As the Department of State noted in a major 1950 publication “There is no longer any real distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ affairs.” (Our Foreign Policy, Department of State Publication 3972, released September 1950). In the post-World War II Twentieth Century, perhaps no issue better illustrates that statement than the movement for civil rights in the U.S.
In two eloquent letters, the first in 1946 and the second in 1952, the Department of State explained how discrimination within the United States presented an obstacle to America’s foreign policy goals.
The first letter came in response to an informal April 1946, request from Malcolm Ross, chairman of the President’s Committee of Fair Employment Practice. The Committee was preparing the final report on its activities during World War II and making recommendations on post-war governmental policy relating to industry discrimination “because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Ross noted that the report planned to note in a general way that domestic discrimination affected U.S. international affairs and suggested that the Department “might wish to make a statement in support of the thesis that the existence of racial discrimination is a handicap and that Government should take thought how best to eliminate it.”
In response, the Department sent the following letter signed by Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The letter was later featured in To Secure These Rights, the 1947 final report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and in legal briefs prepared by the Department of Justice in a number of cases.
The second letter resulted from a November 1952, request by Attorney General James McGranery to now-Secretary of State Acheson. McGranery explained that the Department of Justice was preparing an amicus curiae brief to file with the Supreme Court in several of the cases leading up to the decision on segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. The Attorney General noted that the brief “would be immeasurably enhanced” if it contained an “authoritative statement” of the impact of domestic racial discrimination on U.S. foreign relations. Quoting from Acheson’s earlier letter, McGranery explained that a letter describing the situation as it stood in 1952 “would be of inestimable value in affording the Court a better appreciation of the broader international implications of the question presented in these cases.”
In response, the Department sent the following letter.
As the leading biographer of Dean Acheson notes, however, despite the eloquence of the letters, the Department of State did little to contest domestic racist practices nor did the U.S. as a matter of its foreign policy do so overseas. Later in life, Acheson was a supporter of white power regimes in Africa and made overtly racist statements (Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War). Nevertheless, the letters remain accurate statements of the impact of domestic discrimination on U.S. foreign policy.