Americas Achilles heel

As the brouhaha surrounding Stanley Kramer's On the Beach signifies, the doubts Americans expressed about the nation's nuclear weapons programme probably caused Washington's propagandists more headaches over the course of the Cold War than any other issue. However, during the conflict's first two decades no issue challenged the central image the USIA wished to present of the United States overseas more than the nation's persistent problems caused by racial injustice. Many civil rights activists and non-white nations especially questioned America's very right to act as a beacon of democracy during the Cold War when it practised brutal discrimination against blacks at home. Others asked how the United States could possibly hope to be a model of progress for those struggling against Soviet oppression when it treated minorities within its own borders so terribly.

State Department archives show that even in the very earliest phases of the Cold War, when Washington's eye was trained almost entirely on Europe, officials in the developing world were worried about America's image on race. In the late 1940s, US embassy staff issued constant warnings to their superiors in Washington about the deleterious effect southern segregation was having on many Third World citizens' support for the United States' war on communism. The 'colour bar was', according to one official in Ceylon in 1948, citing a local journalist, 'the greatest propaganda gift any country could give the Kremlin in its persistent bid for the affections of the coloured races of the world'. In the same year, the US embassy in Moscow reported that the 'Negro question' was 'one of the principal Soviet propaganda themes regarding the United States'.14 Evidence of this can be found in a number of Soviet films of the era, most notably Grigori Aleksandrov's The Meeting on the Elbe (1949) and Abram Room's Silvery Dust (1953). Aleksandrov's assault on American perfidy at the end of the Second World War treated viewers to images of jeering white GIs beating up a black soldier outside a German nightclub. Room's espionage drama showed white American fascists caging black peace partisans like monkeys, in order to use them as guinea pigs for chemical warfare experiments. Harlem, USA, a more obscure Soviet film that was dubbed into English and found its way into America in 1952, portrayed the New York district as an impoverished black ghetto exploited by white businessmen and ringed by police.15

The State Department and, after 1953, the USIA worked hard to paint a more favourable picture of American race relations, acknowledging that the issue had a critical impact on US prestige abroad. A twin-track propaganda strategy emerged: first, to characterise civil rights as a sectional problem that was restricted to the American south, and which was the product of US federalism; second, to emphasise the improvements black Americans were experiencing in their daily lives, and to place these within the narrative of America's historical progress towards social justice and equality for all. This was a clear attempt to turn a liability into an asset: to assert that democracy was the only model of government that was both truly inclusive and allowed for peaceful social change.16 On the ground, officials bombarded international media outlets with press releases and feature stories illustrating the progress African-Americans had made since emancipation, and countered media reports of racial prejudice or violence with evidence of social mobility and the rise in income of America's minorities. Washington sponsored overseas trips by distinguished African-Americans to speak on the 'Negro problem', and confiscated the passports of others like the actor Paul Robeson who argued that only fundamental economic and political change would improve African-Americans' prospects in America.17 Officially sponsored tours of musicals like George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess allowed African-Americans to demonstrate their artistic prowess on stage in Europe.18

However, by the mid-1950s official reports indicated that Washington's message of measured yet constructive progress on civil rights appears to have made little or no headway. America's continued vulnerability on the race issue was summed up by the New York Times in early 1955, in an article that condemned the ease with which communist propaganda 'sedulously fosters the notion that . . . American Negroes live under conditions little if any different from those described in Uncle Tom's Cabin'19 Many countries in the developing world, which were only just earning their independence from European colonialism, not surprisingly viewed anti-colonialism as a more salient issue than anti-communism. To them, America's racial practices made the so-called leader of the West appear like any other white imperialist nation — bigoted, hypocritical and intent on domination.20

Things got worse for Washington before they got better. In 1954, in its historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the US Supreme Court called for the desegregation of public schools across America. What was seen at first as a public relations coup for official propagandists — Voice of America broadcasts trumpeted the news across Eastern Europe within hours of the Court's ruling, while the USIA's post in India immediately sent all of its educational films showing clips of multi-ethnic American schools on mobile unit tours21 — turned three years later into a public relations nightmare. In September 1957, President Eisenhower's month-long struggle to persuade the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, to integrate the previously all-white Central High School in the city of Little Rock culminated with the White House sending a 1,000-strong contingent of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division to accompany nine African-American children to school. The prolonged duration and the military drama of the school siege made Little Rock, according to one historian, 'the first on-site news extravaganza of the modern television era'.22

Throughout September 1957, overseas audiences were appalled by the photographs and newsreel images of angry whites verbally and physically intimidating African-Americans. Significantly, Eisenhower's extraordinary use of federal troops during the Little Rock crisis can itself be put down partly to the need to assuage foreign opinion. Unless he acted decisively, the president feared the stand-off 'could continue to feed the mill of Soviet propagandists who by word and picture were telling the world of the "racial terror" in the United States'. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles felt utterly frustrated by the impact of the crisis on his whole Cold War strategy. '[T]his situation was ruining our foreign policy', he told Attorney General Herbert Brownell. 'The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.'23 Anger at the government was also palpable at home among some of the State Department's most prominent African-American cultural ambassadors. One, the jazz musician Louis Armstrong, reacted to Little Rock by telling the government it 'could go to the devil with its plans for a propaganda tour of Soviet Russia'.24

Amidst such vitriol and doom-laden rhetoric, Little Rock caused a jolt to the political and foreign policy machines in the United States. As historian Mary L. Dudziak writes, Little Rock was a crisis of such magnitude for worldwide perceptions of race and American democracy that it would become a critical reference point for the future. Later presidents would try their best to avoid 'another Little Rock', and foreign commentators would judge American racial progress by how far the United States had come since the events of September 1957.25 The USIA and its sister agencies learned their own lessons from Little Rock, pinpointing the need for a tighter marriage between propaganda and policy formulation, the potential benefits of being more open about America's social problems, and the higher priority that ought to be given to winning over Third World nationalists by using as wide a range of techniques and media as possible. When, in 1961, a younger and more media-friendly politician, John F. Kennedy, moved into the White House, their prayers seemed to have been answered. Kennedy spoke openly of his determination to switch the focus of the cultural Cold War away from Europe, where many felt the West had to all intents and purposes already won, to the nascent and unaligned states in Africa and Asia. When Kennedy then appointed the legendary Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) journalist Edward R. Murrow to spearhead a revamped USIA, optimism increased. Murrow vowed that the USIA would be 'in on the take-off of foreign policy, not just its execution. A renowned liberal, he also proclaimed his intention of telling 'America's story to the world, warts and all'. With these changes, the stage seemed set for a more vigorous and imaginative campaign to explain America's race issue overseas.26

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