American Race Relations

In the Global Arena

By Thomas Borstelmann

Harvard Univ. 369 pp. $35

Few critics of our war on terrorism claim that it is a racist war of the kind so prominent in denunciations of American imperialism past. Many black Americans feel at least a sneaking pride in the presence of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell in the war's highest councils. Whatever the Realpolitik behind the administration's condemnations of anti-Muslim bigotry, even John Ashcroft's intent to maintain domestic order is far from J. Edgar Hoover's reliance on white-supremacist ideology and muscle as pillars of anti-communism. Even the domestic and foreign records of George W. Bush in Texas and of his Spanish-speaking, racially intermarried brother in Florida have shuffled the political color cards in ways few anti-racist activists seem to grasp.

That difference poses a dilemma for Thomas Borstelmann, whose fascinating book sometimes reads as though he undertook it as an anti-racist attack on American foreign policy, only to discover that capitalist conservatives don't need racism like they used to.

And maybe they didn't even need it so much back then: What impact did racial considerations have on U.S. strategic priorities and decisions after 1945? With the question framed in this narrow fashion, the answer is relatively little, which Borstelmann, an associate professor of history at Cornell, acknowledges in a sobering epilogue. "But if the question is cast more broadly," he writes, "to ask what the relationship was between the waging of the Cold War and the historic dissolution of global white supremacy, the answer is more complicated and more significant."

Do I sense an ideological retreat here? Although the book is on balance scrupulous and nuanced, occasionally it gives way to rhetorical flourishes such as this one about American indulgence of white brutality toward black troops in the Philippines and at home in the Spanish-American War: "The racial coddling of deadly conflict on the periphery bore similarity to that in the center of the American empire."

Similarly, Borstelmann writes that at the Cold War's height, some black leftists were genuine anti-communists, but "as the whole structure of the wartime Popular Front caved in under the weight of the Cold War, people like [the NAACP's] Walter White hustled out to the safe ground of the anti-Communist and increasingly antiracist president. Black leaders further to the left refused to leave [the Popular Front] and were destroyed along with it. . . . A credible, coherent black Left sank below the surface of American political life, as the chilly waters of the Cold War closed over it." I can't mourn the demise of what the American Communist Party and Paul Robeson had become. Borstelmann's facts aren't wrong, but they're too "complicated" for the ideological echoes in his prose.

Postwar anti-communism did prolong U.S. support for European colonial powers, not only to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe but to keep white rulers in Africa from being displaced by black Soviet clients. With Cuban soldiers in Angola, the Soviets in Ghana, and communists running the African National Congress -- and with Southern neo-segregationists chairing American congressional committees -- even racial moderates in John F. Kennedy's State Department pursued policies that, as Borstelmann puts it, "served primarily to slow down the process of ending white rule over people of color."

Yet the Soviets were even more racist than such racially awkward architects of American policy as Dean Acheson, George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, a point that Borstelmann makes in passing but that Africans soon took seriously. Moreover, foreign and domestic racial developments sometimes reinforced each other for the better in American policy, not for worse: Borstelmann's survey of far-flung time lines shows that as worldwide struggles against white supremacy discovered one another, Martin Luther King Jr. could admonish Americans that Africa was "moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."

Borstelmann plumbs conversations of postwar presidents and advisers to show, for example, that both domestic protests like King's and Cold War challenges in Africa prompted Kennedy's moving nationwide address on civil rights in June 1963. He tracks Richard Nixon's teeterings between a good, if symbolic, civil-rights record as vice president and his own racism and anti-Semitism in the Oval Office, between accommodating school desegregation and courting rednecks. He shows how Jimmy Carter's segregationist gubernatorial campaign coexisted with a deep social conscience in ways that make one appreciate political actors as creatures of their times who nevertheless sometimes transcend them to lead.

Yet Borstelmann takes many non-Americans almost at face value in the cameo appearances he gives them as foils for American racism: African dictators often denounced American racism to hide their own ethnic brutalities and neo-colonialism, but Borstelmann doesn't open that door much wider than he does the one on Soviet Communism's cynical affectations of anti-racism.

The danger of tying anti-communism to white supremacy too tightly in an anti-racist American jeremiad is that one misses what this country has delivered -- blunders, brutalities and all -- compared to "anti-colonialist" African elites and even revolutionaries. Borstelmann has escaped that danger, narrowly, by recognizing that while American civil-rights activists and foreign-policy makers benefited from the examples of good movements abroad, some of those movements owe more to America's own struggles and openness than their leaders and cheerleaders have found it comfortable or politic to admit. And in the end, Borstelmann deserves more credit for recognizing that truth than criticism for sounding ambivalent about it. *

Jim Sleeper, the author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers," teaches political science at Yale University.