Laura A. Belmonte

 

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

Cover Interview of April 14, 2009

A close-up

Start with the introduction to see how and why I situate the early Cold War propaganda campaigns into a post-9/11 context.  I think anyone who has noted contemporary discussions about American “soft power” and the occasionally bombastic rhetoric about people hating “our freedoms” will be intrigued by the ways that the early Cold War informs these more recent trends.  I also believe people concerned about the U.S. role in the world will be interested in learning more about how scholars are now approaching the study of U.S. foreign relations.

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U.S. information experts drew stark contrasts between the lives of American and Soviet workers.  This chart, prepared for the USIA by the U.S. Department of Labor, explained purchasing power in terms average people could understand.  (Photo courtesy of National Archives; appears in the book on page 130.)


If the reader survives the introduction, then I’d direct him or her to one of the four “topical” chapters addressing how features of American life were explained and received.  Each chapter is filled with wonderful tidbits about how U.S. policy makers made things as diverse as refrigerators, Sears’ catalogues, Monopoly games, jazz, and voting booths tools in their effort to persuade foreigners to emulate “the American way of life.”  We also see how, time and time again, international audiences, honed in on weaknesses in U.S. society, forcing U.S. information experts not only to revise their tactics and materials, but also to reevaluate their understandings of what it means to be “American.”

There are some fascinating vignettes that demonstrate these trends.  Depictions of race relations were particularly tricky.  For example, at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959 (site of the famous “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev), U.S. information experts originally included an interracial couple in a bridal show designed to highlight American fashion and family mores.  But, when foreign journalists saw a preview of the show and lambasted USIA for its unrealistic reflection of racial realities, U.S. officials replaced the couple with a white bride and groom.  International audiences aware of lynchings, the furor attending the integration of public schools, and U.S. laws precluding interracial marriage were justifiably very skeptical about propagandists’ assertions that America was making great strides toward racial equality.

But, at the same time, the unpredictability of audience reactions also flummoxed communist propagandists.  Over 3 million Soviets attended the Moscow exhibition.  Neither years of anti-capitalist rhetoric nor limited exposure to non-communist life prevented these visitors from quickly grasping the attractions of American consumerism – literally.  People stole books, toys, even frozen food samples, in their eagerness to have tangible reminders of the bounties of “decadent capitalism.”