Jim Crow's Coming Out: Race Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years

By Borstelmann, Thomas | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Jim Crow's Coming Out: Race Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years


Borstelmann, Thomas, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The struggles for racial equality in the United States and in the world system that characterized the entire cold war era accelerated sharply during the presidency of Harry S. Truman. The domestic civil rights movement and what might be called the "international civil rights movement" of anticolonialism moved on parallel tracks. African Americans sought to vote in the American South, while Africans and Asians strove for self-government. Black Americans struggled to overcome the "states' fights" logic of white supremacy, promoting instead the higher mandate of human fights and the U.S. Bill of Rights, while nonwhites abroad struggled to overcome the United Nations' "domestic jurisdiction" clause wielded by racially discriminatory white authorities in places like South Africa. The tradition of white supremacy in the United States was embedded in a broader global pattern of white control of peoples of color, and both systems of racial inequality would survive or fall together (Soper 1947, 272; see also Lauren 1988; Plummer 1996; Von Eschen 1997).

A vast literature has explored the major American cold war initiatives of the late 1940s and early 1950s.(1) The decision-making processes and ramifications of the Truman Doctrine, the European Recovery Plan (Marshall Plan), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and National Security Council document 68 (NSC 68) have received painstaking analysis from a variety of political perspectives. But there has been only occasional attention paid either to the ways in which these policy initiatives emerged from a racially hierarchical domestic and international landscape or to their racial meanings and ramifications. Yet, people of color at the time were well aware of this other context. Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of February 1946 represented a declaration of cold war, but it also served as a call for Anglo-American racial and cultural unity. The Truman Doctrine of March 1947 opposed potential "armed minorities" of the left but not those of the right who actually ruled much of the world: European colonialists. The Marshall Plan (1948) and NATO (1949) bolstered anticommunist governments west of the Elbe River but also indirectly funded their efforts at preserving white rule in Asia and Africa. NSC 68 laid out an offensive strategy of diminishing Soviet influence abroad, but it also revealed American anxieties about a broader "absence of order among nations" that was "becoming less and less tolerable" when the largest change in the international system was coming not from communist revolutions but from the decolonization of nonwhite peoples.(2)

In designing his big house of anticommunist democracy, Harry Truman faced the same fundamental challenge at home and abroad. He had to build it large enough to include people of all colors while preserving his relationships with the colonialists who ruled so much of the world beyond Europe and the segregationists who dominated the U.S. Congress. The problem for the White House was how to create as large and strong an anticommunist, "free world" coalition as possible. The alliance had to be not only international but also multiracial, just as did the liberal anticommunist political coalition Truman was assembling at home. In an era of rapid change toward greater racial equality, the president and his advisers had to demonstrate that traditional white racism would not be a central element in the political alliances they were constructing, even as they worked closely with colonialist and segregationist authorities. Racial issues and the management of racial change were central to the American experience of the early cold war, and the national border proved quite porous in this regard.

Racial Thinking in the Truman Administration

The relationship between race and U.S. foreign policy in the Truman years was grounded in the segregationist culture in which all members of the administration had lived. …

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