Postwar Foreign Policy and African-American Civil Rights

The Cold War, the great power rivalry that evolved between the United States and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, riveted international attention on segregation in America.61 Allies criticized the United States for fighting oppression abroad while discriminating against millions of African Americans at home, a fact Kremlin propagandists used in ample public relations opportunities. Members of the United States policymaking elite, who tended to cast the Soviet-American rivalry in terms of good versus evil, were keenly aware of the gap between their rhetoric about defending the “Free World” from communist “aggression” and democratic shortcomings at home. In September 1957, for instance, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called up the state national guard to block school integration in Little Rock. That action compelled the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to dispatch elements of the Army’s 101st Airborne to integrate the city’s Central High School. Surveying the episode, widely respected foreign policy commentator Walter Lippmann noted, “The work of the American propagandist is not at present a happy one.” Segregation “mocks us and haunts us whenever we become eloquent and indignant in the United Nations. . . . The caste system in this country, particularly when as in Little Rock it is maintained by troops, is an enormous, indeed an almost insuperable, obstacle to our leadership in the cause of freedom and human equality.”62

Dwight D. Eisenhower/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_eisenhower_dwight_nps_72-2433-8.xml Photograph by the National Park Service; image courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum/National Archives and Records Administration On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation concerning the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The President dispatched the 101st Army Airborne Division and U.S. Marshals to protect the students and to maintain order in Little Rock.
U.S. officials increasingly viewed civil rights at home through an ideological lens shaped by the Cold War that at times produced contrarian impulses.63 On the one hand, some American leaders pushed for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s out of a desire to promote a positive image of America abroad, particularly in the contest for support in developing and decolonized countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—principal proxy arenas for the Cold War.64 As historian Thomas Borstelmann observed, U.S. officials often sought “to try to manage and control the efforts of racial reformers at home and abroad. . . . They hoped effectively to contain racial polarization and build the largest possible multiracial, anti-Communist coalition under American leadership.”65 On the other hand, opponents of civil rights—often to great effect—labeled progressive reforms as communist-inspired. Moreover, investigatory panels such as the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, backed by arch segregationists such as Mississippi Representative John Rankin, called prominent African Americans to testify during this era, questioning their ties to the American Communist Party and, by inference and innuendo, calling their patriotism into question.66

Little Rock Nine/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_central_high-students_LCUSZ62-126447.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The historic 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) desegregated the nation’s public schools. In September 1957, nine African-American students enrolled at the whites-only Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Students were escorted to school by soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division. More than 40 years later, Congress recognized the bravery of the “Little Rock Nine” by awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal.
African Americans’ participation in the international dialogue about civil rights and postcolonial self-determination is noteworthy. NAACP Secretary Walter White remarked that World War II gave African Americans “a sense of kinship with other colored—and also oppressed—peoples of the world,” a belief “that the struggle of the Negro in the United States is part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India, China, Burma, Africa, the Philippines, Malaya, the West Indies, and South America.”67 The Cold War certainly magnified these issues. As bellwethers of this international cognizance, Representatives Powell and Diggs increasingly influenced the foreign policy debate in Congress, suggesting a growing black influence in shaping public perceptions about racism that transcended U.S. borders.68

Powell emerged as a foreign policy innovator. His Harlem district was one of the most diverse in the country, and he pushed for more liberal immigration policies, which were important to the large West Indian immigrant community in his district. He often met with visiting African heads of state and, as a freshman Member of the House, introduced legislation that allowed for the naturalization of Filipinos and South Asian Indians.69 Powell criticized the Eisenhower administration’s global policy to contain communism, and he opposed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s requirement that American allies conform to liberal democratic ideals. Powell was stingingly critical of racial discrimination in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Noting in 1953 that the United States was “the most hated nation in the world today,” Powell called for immediate civil rights reforms, warning that otherwise “communism must win the global cold war by default.”70

Adam Clayton Powell with Staff/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_adam_powel_staffer_LC-USZ62-127625.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this 1966 photo, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (left) walks down a hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building accompanied by his top aide, Chuck Stone.
In April 1955, Powell attended the Bandung, Indonesia, Afro-Asian Conference, a gathering of developing nations with representatives from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Ceylon, and Burma which opposed the “neocolonialism” of the superpowers. The Eisenhower administration refused to send an official representative to the conference, so Powell went as a private citizen even though the government asked him not to attend. His mere presence, he later told President Eisenhower, was “living proof to the fact that there is no truth in the Communist charge that the Negro is oppressed in America.”71 Powell, however, also powerfully endorsed the notion that smaller nations could remain unaligned and neutral in the larger Cold War struggle and questioned Washington’s embrace of the containment strategy and its missionary zeal for promoting free market trade. His efforts prodded the administration to install several African Americans as United Nations delegates and alternates in 1956.72

Diggs and Powell also became the first black Members of Congress to visit Africa. Diggs was part of an official U.S. delegation led by Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1957 that participated in Ghana’s celebration of independence from British rule and the inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah as prime minister. Powell joined Diggs in an unofficial capacity in Ghana’s capital, Accra—Nkrumah had attended Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in the 1930s as a merchant seaman and as a foreign student.73 Diggs recalled that he and Powell “stood out there with tears coming down our cheeks” as the Union Jack (the British flag) was lowered and the new Ghanaian flag was raised in its place.74 Diggs later attended the All-African Peoples Conference in Accra, organized by Nkrumah, as a show of Third World solidarity. Diggs returned from that visit convinced that the United States was “in danger of losing the present advantage it holds in Africa to the Soviet Union.” He added, “our Nation needs to be educated on the tremendous significance of the development of Africa.”75 Believing he “could make a contribution” to improve relations between Washington and postcolonial African governments, Diggs requested and won a spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee in January 1959.

Edward Brooke Meets with President Johnson/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_brooke_LBJ_lbj_library_-A3626-13a.xml Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto; Image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration Shortly after becoming the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate in nearly a century, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office in January 1967.
American intervention in the Vietnamese civil war—between the communist regime in Hanoi and the U.S.-backed government in Saigon—was another key foreign policy issue for black Members of Congress. Representative Gus Hawkins opposed the war, based partly on impressions he formed while visiting South Vietnam in 1970 that the government routinely violated the human rights of its prisoners. Others, such as Representative Robert Nix, supported the foreign policies of the two Democratic presidents—John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson—who broadened the U.S. military commitment and mission in Southeast Asia. As a Senate candidate in 1966, Edward Brooke was initially skeptical about the war. But after an official visit to Vietnam, he asserted that the military policy of the Johnson administration was prudent because he concluded there was no prospect of meaningful negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Brooke tacked back toward a dissenting position when, in 1970, he opposed the Nixon administration’s policy of attacking communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. He eventually voted for the Cooper– Church Amendment of 1970, which prohibited the deployment of U.S. forces outside Vietnam.

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61For an important study of the topic, see Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

62Walter Lippmann, “Today and Tomorrow: The Grace of Humility,” 24 September 1957, Washington Post: A15.

63President Kennedy worried about Soviet propaganda arising from a horrific Associated Press photo from May 1963 in which officials in Birmingham, Alabama, unleashed police dogs on young civil rights protestors. See Nick Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2006): 388, 472.

64See Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

65Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: 2–8, quotation on page 2.

66At the height of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, HUAC’s influence soared and contributed to a climate of domestic fear stoked by its sensational and often unsubstantiated investigations. On HUAC, see Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1968); Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (3 January 1945): 10–15.

67White, A Rising Wind: 144.

68See, for example, Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

69Plummer, Rising Wind: 249.


71Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: 96.

72Plummer, Rising Wind: 248–253; quotation on page 251.

73Ibid., 292.

74Carolyn P. DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: The Public Figure, the Private Man (Arlington, VA: Barton Publishing House, Inc., 1998): 62–65.

75“Diggs Urges Better U.S. Attitude Toward Africa,” 23 December 1958, Chicago Defender: 7.