Religion politics and Cold War propaganda

There is no clear way to arrive at a precise assessment of the role of religion in the Cold War. It seems safe to conclude that most people, especially in the West, viewed the conflict in diplomatic and political terms. Yet religion was not an insignificant determinant, especially for those who were tempted to see the battle between communism and capitalism as a latter-day morality play, and in those countries, like Pope John Paul II's Poland, where the traditional authority of the church clashed with the enhanced powers of a reconfigured state.3 One of the main planks of Bolshevik propaganda after October 1917 was its campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, in line with MarxistLeninist doctrine that religion was a product of social oppression and economic exploitation. During the 1920s Russian communists widely disseminated what they termed 'scientific-educational' propaganda, including vicious anti-clerical literature and films designed to 'liberate the toiling masses from religious prejudices' and rid the state of one of the chief rivals to its all-embracing ideology. Sergei Eisenstein's October (1927), for example, commissioned by the Soviet government to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, showed the Orthodox Church and its followers to be primitive and corrupt.4 During Stalin's reign these anti-clerical attacks gathered pace, especially during the great purges of 1936-9, buttressed by the rituals and ceremonials of a 'cult of leadership' which were partially designed to appeal to the spiritual traditions of many Russian people.5

With the onset of a fully fledged Cold War in the late 1940s, Soviet filmmakers were ordered to place a heightened emphasis on the moral superiority of the communist system, rather than simply focusing on its economic and political advantages. This heralded a renewed assault on Russia's alternative spiritual forces, notably the church. Films such as Conspiracy of the Doomed (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1950) and Dawn over the Neman (A. Faintsimmer, 1953) portrayed church dignitaries as American-backed Vatican spies prepared to go to any lengths to prevent 'progress', from poisoning collective farm crops to coercing Balkan nations into joining the Marshall Plan.6

Official and unofficial propagandists in the West were equally quick to play the religious card in the early years of the cultural Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of the Bolsheviks' rise to power, sections of the American and British press denounced communists as murderous blasphemers, while theatrical productions such as R. Grahame's The Bolshevik Peril, staged in London in 1919, warned of the spiritual and sexual depravity inherent in communist rule.7 After 1945, the persecution of religion under 'godless communism' became one of the most emotive themes of Cold War discourse in the United States. Many American policy-makers assumed a missionary mentality, seeing the Soviet Union as not just an enemy but something akin to the anti-Christ.8 In 1950, John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian minister's son and US Secretary of State 1953-9, decried the 'materialistic' bent of American society, and called instead for a 'righteous and dynamic faith' in the nation's fight against communism. Three years later, his brother Allen, Director of the CIA between 1953 and 1961, explained to the Council on Foreign Relations the need for a new 'Magna Carta of Freedom' around which the West could rally. To many conservative Protestants and Catholics in the United States, Americans were in effect the chosen people, those who believed in the holy trinity of God, Democracy and Freedom. Their 'way of life' was the model for all others, and was currently threatened, they believed, by the kingdom of hell on earth: what Ronald Reagan would later call the 'evil empire' of the Soviet Union. 'It is only through religion that we can lick this thing called Communism', intoned Eisenhower in 1953, whose inaugural parade that year was led by a 'float for God'.9

In line with this belief that the Cold War was at root a moral contest, the State Department, FBI, CIA and USIA took every opportunity to contrast the West and its 'gospel' of religious tolerance with the 'fanatic faith' of those in the East led by their 'pseudo-Gods' in the Kremlin. Voice of America (VOA), the US government's official broadcasting service, together with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, both secretly funded by the CIA, consistently sought to mobilise the great spiritual resources that were still thought to exist behind the Iron Curtain despite Moscow's clampdown on the churches in Eastern and Central Europe.10 Such language and action reaffirmed a Manichean perspective on the Cold War for many Christian activists in the

United States, who believed that the fight to protect theological freedom in the East would in turn help to revitalise democracy's own moral and spiritual values.

All of this tied in with the remarkable resurgence of organised religion in the United States in the early 1950s, a phenomenon which resulted in an enhanced political role for Christian pressure groups who defined Americanism in religious terms. In 1954, Congress created a Prayer Room for its members, and America became a nation - according to its newly modified Pledge of Allegiance — 'under God'. In 1956, the House of Representatives and Senate unanimously made 'In God We Trust' the national motto, and in 1957 church attendance in the US reached an all-time high. At a time when there was a steady attrition of religious belief in many other countries, one sociologist, Will Herberg, remarked in 1960 that religion probably played a greater role in the United States than in any other modern industrial state. Amidst these fears and hopes, in American popular culture religion became discursively associated with 'liberty', 'democracy' and 'Western civilisation', and held in sharp contradistinction to the amalgam of 'atheism, barbarism and totalitarianism' that was communism.11

As religion tightened its grip on Cold War America, so the White House sharpened the nation's propaganda tools. During the Truman presidency, as befits a nation going to war, Washington had focused predominantly on negative, scare-mongering, anti-communist propaganda. However, on coming to office in 1953 Eisenhower told publicity officials that he was 'tired of just plain indictments of the Soviet regime', and ordered them to go on a charm offensive instead to accentuate the West's moral, political and economic strong points. In tandem with this more creative philosophy and his belief that the United States could boast 'the finest civilisation the world has known', Eisenhower did more than any other chief executive before or since to centralise and expand the US's capability to wage war at the psychological level.12

Three new propaganda mechanisms were established. Overseas propaganda operations were centralised in the USIA; an Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) injected psychological considerations into the formulation of national security policies; and a presidential adviser, C. D. Jackson, a former OWI operative and vice-president of Time, Inc., was appointed to oversee the US propaganda effort and to generate new ideas for psychological warfare ini-tiatives.13 Officials quickly tied religion to Eisenhower's drive for a more positive, constructive propaganda strategy. The OCB established a subcommittee on the 'religious factor' and enlisted religious leaders and organisations to emphasise the 'spiritual roots of freedom'. The USIA created an Office of Religious Information instituting publications and radio programmes that presented the US overseas as a land of spiritual and religious vitality, and where peoples of diverse religious beliefs lived in peace with complete freedom of worship.14 This was part of a wider strategy of spreading the ideology of 'freedom', either overtly by the USIA, or, in order to avoid allegations of official indoctrination, by working through private bodies using unattributable materials.15

Film was assigned a central role in this new thinking. Immediate efforts were made to 'influence' commercial movie production 'in order to increase its contribution to the national information programme'. Renewed energy was also spent on inspiring or assisting in the production of propaganda films 'unattributably' overseas.16 Within a year, C. D. Jackson could list an impressive number of government 'friends' in Hollywood, including Spyros P. Skouras and Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox; Nicholas Schenck and Dore Schary at MGM; Barney Balaban and Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount; Harry and Jack Warner; James B. Grainger, president of RKO; Universal's president, Milton Rackmail; Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn; Herbert Yates at Republic; Walt and Roy Disney; and Eric Johnston of the Motion Picture Association of America.17 By the end of the 1950s, the CIA had grown adept at secretly financing the distribution of foreign-made films in regions of the world considered vulnerable to communism. One project involved the agency entering into partnership with the Family Rosary Crusade, a worldwide movement led by the famous Irish-American priest Father Patrick Peyton, in order to disseminate Spanish-made films extolling the virtues of family prayer throughout Latin America.18

At the same time as this, the USIA and CIA increased official measures to correct the 'distorted' picture that Hollywood movies often gave of American life to overseas audiences. Like Eisenhower, Luigi Luraschi, the CIA's conduit at Paramount, took the view that the exporting of positive 'American values' was every bit as important as explicitly anti-communist messages, and censored production material accordingly. Luraschi's authority to impede the development of dubious, particularly left-wing, projects was underpinned by his militant Catholicism. In 1953, Eric Johnston introduced further checks on film content via a five-point programme that included strengthening MPAA contact with the State Department and foreign embassies and ministries in order to ensure that scripts handled foreign characters and situations with greater understanding.19 A 1960 report on US information activities commissioned by Eisenhower noted that the USIA maintained a liaison with Hollywood 'to reduce the negative impact abroad of US commercial films and to improve their positive impact'. This 'delicate and highly confidential' relationship with 'the more responsible producers and producing organizations', the report concluded, enabled the USIA 'to exercise influence on almost all elements of the theatrical motion picture industry'.20

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