Race and Realpolitik in the
American Response to the
Bandung Conference, 1955
In December 1954 five newly independent Asian countries—Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan—announced a plan for a conference of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern states. The ensuing 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia, ushered in a new era of international relations as nations of color began a sustained campaign to end colonial rule in the nonEuropean world and its corollary of white supremacy. It was the first major conference of non-European states and led to the creation of the nonaligned movement.
For the United States, this provocation by nonwhite peoples was particularly discomfiting. International attacks on white supremacy made it clear to U.S. policy makers that outside observers were assessing the domestic record on race relations. The recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education provided a benchmark for measuring the distance between American performance and American promise. Washington's willingness to underwrite European imperial pretensions as well as its own status as a colonial power in the Caribbean and the Pacific was under scrutiny. America confronted a three-part dilemma provoked by its own domestic record on race, its practice of colonialism, and its tacit support of European colonial systems.
The Afro-Asian conference, often referred to in the literature simply as the Bandung Conference, brought revised perspectives on the politics of race in both domestic and foreign arenas. This essay argues that the U.S. response to the Bandung Conference provides critical insights into American efforts to manage an international system that was increasingly shaped by the politics of race and anticolonialism. The emergence of the Third World as a factor in international relations inaugurated a reevaluation of American capacity to mold the agendas in the global arena. It also had a little noted, but significant, impact upon U.S. race relations.
The State Department's response to the Bandung Conference revealed much about U.S. ideological and policy goals outside Europe. Bandung also