Review of Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics

Thomas, Damion L. Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. 232 pp. $60.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Andrew D. Linden

In Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics, Damion L. Thomas analyzes the US government’s use of African American athletes as tools in the ideological battle between American democracy and Soviet communism during the era of the Cold War. In particular, he details how the US State Department used black athletes to sway international public opinion about race relations in the United States in order to combat narratives of racism that the Soviet Union had begun to publicize in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. However, as concerns about American racism supposedly waned in international circles by the late 1960s, sport became less important to monitor for US government officials. In general, as Thomas claims at the end of his book, sport remained most important to the American state only “when it could be linked to pressing foreign policy needs” (p. 170).

Globetrotting

University of Illinois Press, 2012

Indeed, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the United States government used black athletes to promote egalitarianism and the Myrdallian idea of “progress” in American race relations. For example, Thomas argues that international pressures influenced prominent black leaders to promote Jackie Robinson as the ideal African American over Paul Robeson, who had begun to speak out against American democracy. Furthermore, the combination of the Truman Doctrine—giving the United States the role of stopping the growth of communism and totalitarianism—and the Second Red Scare—which attempted to purge all anti-American people and sentiments from the United States—led  organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to align with the Cold War Consensus that valued the American way of life, including principles of democracy, capitalism, and living in the “land of the free,” over Soviet communism.

The government attempted to change international perceptions of race relations in the country, rather than make substantive changes to racial policies. Thomas focuses on how the state deployed black athletes for these purposes for the majority of Globetrotting. For example, he highlights the Harlem Globetrotters’ tours overseas and their films that were sent abroad that were supposed to “enlighten members of the local populace who had been led astray by communist depictions of African Americans as downtrodden, persecuted, second-class citizens” (p. 70). Furthermore, Thomas chronicles the careers of black track and field athletes and coaches, along with physical education specialists, who traveled to East Asian countries in the 1950s. These athletes sometimes appeared to be the only way to display American culture as many countries restricted other aspects of American life. Finally, Thomas outlines the goodwill tours of track stars Mal Whitefield and Rafer Johnson, showing how the State Department attempted to use their athletic feats to overshadow the atrocities of racism in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Birmingham, Alabama. In general, Thomas contends that the government consistently sent African American athletes on “overseas goodwill tours” for the sole purpose of showcasing them “as preeminent citizens of the African Diaspora, rather than as victims of racism” (p. 3).

Perhaps Thomas’s most interesting argument suggests that later in the 1960s, things changed. As he explains, “the protest gestures of [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos [at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics] did not spark concern of the federal government” (p. 166). He claims that, because the international press did not focus on violent events such as the atrocities of Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and a 1966 report titled “Racial Issues in the U.S.” that cited America’s Vietnam policy as more important to international delegates, the State Department and other US officials neglected to act on the actions of Smith and Carlos, instead letting the international public inform their own opinion on American race relations. In fact, as Thomas claims, most international presses by 1968 thought that the United States “was doing its best” (p. 163) at solving the issue of racism. The US government did not want to disrupt this new narrative by focusing on its black athletes, as they had done in prior decades.

Thomas connects Globetrotting to the growing historiography of the African Diaspora. He leans heavily on historian Penny M. Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire (1997) and Thomas Borstelmann’s Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle (1993). This historiography places the rise and fall of the African Diaspora as part of the civil rights movement, or what historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (2005) would later call the “long civil rights movement,” showing how, although anticolonial politics remained popular among American civil rights leaders in the 1930s and 1940s, burgeoning anticommunist sentiments ousted leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Robeson, and George Padmore.

As such, and also adding to scholarship by sport scholars such as Amy Bass (2004) and Douglas Hartmann (2003), Thomas inserts sport into this study of the African Diaspora. Silencing Robeson for Robinson is Thomas’s best example of the connections between sport and this area of study. However, Globetrotting still remains a book about how the American government used black athletes, not about how the athletes considered their tours. In doing so, Thomas does not entirely answer one of his research questions at the beginning of the book, when he poses: “Why were athletes willing to accept their status as Cold Warriors?” (p. 4). Besides the simple answer that athletes had little power because of the Red Scare, scant analysis of the athletes themselves appears throughout the work. Only in the epilogue does Thomas make mention of an athlete who comes to realize the political nature of his journey: boxer Muhammad Ali’s excursions to Africa in 1979 to promote Americanism over the Soviet Union. Yet, adding sport to discussions of the African Diaspora is an important step in the field.

Because Globetrotting is primarily an analysis of government policy and cultural politics, Thomas rightly relies on documents from the State Department for many of his arguments. For example, he uncovered a letter from Secretary of State Dean Acheson from 1951 that stated: “The Department feels that there are unlimited possibilities for racial understanding and good will in the visits of these teams . . . which may provide an effective answer to Communist charges of racial prejudice in the U.S.A.” (p. 47). This explicitly shows how the State Department attempted to use black athletes for foreign diplomacy. Thomas also relies on international press coverage, such as the Times of Ceylon in Sri Lanka, for instance, which presented the United States as a backward nation because of southern racism. Because his sources come from State Department reports, along with various secondary sources, his interpretation is primarily based on how the State Department  viewed the international press’ depiction of American race relations.

Throughout the book, Thomas insightfully shows how international media condemned US race relations. However, Globetrotting raises a number of further research questions. How did the fallout from such international perceptions and images actually influence the future direction of the Cold War? Besides appearing in the press, how did countries in Africa and East Asia react to the shifting perceptions of race in the United States? How did women athletes play a role on the international stage (Globetrotting is primarily about black male athletes). What was the result of the propaganda missions? How much impact the State Department really have in shaping perceptions of American racism abroad?

Nevertheless, Globetrotting adds to the historiography of sport and the African American freedom struggle. It provides new insights into the cultural and ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union. And it chronicles the ways that black athletes played a crucial role in Cold War politics. In sum, Thomas uncovered valuable resources that explicitly show how the State Department viewed such athletes as Cold Warriors.

Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at alinden@adrian.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He also maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

One thought on “Review of Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics

  1. Excellent review, but I have one minor observation. Regarding the statement about the State Department sending Harlem Globetrotters films abroad with the purpose to “enlighten members of the local populace who had been led astray by communist depictions of African Americans as downtrodden, persecuted, second-class citizens.” I do not know what the Harlem Globetrotters films featured, but back in 1968 in a Hong Kong theater, I was a lone tourist (a GI on R&R) in a theater filled with Chinese local residents watching an NBA highlights film. Most all the players were African American in the film, and the audiences was utterly enraptured by the film, oohing and aahing the athletic feats of the players. I do not know who sponsored the film, it may have been covertly the State Department or it may have been the NBA. But in that film there was a highly positive image presented of African American players and the audience loved it. The Harlem Grobetrotters films I imagine were mainly court action films, and were probably highly popular wherever they were played. I suspect that by creating these films, all the audiences needed to see were African American athletes playing tremendous basketball, and that was sufficient to counter images of “downtrodden, persecuted, second-class citizens.” I rather doubt that State Department films were filled with over propaganda messages, they did not have to be.

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