U.S. Domestic Discrimination as a Problem in the United Nations, 1949

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The effect of race discrimination on U.S. international relations during the years after World War II was a critical issue for U.S. foreign policy and remains so to this day.

After World War II, racial problems increasingly manifested themselves in the U.S.  Violence led to protests and demands that the Federal Government take action to alleviate racial injustice.  Coming out of World War II, the issue of race discrimination seemed especially incongruent with the themes put forth by the U.S. propaganda effort during the war.

In partial reaction, President Harry Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights to make recommendations for action.  The Committee issued its report, To Secure These Rights, in 1947.  How the issue affected U.S. foreign relations appeared in the report.  Additionally, President Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. armed forces in 1948.

These actions attracted foreign attention of the type that was especially problematic in the fight against the Communist Bloc led by the USSR.  It was particularly a problem for the U.S. at the United Nations.  In addition to foreign criticism, the U.S. also faced domestic censure in the UN.  In October 1947, the NAACP filed a petition, principally authored by W.E.B. Du Bois, with the UN protesting the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. The UN took no action, but it was an indication of things to come as the situation of civil rights and racial equality in the United States continued to be a sore point in American foreign relations over the next several decades.

To help the staff of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) respond to expected attacks in the UN General Assembly, in 1949, the Division of United Nations Affairs in the Department of State prepared the following “Statement in Answer to Possible Charges that the United States Discriminates Against Negroes in This Country.”[1]

While this document clearly demonstrates that progress had been made, still it must be considered an idealistic appraisal of the situation.  Much had not changed and as the memorandum notes much remained to be done.  Jim Crow discrimination was still alive and well in American society.  At the 1948 Democratic presidential convention, the southern wing of the party broke off to form the Dixiecrat Party in response to the party’s civil rights plank, while Hubert Humphrey thundered: “My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late.”  The years to come saw many events that demonstrate that a great deal needed to be done before the United States began to live up to its ideals:  resistance to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education; the Birmingham bus boycott; the violence at the Pettus Bridge in Selma; the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others; the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and the resulting protests; and so many others right up to the present day.

Please see these related posts:

[1] “Statement in Answer to Possible Charges that the United States Discriminates Against Negroes in This Country” attached to memorandum from Durward Sandifer (Deputy director, Office of United Nations Affairs) to David Popper (Assistant Chief, Division of United Nations Political Affairs), April 15, 1949, forwarded to the U.S. Mission to the UN, file Rights: Human (1946-1949) (NAID 2467176), Central Subject Files, 1945-49, Records of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, RG 84.  The author of the handwritten notations is unknown.

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