Laura A. Belmonte

 

On her book Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War

Cover Interview of April 14, 2009

The wide angle

I began researching Selling the American Way in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I was very interested in determining how foreign audiences understood the United States and its people – and what role, if any, international perceptions of democratic capitalism had in triggering the collapse of communism.  Because I am a diplomatic historian, I am also fascinated by how U.S. policy makers translate and use power.  But I didn’t want to focus on traditional forms of power such as military or economic power.  At the time, there were also a number of exciting new works appearing in U.S. foreign relations scholarship that were considering the role of social and cultural factors in American foreign policy.  Scholars were examining issues like religion, gender, culture, rhetoric, emotion, and race.

After months of reading both primary and secondary sources, I concluded that an examination of the context, content, and reception of U.S. propaganda provided a wonderful way to address questions about the evolution and outcome of the Cold War’s ideological war – and also enabled me to deploy and expand some of this exciting new work in diplomatic history.

The project took longer than I expected.  Thanks to a major declassification effort by the Clinton administration and 9/11, literally thousands of radio transcripts, internal documents, films, country plans, and other materials became accessible to scholars for the first time.  I conducted research for almost four additional years.  I should add that the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 had precluded American citizens from reading, seeing, or listening to the propaganda materials the U.S. government disseminated abroad.  That legislation created some interesting challenges at the archives of the United States Information Agency.  I was allowed to take notes on, but not photocopy, propaganda pamphlets from the 1940s and 1950s.  It is hard to believe these restrictions are still in effect.

Then, the 9/11 attacks shattered the remnants of the containment doctrine and facilitated the implementation of entirely new paradigm, the Bush Doctrine.  Those events forced me to reframe my arguments.  Amidst the simplistic hand-wringing decrying “why they hate us,” I saw striking parallels to the ways American officials were characterizing “terrorists” and the ways that they had defined “communists.”  I also saw important connections between how notions of “freedom” were being deployed in the post-9/11 era and the early Cold War years.  I believe that a careful study of the uses and construction of propaganda in the earlier period illuminates why public diplomacy remains a very important, though highly underutilized, element of U.S. foreign policy.  But we must remain vigilant to the reality that no propaganda campaign, no matter how well-crafted or thoughtful, will have its desired effect if the United States simultaneously contradicts its professed values, both at home and abroad.