District of Columbia. The primary
reason was that the “nation’s capital symbolizes the United States both
to the world and to our own people.”65
In keeping with this America-as-world-performer understanding, for
Eisenhower civil rights mattered more in Washington than in any other
part of the United States, since the capital should be “the showpiece
of our nation”66 and the “showplace of peaceful civil rights.”67 In
his 1952 campaign, he had referred to discrimination in the nation’s
capital against nonwhite foreign visitors as “a humiliation to his nation” and maintained that this was “the kind of loss we can ill afford
in today’s world.”68 The administration focused first on stopping discrimination and segregation in the District of Columbia government.
A November 25, 1953 “Policy Order of the District of Columbia Government Regarding Non-Discrimination” made clear that adherence
to equal opportunity principles in the District “is of particular importance because the District of Columbia is the Capital of our Nation,
and a symbol of democracy in the eyes of the world….” 69Following
Republican Party principles, the President relied on behind-the-scenes
persuasion rather than legislation to protect civil rights in private busi-
nesses. In this, however, he had some success, and most of the capital’s
hotels, motels, theaters, and restaurants stopped segregating.70
The problem was exacerbated when increasing numbers of representatives from new African nations began to visit Washington and travel
in the country. On January 31, 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk
sent a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy regarding their
“conversation about problems of discrimination in the National Capital encountered by the personnel of foreign embassies,” stressing the
seriousness of the situation and the need for significant, though “quiet”
action.71 When the Ambassador from Chad visited President Kennedy
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and complained of being “thrown on my rear end as a result of entering the Bonnie Brae restaurant on Route 40,” Kennedy realized that
Eisenhower’s earlier efforts to make the District of Columbia safe for
visiting nonwhite dignitaries were not enough: those making the drive
down from New York had to move through the Jim Crow state of
Maryland. After the Chad incident, Kennedy aid Harris Wofford recalled years later, “to our dismay, another African ambassador was
refused service – even a glass of water – and the incident made headlines in the morning papers in Washington and around the world.”
Looking for the easy way out, Kennedy first suggested that the Africans fly instead of drive when making the trip from New York, but this
would hardly maintain America’s legitimacy as a world leader respectful of human rights. The State Office for Protocol moved the Maryland
legislature to pass a law outlawing segregated public accommodations,
had the governor apologize in public to African diplomats, and persuaded one city to offer a testimonial dinner in the honor of an African
official who had been treated as badly as an American black. When
African diplomats traveled elsewhere in the South, elaborate measures
had to be undertaken to ensure their visit would be mostly free of
racial harassment. When the Ambassador of Ghana chose to stay at
the Hilton in Houston, Vice President Johnson felt compelled to aid a
very complex and difficult operation.72 In this case, “embarrassment” threatened legitimacy before a world audience expecting adherence to
cultural rules – led to some concrete action in civil rights protections.
An integrated national capital communicated American legitimacy,
and American blacks in Washington and Maryland could benefit from
action intended for the officials from new African nations.
Perceptions of the world audience shape civil rights advocates’
Engagement with a world that shared the notion of the sacredness
of equal rights shaped civil-rights movement strategies as well as the
strategies of civil rights advocates in government office or running for
office. The theories that the United States was embarrassed during the
Cold War or that the Cold War gave minorities “leverage” leave much
unexplained. Embarrassment and increased civil-rights group leverage
could only come if legitimacy was a paramount interest, the world was
perceived to be concerned with human rights, and many government
actors were concerned with world opinion. These are the reasons why
any civil-rights movement actions that highlighted the international
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implications of the plight of black Americans were of great tactical
value. In this section, I show how (1) the creation of the United
Nations was of great value for civil rights strategists, since it provided
a forum to appeal directly to the world audience despite its lack of
jurisdictional power; and (2) arguments stressing the world audience
were seized by civil rights leaders, advocates in government, private
industry, or political campaigning to sell the civil rights idea to indifferent or anti-civil-rights Americans.
Although there were indications that a future world organization of
states would emphasize equal rights, as described earlier, this was not
a foregone conclusion. For example, the United States, Britain, and
the Soviet Union rebuffed a Chinese attempt to place the principle of
racial equality on the agenda at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in
1944.73 At the founding United Nations meeting in San Francisco,
black leaders such as the NAACP’s W. E. B. Du Bois and Walter White
lobbied for the inclusion of a bill of human rights, as they “huddled
constantly” with officials from such diverse origins and the United
States, France, the Philippines, Haiti, and Liberia.74 The efforts of
these black leaders were equally made for the benefit of non-American
nonwhite people as they were for their countrymen. The fates of the
world’s colored peoples were seen as linked by Du Bois and White. For
example, Du Bois told the San Francisco Chronicle that the world’s
colonies were similar to “slums,” and explained that a world bill of
rights would hold all nations accountable for their discriminatory
treatment of human beings. Historian Brenda Gayle Plummer credits
these efforts with getting “human rights” mentioned in the official
Charter of the United Nations,75 though momentum for official racial-
equality resolutions began really to move with the support given to the
principle by India, the Philippines, Brazil, the Dominican Republic,
Mexico, Panama, and France. Also, in a move that American representatives considered to be a calculated effort of “playing up to the
small nations,” the Soviet Union reversed its Dumbarton Oaks position and endorsed the principle.76
It was specifically the 1946 establishment of the U.N. Commission on
Human Rights, and the ensuing creation of a Subcommission on the
Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which
created clear opportunities for the United States to lose legitimacy.
The point in this section is that these opportunities were quickly seized
as part of strategy by civil-rights groups. In that year the National
Negro Congress, made up of various black fraternal and veterans
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groups but supported by the National Lawyers Guild, the C.I.O. Public
Workers of America, and the National Maritime Union assembled a
petition seeking “relief from oppression” for presentation to the U.N.
The document described various indices of black subordination in
schooling, housing, poverty, and lynching, and requested investigation
recommendations, and actions to address the problems. Representa-
tives for the National Negro Congress (including Max Yergan and
historian Herbert Aptheker) met with an official of the newly created
United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Although the Com
mission was not authorized to hear appeals from nongovernmental
organizations, the effort was not without value. The primary point
was international publicity of American racial oppression. The petition was also sent to U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie and (to keep
him abreast of events) President Truman. Further U.N. attention was
planned to come from “a series of nation-wide Peoples’ Tribunals to
take additional testimonies regarding current acts of oppression.” 77
The National Negro Congress did not have the organizational strength
to accomplish this and could not produce maximum impact due t
Communist leanings. A more mainstream and better financed body,
however, followed the strategy. On October 23, 1947, the NAACP filed
a petition to the Commission on Human Rights entitled An Appeal to
the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in
the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and
An Appeal to the United Nations for Redress. The document, initiated
by Du Bois and written by him, Milton Konvitz, Rayford Logan, and
Earl B. Dickerson, offered detailed information regarding “barbaric”
race discrimination and the suppression of political rights. Du Bois
traveled to twenty different countries to publicize the Appeal, and
hoped for a grand formal ceremony for its presentation (though the
U.N. limited attendance). India endorsed the document, but it was the
Soviet Union that introduced the petition to the Commission, compli-
cating the message Du Bois and the NAACP intended.7 Though th
U.N. did not act on the petition, the document received great attention
from the world press. As the NAACP’s Walter White recalled, th
NAACP knew all along that “its chief value would be in dragging ou
into the open the grim facts of denial of even elementary justice to
human beings because of color.” 79 Despite its only direct result being
publicity, publicity affected America’s world legitimacy, and the Appeal
to the World catalyzed action at home. Before announcing an attempt
to improve the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Section, Attorney
General Tom Clark told the National Association of Attorneys General,
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“I was humiliated, as I know you must have been, to realize that in our
America there could be the slightest foundation for such a petition.” 80
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress followed in the NAACP’s footsteps
with another appeal to the world through the United Nations. This
time the charge was genocide. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations
adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the
Crime of Genocide. The Civil Rights Congress document meticulously
analyzed the U.N.’s definition of genocide (which was rather loosely
described as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in
part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”) and showed
how this genocide was occurring against blacks. It made repeated
comparisons between the United States and the fallen Nazi regime.
For example, the petition stated “Neither Hitler nor Goebbels wrote
obscurantist racial incitements more voluminously or viciously than do
their American counterparts, nor did such incitements circulate in
Nazi mails any more freely than they do in the mails of the United
States.”81 Highlighting America’s legitimacy problems on the world
stage, William L. Patterson, writing for the Civil Rights Congress,
We believe that the test of the basic goals of a foreign policy are inherent in
the manner in which a government treats its own nationals and is not to be
found in the lofty platitudes that pervade so many treaties or constitutions.
The essence lies not in the form, but rather, in the substance.82
The petition contained nearly 150 pages of evidence of racial killings,
beatings, other violence, as well as charges of conspiracy in the federal,
state, and local governments. The U.N. did not act on this petition
either, but Patterson had his passport seized by American officials
upon returning from Paris, where he had submitted the petition.83
Others followed this strategy. During U.N. debate on the Bay of Pigs
controversy, the Cuban ambassador to the U.N. read before the assembly a letter written by North Carolina black leader Robert Williams,
which stated that since the United States had promised military aid to
peoples fighting oppression, the “oppressed Negroes in [the] South
urgently request tanks, artillery, bombs, money, and the use of Ameri-
can airfields and white mercenaries to crush the racist tyrants who
have betrayed the American revolution and Civil War.”84 In October,
1966, the Black Panthers also appealed to the U.N., suggesting a
comparison between the plight of American blacks and former Third
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World colonies, as they requested the U.N. to oversee “a plebiscite to
allow American blacks to determine their national future.” Corky
Gonzales also considered asking for the same thing for a potentially
independent territory for Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.85 All
of these actions would have been of little or no concern if taken to the
old League of Nations, since there were no transnational rights rules at
the time and most U.S. officials paid little attention to world opinion
on domestic politics.
Less direct but based on a similar strategy, the very fact of civil-rights
leaders’ visits to foreign countries served to publicize American rights
violations and compromise legitimacy. Walter White traveled extensively, both during World War II and after, including a world tour in
1950.86 W. E. B. Du Bois celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday in Ghana
in 1963. Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, Ralph Bunche,
and A. Philip Randolph all attended independence ceremonies for
Ghana. While there, King met Vice President Richard Nixon, who was
also celebrating black freedom. King did not waste the chance to point
out the irony: “Mr. Vice-President, I’m very glad to meet you here, but
I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking
the same kind of freedom Ghana is celebrating.” King continued to
think globally throughout his life, often stressing the links between the
struggles of black people in the United States and in Africa.87
King’s selection for the Nobel Peace Prize was world validation of the
legitimacy of the black civil-rights movement and the illegitimacy of
any resistance. King manipulated this to his advantage in arguments
aimed at a national American audience that stressed the watchful
world. This can be seen in the advertisement that King’s Southern
Christian Leadership Conference placed in the New York Times on
February 5, 1965. From a jail cell in Selma, Alabama, King wrote the
text of the ad, which detailed rights violations in Selma. Civil rights
scholars have little noted the international theme in the letter:
Dear Friends,
When the King of Norway participated in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to
me he surely did not think that in less than sixty days I would be in jail. He,
and almost all world opinion will be shocked because they are little aware of
the unfinished business in the South.
By jailing hundreds of Negroes, the city of Selma, Alabama has revealed the
persisting ugliness of segregation to the nation and the world….
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This is the USA in 1965. We are in jail simply because we cannot tolerate
these conditions for ourselves or our nation….
The ad also contained a form to contribute money to the organization
which stated “I am pleased to contribute $ to advance human
dignity in the United States.”88
This was not the first time King had used this tactic. A previous Times
ad, placed March 29, 1960 by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther
King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South to gain contributions
for King’s mounting legal bills, also placed King’s persecution and the
black struggle on the global stage. “As the whole world knows by now,
thousands of Southern Negro students” were fighting for their Constitutional rights, “which the whole world looks upon as setting the
pattern for modern freedom,” the ad began. After detailing various
repressive acts by Southern authorities, readers were reminded that
America’s “good name hangs in the balance before a watchful
world.” 89 Several days previously, during demonstrations in Atlanta in
1960, King helped place an ad in Atlanta newspapers entitled, “An
Appeal for Human Rights,” which declared, “We want to state clearly
and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate, in a nation professing
democracy… the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is
living today in Atlanta, Georgia – supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the South.”90
Government advocates of civil rights had used the strategy exemplified
in King’s ads for several years. While many state elites were concerned
with combating Soviet propaganda abroad, the importance of the
world audience and the high stakes of the Cold War shaped practices
aimed at winning support for civil rights at home. Advocates used
appeals to the world audience in propaganda aimed at American
citizens. The strategy, strikingly successful in getting Congress to support the Marshall Plan,91 was to get Americans to think of the global
audience and the different policies that could help in the fight against
communism. As in King’s advertisements, the connection of black
civil rights to America’s struggle against communism was continually
spelled out for Americans. After detailing the various rights being
denied to blacks, the high-profile report of Truman’s President’s Committee on Civil Rights concluded with justifications for federal action,
including the “international reason.” Here the report explained that
“Our position in the postwar world is so vital to the future that our
smallest actions have far-reaching effects.” The report made additional
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points, and concluded, “The United States is not so strong, the final
triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore
what the world thinks of us or our record.” 92
World audience rights expectations also shaped campaign strategy. A
memo to Truman from trusted adviser Clark Clifford on the 1948
presidential campaign shows the faith in the use of the world audience
to sell civil rights safely. Clifford advised targeting the independent
liberal vote, workers, veterans, and blacks, as well as the peace vote.
He argued specifically that when stumping on the civil rights issue,
Truman “should stress the need for a federal Civil Rights program to
cover every section of the United States, to prove to the world that the
great benefits of American democracy are meant for all groups in the
country.”93 Big business also got involved, using the same world audience strategy. The Advertising Council had embarked on a publicity
campaign entitled “‘United America’ (Group Prejudice is a Post-War
Menace)” designed to get Americans to respect human rights.94
In 1960, both Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon and
Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy sought the black vote,95 and
both often invoked the world audience as a reason to support civil
rights at home. In a book assembled for the campaign from past statements, Nixon declared “In the world-wide struggle in which we are
engaged, racial and religious prejudice is a gun we point at ourselves”
and “I know of nothing that does more harm to United States foreign
policy abroad” than incidents of domestic discrimination; while campaigning, he pointed out that progress in civil rights was necessary
to take a propaganda point from Khrushchev.96 Kennedy’s campaign
civil-rights discussions also focused on world issues – his campaign
speeches had 479 references to Africa, according to one count.97
These kinds of examples can be multiplied many times. As Hubert
Humphrey later remarked, “It was the practice” to sell civil rights with
international appeals.98 Though the Cold War could serve as a motivation for civil-rights support from someone otherwise not sympathetic
to government action (Eisenhower), it could also serve as a strategic
cover for pro-civil-rights action to be undertaken before hostile or
uninterested audiences. Thus civil rights advocates in both the civil
rights movement and the state sought to give Americans an interest in
black civil rights by reminding the public of the rights-conscious world
audience for America’s global performance.
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Rules for repression: The world audience and movement leverage
Historical evidence suggests the world acceptance of human rights
and American engagement with the world audience contributed to
shaping federal strategies for dealing with racial violence and crisis
and encouraged a federal interest in conciliation rather than repres-
sion. Conversely, the local Southern authorities, such as Alabama
sheriff Bull Connor, were not concerned with the world audience for
their actions; they cared only for the white Southern audience and their
legitimacy was not threatened (and was possibly enhanced) by forceful
tactics of repression and the selective enforcement of the law. In this
section, I show that acts of white Southern resistance and repression,
use of federal troops, civil rights demonstrations, and race riots provided great difficulties for the White House and State Department
officials, as these were seen to lead to legitimacy-threatening world
attention. This being the case, the White House handled demonstrations and violence with conciliation and positive rights gains, rather
than repression.
Options for dealing with racial crisis were in part limited, then, because
government officials interpreted these domestic crisis situations, such
as Eisenhower’s order for troops into Little Rock, Arkansas (when
disorder and violence threatened to engulf efforts at school desegrega-
tion), as global performances. John Foster Dulles was not a champion
of human rights, but still complained to Eisenhower’s attorney general
that “this situation [in Little Rock] was ruining our foreign policy” and
that “in Asia and Africa [it] will be worse for us than Hungary was for
the Russians.”99 In recounting the incident in his memoirs and in
private communications, Eisenhower revealed how crises were construed in terms of the global audience and the moral boundaries then
taken for granted in the United Nations. On the Little Rock crisis he
wrote, “Overseas, the mouthpieces of Soviet propaganda in Russia and
Europe were blaring out that ‘anti-Negro violence’ in Little Rock was
being committed with the clear connivance of the United States government….” The continued defiance of the federal court orders could
have led “to a breakdown of law and order in a widening area. And
around the world it could continue to feed the mill of Soviet propagandists who by word and picture were telling the world of the ‘racial
terror’ in the United States.” In making a nationally televised and
radio broadcast address, the President reminded the nation of the
world’s watching eyes: “If resistance to the federal court orders ceases
at once, the further presence of federal troops will be unnecessary and
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the city of Little Rock will return to its normal habits of peace and
order and a blot upon the fair name and high honor of our nation in
the world will be removed.”100 Wrapping himself in the mantle of
human rights, he added
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 … of our nation….
Our enemies are gloating over this incident, and using it everywhere to
misrepresent our whole nation.101
Eisenhower predictably left nothing to chance, and made sure the
world knew of his stand for its rights culture and the controlled circumstances of the use of troops: “President Eisenhower’s television
address of September 24 was translated into forty-three languages,
and the Voice of America broadcast details of the troop intervention.” 102 The use of troops was embarrassing, but only because the
world expected human rights to be respected, not repressed, because
world opinion mattered.
The Kennedy administration also saw repression and violence as
internationally de-legitimating. When James Farmer of the Congress
of Racial Equality sought to test compliance with a Supreme Court
decision outlawing racial discrimination in bus terminals that served
interstate travelers with the “Freedom Rides” (buses filled with lawabiding blacks riding through the South), the Freedom Riders were
greeted with violence by Southern white mobs and Southern police
who joined in, looked the other way, or looked on approvingly. On the
eve of a Vienna meeting with Soviet leader Khrushchev, Kennedy
pleaded with Wofford to ask Farmer to stop the Freedom Rides. The
Berlin crisis also led Kennedy to try to call off the Rides.’03
Similarly, federal officials had the military capacity to repress civilrights demonstrations and the 1960s riots thoroughly, but chose not
to. Following the severe racial violence in Birmingham in 1963, Kennedy sent legislation (later to become the Civil Rights Act of 1964) to
Congress, but fearing more racial violence, he worked behind the
scenes, away from the easily offended Southern audience, to try to
take control of the racial situation. Accordingly, he organized a series
of unpublicized meetings with various elite groups. In a July 11, 1963
meeting with approximately 70 members of the Business Council,
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Kennedy brought out the top administration leaders to get the civilrights message across: the President, the Vice President, the Attorney
General, and the Secretary of State all met with the business elite to
urge them to help by employing more black Americans (by 1963, a
secretary of state’s interest in the domestic civil-rights situation was
to be expected). The minutes of the meeting, sent to all members of
the Business Council, reported that John Kennedy used the Cold
War strategy, telling the businessmen the potential for more racial
violence existed and that “Clear evidence exists that the problem is
being exploited abroad and has serious implications in our international relations.” 104
The world press gave extensive coverage of the 1963 violence, as it did
with the riots in the later 1960s. Presidents were kept informed of this
world opinion. A report told President Johnson that Radio Moscow
“highlighted news reports on the riots and has editorialized extensively
on the economic weaknesses and the class distinction which have
resulted in a breakdown of law and order.” Despite Johnson’s carefu
efforts to avoid wide-scale repressive measures, Peking radio’s coverag
of rioting in Newark in July of 1967 claimed that “racist authorities
under Johnson’s instructions, brought in more than 4,000 National
Guardsmen and state police, armed with rifles, pistols and machine
guns” to help Newark police “in the wholesale arrest and slaughter of
Afro-Americans.”105 While Johnson received his own report on world
opinion of the violence, other media brought the global view to the
American people. Both Newsweek (August 7, 1967) and U.S. News &
World Report (August 7, 1967) carried special reports on the view o
the international press.
Stopping the riots was thus essential, but the concern with the worl
audience’s racial equality and rights expectations shaped strategy. In
dealing with the riot situation, Johnson explained later:
I knew what I had to do, but I could not erase from my mind the awful
prospect of American soldiers possibly having to shoot American citizens.
The thought of blood being spilled in the streets of Detroit was like a nightmare. I could imagine the inflammatory photographs appearing within hours
on television and on the front pages of newspapers around the world.106
As a House subcommittee would learn in July, 1968, the riots, couple
with the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King
and Robert Kennedy, seriously damaged U.S. prestige in the world.
Witnesses at subcommittee hearings testified that not repression but
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positive government action was the best response.107 The Johnson
administration was well ahead of them. The evidence suggests that the
need for a response to the rioting that did not appear to be racist was a
factor leading administration officials to encourage new measures,
often in private meetings with local government and business officials,
such as quietly channeling urban aid to and encouraging affirmativeaction programs in riot-torn areas.108 While this urban violence allowed
for national discussion of repressive measures, Republicans who advocated them were careful to blame the riots on professional agitators
and never seriously considered repression. Republican leaders expressed
support for racially empowering measures in private communication
with the Johnson White House, and employed such measures when
they took power in the Nixon administration.’09
Strategic international black representation for the United States
partly mitigated potential loss of legitimacy from race rioting. Like
the State Department, Truman and Eisenhower had appointed blacks
to prominent positions with international visibility.10 The practice
continued through the Johnson administration. The global salience of
black urban rioting was heightened by its coincidence with major
United Nations human-rights initiatives, including the International
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
(1965), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural
Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (1966). Given these conditions, it is understandable that a U.S.
delegate at the International Conference on Human Rights Conference in Teheran (commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights) would express relief in a
telegram to Washington detailing African-American civil-rights leader
Roy Wilkins’s successful appearance at the conference, which took
place after Martin Luther King was assassinated and black violence
swept across America in response. The world press and foreign diplomats gave great attention to Wilkins, and he defended U.S. interests
and foreign policy against “Soviet-initiated attacks”:
Delegation believes Wilkins visit major success from U.S. standpoint [sic]. It
undercut any tendency to use King assassination and aftermath as springboard for criticism of U.S.; highlighted broad American unity in facing up to
admitted U.S. race problems; and projected calm conviction that U.S. would
work through its problems, by democratic means, to successful solutions. We
have been immensely helped by his presence.11
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To understand federal and local approaches to violence, then, we must
see that political interests were shaped partly by the orientations of
actors to varying audiences. Protest and violence offered little “leverage” in the struggle against Southern political officials because these
elites were not engaged with the world audience; they were concerned
with the parochial audience of white Southern voters and cared little
for any lost legitimacy in the world.
It should be noted that not all white Southern elites were engaged
only with the South. Varying standards of legitimacy are further high-
lighted by the fact that Southern business elites, who may have cared
little about black rights, sometimes evinced concern over the repres-
sion and violence that characterized local responses to civil rights
demonstrations. In some cases they perceived such racial violence as
inhibiting attempts to lure Northern industry into Southern states with
declining agricultural economies. They knew that Northern businessmen needed the perception of a stable market environment, and armed
forces, water cannons, and tear gas sent quite the opposite message.
Arkansas, for example, suffered economically after the Little Rock
incident. Little Rock gained 40 industrial initiatives between 1950 and
1957, but in the four years after troops were used to prevent violence at
integrated schools, the number fell to zero. The Arkansas Industrial
Development Commission worked hard to appeal again to Northern
businessmen. The legislature in Arkansas and in other Southern states
found that the way to attract business without losing legitimacy with
Southern voters was to rely on tax breaks for incoming industrial
concerns.112 Such a strategy, however, was clearly inadequate with
sustained civil-rights movement activity. Pickets and protests over
segregation in Atlanta led to action by the Chamber of Commerce in
that city. In the words of Ivan Allen, Jr., president of the Chamber, “the
national publicity was running us crazy” (emphasis added) and damaging Atlanta’s reputation. Allen later recalled the message from the
white business leaders: “Go ahead and work something out. Get us off
the hook, even if it means desegregating the stores.” 113 White businessmen thus entered negotiations with civil rights leaders, and the Atlanta
Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement to great national
publicity, promising to desegregate stores and schools (they honored
the promise). The Chamber’s statement presented a rosey picture to the
national audience: “the fine relationship which has existed between the
races for a long number of years in Atlanta should be reinstated in
every way.”114 In summary, political and business elites engaged with
audiences expecting order and equal rights had an interest in peaceful
resolution of civil-rights group grievances and urban violence.15
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Discussion and conclusion
The paradoxes of the Cold War/civil rights connection
While I have examined the ways the Cold War aided the African
American civil-rights struggle, a wider view of the historical recor
reveals evidence of the opposite pattern: the Cold War also hindere
the move to racial equality. Put another way, the Cold War had para
doxical or contradictory effects for blacks. One paradox involves t
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though the Cold War aided the advancement for blacks as a group in the United States, many individu
blacks found themselves harassed by the federal government. T
other paradox involves the colonial powers in Europe. Colonialis
was a violation of post-World War II morality as much as race discrimination, and in many ways colonialism was tied to racism. Stil
several American allies worked to maintain control over their empire
and the United States did little to prevent them from doing so. Ho
are we to understand this? The answer shows the subtleties of legiti
macy based on audience perceptions, as well as the choices and risk
involved in Cold War leadership. Many American political elites, espe
cially presidents, were constantly balancing world legitimacy mainte
nance with other goals.
FBI surveillance of black leaders had occurred since at least 1919, an
this did not stop after creation of the United Nations or the Univers
Declaration of Human Rights. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had
mandate to root out Communists, and American presidents, includin
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, authorized and approved wir
taps of civil rights leaders. Regardless of any personal desire for pro
ress in civil rights, these presidents, according to historian Kennet
O’Reilly, were genuinely concerned about possible communist infiltr
tion of the civil rights movement. In addition, various White Hous
administrations looked with some trepidation at civil-rights move-
ment activities, as these amounted to a massive, coordinated cam
paign of demonstration, protest, and civil disobedience occurring o
their watch. Not surprisingly, those in the role of federal executiv
wanted to avoid being in a purely reactive mode and thus wanted t
be aware of any civil-rights movement plans.116 Indeed, knowledge
and preparation for movement plans (and Southern responses t
them) might aid in a careful and coordinated projection of an imag
of legitimacy to the world, as Kennedy’s concerns regarding the Fre
dom Rides suggest.
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Still, the wiretaps and surveillance schemes were serious violations of
rights authorized by ostensible defenders of rights. Further, Hoover
turned this anti-communism crusade into a sordid, frequently bizarre
attack on civil-rights advocates, both black and white, which included
recordings of sexual encounters, harassment, and various leaks calculated to damage the legitimacy of these advocates. While some of this
activity went beyond White House authorization, no one in the White
House tried to stop Hoover, and some civil rights leaders, such as the
NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, sometimes cooperated.117 Given the federal
activity described in the body of this study, the contrast is striking.
Several points are relevant to this apparent paradox. The crucial point
is that the FBI activity was for the most part secret – it was generally
not openly done and was not part of a global or national communication strategy. Publicly, to the American audience, Hoover explained
that the FBI watched over the civil rights movement for the good of
civil rights leaders. He was simply protecting the groups from communist infiltration and protecting the civil rights demonstrators.’18 There
was a racial component to the FBI activities, but these activities did
not have high visibility. Second, what was known about Hoover’s
campaign did not necessarily make good propaganda. While the Soviet
Union would sometimes forge documents to attempt to show American conspiracies for propaganda purposes,119 reports that the American
police spied on blacks would not be as compelling as propaganda that
showed photos of obvious, undeniable rights violations perpetrated by
white authorities against black citizens – and there was no shortage of
this type. Third, even if the Soviet Union had a clean record on civil
liberties and secret police, FBI activities still might not have been
seen as a serious vulnerability for the United States due to an ordering
of rights that Americans perceived in the moral rules of the global
audience, at least that which resided in the developing world. As early
as 1947, “The Department of State … began to recognize that the Iron
Curtain of political repression actually might present fewer difficulties
for many in the world than the Mason-Dixon Line of racial segregation.” 120 In other words, using the federal police to inhibit political
activities was not as egregious a violation of world morality as simple
or brutal racism and discrimination.
The Soviet Union itself gave a higher priority to racial equality than to
civil liberties. The Soviets tried to present themselves to the world as
champions of equal rights through highly publicized modernization
projects in the central Asian Soviet Republics and various Soviet-
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Africa and Soviet-Asia “friendship societies.” Also, many of the strategies practiced by the Americans had counterparts in the Soviet Union
such as integrating the foreign service with persons from the Asian
republics, and Soviet leaders promoted equal rights in visits to African
and Asian nations.121 The hierarchy of rights in the Third World be-
came more apparent after 1967, when the Afro-Asian bloc in the
United Nations gained dominant power in the Commission on Human
Rights, and limited priorities to fighting white racism and promoting
economic development. The Commission sponsored a series of seminars
on racial discrimination, declared that 1971 would be the “International
Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination,” and
that 1973 to 1983 would be the “Decade for Action to Combat Racism
and Racial Discrimination.” Meanwhile, the countries in Africa and
Asia began to maintain openly that civil liberties were a luxury for
already developed nations. The 1968 Proclamation of Teheran stated
that “the full realization of civil and political rights without enjoyment
of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible.” Though the
United States and Sweden disagreed, Commission delegates from
Iran, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Ecuador, India, and Argentina all in
various ways openly subscribed to the notion of a hierarchy of rights,
with civil liberties such as those violated by Hoover’s FBI somewhere
near the bottom.122 White House administrations therefore likely saw
the knowledge gained from FBI wiretaps as useful and, since generally
of low visibility or secret and not violating high priority rules of the
world audience, worth the risk.
Colonialism is a seeming paradox of the Cold War/civil rights connection that more clearly shows the importance of allowing for creativity and risk-taking among actors in a neoinstitutional approach.
White House administrations and State Department officials saw the
elimination of American domestic racism as a way to lead new nations
away from the threat of Communism. But if defeating communism was
the ultimate goal, the Western powers also saw the defense of empire
as the way to achieve that goal, though it undoubtedly came with
considerable cost. By not immediately relinquishing their empires,
European countries including Britain, Belgium, and France faced
withering criticism for violating cultural rules held by most of the
world. By not severely criticizing colonial friends, the United States
also violated these same rules, and the Soviet Union hammered away
on this point in its propaganda directed to Africa and Asia – the Soviet
media rarely referred to the United States without the modifier “impe-
rialist.” If this blow to legitimacy was a concern, however, Western
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powers harbored the even greater fear that pulling out of their colonies
would be destabilizing, making them vulnerable to communist influence and infiltration. As historian Paul Lauren puts it, “Ironically, the
same Cold War that actually assisted the movement for racial equality
in the United States thus helped retard decolonization in the world
at large.” 123 To deflect the criticism, American officials tried to dele-
gitimize the Soviet Union on the colonialism issue with American
propaganda. For example, the Soviets’ brutal repression of the freedom fighters in Hungary in 1956 supplied a message for President
Eisenhower to communicate – it was a blatant violation of human
rights (though it did lack the obvious racial dimension of Western
colonialism). Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs meeting with Prim
Minister Nehru, where he declared to the Indian leader that “Desp
colonial histories … the Western nations are primarily interested in
progress of humanity. By contrast the Hungarian revolution has pr
vided convincing proof the Soviets are interested only in its domin
tion, no matter by what means, including forceful suppression.” 1
Even with an interest in maintaining colonies for the stability th
appeared to provide and the Soviet Union’s shaky moral authority
this issue, it is important to note that colonies in significant numbe
lasted but a few years longer than legal discrimination in the Unite
The point of the preceding is not to provide a complete account of the
rise and successes of the civil rights movement, but to explore and
explain how engagement with world opinion in various ways throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s led to an interest on the part of federal
government officials in black civil rights. The prevalent use of the term
“embarrassment” in civil rights studies to explain the Cold War/civil
rights connection is inadequate but not without insight. Following
some neoinstitutional theorists, I argue here that “embarrassment”
must be understood as a historically and culturally constituted phenomenon.
Doug McAdam also correctly argues that the notions of
opportunity and political leverage are crucial in understand
rights movement successes.125 But as Neil Fligstein has ma
for another context, agency and opportunity must be und
enabled and constrained by the ways actors construct their w
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The political-process framework alone does not allow us to predict
when leverage will be increased. For example, some wars, such as
World War I, did little to affect state officials’ views toward blacks,
while World War II and the Cold War did have impacts. More importantly, the political-process model does not specify what “leverage” is
or the mechanism through which changes in excluded groups’ positions
are translated into movement goals. Unpacking the leverage concept,
as Sewell did with the structure concept,127 reveals implicit cultural
mechanisms: leverage, like “structure” and “embarrassment,” is culturally and historically constituted; it is based on rules or schema. The
Cold War/civil rights connection thus shows the importance of cultural rules and the legitimacy imperative.
The neoinstitutional perspective has not yet made an impact on socialmovement studies and its influence in the study of politics has been
slight. One difficulty has been neglect of interest-based action; another,
I have argued, has been a persistent conceptual vagueness. Most studies
in the tradition construe action as depending on and occurring in
arenas, spheres, environments, levels, etc., but give little guidance for
how, in empirical research, one is able to identify these metaphors of
space, and little specification of the boundaries of institutional spheres.
In addition, these spatial metaphors give a misleading picture of the
world, since the same actor in the same spatial location may be following different cultural rules at different times, or different actors in
similar locations may follow different rules at the same time. To be
able to predict which standards of legitimacy will be factors in political
action, we must try to determine with whom an actor is interacting,
and to search for evidence that a particular audience’s opinion matters.128 The actor will usually – though not always – strive to maintain
legitimacy before that audience. People base actions on perceptions
and estimations, sometimes but not always preconsciously, and may
feel that circumstances warrant risking loss of legitimacy to pursue
some end.
I am arguing that this perspective is necessary to illuminate four
aspects of the Cold War effect on civil rights. First, different parts of
the American state have different audiences; for this reason, the world-
engaged government organizations, such as the White House administrations (regardless of party or interest in civil rights) and the appoint-
ed officials and careerists in the State Department, pressed for civil
rights for blacks in America (though not necessarily black Americans).
Given the desire among these elites for an American position of leader-
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ship in the world, the world audience became a part of their “institutional environment.” Second, taking seriously the notion that political
actors strive for legitimacy with specific audiences, we can understand
why great efforts were devoted simply to communicating civil rights
gains to the international audience through great augmentation of
propaganda capacities and through the focus of rights gains on symbolic moves, such as the integration of the nation’s capital. The importance of sub-audiences in the institutional environment is underscored
by the fact that rights gains communicated to the world were not
necessarily promoted in communication to Americans. Third, we can
see how civil rights leaders and other advocates were able to use the
world human-rights culture to advance their goals. It is the concept of
legitimacy rules that helps us understand why civil rights groups would
lobby an organization (the United Nations) that technically had no
power to improve their plight, and why civil rights advocates would
sell civil rights to otherwise indifferent Americans by pointing out that
other nations expected equal rights from a world leader. The strategy
was continually replayed: make the public engage the world audience,
see that the world was watching, and that world opinion would be a
factor in the struggle against communism. Finally, White House officials avoided openly repressive tactics when confronted by civil rights
demonstrations at times of focused world attention and even when
blacks were clearly violating the law, such as in the 1960s race rioting.
I do not claim there were no other factors that would discourage
political leaders from repressing; rather, I argue that evidence suggests
that concern for the rights expectations of the world audience was
an important factor in its own right. We gain new insight into the
decidedly unembarrassed repressive tactics of authorities in Alabama
and Mississippi, engaged only with the white Southern audience. The
basic point throughout is that identifying the Cold War stakes of civil
rights only makes sense if Americans cared what the world thought
and knew that the world supported equal rights.
Implications: Civil rights and the world after the civil rights movement
The world audience impact on civil rights lasted from World War II
until about 1968; after that year, government officials less frequently
expressed great concern for the national performance on racial equality.
This disengagement was the result of the convergence of several forces.
First, and most simply, there was a “thaw” in relations between the
Western and communist countries. The futility of a nuclear missile
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buildup, the growing animosity between the Soviet Union and China,
and a growing constituency for peace in the United States led all three
parties to desire some change in the stark Cold War relations. Nixon’s
detente did not eliminate but lessened Cold War tensions.129 Second,
by the Nixon administration the United States had a strong answer to
foreign criticism of American race problems: it had enacted the Civil
Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of
1968, had waged a War on Poverty, and had developed affirmative
action. South Africa, though not striving for a leadership role, was
guilty of outrageous white racism perpetrated on a continent of black
people and became the focus of the world’s opprobrium. Third, as
McAdam has shown, the open confrontations of the civil rights movement and the urban racial violence dec…

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