Arts as Weapon

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When the Cold War was waged most intensely, in the two decades or so immediately following 1945, the arts—and especially popular culture—were phenomena that the American side valued and that its Soviet opponents could not ignore. The media messages emanating from the United States had no single return address. It was sometimes official; for instance, the Washington locale of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the U.S. Information Agency. But the ideological sources could also be in Hollywood (movies), New York City (publishing, painting), Memphis (rock 'n' roll), or even in Nashville (country music). The decentralization of American culture—the very diffusion of these sites—can inhibit generalization. But it is fair to note how univocal was the message pitched to Communist nations, as well as to other foreigners: the United States was committed to invoking the ideals of personal liberty and economic abundance.

The Cold War consolidated the shift in high culture from Europe to the United States. Abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, plus Willem de Kooning,—who constituted a New York school of painting—and a successor like pop's Andy Warhol all personified the movement of the center of artistic gravity westward from Paris. Embassies in London (designed by Eero Saarinen, 1956) and New Delhi (by Edward Durrell Stone, 1959) helped mark the maturation of American architecture; the size and elegance of such buildings were intended to project benign but formidable power.

The cultural exchange programs instituted by the end of the 1950s not only enabled American audiences to hear Soviet virtuosi like violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels but also deposited their counterparts in the USSR, where an American-trained Texan, Van Cliburn, eased Cold War tensions by winning the Tchaikovsky International Piano competition in 1958. Touring with the New York Philharmonic, the American-trained conductor Leonard Bernstein personified the reconciliation of classical music in the United States with the Broadway musicals that he won fame for composing. (For the American entry at the World's Fair in Brussels in 1958, the two shows presented were Wonderful Town, for which he had written the score, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.) At La Scala in 1954, the first American opera was mounted: Porgy and Bess (1935), which also inspired a series of 1950s tours that may have countered propaganda highlighting the oppression of African Americans. Among the musicians whose international tours showcased black talent, none was more conspicuous than jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose 1955 album was even entitled Ambassador Satch.

But it was rock around the clock that did even more to weaken the Eastern bloc by loosening the grip of Stalinist authority. At the Communists' sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Moscow in 1957, the unofficial anthem was The Coasters' "Love Potion Number 9," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The very music that in the United States divided teenagers from their elders by asserting adolescent autonomy had also connected white and black youth—and then swept across the globe by promising deliverance "from the days of old." This cry of liberation was enunciated by guitarist-singercomposer Chuck Berry, who had also wished to get the news of rock triumphalism to Tchaikovsky. Elvis Presley became an international superstar, joining a parade of Hollywood actors and actresses whose faces became nearly as familiar abroad as at home.

Approximately four out of every five films in the global market came from the United States in the era following World War II. The proportions soon became similar for television programs, making America's the first universal culture in history, and eventually arousing criticism that "globalization" was merely a synonym for one nation's hegemony over the minds and tastes of the planet.

The exercise of such influence—even when exaggerated by critics on the left and the right—was sometimes intended. Through a series of foundations, the CIA in the 1950s secretly subsidized eminent magazines published in major Western European cities (Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, Tempo Presente), and also bankrolled an animated film, Animal Farm (1954), inspired by George Orwell's anti-Bolshevik parable. Only with the eruption of a dissident ethos in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War escalated, was CIA funding exposed; and the furtive efforts to place the thumb of an intelligence organization on the scales of culture was curtailed. By then, the popularity of espionage novels like John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) suggested a willingness to entertain the notion of blurred lines between good and evil, between West and East; and art could no longer be unambiguously deployed as a weapon in the Cold War.


Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 194–1961. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Robin, Ron. Enclaves of America: The Rhetoric of American Political Architecture Abroad, 1900–196. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 2000.

Wagnleitner, Reinhold. Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria After the Second World War, translated by Diana Wolf. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Wagnleitner, Reinhold and May, Elaine Tyler, eds. Here, There and Everywhere: The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture. Hanover, NH.: University Press of New England, 2000.

Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War, 2d edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Stephen J. Whitfield

See also:CIA and Espionage; Cold War Novels and Movies; Foreign Aid, 1946–Present; Higher Education; Music of Vietnam Era; Popular Culture and Cold War; Television, 1946–Pesent .

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Arts as Weapon

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