The Cold War and the Color Line: American Foreign Policy in the Era of Globalization

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POLITICS Thomas Borstelmann. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Foreign Policy in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 369 pp. Photographs. Notes. Index. $35.00. Cloth.

American studies used to exist in a moderate vacuum, as investigations of U.S. culture, politics, and ethnicity were once largely focused on domestic shores. Recently that has been changing. One notable feature of that change has been a spate of studies on relations between American (and especially African American) racial politics and culture, and the broader world. Kate Baldwin's Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (Duke, 2002), Penny Von Eschen's Race Against Empire (Cornell, 1997), and Brenda Plummer's Rising Wind (North Carolina, 1997) are three among such studies. Now Thomas Borstelmann, a Cornell historian and author of an earlier book focused on the U.S. and South Africa in the 1950s, has published a broader work on the intersections between U.S. foreign policy and domestic racial politics from 1945 to 1990.

The book is organized by U.S. presidential administrations; separate chapters are devoted to Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, while the stretch from Nixon to George H. W. Bush is compressed into the last chapter as the narrative accelerates. Borstelmann's evidence ranges widely. At times he offers broad-brush parallels, in sentences such as "Just as [in the middle 1950s] white Southerners reluctantly gave up peonage, prison labor leasing, and frequent lynchings, so Western Europeans relinquished most of their direct colonial control of the Third World" (101). At other times he reveals specific linkages gleaned from his prodigious archival research, quoting, for example, a U.S. State Department memorandum of roughly 1952 that said "'no American problem receives more wide-spread attention, especially in dependent areas, than our treatment of racial minorities, particularly the Negro'" (76). Elsewhere Borstelmann includes sharp details, reporting, for example, that Moscow Radio mockingly included Little Rock, Arkansas, in its daily list of cities overflown by Sputnik I, which had been launched just after the start of Little Rock's school integration crisis.

African studies scholars will be interested in The Cold War and the Color Line because of the many insights offered into African political history. …