Cultural diplomacy of a celluloid kind The USIAs film machine

The USIA was the largest national propaganda organisation directed overseas in history, and one that dwarfed its rivals during the Cold War.27 The agency's relationship with US private industry, and the media in particular, was extremely close. Theodore Streibert, its first director, was a former board chairman of the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network. His deputy, Abbott Washburn, had handled public relations for the food giant, General Mills, before becoming executive vice-chairman of the CIA front organisation Crusade for Freedom.28

Relations between the USIA and Hollywood were intimate throughout the conflict. Cecil B. DeMille was by no means the only film executive to be given an agency consultancy contract. Streibert had previously worked with FBO Pictures and Pathe, and the agency's director in the 1980s was former Hollywood producer Charles Z. Wick.29 The USIA and Hollywood formed a discreet yet vital reciprocal arrangement, one which neatly combined profit and propaganda. Hollywood could use the agency as an overseas audience service unit, helping the film industry to tailor commercial features to particular market tastes in different geographical regions. In turn, studios and producers might learn from the USIA how the content, style and promotion of movies best served foreign policy objectives. The agency helped sell some of the latest developments in American film technology, like the widescreen process, Cinerama, in the 1950s, as part of a long-running campaign designed to link capitalism with scientific accomplishment. It also worked with the Motion Picture Association of America in getting major feature films made available to VIP audiences in Eastern Europe, Russia and other key locations through a programme known as the US Ambassadorial Screenings.30

The USIA could boast the largest and most sophisticated production operation targeting foreign film-goers run by any government during the Cold War. Its well-resourced Motion Picture Service (or MPS) produced scores of high-quality documentaries, employing Hollywood-trained producer-directors on short-term contracts. The MPS financed and directed special projects directly supporting foreign policy, together with periodic newsreels in areas designated crucial. As the earlier analysis of Peter Rathvon's 1984 (1956) shows, it also secretly subsidised films made by foreign companies overseas. This all added up to an extraordinarily heavy and sustained propaganda barrage. In 1962, for instance, the agency produced 36 films within the United States and a further 147 overseas, and issued 197 newsreels.31 By and large these films were designed, like most aspects of cultural diplomacy, to work indirectly, almost imperceptibly. Their task was not to attack the enemy or scare the neutral into submission through 'hard-sell' techniques focused on political issues, but rather to 'convey the rich background and warmth of spirit characteristic of America', through low-key celebrations of its art, cultural diversity, educational strength and economic democracy. For the most part this was white propaganda, clearly, though not strongly, labelled as American government output. Covert projects running in the 1960s included a weekly newsreel for audiences in Africa and Asia, produced by an ostensibly independent company, Associated Films. In the 1960s, the agency also secretly subsidised MGM's commercial newsreel, then playing in twenty-eight countries across Africa and Asia, supplying funding and footage of politically useful events.32

The MPS's distribution network spanned the globe. At its peak, in the 1960s, it maintained film centres at 226 USIS posts in 106 countries, reaching an estimated audience of 600 million people. These centres housed upwards of 50,000 prints of hundreds of MPS-made 16mm and 35mm films (the latter produced for theatrical use), acting as lending libraries to a host of local institutions comprising schools, clubs, churches and union halls. In smaller posts and in developing countries the 16mm productions were often used alongside mobile units, with USIS staff using trains, vans and even small boats to connect with villages, where they would set up portable generators, screens and projectors for open-air presentations. Back in Washington, a special unit kept track of showings, viewer numbers and audience reactions.33

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