This article examines how the desire for ideological and military dominance by the United States facilitated civil rights for Mexican Americans during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. The article relies on Mendez v. Westminster, the case that led to the end of legal segregation in California, as a lens to view the connection between domestic and foreign policy. Mendez came to trial when shifting geopolitical realities increased pressure on the United States to project an image of inclusive democracy, prompting an externally oriented elite to recognize the ideological gap between the country’s ideals and its practice. Although the case’s success provided activists and liberal members of the Truman administration with a measure of political authority to propel rights legislation forward, the rise of de facto segregation points to the limits of democratic activism when it confronts endemic racism without support from larger institutions.

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