Under orders from the governor of Arkansas, armed National Guardsmen prevent nine African-American students from attending the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. What began as a domestic crisis soon exploded into a Cold War embarrassment.
The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a heated and costly war of words during the early years of the Cold War. Propaganda became an important weapon as each nation sought to win the “hearts and minds” of people around the world. In this war, the United States suffered from one undeniable weakness: racial discrimination in America. This was a particularly costly weakness, for it made America’s rhetoric about democracy and equality seem hollow, especially to people of color in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Soviets eagerly seized on the issue, and tales of the horrors suffered by African Americans in the United States became a staple of their propaganda. In 1954, however, the monumental Supreme Court case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional and ordered school integration to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” The case was trumpeted by the American government’s propaganda as evidence of the great strides being made toward full equality for all citizens.
In 1957, a Federal District Court ordered the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow African-American students to attend. Governor Orval Faubus declared that he would not follow the decree. When nine African-American students attempted to enter the school on September 4, 1957, a crowd of several hundred angry and belligerent whites confronted them. Hundreds of National Guardsmen, called up by Faubus, blocked the students’ entry into the school. To the chants of “Go home, niggers” from the mob, the nine students left. Faubus’s action won him acclaim in his home state, and in much of the South, but it was a serious embarrassment to the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower himself was no great supporter of civil rights, but he understood the international significance of the events in Little Rock. Pictures of the angry mob, the terrified African-American students, and National Guardsmen with guns and gas masks were seen around the world. The Soviets could not have created better propaganda. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informed Eisenhower that the Little Rock incident was hurting the United States overseas, and might even cost the country the support of other nations in the United Nations. Eisenhower tried to negotiate a settlement with Faubus, but when this failed, he sent in federal troops. The nine African-American students were finally allowed to attend Central High.
The Little Rock incident indicated that America’s domestic problems, particularly racial discrimination, could not remain purely domestic in the context of the Cold War. The United States portrayed itself as the defender of democracy, justice, and equality in its struggle with the Soviet Union and communism. The ugly reality of the Little Rock integration, however, forced both allies and enemies to question America’s dedication to the principles it so often professed.