The Vault

How the Soviets Used Our Civil Rights Conflicts Against Us

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The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum recently digitized a portion of the Kennedy administration’s national security files. Among these papers was this June 1963 memo that summarizes Soviet media coverage of the growing American conflicts over civil rights. These Soviet broadcasts, which reached audiences in Asia, Africa, and South America, tried to turn global public opinion against the United States.

The memo, compiled by Thomas Hughes, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, saw an increase in volume of such Soviet broadcasts in the spring of 1963. That spring, after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., during the first widely televised protests and sit-ins, activists staged 758 demonstrations in 75 Southern cities.

A few major arguments of these broadcasts, as Hughes summarized them: Capitalism provided a natural environment for racism, which would never end so long as the American system needed cheap labor. The federal government’s policy of limited intervention in Southern conflicts was tantamount to support of Southern racism. The United States could not claim to be the leader of the free world while hypocritically refusing to support civil rights within its borders.

In the most politically damaging line of reasoning, Soviet broadcasters argued that American domestic policy toward its black citizens was “indicative of its policy toward peoples of color throughout the world.” Emerging African, Asian, and South American nations, in other words, should not count on Americans to support their independence.

On the fourth page of the memo, Hughes argued that the Soviets had their own PR problem when it came to treatment of ethnic and racial minorities within their borders (facing, for example, ongoing accusations of anti-Semitism in the world press). Hughes thought that Soviets might be trying to distract from recent negative coverage of their own internal conflicts by pointing a finger at the United States.

Previously on The Vault: an August 1963 film, produced by the U.S. Information Agency for foreign distribution, that featured actors Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and James Baldwin in conversation on the meaning of civil rights.

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