This is America: Projecting Prosperity in the Cold War

From the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the 1960s, how the United States portrayed itself to the world was seen as an important aspect of fighting the Cold War. The ‘Cultural’ Cold War was seen as just as important, because it was necessary to show the U.S. as not only strong economically and militarily, but also to make the U.S. likable. There was anti-Americanism in the world, and not just in the Middle East and Latin America. It was also found in Japan and Western Europe, who often saw the U.S. as hypocritical. Portraying the U.S. in a certain way was not just about combating communism but strengthening ties between allies. President Eisenhower, who was President between 1953-1961, thought Trade Fairs used to showcase American Culture were the cheapest way of fighting the Cold War. They were the cheapest way of protecting national defence and strengthening ties with allies. Psychological warfare grew as the Cold War started in earnest, and it also became an underlined threat in security reports, with the National Security Council underlining the importance of the cultural side of the Cold War to American security in their report on the United States Information Agency (USIA), a program set up by Eisenhower in 1953 to portray American prosperity abroad, and also run by the State Department.

this is america
Portraying the American Way: a house in the suburbs, a young family, prosperity all built on free enterprise and innovation was the tone of many propaganda pieces. Taken from: http://www.herinst.com

How did the US want to portray itself?

The U.S. wanted to portray its ideals in a way to remind people of why they were arming and spending so much on defence, to protect those ideals. It underlined ideals of social mobility, political freedom, cultural diversity and affluence while portraying the characteristics of American life as one rooted in democratic ideals and the ‘American way’ of productivity and innovation. Characteristics which were focused on often countered that of communist ideals, and focused on a similar sort of rhetoric. These characteristics included:

  1. Religion – Americans were religious, opposed to the ‘godless’ communism of the USSR
  2. Family – American families were nuclear and suburban, which was more socially and emotionally fulfilling and gave better chances to their children
  3. Property – Unlike Soviet people, Americans could own their own homes
  4. The U.S. was dedicated to peace and would not get involved for its own interest, unlike the Soviets who wanted to spread communism

Criticisms: What was it missing?

Tensions at home were often the criticism of Trade Fairs. The U.S. was criticised for its treatment of race. This was usually ignored from propaganda, and when it was mentioned it was to say it was something they were progressing on, or to underline it was a Southern problem not a U.S. one. Racial tensions got so bad in the U.S. that many African-Americans refused to be a part of their propaganda, such as Louis Armstrong. After the Little Rock Crisis in 1957, in which nine black students were prevented entry into Little Rock Central High School, he refused to be the face of black America and jazz in one of the U.S. tours.  Propaganda also ignored issues of poverty in the U.S. Although more affluent shown by its growing suburban life, 50 million people still lived below the poverty line.

A lot of the criticism of propaganda itself was the expense. It cost a lot of money to put together brochures and advertisements and send showcases on tour. Although there were criticisms of subversion of the State Department, these did not focus on subversion by the CIA but by communists, which fed on growing fears in the early fifties by McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Trade Fairs too did not necessarily fare well themselves, and in 1956 they proved no more popular than Soviet Fairs and did less well than the Chinese fairs. There were criticisms that there was no real sense of what American culture was. In Moscow in 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev claimed that the U.S. display felt like a Department Store instead of an exhibit of culture, showing off American Materialism. The message of capitalism was certainly getting through, but was democracy?

Moscow 1959

The Moscow 1959 exhibit is one of the most famous and important fairs in the U.S. cultural Cold War. Not only was it the first time the U.S. had the chance to reach Soviet people since the late 1940s, it was also part of a cultural exchange program between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In June 1959 the Soviet Union displayed their exhibit in New York, and the following month the U.S. exhibited theirs in Moscow. Walter Hixson underlines that this was a new way the Cold War was being fought, especially with Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S., and showed the changing relations between the two leading world powers.

the miracle kitchen
Nixon and Khrushchev look over America’s Miracle Kitchen. Innovative… or ‘simply gadgets’?

The Moscow exhibit portrayed all of American prosperity and advancement, of course continuing its trend with a section on the ‘People of Plenty’, illustrating how the American economic system benefited U.S. citizens through affluence and prosperity. It had also originally had a more self-critical section in which it discussed racial issues in the U.S. and how it could go forward. However, some Southerners reacted badly to this and it was pulled out. The rest of the displays focused on the theme of American prosperity, with ones on Disney, The Miracle Kitchen, and an IBM computer which could answer a series of questions, as well as a display of consumer goods, including Pepsi Cola, which even Khrushchev liked.

The most famous part of this exhibit is that of The Miracle Kitchen, for stimulating The Kitchen Debate between Vice President Nixon and Khrushchev. Although the debate centred around the kitchen and its modern gadgets, it was really one of differing ideologies and underlining the different principles of U.S. capitalism and Soviet communism. When Nixon said these were homes affordable for ordinary Americans, not just the rich, Khrushchev said all Soviet people have a home and don’t need to pay for one. When Khrushchev said the U.S. was a slave to technology, Nixon said it made home-life easier, opening up time for leisure. The New York Times criticised the debate for ignoring substantive issues and claimed it was more of a political stunt than anything, but it did increase Nixon’s popularity at the time and cement the Trade Fairs place in fighting the Cold War in public consciousness.

the kitchen debate
Nixon and Khrushchev discuss their differing positions, and their mutual dislike of Jazz at the 1959 Moscow Exhibit

The Leader of the Free World

Propaganda was used to portray U.S. strength and prestige and its position in the world. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Western Europe had relied on the U.S. for aid. Its image as the leader of the free world was an important one to hold up. It was not just about boosting the U.S.  image but that of capitalism’s. It is important to remember that not long before the 1950s had been the Great Depression, which for many was seen as the great failure of capitalism. Reinventing the system was also a part of this propaganda to describe the American economic system as ‘People’s Capitalism’. No longer just for the few, it proclaimed, but for the many. According to this, capitalism had gone through a peaceful and democratic revolution and was not like the capitalism of the 1920s and 1930s, which led to mass poverty, corruption and Depression. These were all major themes of U.S. propaganda in the Cold War.

 

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