According to our present government’s understanding of the world, foreigners should listen to what we say, not watch what we do. If we claim that we stand for freedom without qualification, who cares that our attorney general has had 1200-plus Middle Eastern men detained? Similarly, our military’s policing, bombing, and overthrowing of people of color in the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq bear not a single implication at home for a country whose commitment to racial equality remains precarious.
But though things have improved—immediately after September 11, George W. Bush called for protection of the rights of Arab Americans—that central disconnect between home and abroad undermines America’s global credibility as potently now as it did in 1972 or 1952. As Thomas Borstelmann’s thoroughly sobering history documents, American presidents spent the Cold War struggling to understand that the nations we were striving desperately to attract were perfectly capable of comparing American political rhetoric to American racial reality. A case in point: In 1961, then secretary of state Dean Rusk telegraphed the South African foreign minister that, although the two countries differed somewhat on race relations, there was “no need why this disagreement should infect [the] total range [of] our relations,” not to mention relations with all of the other African nations, which presumably would simply ignore U.S. underwriting of apartheid when choosing an ally. Time and again leaders reacted with foot-dragging and puzzlement when dissidents both domestic and foreign reiterated that America could not expect freedom from scrutiny when the whole world was watching.
Borstelmann tells his story in resolutely undramatic fashion, tracing the constellation of racial challenges each administration faced (focusing particularly on African affairs abroad and African American civil rights at home), rather than highlighting the crises that made headlines: Brown v. Board of Ed, Little Rock, police brutality in Birmingham. While the book never plods, it does sometimes stretch large and undifferentiated expanses of policy before the reader; nonacademics, at least, are likely to crave a more vigorous structuring of the narrative. But that evenhandedness is also a virtue: By avoiding the crutch of “turning points” for storytelling convenience, he makes a convincing case that no single event can be untied from a constantly thickening web of connections among civil rights, American foreign policy, and world affairs.
His tale is rife with saddening ironies and missed opportunities. Reflexive anti-Communism deafened policy makers to a long list of pleas from developing nations; if it looked or talked like a Communist (“Lumumbavitch,” the American ambassador called Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba after he fell from favor), or even made enemies of anti-Communists, off rode the CIA to the defense of white minorities, no matter how minuscule. Despite its abhorrent human rights record in Angola, Portugal remained a dear friend until a coup drove stridently anti-Communist dictator Antonio Salazar from power.
But Borstelmann resists the temptation to identify easy heroes and villains. He gives Lyndon Johnson’s good intentions their due; traces the collapse of John Kennedy’s attempt to preempt comparisons between police forces’ treatment of black protesters in Johannesburg and Selma; and reinforces the mule-headed primitivism of Ronald Reagan’s African policy, which managed to reverse or undermine almost every advance of the previous three decades. Even Richard Nixon turns out to have been Eisenhower’s house liberal, irritating Southern conservatives to no end with his proposals that black Africans should rule their own countries and be able to stay out of the Cold War if they chose—until he ran for president, at which point he embarked on a program of domestic race-baiting so enthusiastic that George Wallace complained that he should have copyrighted his own tirades.
Frustratingly, Borstelmann also takes care to avoid drawing any causal relationship between American policy and world events; in an entirely praiseworthy attempt to combat parochialism, he renders the United States as a body of confusingly indefinite gravity—hugely powerful but ultimately ineffectual in either staving off or speeding the triumph of anti-colonialism around the world. In the end, he seems to suggest that white domination was a demographic aberration bound eventually to be swept under worldwide by popular movements utilizing the simple force of numbers. Was America simply a bystander? If so, the paradoxical effect is to return the story to the framework of discrete foreign and domestic affairs that Borstelmann has worked so hard to dismantle.
After the Cold War’s end, the narrative trails off into a cursory section on Bush and Clinton that not so much concludes the story as simply halts the description of linked and impersonal processes of the Cold War and colonization. But when he shows us how hard it was for Martin Luther King and black radicals alike to learn to invoke “colonialism” not simply as metaphor but as lived and felt experience—and when he presents the slower process by which American presidents, too, grew to understand that others might plausibly make such connections—Borstelmann is offering a crucial, and thus far unheeded, lesson for today: Now more than ever, we cannot practice other than what we preach without paying for it.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Joy Press on The Disappearing Body by David Grand and Number9dream by David Mitchell
Abigail Zitin on Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World by Joel Schalit
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 26, 2002