Brown v. Board of Ed: Key Cold War weapon
The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, issued on May 17, 1954, is probably the most important judicial decision in American history.
This week, on its 60th anniversary, the landmark ruling is being celebrated for its historic role in committing the United States to ending legal racial segregation and establishing the courts as a forum in which to secure enhanced protection of rights. All subsequent court decisions advancing the rights of those who have suffered discrimination are built on Brown.
There is another reason, however, that the decision was especially important. The Brown ruling greatly advanced the interests of the United States during the Cold War, when the nation was vying with the Soviet Union for global influence. The Truman administration recognized this in the early 1950s, when it filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court in December 1952, calling for the result that the court announced 17 months later.
The Truman administration’s brief was highly unusual because of its heavy emphasis on foreign-policy considerations in a case ostensibly about domestic issues. Of the seven pages covering “the interest of the United States,” five focused on the way school segregation hurt the United States in the Cold War competition for the friendship and allegiance of non-white peoples in countries then gaining independence from colonial rule.
The brief, submitted by Attorney General James P. McGranery, said, “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man…. The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” It also featured an excerpt from a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, described as “an authoritative statement of the effects of racial discrimination in the United States upon the conduct of foreign relations.”
President Harry S. Truman, acting on his authority as commander in chief, had ended racial segregation in the armed forces in 1948. But he had been stymied in dealing with schools. They operated under state control, and many states had laws that required segregation. Congress was empowered to act under the 14th Amendment. But given the powerful positions of long-serving Southern senators and representatives, there seemed little possibility that Congress would take on the task of desegregating the schools. The only chance to solve the problem, Truman realized, rested with the Supreme Court.
The media quickly grasped the ruling’s foreign policy ramifications. “When some hostile propagandist rises in Moscow or Beijing to accuse us of being a class society,” the New York Times editorial stated, “we can if we wish recite the courageous words of yesterday’s opinion.” The San Francisco Chronicle noted, “Great as the impact will be upon the states of the South, still greater, we believe, will be its impact in South America, Africa and Asia, to this country’s lasting honor and benefit.” The Minneapolis Tribune added, “The words of Chief Justice [Earl] Warren will echo far beyond our borders and may greatly influence our relations with dark-skinned peoples.”
Many Americans in the 1950s recognized that the country’s record on civil rights crucially affected Washington’s ability to advance its international interests. Unfortunately, there are many today who seem not to have learned that lesson, or who seem not to care about foreign policy consequences.
Consideration of such issues as “enhanced interrogation” of detainees after September 11; long-term detention at Guantanamo without charges or trials; the courts’ refusal to consider allegations of torture because it would expose “state secrets,” and the National Security Agency’s wide-ranging surveillance practices often demonstrates little understanding of the damage these practices have done to the reputation of the United States internationally. Proponents of these activities can seem oblivious to the way they undermine America’s capacity to influence the policies of other countries.
Most regrettably, the Supreme Court, which had one of its finest moments on May 17, 1954, is, 60 years later, often on the side of cutting back rights rather than advancing their protection. The intrinsic importance of the rights at stake is the foremost reason to deplore the current situation.
Though perhaps not as significant, the damage being done to the U.S. role in world affairs is also a serious matter.
PHOTO (TOP): School integration in Washington, 1955. REUTERS/Library of Congress
PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. REUTERS/Truman Library.
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, in undated photo. He became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.