An Italian job

In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the subsequent marriage of convenience between the United States, Russia and Britain, such stories were no longer commercially fashionable or politically advisable. Instead, between 1942 and 1945, the Soviet Union gradually underwent a makeover on American cinema screens, transformed from an enemy into a valuable wartime partner. In accordance with Office of War Information (OWI) guidance, Hollywood movies depicting the USSR tended to avoid the sensitive issue of communism, rationalise past Soviet behaviour, suggest that the country was a non-totalitarian state moving towards the American model, and focus above all on the heroic wartime efforts of the ordinary Russian people. Thus, Albert Herman's Miss V. from Moscow (1942) and Edward Dmytryk's Tender Comrade (1943) pitted brave Russian spies and paratroopers against evil Nazi officers. Michael Curtiz's Mission to Moscow (1943), with the full support of the White House, whitewashed Stalin's atrocities. And Gregory Ratoff's Song of Russia (1943) showed the Soviet motherland to have plush nightclubs, thriving collective farms, and lovable comrades worshipping freely at Orthodox churches. The latter film even allowed for the marriage in Russia between a touring American symphony conductor, John Meredith (played by Robert Taylor), and Nadya (Susan Peters), a Russian pianist. When Nadya decides to travel with her husband to the United States at the end of the movie, this is not to defect but to preach the message of the Soviets to America.40

Song of Russia, an MGM production, came back to haunt Louis B. Mayer when East-West relations deteriorated after the Second World War, especially when the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives started in 1947 to hunt for those who had made Hollywood, as HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas put it, a 'Red propaganda centre'. Mayer said under investigation that the film had merely been made to give Russia 'a pat on [the] back, to keep them fighting', but few appeared to believe him. In November 1947, MGM re-released Ninotchka both as a means of getting HUAC off its back and to cash in on the growing Red Scare engulfing the United States. Ninotchka was, as MGM trailers trumpeted, 'a most timely film'.41 Indeed it was, especially in war-torn Europe.

During the Second World War, Washington had constructed an enormous propaganda machine, with two separate organisations, the OWI and Office of Strategic Services (OSS), handling white and black material respectively.42 At the end of hostilities, these units were quickly dismantled on economic and idealistic grounds; at this point many Americans regarded a permanent propaganda organisation run by the federal government as fundamentally undemocratic. By early 1947, however, publicity cutbacks were being hastily reversed, and a new, more complex machine started to be built. In the wake of the March 1947 Truman Doctrine, which portrayed the United States and Soviet Union as two irreconcilable enemies, the newly formed National Security Council charged the State Department with responsibility for strong information measures to counter Soviet programmes, and assigned the oversight of covert psychological operations to the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 then provided the legal foundation for American peacetime propaganda overseas. The legislation envisioned using all the tools of modern communication, including print, radio, films, exchange programmes and exhibitions, to disseminate information about the United States.43

Given a major boost by Truman's Campaign of Truth from mid-1950 onwards,44 then by the Eisenhower administration's more holistic approach towards propaganda,45 the American government's Cold War information infrastructure was highly sophisticated by the early 1960s. Successive administrations then built on this sturdy platform. By the 1980s, the US government's full-service international propaganda machine employed more than

10,000 full-time staff, spread out among some 150 countries, burnishing America's image while maligning the Soviet Union to the tune of over $2 billion per year.46 Compared with its Soviet counterpart, indications are that the US government's whole propaganda machine was better organised, staffed and financed, and more versatile throughout the conflict.47

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the Truman administration held high hopes that its atomic monopoly and economic superiority would drive the Red Army out of most of the countries it had occupied on its march to Berlin and reunite Europe. However, this soon proved to be a chimera, to the point where, by late 1947, the US government feared Western Europe was on the edge of disaster. In February 1948 the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, and in March the US Commander in Germany, General Lucius Clay, warned Washington that a Soviet military attack might occur within days. American leaders feared that a communist victory in the first post-war elections in Italy in mid-April would signal the collapse of democracy in Europe, by strengthening the bid for power of the communist parties throughout Western Europe and weakening the ability of the moderate middle-class and socialist opponents to resist the hard left. Furthermore, the US would suffer a severe loss of prestige if a strategic nation within its sphere of influence moved into close collaboration with the Soviet Union.48

With 1.6 million cinema tickets being sold in Italy per day in 1948, film inevitably played a central role in the massive 'state-private' American propaganda campaign to mobilise voters against the communist-militant-socialist coalition at the polls.49 This campaign was no one-week wonder. Just as in other countries, the State Department and Hollywood had been working successfully together to penetrate the Italian film market for years. In 1946, for instance, 600 American commercial films were registered for import into Italy compared with 100 British and 30 Soviet films. On a more official level, by 1947 the United States Information Services (USIS) had established five offices in Italy, each stocked with 100 titles of educational and documentary films. These films, which were usually shown on mobile American equipment and reached roughly 100,000 Italians each month, dealt with a variety of subjects designed both to give the Italians some idea of America and to help them improve their agricultural and industrial techniques.50 In the months leading up to the April 1948 election, the ten leading American film distributors in Italy formed a consortium and cooperated with US government information officials in giving the widest possible dissemination to selected American feature and documentary films on a non-profit basis. Circulated alongside these were films extolling the benefits of US economic aid, produced by the leading Italian weekly newsreel programme, INCOM.51

The American films, which were watched by an estimated five million Italians per week in early April, were among the most effective of all media used in the pre-election propaganda drive. Evidence suggests that Ninotchka was the most prominent of all. Following State Department requests, distributors doubled the movie's print numbers. Special arrangements were made so the film could be shown among the lower-income population. Italian communists made several attempts to forestall the showing of Ninotchka, including threatening movie-theatre managers if they did not remove it from programmes and stealing copies from cinemas. When Russia's embassy asked the Rome authorities in early April to take Ninotchka out of the city's ten theatres in which it had been showing for several weeks, the publicity probably added to the film's nationwide success.52 'What licked us was Ninotchka', one disappointed Communist party functionary is reported to have said when the pro-Soviet left was defeated at the polls, and the main anti-communist party, the Christian Democrats, gained an absolute majority in the new parliament. 'Greta Garbo Wins Elections', proclaimed one conservative newspaper.53 While both statements are hyberbolic, Ninotchka was perfectly suited to the US government's propaganda campaign, a campaign that avoided allegations of American interference in Italian affairs and that reduced the issues before the Italian people to a series of simple choices: democracy or totalitarianism, abundance or starvation, happiness or misery. It also tied in with the Christian Democrats' own use of election posters that featured glamorous images of popular American heart-throbs like Tyrone Power and proclaimed 'Even Hollywood stars are against Communism.'54

The 1948 Italian election results were in all likelihood due more to the Vatican's political mobilisation than to outside aid, but were read in Washington as proof of America's ability to influence the domestic affairs of other nations through the use of unconventional instruments, including film propaganda. The results therefore had a lasting effect on American political and publicity activities in Europe and the Third World.55 In the more immediate term, though, Ninotchka continued to be appropriated — unofficially and officially — in the struggle against communism in Europe. French censors had banned the film in September 1947, possibly because of the extreme volatility of national politics at the time,56 but passed it in late April 1948. When it was re-released in the same month in Britain, one local journalist focused on Ninotchka's comic propaganda qualities to ask why ridicule was being neglected as an anti-communist weapon. Another judged it the best antiSoviet propaganda film made to date, partly because it was so understated: 'The delaying tactics of the Soviet mission, the consultations with Moscow, the suspicion, the censoring of letters, phrases like "confiscated legally", "sent to Siberia", "bourgeois capitalism" . . . have become universally topical jokes however macabre . . . How odd that we should ever have thought this devastating caricature merely funny.'57 The film heightened the mood of West Berliners during the 1948-9 Soviet blockade, and was reissued in the western half of the city in the summer of 1951 during the Whitsuntide march of the communist-led East Berlin youth, in order to give the visitors the chance to laugh at their Soviet occupiers and indigenous communist leaders.58

Around this time Ninotchka also appeared in Vienna, a city then still controlled by the Russians, British, French and Americans. In November 1950 alone, more than 70,000 Viennese saw the film in the two large theatres within the international zone. A few months later, the US Embassy happily reported to Washington that 'considerable persuasion and reassurances of American interests' had paid off with respect to the film audience.59 As in Rome in 1948, Soviet officials complained bitterly about Ninotchka's release in Vienna, and several theatre owners withdrew the film due to threats of violence by local communists. To counter the film's effects further, Moscow waged an intensive advertising campaign in the city for one of its own re-releases, Michail Chiaureli's Second World War 'artistic documentary', The Fall of Berlin (1949). Widely distributed by indigenous communist parties in Western Europe in the early 1950s, this two-part film accused Roosevelt and Churchill of having deliberately prolonged the war in the hope that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would destroy one another. As a consequence, the film argued, Washington and London had added unnecessarily to the ordinary Austrians' suffering and precipitated the Cold War.60

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