The Black Muslims (or the Nation of Islam) were founded by an orthodox Muslim immigrant to America, Wallace Fard Muhammad, in 1931, and made into a powerful movement by Elijah Muhammad. Historically and doctrinally distinct from Islam proper, Black Muslims believed that whites were innately evil and that it was necessary to live apart from them. They also condemned Christianity as a slave religion used to hold blacks in a submissive status and advocated discipline and self-reliance to overcome the demoralizing effect of unemployment, broken families, drug abuse, and white racism. Because of his personal charisma, powerful speaking ability, and organizational talents, Malcolm X (1925-1965) rose quickly in the leadership of the Nation of Islam and was appointed to lead the important Harlem mosque in New York City. But following a trip to Mecca in 1964, he broke with the Nation of Islam and modified his views on whites and separatism, stating that he could now envision the possibility of a world brotherhood. While addressing a crowd in a Harlem ballroom in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three Black Muslims who were angered by his defection from the Nation of Islam.
The selection included here comes from one of his 1964 speeches warning America that there will be trouble ahead if race issues are ignored. The historical context of the speech is important: the civil rights movement was approaching a climax and about to reach fruition in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislative avalanche. Moreover, the focus of American race relations was shifting from the apartheid-like system of the South to the urban ghettoes of the North, Midwest, and West, where unemployment and alienation were about to erupt in paroxysms of violence and rage in a series of riots known as the “long, hot summers” of 1964 and 1965. It is also important to note that the speech was made after Malcolm had separated from the Nation of Islam, and it explains why he made a distinction between his Islamic faith and his identity as a black nationalist.
Malcolm X, Address to a Meeting in New York, in Two Speeches by Malcolm X, ed. George Breitman, 7–21. Copyright © 1965 Pathfinder Press.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Under the accelerating pressure of the American civil rights movement—and with images of African Americans being attacked and beaten as they demanded equality beaming across television screens—President Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation during his administration. Realizing that advocacy of this position might endanger the position of his Democratic Party, particularly in the South, in the elections of 1964, Kennedy continued to find ways to shape American public opinion while also cajoling Congress to implement this legislation. Civil rights advocates, spearheaded by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), convened in a march on Washington, DC, in August 1963. Marchers explicitly demanded “jobs and freedom.” While the electrifying speech King gave on that day is more remembered for its stirring conclusion about his “dream” and about letting “freedom ring,” the prepared remarks at the beginning of the speech reveal even more of King’s brilliance and the depth of his political thought.
Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 marked the climax, and the most dangerous point, of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. When US spy planes discovered the presence of missile launching pads in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy demanded their immediate destruction and followed up this demand with a naval blockade of the island—and continued reconnaissance missions in Cuban airspace—to prevent the arrival of Russian reinforcements. The world held its breath for several days as Soviet ships, bearing nuclear missiles, sailed steadily for Cuba. The globe teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation, and this exchange of letters reveals, from the Soviet and Cuban side, how very close to that brink the world actually came.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
The 1980s was the final decade of the Cold War. Whereas the period between 1942 and 1962 marked the most hostile stage and 1962 to 1979 was the era of détente, the final stage saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931). The invasion cost the Soviets dearly and taxed their military heavily. Gorbachev exerted efforts (successfully, it turned out) to democratize his country’s political system and decentralize the Soviet economy. His support of reformist Communist leaders in soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe led to their eventual secession from the USSR, and his reforms over several years between 1985 and 1991 led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev’s counterpart in the United States, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), was a former actor who became president in 1981 and presided over American foreign policy during this period, becoming one of the most popular modern presidents. In these excerpts, tension over weapons of mass destruction is still front and center in relations between the two countries, notwithstanding the imminent collapse of the Soviet system.
From Jussi Hanhimäki and Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 307–10.
Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) was the fortieth president of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989. Although he had been born in Illinois, he moved to California when he was twenty-six. From then on, he identified strongly with the West, ultimately buying his own ranch and enjoying horseback riding as a leisure activity. Born to an unsuccessful, alcoholic shoe salesman, Reagan valued the opportunities for wealth and success that America presented him. He identified his life history with the pioneer spirit and frontier experiences of earlier generations of Americans, so it is not surprising that he would emphasize pioneer themes in an address on America’s space program.
[U.S. President], Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Ronald Reagan, 1982, Book Two. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (1983): 892–93.
The Soviet view of the Cold War world is reflected in Ambassador Nikolai Novikov’s extended 1946 analysis of the postwar global situation and of U.S. policies and goals. Novikov’s assessment is significant, both because he was based in Washington, D.C., and because his assessment was produced almost exactly one year after the surrender of Japan had ended World War II. In a lengthy telegram to Moscow, Novikov surveyed American involvement in the main global arenas, assessed U.S. goals, and analyzed the roots of anti-Soviet sentiments in America. He concluded that America was an aggressive power that was actively preparing for a future war with Russia in order to achieve complete “world domination.”
Nikolai Novikov, “Telegram to Moscow” (27 September 1946), in Origins of the Cold War, ed. Kenneth M. Jensen (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1991), 3–10, 12–16.
George F. Kennan
George Kennan (1904–2005) was one of the most distinguished American diplomats of the twentieth century, and his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947) is one of the most influential documents in American diplomatic history. As chargé d’affaires in the American embassy in Moscow, he was singularly well placed to observe and assess the Soviet leadership, particularly because he had served in a variety of foreign service positions in Europe since 1927. From 1947 to 1950, he worked in the State Department in high-level planning and advisory roles. He was ambassador to Moscow briefly in 1952. It is hard to overestimate his impact on American Cold War foreign policy. Possessed of a unique combination of knowledge of Russian history, the ability to synthesize and communicate insights based on that knowledge, and the authority within the foreign policy community of the United States to ensure that his opinions would be heard and heeded, Kennan left a deep imprint on America’s view of the Soviet Union.
In “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan elaborated on the ideas that he had addressed in his famous “long telegram” of February 1946. This had come just six months after the surrender of Japan had marked the effective end of World War II. The main purpose of both of Kennan’s documents was to present the essential elements of the Russo-Soviet historical experience, worldview, and political system in order that the United States could formulate effective, well-grounded policies consistent with its own traditions, experiences, and values. His conclusions provided the framework for a set of policies that have become known as “containment,” which shaped American cold war strategy for at least four decades and articulated America’s self-perception in its struggle against the forces of Communism.
X [George F. Kennan], “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 566–78, 580–82.
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman’s presidency coincided with the early and uncertain days of the Cold War. During his administration (1945–1952), Soviet victories in World War II had placed the Red Army in control of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, eastern Germany, and part of Austria. In devastated Western Europe, Communist Party members were also gaining power and influence. It did not take Truman long to respond to this perceived threat. In March 1946, he traveled from Washington to Fulton, Missouri, to be present at the speech by Winston Churchill, in which the former British prime minister said that “an iron curtain has descended across Europe.” Churchill also called on the United States to assume global leadership and to constrain Soviet aggression by means of a strong defense and an active cooperation with England. Exactly one year and one week later, Truman addressed Congress in joint session in the speech in which he laid out his broad foreign policy objectives to contain the Communist menace. The Truman Doctrine provided a coherent strategy for American foreign policy in the Cold War and justified America’s intervention in the Korean War (1950–1953). In 1952, Truman declined to run for reelection and retired to his home in Missouri, where he died twenty years later at the age of 88.
Harry S. Truman, Message to Congress (March 12, 1947); Document 171; 80th Cong. 1st sess., Records of the United States House of Representatives; Record Group 233; National Archives.
United Nations Drafting Committee
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, was one of the most significant and lasting results of the World War II. The League of Nations, created after the World War I, had failed to prevent the beginning of another, even more catastrophic and costly conflict. The United Nations was planned throughout the war as a substitute mechanism for global peace and security, but world leaders also believed that a document was necessary to affirm the rights of individuals throughout the entire world. A formal drafting committee, consisting of members from eight countries, was charged with the task. The committee chair was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Roosevelt and a strong advocate for human rights in her own right. By its resolution 217 A (III), the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight nations abstained from the vote, but none dissented.
United Nations General Assembly
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, was one of the most significant and lasting results of the Second World War. The League of Nations, created after the First World War, had failed to prevent the beginning of another, even more catastrophic and costly conflict. The United Nations was planned throughout the war as a substitute mechanism for global peace and security, but world leaders also believed that a document was necessary to affirm the rights of individuals throughout the entire world. A formal drafting committee, consisting of members from eight countries, was charged with the task. The committee chair was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Roosevelt and a strong advocate for human rights in her own right. By its resolution 217 A (III), the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight nations abstained from the vote, but none dissented.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/)
Lyndon B. Johnson
The American leader most associated with American involvement in Vietnam was President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). In his speech “Why Americans Fight in Vietnam” (1965), he attempted to explain to the American people why the United States needed to undertake a difficult, dangerous, and expensive endeavor. But three years later, with his popularity at its lowest point, President Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term as president, and he retired to his Texas ranch in 1969.
Lyndon B. Johnson, “Why Americans Fight in Vietnam,” in The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, volume 1, 172 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), 394–99.
The Vietnam War and the cost it imposed on the young Americans who served there (not to mention on the Vietnamese themselves) was the focus of John Kerry’s testimony before the U.S. Senate, which is excerpted here. John Kerry (1943– ) was a highly decorated (Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts) Vietnam veteran who cofounded and became the leading spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A Massachusetts native and a graduate of Yale University, Kerry enlisted in the navy and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, leading gunboat patrols in the Mekong Delta. Upon his return, he became a leading critic of the war and its “hypocrisy.” After completing law school, Kerry entered Massachusetts politics in 1976 and later was elected to three terms as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts before running for U.S. President in 2004 and joining the Obama administration in 2012 as Secretary of State. The speech presented here was his introductory statement made to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. In explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War, Kerry provides a view on the Vietnam conflict that highlights the divisive bitterness that the war created in America.
John Kerry, “Why I Oppose the Vietnam War,” in Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 92d Congress, 1st sess., April–May 1971 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1971), 180–83, 185.