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Cultural diplomacy, in contrast to more traditional forms of political, economic, and military interactions, assumed great importance during the Cold War as the U.S. responded to what a State Department official called the “gigantic propaganda offensive” of the Soviet Union. In 1954, President Eisenhower established an Emergency Fund for International Affairs in part to support cultural presentations abroad. The International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act of 1956 established a permanent place for cultural diplomacy. On signing the act, Eisenhower stated he hoped that “little by little, mistrust based on falsehoods will give way to international understanding based on truth.” From 1954 through 1959, some 140 groups of American performing artists and athletes traveled to more than 90 countries. Jazz musicians and modern dance troupes in particular represented an American cultural life that was vibrant, fresh, and inspiring to artists and audiences throughout the world.

Music costs so much less and produces so much better a result than any propaganda or weaponry . . . . There are no warmer feelings than those engendered by music.—Leonard Bernstein, 1959


State Department Coordination

Until 1938, the U.S. was the only major power that did not engage in government-sponsored international cultural programs. By 1959, however, such programs had become so extensive that the State Department persuaded President Eisenhower (1890–1969) to establish a bureau to coordinate the efforts of fifteen separate agencies. These slide prints were part of a presentation delivered to Eisenhower, his cabinet, and ambassadors by State Department official Robert H. Thayer (1901–1984). The newspaper article by Thayer’s sister-in-law, society columnist Mary V. R. Thayer (1902–1983), explained cultural diplomacy to the public.

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  • “Coordination for U.S. Cultural Relations Abroad,” November 24, 1959. Slide print. Robert Helyer Thayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (184.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0184] Slide 2, Slide 3.

  • Mary V. R. Thayer. “Culture Is Coin of Diplomacy.” Washington Post, August 23, 1959. Reproduction. Robert Helyer Thayer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (185.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0185]

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Dizzy Gillespie

In 1956, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917–1993) took his interracial big band to the Middle East, Yugoslavia, and Greece for the first State Department-sponsored jazz tour. “I sort’ve liked the idea of representing America,” Gillespie wrote, “but I wasn’t going over to apologize for the racist policies of America.” After a successful tour, Gillespie wired President Eisenhower (1890–1969), “Jazz is our own American folk music that communicates with all peoples regardless of language or social barriers.”

Dizzy Gillespie charms a snake in Karachi, Pakistan, April 1956. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (186.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24377]

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Benny Goodman

In 1962, “King of Swing” Benny Goodman (1909–1986) became the first officially sanctioned jazz musician to play in the Soviet Union when his band performed in six Soviet cities following the signing of the third consecutive two-year cultural exchange agreement between the superpowers. Although Soviet officials had denigrated jazz as decadent, their policy shifted in response to pressure from students and a proclamation from the country’s most popular orchestra leader that “good jazz is art.”

Benny Goodman in Moscow Sports Palace, July 8, 1962. Associated Press Photo. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (187.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24378] Courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos.

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Satchmo in the Congo

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1901–1971) toured Africa for the State Department in 1960–1961, performing in twenty-seven cities. In Leopoldville, Congo, an official called Armstrong “Ambassador Extraordinary of the United States” and spoke with pride of “this son of our African race.” During a secession crisis in the newly independent Congo’s Katenga Province, a day-long truce was called so that both sides could attend Armstrong’s performance. Armstrong later commented that he had stopped a civil war.

Louis Armstrong arrives in Leopoldville, Congo, greeted by Congolese cultural affairs director, playwright Albert Mongita, who dressed for the occasion in traditional garb, October 28, 1960. Courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos (187.01.00) [Digital ID# bhp0187_01]

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Martha Graham in Asia

In November 1955, as fears intensified that Asian nations might turn Communist, the State Department sent Martha Graham (1894–1991) and her dance company on a performance and lecture tour of sixteen Asian cities. Although modern dance was unfamiliar to most of her audiences, the State Department judged the tour an overwhelming success. “The uniquely American aspect of her art,” the American Embassy in Tokyo reported, “was eloquent ideological testimony of America’s cultural depth and vitality.”

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  • Martha Graham with Thai dancers in Bangkok, November 1955. Reproduction. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (188.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0188]

  • “Cave of the Heart.” Thai souvenir booklet from 1955 Asia tour with photograph of Martha Graham as “Medea” in a wire dress designed by Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), May 10, 1946. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (190.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0190]

  • Drawing of Martha Graham. Thai program from 1955 Asia tour. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (189.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0189_01]

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Martha Graham in Lisbon

As the first dancer to represent the U.S. as a cultural ambassador, Martha Graham (1894–1991) continued State Department-sponsored tours for many years. In 1966, her Clytemnestra was performed for a huge audience in Lisbon, whose wild acclaim became for Graham “the culminating moment of my life and career.” President Ford (1913–2006), whose wife Betty (b. 1918) had studied with Graham, awarded Graham the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor and the first to go to a dancer.

Martha Graham & Dance Company. Program from performance in Lisbon, Portugal, April 26, 1967. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (189.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0189]

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“The Strongest Weapon on Earth”

In 1961, the U.S. participated in the Moscow International Film Festival, along with fifty-four other nations. Hollywood stars, such as Doris Day (b. 1924), Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011), and Eddie Fisher (1928–2010), were urged to attend, as were directors Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987), as indicated in this letter, and Joshua Logan (1908–1988), who served on the festival’s jury. After many attendees judged the State Department’s chosen entry to be “boring,” Logan complained about the ineffectual attempt to use “art . . . the strongest weapon on earth,” to display America’s “most endearing side.” In subsequent years, a board of experts from Hollywood advised on selections.

Letter from Turner B. Shelton, director of the Motion Picture Service, United States Information Agency, to Rouben Mamoulian, June 21, 1961. Rouben Mamoulian Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (185.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0185_02]

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Leonard Bernstein in the Soviet Union

In 1959, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) visited the Soviet Union with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour sponsored by the President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. In a television documentary about the trip, Bernstein told Russian musicians, “Your music and ours are the artistic products of two very similar people who are natural friends, who belong together and who must not let suspicions and fears and prejudices keep them apart.”

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  • Booklet showing Leonard Bernstein with Russian citizens, September 1959. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (193.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0193]

  • Leonard Bernstein. “Opening and Closing.” Notes for broadcast, October 1959. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (194.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0194]

  • Leonard Bernstein. Introduction to Shostakovich “7th,” September 1959. Typescript with emendations. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (193.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0193_01]

  • Leonard Bernstein. “Jottings—Moscow Show” Notes for broadcast, September 1959. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (193.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0193_02]

  • Leonard Bernstein. “Closing.” Notes for broadcast, October 1959. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (194.00.01) [Digital ID # bhp0194p1]

  • Leonard Bernstein. “Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Moscow: Closing.” Notes for broadcast, September 1959. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (194.00.02) [Digital ID # bhp0194p2]

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Leonard Bernstein and Russian Cultural Icons

During his 1959 tour of the Soviet Union, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) honored two Russian cultural icons who had been ostracized in official circles—poet and novelist Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) and composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975). After Bernstein ended his farewell concert with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the audience’s ovation lasted twenty minutes. Backstage, Pasternak, whose presence at the concert marked his first public appearance following his censure, remarked, “I’ve never felt so close to the aesthetic truth.”

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