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HISTORY: The Cold War and Desegregation


HISTORY: The Cold War and Desegregation


The Cold War influenced desegregation because it brought international attention to the failings of the United States government. The negative perceptions combined with the race against communism pushed the government to end de jure segregation. African American activism did contribute to the changing politics around segregation, but it was the threat to the United States as a world power that changed segregation laws.

Dudziak’s article focuses on the effects of international attention have on law in the United States. *The Truman Administration’s interest in desegregation was a example of the politics of desegregation. The interest in having the African American vote and consequential movement towards desegregation demonstrates this. When international attention was directed towards the US, politics wasn’t enough to satisfy them. Only taking lawful action against segregation would quell the doubts directed towards the United States. Korstad and Lichtenstein support this relationship between politics and law. Labor union militancy in the 1940s saw a rise in participation in local politics from African Americans. The push for active participation in the African American community opened the gateway to desegregation within local working communities. Politics is shaped by local interests and participation, while law is influenced by international pressure.

According to Dudziak, the new international attention of the Cold War created a stage for African Americans to air their grievances. International press brought attention to the reality of segregation in the United States and influenced perceptions of American democracy at home and abroad. African American activism within the United Nations influenced Soviet Union propaganda attacking American democracy. The State Department recognized the threat international perceptions made to foreign policy. In response, the State Department filed a series of amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court emphasizing the need for desegregation to maintain foreign policy.

Korstad and Lichtenstein argue that the Cold War anti-communism campaign negatively impacted African American activism, as is eroded support for the unions and African Americans associated with them. Because so much of the article focuses on the developments of labor unions during the 1940s, the Cold War has very little influence in shaping activism. Korstad and Lichtenstein postulate that working class black activism could have made a breakthrough in the labor-based civil rights movement for industrial organization and interracial cooperation during the mid 1940s. However, the opportunity passed and the decline in activism was overshadowed by the civil right law victories of the later decades.

The reaction of the government to activism is dependent on where the focus is placed. Dudziak’s international focus suggests that activism was empowering, because it forced the government to take legal action. Domestic demand for desegregation was gaining the support it needed from the white population, but likely wouldn’t have resulted in any judicial change, if not for international demand. Korstad and Lichtenstein, however, focus on the domestic impacts of government reaction, and argue that it actually limited the effects of activism. Because of the fight to contain communism, activism decreased as union membership decreased. So local government response constrained activism.

The challenge to education was a step back from more radical activism on both accounts. Though Brown had positive effects on international relations with the United States, it actually limited the ability to fight systematic racism and segregation. Because there was no longer any law upholding segregation, perceptions of racism in America changed. This is dangerous though, because it left openings for de facto segregation while also making it difficult to fight institutional racism. This step back from activism influenced the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, which focussed too heavily on changing laws rather than on changing society.

Dudziak provided a more persuasive argument on the influence of the Cold War on desegregation. Her argument was well organized and focused on international and national interests that lead to lawful desegregation that would later define the civil rights movement. Korstad and Lichtenstein on the other hand, had too narrow a focus to properly analyze desegregation laws and politics within the context of the Cold War. The focus on two specific regions, prior to the start of the Cold War does not lend itself to a very persuasive argument, by fault of focussing to heavily on the role of labor in early local civil rights movements.

The role of activism during the Cold War is important to understanding the decision to end segregation. The interracial convergence of interests helped push to change domestic politics about civil rights, but it was international attention and perception that created law as a vehicle for social change. Dudziak’s argument that international perception and the Cold War imperative were the driving force behind desegregation is a convincing one. While Korstad and Lichtenstein focus on labor activism prior to the Cold War, they do provide important context for understanding the transition in the civil rights movement from local grassroots activism to national protest and lawful change. This transition to appealing to the federal government for support in judicial activism can only be understood by understanding activism within the context of the Cold War.


[1] Mary L. Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 31 (Nov., 1988): 78-79.

[2] Mary L. Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 31 (Nov., 1988):, 103.

[3] Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (Dec. 1988): 792-793.

[4] Mary L. Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 31 (Nov., 1988): 88-90.

[5] Mary L. Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 31 (Nov., 1988): 101-102.

[6] Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (Dec. 1988): 804.

[7] Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (Dec. 1988): 800.

[8] Mary L. Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 31 (Nov., 1988): 118.

[9] Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (Dec. 1988): 811.


Dr. Hower’s Comments

HIS16-304-02: History of the Civil Rights Movement

Short Essay Assignment

Grade: B+/A-


There’s a lot to like here. You’ve done an impressive job of bringing the two pieces into conversation with each other, finding areas of overlap as well as divergence, and drawing out some important context around the emergence of the modern civil rights movement. Still, in a few ways, the piece felt just a little ruches and underdeveloped.



  • Thesis: The essay begins abruptly. You jump right in to what seems like Dudziak’s argument about the importance of the international pressure in turning the federal government toward (certain kinds of) civil rights. That’s a perfectly reasonable view (an a pretty good distillation of her argument) but I think you want to set the discussion up a little bit more in the introduction. Provide the reader with some sort of lead-in, a sense of the big question, and some kind of nod to the two article — then make your own argument clear. That way, the subsequent paragraphs don’t need to do quite as much work to answer the “Who Cares?” of “So What?” Questions. It also places a thread for you to pick up on in the conclusion, when you can move beyond the essay’s argument and reflect on some bigger question in (American) history.
  • Evidence: You draw well effectively on the two articles, pulling out some of their key claims. Ultimately, the lack of a distinctive argument (non-Dudziak) thesis made it hard to understand how all the content fit into the bigger picture. As I note before, I was both impressed and a little thrown by the integrated approach to the discussion. There’s value in the approach, but I wonder if it makes it just a little harder to clearly establish the two articles on their own terms? As I note below, I’m not fully sure you’ve captured what Korstad and Lichtenstein are trying to argue re: the impact of the Cold War. The references look good, but (at least in history) you can generally place them at the end of sentences unless there’s a very specific word or phrase that needs to be explained.
  • Organization: As I mentioned above, I think both the introduction and conclusion needed a little more development. The content in between was generally quite good, though not always structured in a way clearly connected to the overarching argument (which, ultimately, seems to turn on an implicit claim about the superior persuasiveness of Dudziak’s framework). Dealing with each piece in each paragraph is an interesting approach, but I’m not sure it is very well suited to these two pieces. After all, most of Korstad and Lichtenstein’s story is done by the time Truman wins reelection in 1948! (Ultimately, I think, there was room to do a bit more with this — the more radical/economic demands of the black-led unionism had been partially muted by the Cold War turn, perhaps creating the political space for the Truman administration back a certain kind of civil rights?)
  • Style: While there were a few very minor issues with footnote placement and word choice, the essay was free from major grammatical or typographical errors. You’ve got a very direct prose style, which generally serves you well. Still, I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth occasionally combining some of these short sentences into a more complex form — just to mix up the rhythm of the paragraphs? Still overall, very solid.






In terms of content, I thought you handled the Dudziak reading very well, highlighting the interplay between Cold War anti-communism, certain kinds of lobbying, and the narrowed brand of civil rights that emerged with Brown. (I thought that was the best paragraph of the piece).

By comparison, the discussion of Korstad and Lichtenstein felt a little less developed. You rightly note the connection between labor militancy and local politics on the first page, but I think you needed to tease that out just a little bit. After all, for them, a big reason the Cold War mattered was that it demobilized this broad-based, socially-conscious form of unionism, which had managed to drag middle-class led groups like the NAACP into addressing workplace concerns AND provided an alternative center for community organizing in major industrial cities. While you rightly note the chilling effect of the Cold War (sorry), it isn’t quite as clear what was lost. You ultimately suggest that Dudziak has the better explanation for the success of desegregation laws, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what the women and men at the center of K+L’s story see as the most important concern.

Finally, I thought you could have done just a little bit more to elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches — what’s revealed and left out by the local and national/international perspective? What kinds of sources did they use? A slightly fuller treatment would have given a bit more bite to your argument about the superiority of Dudziak’s analysis.

Still, all in all, this was very solid. I know you had a lot to do for me over these first few weeks. You’ve done a great job so far of balancing the workload while actively contributing to each of our class discussions. Keep up the good work.


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