The Sound of Musical Diplomacy



Who can dispute the power of music? Like a good play, a great art exhibit, or an exciting sports event, music too possesses mass appeal in its ability to transport an audience into a variety of emotional states. And, as we now know, the U.S. government increasingly sought to export cultural events with mass appeal to promote post–World War II diplomatic, military, political, and economic goals. Indeed, studies of cultural and public diplomacy have proliferated rapidly in the past decade as scholars rush to examine the relationship between culture and state, particularly during the Cold War.1 The “cultural turn,” as recent Diplomatic History issues and SHAFR conferences demonstrate, is here to stay. But one rather neglected aspect in the field until now has been the U.S. government's promotion of American musical performances abroad, particularly classical music.2 The articles under discussion here underscore increasing interest in how this music “sounded” abroad.

The four authors are provocative, asking readers to reconsider the motivations and content of U.S. government–orchestrated international performances. They reject the idea that musical diplomacy was simply cultural imperialism and that audiences attending American performances were passive actors. They also expand the scope of the conversation beyond the government's use of popular American music—jazz and rock and roll—to focus instead on the “best” music America had to offer, typically orchestral symphonies. In her article, Jessica Gienow-Hecht focuses on the symphony's transition from an instrument of cultural exchange in the early 1900s to a projection of American cultural power by the century's end. Jennifer Campbell finds the antecedents of the U.S. government's Cold War model of musical diplomacy—particularly its focus on sending abroad only the “most serious” music—in the 1940s. Emily Ansari considers how citizen-experts appointed by the government carefully selected performers who would promote rarefied American musical culture. And Danielle Fosler-Lussier examines the interactive nature of American musical diplomacy through listeners' responses to it.

According to Gienow-Hecht, the goal of cultural diplomacy is to “help initiate or continue a dialogue, exchange cultural information, signal cooperation and ‘reach’ the people.” But, as she notes, both cultural diplomats and their historians routinely fail to establish whether this goal was reached. Gienow-Hecht chooses to bypass this issue of “reception” altogether in her discussion of symphony orchestras, arguing that their real importance lies in the fact that they “legitimize the nation's political influence and boost its self-confidence to exert leadership abroad.” She views them as “an act of national performance similar to a speech at the United Nations, a banquet at an embassy, or a handshake on the White House lawn.” Gienow-Hecht also documents the shift from pre–World War I symphony orchestras as “places of international encounter,” which demonstrated American “cultural openness” to a post–World War II focus on musical performances as “stages of national self-representation” to demonstrate world leadership capability. This depiction tell us much regarding American attitudes toward the most effective way to project power abroad, as evidenced by CIA officer Thomas Braden's claim that the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952 “won more acclaim for the US in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have bought with a hundred speeches,” or by Leonard Bernstein's exultant remarks that the Russians waited after concerts to “touch us, to embrace us, even to kiss my hand.” Still, what was the target audience's long-term response to this musical tour de force? Were those listening convinced that the United States was better equipped for world leadership simply because its musicians played well?

Jennifer Campbell tackles issues of continuity, rather than change, in her examination of how the State Department's Division of Cultural Relations and the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA) under Nelson Rockefeller created a model for American Cold War musical diplomacy. Campbell argues that two criteria existed in this early cultural propaganda program directed toward South America. First, “musicians and music sent to represent the United States in South America must be the ‘best’ of what the United States has to offer.” Second, repertoires had to be essentially “American” in nature, with European classical music kept to a minimum. Here then we see an interesting contrast to Gienow-Hecht's research, which focuses on the importance of playing traditional European works with the most accomplished American orchestra and conductor possible. Members of the OIAA Music Committee also sought reciprocity, trying to bring South American composers and ensembles north, echoing Gienow-Hecht's point about earlier cultural openness, but this aspect “was later altered, disfigured, and even forgotten in future incarnations of the program.” Campbell makes a persuasive case for the link between the OIAA and Cold War musical diplomacy, noting that Rockefeller went on to become special assistant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, serving on the Operations Coordinating Board for the president's Emergency Fund for International Affairs, which sponsored the Cultural Presentations Program.3 This program exported both the “best” and most “American” culture from 1954 onward, confirming Campbell's point about the OIAA's importance in shaping later policy, but she misses a golden opportunity here to connect the OIAA to other cultural tools being used to combat German influence as well as how the OIAA fit within the Good Neighbor Policy and its reception. Another underexplored issue is Rockefeller's triple role as government official, private corporate leader, and leading philanthropist.

Emily Ansari takes a close look at how the American National Theater Academy (ANTA) administered the Cultural Presentations Program. In particular, she examines the importance of “citizen-experts” on the Musical Advisory Panel. Ansari is quick to point out that though much focus has been paid to American jazz tours abroad, in fact the panel awarded a majority of funding to musicians with classical training who incorporated American music into their repertoires. Ansari provides convincing evidence to demonstrate that classical music was by far the most favored genre, compared to jazz, country, folk, gospel, and rock and roll. This theme of distinctly “American music” echoes Campbell's point about the OIAA in the 1940s. The question one is left with is what difference more “serious” vs. “less” serious music made in projecting American influence abroad? The panel clearly believed that high art was “the most useful tool to facilitate their quest for global respect.” Were they right? What about the less “serious” music increasingly sent abroad in the later Cold War? Ansari adds to the historical record by drawing attention to how citizen-experts shaped official musical diplomacy (in keeping with the trend toward analyzing state-private collaboration) but connecting this relationship to the larger field of cultural diplomacy and to overall U.S. Cold War strategy would be helpful, as would more elaboration on the nature of the relationship between ANTA and the State Department.4

Danielle Fosler-Lussier pursues the dual nature of American musical diplomacy under the same Cultural Presentations Program that Gienow-Hecht and Ansari discuss. According to Fosler-Lussier, on the one hand, the United States “pushed” musical performances abroad to influence or even exert control over countries. On the other hand, a transnational flow or “pulling” of ideas and thus a more reciprocal relationship emerged between the United States and its target countries. While agreeing with Gienow-Hecht that initially musical performances were used as propaganda to emphasize America's “highest achievements,” and thus project influence, Fosler-Lussier notes that as the State Department began to consider the decolonizing global South in the late 1950s, cultural diplomacy aimed “less to awe foreign publics than to engage them” and that legitimate cultural exchange occurred.5 It would be interesting to take this line of inquiry further by examining how the United States tailored its musical diplomacy. Did a one-tour-fits-all strategy predominate, as seen with the 1959 Bernstein tour, or did the State Department tailor musical performances abroad to cater to the perceived audience? Her conception of music as a Trojan horse that would enable “entry into relationships that would serve U.S. interests” is apt, and she provides some examples of active participation on the part of foreign recipients. Her research lends additional weight to the emerging literature that American grassroots musical relationships were not unqualified cultural imperialism, but rather a cross-cultural process that “opened the possibility of many kinds of further engagement, including more direct political action,” but she fails to provide any specifics of what this engagement or action entailed.

After reading the four essays, we are left with a number of points to consider. Certainly, the authors situate their discussions within the larger fields of cultural diplomacy and history of music, drawing our attention to the importance placed on offering the “best” American music available. But the essays could have benefited from further engagement with the scholarly literature on U.S. foreign relations in the 1940s and 1950s. We have almost nothing here on what U.S. policymakers shaping musical diplomacy were responding to—the political, economic, military, and diplomatic events of World War II, the Cold War, and decolonization playing out at the same time American musicians were being sent abroad—and whether American foreign policy goals were achieved. How did musical diplomacy “fit” into World War II national security concerns or Cold War strategies such as the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and psychological warfare? This critique is not new one, but it is worth emphasizing that when we take politics out of the equation in pursuit of an original approach, the state recedes from sight.6 Moreover, where is the Kremlin, or any of the governments of the countries discussed? As music became a product to be consumed by foreign audiences, details on how foreign governments received, assimilated, adopted, and co-opted American music would provide a more complete story, especially vis-à-vis the third world that became a primary focus for American policymakers by the mid-1950s. Finally, more analysis of how the state-private partnership worked would afford greater insight into how much American domestic politics mattered in shaping musical diplomacy. In sum, the authors in this forum explore how the U.S. government sought to capitalize on music's appeal in engagingly written articles that offer new conceptual frameworks and a number of brief but illuminating vignettes. In doing so, they provide an opening movement in the emerging field of American musical diplomacy and how it sounded abroad.


  • 1

    Most historians of cultural diplomacy use Akira Iriye's and Frank Ninkovich's many works as a starting point. See especially, Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore, MD, 1997); Frank Ninkovich, The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–1950 (Cambridge, 1981). A small sampling of the recent voluminous literature includes Richard Arndt, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Washington DC, 2005); Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, 2004); Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (New York, 1997); Jessica Gienow-Hecht, Transmission Impossible: American Journalism as Cultural Diplomacy in Postwar Germany, 1945–1955 (Baton Rouge, LA, 1999); Kenneth Osgood and Brian Etheridge, The United States and Public Diplomacy: New Directions in Cultural and International History (Boston, 2010). Unsurprisingly, historians continue to debate definitions of and differences between cultural and public diplomacy. See Osgood and Etheridge's introduction in The United States and Public Diplomacy for the most recent discussion of these differences. The articles here do not engage this debate directly.

  • 2

    Notable exceptions (in English) include Jessica Gienow-Hecht, Sound Diplomacy: Music and Emotions in Transatlantic Relations, 1850–1920 (Chicago, 2009); Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided: Bartók's Legacy in Cold War Culture (Berkeley, 2007); Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, 2004); Uta Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley, CA, 2000); Lisa Davenport, Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (Jackson, MS, 2009); Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford, 2007). With the exception of Gienow-Hecht and Fosler-Lussier, these works focus solely on popular music.

  • 3

    This program became permanent in 1956 under Public Law 860, the International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act.

  • 4

    See, for example, Helen Laville and High Wilford, eds., The US Government, Citizen Groups and the Cold War: The State-Private Network (London, 2006); Volker Berghahn, America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe (Princeton, NJ, 2001).

  • 5

    For the most part, scholars have moved beyond the cultural diplomacy as imperialism or transfer debate discussed by Jessica Gienow-Hecht, Richard Pells, Bruce Kuklick, Richard Kuisel, and John Dower in “Roundtable: Cultural Transfer or Cultural Imperialism? Americanization in the Cold War,” Diplomatic History 24 (Summer 2000): 465528. The cultural imperialism framework has lost decided ground as historians increasingly focus on issues of reception as well as how weaker states, substate actors, domestic publics, and nongovernmental organizations have used cultural diplomacy to influence or challenge the U.S. government.

  • 6

    Thomas Zeiler has noted that when the state is relegated to a secondary role we risk losing a “sense of the nature of power, who captures it, who loses it, and how it is deployed.”Thomas Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 95 (March 2009): 1056.