Teaching the Article
Exercise 1

Race and the Cold War

During the past two decades, historians have increasingly examined the intricate relationship between race and the Cold War. In doing so, they have probed the different ways the Cold War influenced race relations—by both retarding calls for change and promoting the drive for civil rights—and how race relations influenced the course of the Cold War. Both Asia and Africa figure in this historical work. But most black Americans were interested primarily in the connection between the struggle for freedom and equality in the United States and the fight against colonialism in Africa.

Racial prejudice in the United States contradicted the nation's Cold War mission: How could Washington convince the peoples of the world that the United States was a friend to people of color and newly emerging nations in Asia and Africa when its own citizens faced discrimination and segregation on the basis of race?

As the following documents reveal, African Americans understood and highlighted this contradiction early in the Cold War. As U.S. race relations became more of a worldwide issue, a growing number of people in Washington also confronted the contradiction. “It is in the context of the present world struggle between freedom and tyranny that the problem of racial discrimination must be viewed,” wrote Justice Department lawyers in support of the plaintiffs in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world, of every nationality, race, and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and secure form of government devised by man. We must set an example for others by showing firm determination to remove existing flaws in our democracy.”

The Cold War thus brought into stark relief the contradictions in American democracy. But the contradictions were not easily remedied, and so they remained in the forefront of U.S. relations with the world. Powerful forces wanted to maintain segregation, and they used the language of the Cold War to support their cause. People who sought to change the status quo found themselves accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers. Segregationists sought to wrap the flag around these efforts. Thus those in the U.S. government—itself not monolithic and containing a variety of competing interests—who saw the connection between civil rights at home and America’s efforts to win hearts and minds abroad faced a stern task in trying to convince a skeptical Africa of America’s commitment to racial equality. Despite ongoing conflict over civil rights, throughout the 1950s the U.S. government typically sought to portray race relations as ever improving and as part of an evolving American success story.

As you read the documents below, consider not only then vice president Richard M. Nixon’s assessment of the threat of Communism but also his view of the portrayal of American race relations a few months after the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and shortly before the Little Rock, Arkansas, school desegregation crisis. How much progress had the United States made in race relations? How would the world have perceived it? Does this struggle over the U.S. image in the world have any useful lessons for today?


  1. “Crushing Soviet Lies,”
    editorial, Pittsburgh Courier, April 29, 1950, p. 14.
  2. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae,
    Brown v. Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1952) (no. 8).
  3. The Emergence of Africa: Report to President Eisenhower,
    Richard Nixon, State Department Bulletin, April 22, 1957, p. 635–38.
  4. “Moving Forward,”
    editorial, Chicago Defender, April 29, 1950, p. 6.