Ask a Scholar: Is There a Connection Between Foreign Aid and Civil Rights?

William C. Widenor

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Were Cold War foreign aid decisions impacted by international criticism regarding civil rights issues? (or) Was US foreign aid in any way impacted by the need to promote its egalitarian ethos? (or) Has American "hyper-humanitarianism" any roots in Cold War (post WWII) era criticisms regarding legislatively supported racial discrimination (e.g. Jim Crow)?... I seriously cannot seem to make a connection I feel is certainly there.

- Boyd Stough, College of Charleston

Answered by William C. Widenor, professor emeritus of the history of U.S. foreign relations at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Professor Widenor is a former Foreign Service Officer and received his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in 1975. He is the author of Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy which received the Organization of American Historians' Turner Prize in 1981.

The term ‘hyper-humanitarianism’ has no resonance for me, least of all in connection with American foreign aid. We have given only a small fraction of what the American public perceives as our lavish aid to other countries, and most of that has been military aid and has gone to authoritarian regimes who have used it to oppress their own populations.

There is a Cold War connection to the civil rights movement. It stems from the fact that quite a few Foreign Service Officers were active in the movement in the 50s and 60s, especially those who had served in Third World countries and had seen first hand how effective Soviet propagandists were in tarnishing the image of the United States on the basis of how badly both American blacks and African diplomats were treated in the U.S. The Cold War can usefully be viewed as a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World, and in that battle the soviets made good use of the image of the "ugly American" whose oft professed devotion to democracy and equality did not mesh with the facts of American daily life.

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