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).