When Interests Diverge

In her recent book Cold War Civil Rights, Professor Mary L. Dudziak, sets forth “to explore the impact of Cold War foreign affairs on U.S. civil rights reform” (p. 14). Tracing “the emergence, the development, and the decline of Cold War foreign affairs as a factor in influencing civil rights policy” (p. 17), she draws “together Cold War history and civil rights history” (pp. 14-15), two areas that are usually treated as distinct subjects of inquiry. In mixing the two together, she shows that “the borders of U.S. history are not easily maintained.” Perhaps it is fitting that the field of American history is not delimited neatly by its geographic borders, especially when those same borders have not contained the reach of the United States. She closes the introductory section of her book by “suggest[ing] that an international perspective does not simply ‘fill in’ the story of American history, but changes its terms” (p. 17). Dudziak is not the first, as she herself admits, to draw a connection between foreign policy and domestic civil rights. She does, however, present the most thorough and compelling case for this connection. She draws from a remarkable array of documentary evidence to construct a fascinating narrative that frames the local within the transnational. For instance, Dudziak opens her book with the story of Jimmy Wilson. She tells us that Mr. Wilson’s “name has not been remembered in the annals of Cold War history” (p. 3). But as a historian, she is about to help us remember. The notion of “remembering” seems to serve two important functions for Dudziak. First, it helps us know who we are (pp. 17, 252-53). Second, it reminds us that we are not alone and cannot act with impunity (passim). The second value of remembering is revealed through Dudziak’s stressing the important role played by international actors in effecting domestic civil rights reform. To Dudziak, the international gaze serves as a panopticon. She examines how local actors reacted to international criticisms of civil rights violations, and how pressure was brought to bear on local actors by federal officials. In this way, the international gaze operated to constrain or contain this country’s racist majoritarian excesses. She posits what might be described as an extralegal theory of local and national restraint, based on some notion of national prestige and national interest. We shall return to this extralegal theory of restraint at the end of this Review.