The “Achilles Heel” of Cold War Democracy

The Cold War was largely fought on ideological grounds, with America supposedly fighting for freedom and democracy against Soviet communism. However, racial inequality through segregation and Jim Crow laws within the United States contradicted much of the advertised American philosophy, greatly undermining the good-and-evil dichotomy the American government hoped to project. As communist criticism of pervasive racism revealed the contradictions of the contemporary democracy, the American government was forced to acknowledge the nation’s faults and concede rights to previously discriminated groups. This ideological “Achilles Heel” of the American cause drove much of American policy during the Cold War period, eventually helping the United States more fully realize the true democratic principles upon which the nation was founded.

This theme has been addressed by numerous scholars. One of the most prominent such historians was Gerald Horne, who dubs the term “Achilles Heel” mentioned above and discusses how communists highlighted and helped break down racial discrimination and its political manifestations. Specifically, in his book Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle he examines how the Communist Party’s criticisms of the Scottsboro case drew international attention, pressuring the government into recognizing and acting against inequality. Another scholar, Damion Thomas, offers the perspective of the American government on this matter in Globetrotting : African American athletes and Cold War politics. Though the book mostly focuses on African American integration in sports, Thomas also addresses how the American government first attempted to defend its “Achilles Heel” by calling Soviet claims propaganda. However, they eventually realized the futility of this effort and acknowledged existing racial inequality, recalling historical context to soften the blow. This admission, made possible through the opposing viewpoints of communists, resulted in new policies resolving this admitted fault. Erik McDuffie responded to Horne’s original works in Black and Red: Black Liberation, the Cold War, and the Horne Thesis but chooses to focus on how specific African American leftist groups responded to racial discrimination and anticommunist aggression.

To further research this topic and the viewpoints discussed in these sources, I hope to examine the paradoxical relationship between anticommunism and growing support for civil rights within the American government. While ideologically opposing communism and upholding democracy, America was forced to acknowledge and swallow certain oppositions, even those coming directly from the Soviet Union. Arguably, this is the most important aspect of democracy and I would like to further research the dynamics of this paradox.


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