U.S. Public Diplomacy in the News: Jazz Edition

image Archibald MacLeish, a major proponent for cultural diplomacy sixty-five years ago, once proclaimed “the world is wired for sound.”  In this spirit, a decade and a bit later Willis Conover, the most famous American American’s have never heard of, went on the air at the Voice of America with his jazz show.  This was followed by the State Department asking several musicians to travel abroad as part of a counter-propaganda campaign based in cultural diplomacy. 

A New York Times article, When Ambassadors Had Rhythm, looks at a photo exhibition about one such U.S. effort.  Worth a read, the article describes how Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., father of Mountain Runner friend ACP III, suggested “real Americana” instead of elitist orchestras (my words not his). 

Noteworthy paragraphs in the article:

Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Administration officials feared that this broadside, especially from someone so genial as “Ambassador Satchmo,” would trigger a diplomatic disaster. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Attorney General Herbert Brownell that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, facing pressure from many quarters, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas. Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America.

The jazzmen’s independence made some officials nervous. But the shrewder diplomats knew that on balance it helped the cause. The idea was to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union, freedom over Communism, and here was evidence that an American — even a black man — could criticize his government and not be punished.

Not mentioned in the article is the contents of an anonymous letter in Armstrong’s (if you’ve ever heard me play a note, you’d know there’s no relation, well that, and there is one other characteristic) FBI file that read Armstrong “is a communist, why does State Dept. give him a passport?” 

For more on this subject, including a compelling argument that the damage on our international reputation and image by Communist propaganda pointing out America’s racial problems contributing to support at the highest levels for Civil Rights legislation, as hinted at above, see Mary Dudziak’s book, Cold War Civil Rights (review here).

Related: Winning over hearts, minds, and ears at Foreign Policy who brings to our attention U.S. Ambassador James Cason, who cut an album in Paraguay’s native language.

2 thoughts on “U.S. Public Diplomacy in the News: Jazz Edition

  1. Great article and well worth a read. Definitely take a moment to view the accompanying photo slideshow as well.There is one other passage that I found very salient:

    Even in its heyday jazz diplomacy, like any sort of cultural diplomacy, was at best an adjunct to the more conventional brand. … The biggest impact on hearts and minds comes, as always, from what the American government does.

    This is, perhaps, even more true now with 24 hour media networks, the lighting fast rumor-mill of the internet and a world of complex alliances and competitive flash-points.

  2. Well chosen excerpt, Matt. It’s impressive how much cultural forces can do for public diplomacy, and how much power they can have over policy thereby. The latter is one of the best arguments for putting ideology front and center when it comes to PD – it works on us as well as on them.

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