I understand from Dudziak's "Cold War Civil Rights" that Soviet criticism of the US's civil rights record influenced the passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, I was wondering if there were other ways that the Cold War contributed to the bill's passing. For instance, did the American public feel ashamed of its racial crises in the midst of the Cold War's ideological war, leading to public support for the bill? Did the US government, seeing the movement as communist, seek to appease it before things escalated?

  • What sort of factors would you find compelling?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 10:02
  • Public opinion is the crucial factor, especially in democracies, where it literally determines who comes to power.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 10:58
  • Hi all, I apologize for the poor question and have revised it accordingly. My focus is now on the Cold War's impact on civil rights
    – user62895
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:15
  • You're on the verge of an interesting question here. How are the three thesis different? What evidence would you seek for each thesis and where would you look for this evidence? Do any of the following help: study.com, Skrenty, or Tobias
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:25
  • 2
    There is nothing particularly socialist in civil rights - they are inherent to liberalism/capitalism. In fact, if we adopt Marxist view of socialism (practiced in the USSR) - equal rights are the foundation of the capitalist society and the reason for inequality (since anyone with financial, intellectual, physical or other advantage would advance further.) Thus, Marxist version of socialism seeks to abolish the equal rights, giving advantages to those who, in Marx' opinion, are the producers of wealth - this is termed dictatorship of the proletariat.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:52

2 Answers 2


As I have pointed out in the comments, civil rights are quite liberal/capitalist concept, so emancipation had to happen eventually, even without any pressure exerted by the USSR.

However, the USSR did support some leading figures in the civil rights movement: e.g., Angela Davies was twice a vice-presidential candidate from the Communist Party, and actively mingled with Soviet and other East European leaders. In this sense, passing the Civil Rights act was likely making the Communists movements less relevant, and served to diminish their influence.

  • Your first paragraph is basically right. The second, though, not so much. Soviet meddling (which is how it would have been perceived) in domestic politics would only harm what it nominally supported.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 13:31
  • @MarkOlson this seems to me like a subjective judgement - co-opting the civil rights movement could damage the cause of the civil rights in the eyes of anti-Communists, i.e., the right-wing, but it likely made communism seem more palatable to those who supported civil rights. From the point of the USSR - it probably simple sought to induce political instability, just like today Russia supports extreme right-wing and left-wing parties (while the US fosters various "pro-democracy" movements in Russia.)
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:07
  • 3
    At the risk of discussion in comments, Soviet meddling would only have harmed what it supported if it were interested in working with the system. The goal wasn't civil rights, the goal was the triumph of communism over capitalism. Civil rights and Angela Davies, et. al. were only weapons in that struggle.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:14
  • Well, sure. And your second paragraph is no less. The problem with questions like this is they are virtually impossible to answer objectively even at book-length. I lived through it all and this is what I observed.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:18
  • 1
    @MCW I am not really sure whether post-ww2 Soviet leaders really believed in the victory of the Communism. It seems that, already starting with Stalin, spreading of the communism was a tool for promoting Soviet national interests.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:22

There were a number of things contributing to the push for civil rights up to 1964.

For a start, the Americans themselves had fought a civil war in the 1860s largely over the status of black slave labour.

The practice of slavery had already been outlawed in Europe since time immemorial, and America was a European settler colony. So the USA was already on a long trajectory towards establishing the same civil rights as prevailed in Europe.

By the 1930s, the USSR was really at the forefront of developing what we nowadays think of as ideal "liberal rights" enjoyed by all citizens. It was a political union that drew together a large number of ethnic communities (at a time when racism in many nations was otherwise at a high), and as an aside it also promoted the rights and capabilities of women as workers too.

This also had an influence on how for example Britain mobilised women into industry at the outbreak of WW2.

For the American civil rights movement however, there were several consequences of WW2 itself.

Firstly, black soldiers were mobilised abroad in large numbers, and this broadened their horizons and often exposed them to European populations (like the British) who did not generally have the prejudicial attitudes of the American south (which was still frankly reeling economically from the civil war, and plagued by everyday racism).

Secondly, as veterans having fought for the American state, a new generation not only were equipped with military skills, but also naturally developed a sense of confidence and moral righteousness in demanding equal treatment.

Thirdly, at the conclusion of WW2, racist ideologies amongst ruling classes had been dealt a terrible blow, not only by the defeat of Hitler as one of its main representatives, but by the horrors perpetrated by his regime in the meantime. It became unpopular and clearly dangerous to the ruling classes themselves to keep promoting the lies of racial ideologies which both provoked uncontrollable conflicts and only weakened those who adhered most strongly to those lies.

In the post-WW2 era when the USA was really becoming concerned about the influence of communism and the USSR, together with the increased endogenous strength of the civil rights movement for the reasons just stated, this was why progress towards better civil rights became irresistible, and the resistance against no longer tenable.

  • Much of what you wrote is simply wrong. Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 23:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.