The Bodies of Cultural Diplomacy, 1945–65

AHA Session 154
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Penny M. Von Eschen, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
Penny M. Von Eschen, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

When the United States emerged from World War II as the globe’s dominant economic and military power, the Soviet Union made cultural propaganda its Cold War weapon of choice. America, one Soviet official alleged, was both culturally “barren” and hypocritical—a nation in which “capitalistic glitter” hid racism and the pursuit of wars for big business profits. As historians have shown, the USSR’s cultural assault sent the Truman and Eisenhower administrations scrambling to implement a propaganda strategy that would win the world’s respect for the American way of life. New scholarship has examined how the State Department used exceptional American performers as cultural ambassadors in Europe and the emerging “Third World” to communicate the superiority of Western capitalism and democracy in the 1950s and 1960s. These performers, in turn, carefully considered how to leverage their popular receptions abroad into better treatment at home.

Athletes, dancers, and choreographers—performers who actively demonstrated American identity—became especially attractive messengers of U.S. cultural diplomacy. As embodiments of postwar innovation, diversity, strength, and finesse, they held visceral power to communicate to Soviets and decolonizing states how American freedom looked. This panel examines how the U.S. government, international audiences, and performers saw the physical body as a site of cultural diplomacy in the two decades after World War II. For the state, original dance choreography showed the democratizing influence of American postwar values, while sport demonstrated the strength and speed that the Armed Forces cultivated in its overlap with elite athletes. However, performers who the State Department refused to support still had the power to send messages about American values and practices to foreign audiences. Our research explores how dance and sport functioned as channels of cultural communication abroad: in the tense negotiation between a black female choreographer and the State Department over a ballet depicting a southern lynching; in the efforts of diplomats and track and field athletes to define American gender mores; and in the struggles of postwar policymakers to fund a uniquely American ballet genre distinct from the historic Russian dance form. Taken together, the bodies of dancers and athletes put forth an argument for America’s leadership in the modern world. The extent to which foreign audiences bought this argument depended on how the performers depicted American life on and offstage.

Our papers demonstrate how the bodies of cultural diplomacy offered new potential and pitfalls to the State Department and performers. Who was deemed capable of representing the United States abroad? How did the performers of American cultural diplomacy see their roles in representing the United States? What messages did these ambassadors embody and convey to international audiences?  In addressing these questions, we contribute to the study of Cold War cultural diplomacy by grounding interdisciplinary understandings of embodiment in the historical reality of the American dancers and athletes inhabiting those bodies.

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