African Americans in Cold War Nepal
Race formed a contentious part of the early Cold War in South Asia. During the 1950s, several African American aid workers found themselves in the middle of a changing Nepal, and a changing world.
The first African American technician in Nepal was George Talley Brooks, a 30-year-old entomologist who arrived with his wife Mary in September 1952. He was the only African American in Kathmandu among 10 Americans mostly from rural states, in the years just before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement changed the US.
Brooks and his wife had their own motivations for coming to Nepal, amidst larger historical forces of Cold War competition between the US and the communist bloc.
‘The coloured peoples of Asia and Africa, who total two-thirds of the world’s population, seldom think about the United States without considering the limitations under which our 13 million Negroes are living,’ US Ambassador to India and Nepal Chester Bowles wrote in 1953.
South Asian audiences often asked Bowles about the treatment of African Americans, particularly segregated schools and violence against blacks. ‘I can think of no single thing that would be more helpful to us in Asia than the achievement of racial harmony in America,’ Bowles noted.
As ambassador, Bowles encouraged the recruitment of African Americans for US overseas work. ‘I have tried in every way I know to get qualified Negroes assigned to our posts in India ... the Negroes we have had have done us a world of good,’ he wrote.
George Brooks' main job in Nepal was to devise ways to control crop pests, including with pesticides. Because of his entomological expertise, he was brought into malaria control programs using DDT. He and George Moore, the American mission’s first physician, designed one of the first malaria programs in Nepal, in Balaju.
Brooks also accompanied US Operations Mission (USOM) Director Paul Rose on the 1952 survey trip to Chitwan that led to America’s major project in Nepal for the next decade, and whose first on-the-ground American director, Herman Holliday, was also non-white. Brooks enjoyed malaria work so much that he switched to public health for the rest of his career.
Unlike some of his American and Nepali colleagues, Brooks did not look down on Nepal’s rural peasants. In a report, he noted Nepal's ‘crude and inefficient’ agricultural methods but also spoke of ‘the ingenuity of the people’. Relations with his American teammates were mixed. Brooks got on well with fellow scientist and malaria worker George Moore. Pictures show the two of them together on a research trip to Helambu.
But according to Nancy Dammann, who worked for the US Information Service in Nepal, the other Americans (mostly from the American South) at first ‘snubbed’ Brooks and his wife ‘because they were black’. A former history teacher, Mary Brooks made some of her less accomplished white neighbours nervous.
Yet, Mary and George Brooks got along well with Nepalis. Interested in Nepali history and language, Mary Brooks had good relations with Nepali women. She and her husband were the first Americans to invite Nepalis to their house. Most other Americans mixed with Nepalis only at work and at official receptions.
Dhruba Bhakta Mathema, who worked for the US program, grew very fond of George Brooks and, because of him, America more broadly. About Brooks, Mathema once told me, “We learned that those who studied could advance despite their background and colour.”
The British Embassy in Kathmandu also kept the African American couple out. “We don’t invite Negroes to our parties if we can help it,” a British second secretary told Dammann. In June 1953, Brooks and his wife were deliberately left off the invitation list for the coronation party of Queen Elizabeth. Once they learned of this, the other Americans refused to attend as well. ‘I was proud to watch my southern countrymen decide to turn down the coronation invitation,’ Dammann wrote.
American race relations often came up in conversations with Nepalis. After one dinner at the home of Foreign Minister Khadgaman Singh, a former political prisoner, an informal debate was set up between George Moore, the only American present, and a supporter of Nepal’s Communist party.
As Moore later recalled, the Communist leader gave an animated talk in front of the guests, highlighting corruption in the US, exploitation of the poor and racial discrimination, including the violence American blacks faced, such as lynchings. Moore, a New Jerseyian who had recently worked in Virginia, countered that the situation had changed and that American blacks now had many opportunities. As Exhibit #1, he pointed to George Brooks.
It was a complicated time. In the late afternoon one day in 1954, several Americans drove into Kathmandu to shop, arriving in the city centre to find themselves in the middle of a Communist anti-American rally. Noticing the American jeep, the demonstrators quickly surrounded it. Red Saunders, the American who was driving, navigated slowly through the crowd. Suddenly, someone cut the top of the jeep with a knife, terrifying its American occupants, who quickly returned to their Rabi Bhawan compound, rattled but unharmed.
One of the women in the car was Mary Brooks, an outspoken critic of racial hierarchy and discrimination in the US. It is unlikely that the protestors knew that the jeep held one of the African Americans that their compatriots often used as evidence of America’s exploitative ways. Unfortunately, there’s no record of how Mary Brooks or the others involved made sense of the contradictions of the event, or the profound complexities of early Cold War politics.
Tom Robertson, PhD, is the author of ‘Front Line of the Cold War: The US and Point Four Development Programs in Cold War Nepal’ 1950-1953 in the June issue of Studies of Nepali History and Society. He is director of Fulbright Nepal. His views are his own.