American Race Relations
in the Global Arena.
By Thomas Borstelmann.
369 pp. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. $35.

In 1961, a representative of the State Department urged Maryland to desegregate the restaurants along Route 40. He explained that integration would help ensure ”the success of the foreign policy of the United States.” Route 40, it seems, was regularly used by diplomats traveling between New York and Washington, and African dignitaries tended to be less cooperative after being denied entrance to Maryland’s restaurants. President Kennedy wasn’t immediately sympathetic: informed that Africans were complaining, he responded, ”Tell them to fly!” But the cold war was redrawing the colonial map of Africa, and the United States couldn’t afford to alienate potential allies. So in 1963, when Maryland’s desegregation bill was finally signed into law, it was one small step for civil rights — and one giant leap for American diplomacy.

Here was a circuitous chain of influence: the cold war dictated Washington’s attitude toward former colonies in Africa, and this in turn helped abolish Jim Crow in Maryland. Thomas Borstelmann, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, sketches such overlapping influences in ”The Cold War and the Color Line.” Exploring the links between United States foreign policy and the ”dissolution of global white supremacy,” he encounters all sorts of unexpected connections.

He reminds us that the first meeting between Vice President Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr., in 1957, took place in Ghana — King’s home turf, in some sense. And he notes that the Truman administration was embarrassed by three separate appeals filed by African-Americans demanding that the United Nations intervene in the struggle for civil rights; in one of these, ”An Appeal to the World,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, ”It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi.” A national scandal was becoming an international issue.

”The Cold War and the Color Line” concentrates on the figures of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: the military hero struggling to understand a changed world; the cold warrior with a heart of gold; the surly moderate governing in an age of extremism. But Borstelmann also shows how strategic calculation shaped the era’s most important political decisions. In 1958, when Eisenhower declared his wish ”to be on the side of the natives for once,” he was betting that having anti-Soviet allies among the former colonies would be worth the political price of angering their former masters. Seven years later, in Rhodesia, Ian Smith exploited this very calculation, assuring Johnson that his white-run state would be a ”bastion against Communism.”

Some of this material was discussed in a book that appeared the year before last, Mary L. Dudziak’s ”Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy.” Borstelmann lacks Dudziak’s narrative focus, but then again he’s dealing with a much bigger narrative. Where Dudziak analyzed international perceptions of race in America, Borstelmann broadens his scope to include American perceptions of race relations in postcolonial Africa as well as in Vietnam, China, Cuba and even the Soviet Union — besmirched by ”contact with Asiatic hordes,” in the words of George F. Kennan.

Borstelmann’s focus on presidents can be limiting — his book is largely a chronicle of crisis management. But there are also glimpses of how American racial politics echoed around the planet: Vietcong troops sometimes expressed solidarity with black American soldiers; leftist African leaders appropriated the language of the civil rights movement; Moscow radio pointedly claimed that Sputnik I passed over Little Rock every day. The cold war turned America inside out, exposing the nation’s viscera for everyone to see. And in the process, America changed the way the world thought about race — or was it the other way around?

Kelefa Sanneh is the deputy editor of Transition magazine, an international review of race and culture. He also contributes articles about popular music to The Times.


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