Beginning in 1954, the U.S. State Department sponsored a Cultural Presentations Program that sent thousands of musicians to distant lands. These tours aimed to enhance the reputation of American culture, create a positive impression of the United States and its foreign policy, and compete with the many Soviet and Chinese performers who traveled for similar propaganda purposes. In 1965, Edmund Gullion, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Congo, described the purpose of public diplomacy as the “transnational flow of information and ideas,” the image of “flow” implying that the movement of intangibles was unfettered, perhaps even reciprocal.1
The “flow” metaphor—ubiquitous today in conversations about globalization—was also invoked in a diagram of U.S. cultural and information programs published by the State Department's International Information Administration in 1953. The illustration showed cultural presentations and other propaganda as water flowing directly into a vessel labeled “Country X” (see Figure 1). According to this picture, American cultural and information programs would pour American ideas and values into the minds of the foreign public. Gullion's phrase suggests open and free exchange; by contrast, the 1953 diagram proposes an imperial vision that allows influence or even control over “Country X.” That concepts of cultural diplomacy differed is unsurprising, for each practitioner within the State Department and U.S. Information Agency (USIA) made decisions based on different principles and experiences, and the purposes of their programs evolved over time. Yet the contrast between the two images is stark: if we are to understand the project of music diplomacy, we should discern whether the practice of cultural exchange conforms to one or both of these models.
Imperial power is evident in the planning and intent of U.S. cultural diplomacy projects: State Department officials repeatedly told Congress that these programs were important vehicles for American influence, advancing U.S. strategic and propaganda goals. When we examine the tours more closely, however, the precise mechanism by which musical performances transmitted this influence remains elusive. The political scientist Joseph L. Jones studied the use of hip-hop music in recent American cultural diplomacy efforts and concluded—paradoxically—that American musical diplomacy programs were imperialist but that the music “played no significant role” in the imperial process.2 In light of this paradox, it remains worth asking: what work did U.S. cultural presentations do, and in what ways did they promote U.S. interests?
My investigation draws on several disciplinary perspectives. The anthropologist Anna Tsing notes that in discussions of globalization, scholars who study culture tend to valorize the cultural “flow . . . but not the carving of the channel” that enables the flow.3 Tsing turns away from a focus on media (the “how” of intercultural connections) toward the political interests that fostered the creation of global ties (the “why”). By contrast, diplomatic historians have thoroughly charted the political motivations for carving the channel (why), but until recently they have attended less to the nuanced international relationships created by musicians (how).4 These two perspectives inform one another: attention to the practice of musical diplomacy “on the ground” can reveal how power was exerted through it. The largest body of relevant evidence was preserved by the State Department; although U.S. diplomats sometimes exaggerated the musicians' successes, they often included eyewitness accounts and local press reports that afford us glimpses of the musicians' actions and their reception. Though these sources cannot offer a complete or wholly unbiased picture, they do provide meaningful information about the channels of communication opened by musical diplomacy and the flows of power and culture within these channels.
U.S. cultural presentations were initially conceived as propaganda that would impress foreign audiences with America's “highest achievements,” counteracting the widespread European idea of the United States as consumed by financial rather than intellectual endeavors. As the State Department broadened its view to include the decolonizing global south in the late 1950s, the outlook of cultural diplomacy changed, aiming less to awe foreign publics than to engage them. In this environment, the success of musical presentations depended on creating meaningful personal contact.
Therefore, American musicians not only performed but also made informal connections with their audiences whenever possible. In a study of famous jazz artists who toured for the State Department, Penny Von Eschen asserts that musicians were kept separate from foreign publics to prevent the spread of their ideas; but Von Eschen studied superstars, for whom security was tightest.5 For less famous musicians, contact with the public was encouraged, and the State Department routinely gathered information about interactions between musicians and local people. When the New York Pro Musica visited the USSR in 1964, the liaison officer estimated that “members of the group made ‘soul to soul’ contacts with about 20 Soviet citizens. . . . Significant contacts on a medium-depth basis, involving friendly conversations of 30 minutes or more, numbered perhaps 300.”6 Opportunities for personal contact were sometimes spontaneous—arising through conversation after public concerts or chance meetings—but sometimes carefully arranged. When the University of Illinois Jazz Band visited Finland, jam sessions were “scheduled at a place and time habitually used by students for entertainment . . . Finnish musicians were recruited to participate in the jam sessions, to the delight of audiences and performers alike.”7 By the late 1960s, State Department officials instructed musicians to prepare for their tours by bringing along not only recordings and memorabilia to give away but also items specific to their trade, as when a jazz trombonist brought the recipe for his special homemade slide grease and samples to offer fellow trombonists he met in the Middle East.8
These encounters sometimes exposed people to ideas that served U.S. interests. When the University of Illinois Jazz Band visited Leningrad in 1969, an American diplomat witnessed one such episode:
A Somali student, who spoke impeccable British English, walked up to a table where four black and six white bandsmen were eating. He began in a loud voice to berate the blacks for “pretending” that they could sit and eat as equals with white Americans when the whole world knew that this was not so. The student continued berating the bandsmen about white “imperialism” for about five minutes while one of the whites mistakenly tried to reason with him. At this point one of the black Americans got up from the table quietly and, putting his arm around the Somali, invited him to the bar for a drink and a quiet discussion of race problems in the U.S. Several other African students spoke approvingly of the Americans' conduct on the next and subsequent days.9
The simple presence of Americans, in person, inspired intense curiosity in Eastern Europe—so much so that the Soviet authorities closed down jam sessions and canceled U.S. concerts when they drew large crowds.10 When musicians acknowledged the failings of the United States, their words were credible abroad precisely because part of their message was negative. While Louis Armstrong traveled through Latin America under private sponsorship during the Little Rock crisis in 1957, he told the press that “the government” was “run by Southerners”—but he also stated that blacks were becoming more powerful.11 Despite his occasionally controversial comments, U.S. diplomats assessed Armstrong's visits as “particularly favorable.”12
The function of musical presentations was not merely to interest people in U.S. cultural products and ideological values; often the music was subsidiary to the relationships that were created. The American Embassy in Beirut reported to the State Department that “the advantages of having a group spend a minimum of two or three weeks in the area, making personal as well as official friendships, are much more than those of proving American cultural superiority.”13 Michael Boerner, former Cultural Affairs Officer of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, recalls that when the University of Michigan Jazz Band toured Latin America in 1965, the band's presence brought about closer ties between the embassy and key student leaders at local universities, some of whom were vehement critics of the United States. The band was allowed to play at the University of San Andrés in La Paz only because the leaders of student organizations wanted to use jazz to enhance their own reputations. The tour gave embassy officials occasion to interact with these student leaders as they worked together to arrange accommodations, meals, and performance space for the musicians. After the band left La Paz, Boerner built on these connections by arranging for the Bolivian student leaders to visit the United States. The musical performances exposed thousands of Bolivian people to American jazz, but they were also a catalyst for further, and more explicitly political, exchanges between Bolivians and Americans.14 We might see the music's appeal as a Trojan horse, enabling entry into relationships that would serve U.S. interests. Von Eschen claims that policymakers failed to “anticipate that artists and audiences would interact”—yet such interaction was purposefully cultivated and exploited through the Cultural Presentations Program.15
In addition to fostering personal contact, cultural presentations encouraged the musicians and their audiences to see themselves as participants in a shared political and musical scene. Musical groups were sent not only to major metropolitan areas but also to remote places where foreigners seldom went. According to Susan Migden Socolow, who was Assistant Cultural Affairs officer of the American Embassy in Paraguay in the mid-1960s, people far from the cities were surprised and grateful that any foreign visitor had come to meet them: they felt flattered that the embassy thought them important enough to send them musicians.16 When the University of Illinois Jazz Band visited Tashkent, Yalta, and Krasnodar, they met many Soviet students who had never before spoken to an American. Three Soviet Jews sought out the band in Tashkent, asking whether there were Jews in the band. They were delighted to meet the nineteen-year-old Jewish tuba player: “it was evident that for the three young Soviet Jews this was a great thrill—to talk with Americans, American musicians, a Jew from the outside world.”17 The feeling that the musicians found ordinary people worthwhile encouraged local people to feel a connection with America where none had previously existed.
The traveling Americans, too, felt the pull of new sympathies. Richard Kleinfeldt, a saxophonist who traveled with the Millikin University Jazz Band through the Middle East in 1969, recalls having tea and conversation with Iranian students; ten years later, when revolution shook Iran, Kleinfeldt was concerned for the students he had met, and he still thinks about them forty years later.18 Most of the musicians interviewed for this project wondered about their place in the Cold War conflict, seeing themselves not just as individuals but as part of a global situation, bit players on a world stage. Musically, too, the effects of the tours lingered with them: Herbie Mann, Charlie Byrd, and Randy Weston added the new sounds they heard abroad to their repertoires, broadening the range of musical idioms available to their American fans.
This sense of connection extended even to American audiences. When people in the United States read about the musicians' tours in the newspapers, some were concerned about spending tax dollars on frivolous pursuits; but the news coverage allowed many of them to regard the international role of their own country as constructive, a welcome diversion from plentiful evidence to the contrary. When Marian Anderson toured the Far East in 1957, Edward R. Murrow featured the tour in a one-hour CBS television special; watching Anderson speak to Asian schoolchildren, a citizen of Milwaukee described “this tremendous feeling that we are truly responsible to and for each other the world around.”19
The scenario that comes into focus as we consider these examples resembles Benedict Anderson's “imagined community,” in which, through the effects of media, people learn to imagine themselves in relation to others they have never met.20 Here, however, the imagined community is developed on an international scale via fragmentary points of contact rather than on a national scale. The presence of American musicians, especially in places where Americans were scarce, allowed people abroad to see and know them as real human beings—to imagine inhabiting the same world with them. John Tomlinson has argued that globalization is not primarily about mobility or even direct communication but about altering local contexts and changing the frame of reference in which people think.21 These newly formed personal connections seem to be an instance of precisely that kind of change, and they suggest that Cold War cultural diplomacy efforts supported the development of globalization. The State Department sponsored tours only in cases where musicians could not turn a profit touring on their own: for most of the history of the Cultural Presentations Program, a majority of the tours took place in the developing world and the Communist bloc, areas where people felt little or no connection to the United States and where the development of such connections might make a difference.22
The feeling of connectedness that came from interaction with American musicians appears to be a key outcome of their tours. It is extremely difficult, however, to determine whether these changes in affect and belief wrought changes in opinion, in decision making, in behavior—or whether they were absorbed without a trace. Yet a connection of this kind was certainly a usable channel for further communication. We might, then, ask, to what extent did this channel foster empire?
Some U.S. diplomats and even the Eisenhower administration's Operations Coordinating Board saw musical performances as an opportunity to manipulate public opinion in the short term. For instance, when Icelandic opinion was rising against the United States in 1954–55, presentations of classical music were used to increase American prestige there in hopes that Iceland's government would continue to tolerate the American military base at Keflavík.23 Many communications from diplomatic posts to the State Department suggested that specific performers be sent immediately: these opinions were based not only on local musical preferences but also on perceived short-term strategic needs.
Nonetheless, many officials understood cultural diplomacy as distinct from propaganda, with greater effectiveness in the medium and long term. Ron Post, who played the trumpet on a five-month cultural diplomacy tour and later entered the Foreign Service, explained that cultural diplomacy “creates the conditions for understanding” and that the emotional bonds established by the offering of artistic performances and personal meetings set the tone for the overall relationship in which conversation about policy matters takes place.24 In principle, the social channels opened by cultural diplomacy could be used for many purposes, including strategic information that directly advanced U.S. causes and general good will that might have import over time.
We must consider a further challenge to the hypothesis that cultural diplomacy amounts to cultural imperialism. Music was not only pushed across borders by nation-states seeking to impose their influence: music was also pulled across borders by people who actively wanted it. In many cases, the political associations bestowed upon music as a result of the Cold War conflict increased individuals' desire to invite it into their home contexts.
In several famous instances, a musical style was pulled into a place where it was prohibited or countercultural. The case of avant-garde art music in Eastern Europe is well known: the more this music was suppressed, the more listeners associated it with political freedom and became eager to import it.25 In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet composers yearned for scores and recordings of Western modernist music that was still officially unavailable in the Soviet Union. The U.S. government facilitated this circulation; its embassies had scores and recordings to distribute, and foreign students helped deliver these items directly to Soviet composers.26 This practice was not restricted to the Soviet case: wherever U.S. officials perceived a desire for suppressed music on the part of the local population, they attempted to provide the coveted musical materials, sometimes through U.S. information centers or libraries, but often through gifts of scores and recordings to private citizens.27
The desire to pull in music from elsewhere was not limited to situations where music was suppressed: it was a regular feature of U.S. cultural interactions in the developing world. One result of the exposure to music from abroad was a change in aspirations on the part of local people, the sense of possibility and heightened expectations that Arjun Appadurai has called “disjuncture.”28 When the New York Pro Musica toured Latin America in 1972 with a program of music from the Renaissance, their sellout crowds included hundreds of local musicians who wanted to copy their techniques, repertory, and instruments.29 After the Millikin University Jazz Band visited Turkey in 1969, students at the conservatory in Ankara began complaining that their Eurocentric curriculum was outdated, and they demanded increases in teaching quality and changes in repertoire that would bring them into line with contemporary music education elsewhere in the world.30 Audience members requested the latest jazz tunes by name at performances of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the University of Michigan Jazz Band, and in many cases record collectors abroad would invite band members to their homes after performances to talk about recordings.31 In the case of jazz, the existence of these expert fans was likely due in great part to another U.S. propaganda effort: the broadcasting of American music on Voice of America radio, especially Willis Conover's “Music USA.”32 Technological mediation via radio and sound recordings had already formed an international musical connection by cultivating new audiences for jazz; yet the opportunity to make tangible connections with people from afar was still highly valued by the people who received visits. Although serious fans already had access to this music, they seized every opportunity for dialogue that would improve their skills and widen their musical worlds.
Like the example of avant-garde music in Eastern Europe, the situation of expert jazz fans worldwide serves as an instance of both pulling and pushing music: the energetic desire of the jazz fans to hear and talk about jazz does not mark them as the empty vessel “Country X,” receiving propaganda, but as people actively seeking an international connection on the basis of a common musical interest. Yet we must acknowledge that their access to this music, both on the radio and in live performance, was sponsored by the propaganda needs of the United States. This example demonstrates that the pushing and pulling of culture are not entirely distinct: the desirability of American jazz to fans abroad cannot be separated from the power of the United States, from press reports about its racial politics, and from its own radio propaganda programs that spread jazz. Nonetheless, most situations fell short of unilateral political imposition: reports on Latin American tours suggest that students there had no difficulty distinguishing between the music's appeal and the political motivations behind the U.S.-sponsored concerts.33
Another little-recognized aspect of “pulling” music further complicates the conception of U.S. cultural diplomacy as enforced domination: people abroad used the presence of American musicians in their countries to serve their own local purposes. In 1957 N. M. Khan, the chief commissioner and president of the Pakistan Arts Council, demanded that the U.S. Embassy provide an ice show “or a really good jazz orchestra” for a Pakistani arts festival; Khan had heard that the U.S. government had presented an ice show in India and he demanded equal treatment for Pakistan. The embassy in turn pressed the State Department to comply in a series of increasingly urgent communications.34 In this and several other cases, the U.S. cultural program was drawn into local rivalries. Because embassy staff served as mediators of information to the State Department, they were also vulnerable to advice that served the locals' interests.
Frank Ninkovich has argued that cultural diplomacy is imperialist: “it is difficult to imagine a foreign policy activity that is more serious, even subversive, in intent. . . . at bottom, [cultural relations] are about deracination, the uprooting of traditional cultural identities.”35 Yet if cultural change is invited in because, on balance, connection is more rewarding economically, politically, and culturally than isolation, then the change in identity is attributable in part to those who welcomed the foreign musicians. Pulling music is thus much more difficult to theorize than pushing music, for the questions of agency that are already present when people accept or reject tours that come to them become even more acute when the recipients invite or demand the music themselves. Among citizens of other nations, desire for Western music was carefully cultivated by radio and through U.S. government efforts to distribute sound recordings, printed music, texts about music, and live performances; yet this desire was perceived and lived by those foreign citizens not as artificial but as a genuine passion for the music—or as serving their local interests. This factor makes it all the more difficult to assign appropriate agency to the activities and desires of state officials, of audiences, and of those who mediated music between places. Cultural diplomacy as enacted on the ground appears to be “fluid” indeed.
Since the 1960s, commentators have described American cultural relations with other nations as imperialist, implying that these state-cultivated relationships had harmful intentions and results, with strong overtones of colonial domination. This view has recently been challenged by scholars who use more neutral terms such as “cultural transfer.”36 Richard Kuisel wisely suggests a middle road, taking into account the mutual influences implicit in cultural exchange while also recognizing that in the context of American power the exchange cannot occur on equal terms.37 In the evidence presented above, we encounter cultural diplomacy not as a wholesale, unilateral cultural invasion, but rather as several simultaneous forms of engagement: nurturing the desire for particular styles of American music among subcultural groups abroad, building practical working relationships with people of local importance, and creating imagined connections across vast distances. Following Kuisel, I believe that histories of cultural diplomacy must take into account not only the American power that pushed music to remote places but also the factors that suggest a more complex relationship: the naive quality of interactions between touring musicians and the public; the extent to which musicians were actively sought out by citizens in the host countries; and the degree to which audience members differentiated among various parts of the U.S. message, accepting some parts and rejecting others. Ninkovich is correct when he claims that cultural diplomacy is “hardly innocuous or innocent”: we should not consider musical propaganda a harmless by-product of the Cold War, for it opened opportunities for the transmission of other political messages.38 Still, the pulling of music offers us compelling reasons to take into account not only the coercive aspects of cultural globalization but also the ways in which global networks of musical and political relationships were built from below.
Attention to the particular situations in which music crossed boundaries thus helps us to see globalization in the making, not as an abstract “flow” but as a result of specific and reasoned choices to push or pull music across borders. By observing musicians' visits closely we recognize global cultural connections as the product of political and personal desires: the desire of state officials to win political allegiances abroad, the desire of individual citizens for new musical pleasures, and the desire to understand one's place as a person and as a citizen of a nation-state in a volatile world situation. Officials' need to foster loyalty and admiration among people abroad and individuals' will to determine their own cultural choices within and against these political pressures were both vital parts of this process.
The evidence considered here suggests that the “soft power” of U.S. musical presentations during the Cold War derived not only from the attractive qualities of American cultural products that Joseph Nye identified but also from the ability of cultural events to foster human relationships.39 The power of cultural presentations was not merely an adjunct to hard power politics: rather, the presence of musicians brought into being personal connections that opened the possibility of many kinds of further engagement, including more direct political action. This engagement served U.S. interests, but many other interests as well, in an open-ended fashion. The use of music as propaganda helped to create an “ever-densening network of interconnections and interdependences,” gradually transforming the capacity of individuals to imagine themselves in relationship with each other, redefining their perception of their roles in the world.40