Until quite recently, films like 1954’s Abstract in Concrete were banned for American viewers. Although produced with U.S. tax dollars, this cinematic interpretation of the lights of Times Square was meant for European consumption only. Like the rest of the art and culture exported by the United States Information Agency, Abstract in Concrete was part of a propaganda effort to make our country look more free, open, and tolerant than many of us preceived or even wanted it to be. In the mid-1940’s, when conservative members Congress got wind of the progressive image of America we were projecting abroad, they almost cut the USIA’s funding, potentially reducing America’s global influence.
Well, America today is in no danger of projecting too free, open, or tolerant a picture of itself to the world. But I’m starting to wonder if maybe the nationalist, xenophobic, inward-turned America on display to the world these days might just be the real us — the real U.S. Maybe the propaganda we created to make ourselves look like the leading proponents of global collaboration and harmony was just that: propaganda.
Since the great World Wars, America has had a vested interest in fostering a certain global order. President Woodrow Wilson, who had run for president on a peace platform, ended up bringing America into World War I. When it was done, he established something called The League of Nations, which was meant to keep the peace. Thanks to an isolationist Congress, however, the United States never actually joined the League of Nations. That should have been a big hint that America’s interest in global cooperation was fleeting, at best.
During World War II, Roosevelt took his shot at global harmony with his “Declaration by United Nations,” which eventually gave birth to the UN, dedicated to international peace and basic human rights around the world. To most Americans, however, the United Nations represented little more than a way of preventing the sort of war that would again require American intervention. Yes, it was in New York, and yes, it was conceived and spearheaded by Americans but this didn’t mean that America really thought of itself as part of a great international community. The UN was really just a way for us to avoid having to go “over there” again.
This was surprising to me. I grew up in the 1970s, at the height of America’s cultural outreach to Europe and the world. I remember how great Russian artists and ballet dancers would come to New York, and how American artists and writers would go to Europe. There were exchange students in my high school from Italy, France, and Germany. The outside world — the international society of musicians, writers, thinkers that America was fostering— seemed more artistic, cultural, and tolerant than what I knew here, at home. It seemed like the future.
This was by design, and part of a propaganda effort that began in the 1940's. Once the USSR and the U.S. divided Europe into East and West and the Cold War began, America went on a propaganda effort to present itself as more enlightened and free than the communists. The State Department, the CIA, and the United States Information Agency, as well as an assortment of foundations from Rockefeller’s to Fulbright’s, all dedicated themselves to painting a positive picture of America abroad. This was big money; by the late 1950’s the USIA alone spent over $2 billion of public money a year on newsreels, radio broadcasts, journalism, and international appearances and exhibitions. This included everything from Paris Review articles to Dizzy Gillespie concerts.
The problem was that the image of America that these agencies projected to the world wasn’t the image many Americans had of their country. Information agencies were busy trying to make us look like an open and free society, as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as any European one. So, abstract art exhibits and films, book collections with modernist novels, intellectuals, people of color, modern dancers, and all sorts of avant-garde culture was sent for consumption abroad.
Conservative Americans, as well as the senators who represented them, saw this stuff as gay, communist, Jewish, urban, effete, and an altogether terrible misrepresentation of who we were and what we stood for. Why, they asked, should we be spending upwards of two billion dollars exporting decadent, self-indulgent art and culture to the world?
So Congress — convinced that there was still a national security advantage, or at least a business justification, in maintaining American global outreach — passed a compromise called the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948. The law made it illegal for the USIA to release any of its propaganda within the United States. Ostensibly, this was to protect Americans from the potentially manipulative propaganda it was spreading abroad. Information is a form of PSYOPS (psychological operations), after all, and we are not going to use such weapons on our own people.
But the real reason for the Smith-Mundt act was to prevent Americans from seeing themselves represented in ways that they didn’t agree with. The books in the traveling library were titles that many Americans thought would be better burned than celebrated. And the overall ethos of the program — to promote America’s internationalism and free society — were in direct contradiction to the values that many Americans held. The Smith-Mundt act created a wall between the image of America we exported to the world, and the one we maintained about ourselves.
By the time the Internet emerged, this division became impossible to keep up. YouTube, the Internet Archive, and Facebook bring everything to everyone. So in 2012, Smith-Mundt was repealed. Concerned netizens saw a conspiracy. Did this mean the government would now be free to use its psychological warfare on U.S. citizens? Perhaps. But the real intent was to relieve the government’s communications agencies from trying to hide their messaging from Americans in an age when hiding such programming is impossible.
But now that Americans are becoming more aware of America’s internationalist activities and sentiments, many are horrified and calling for retreat. This is the province of George Soros, the Rothschilds, and the Zionist conspiracy — not the good old U.S. of A. I wonder: was the Smith-Mundt Act hiding an internationalist and open-minded America from the few Americans who weren’t ready for it? Or was it simply hiding the nationalist and backwards-thinking America from the world? For all our efforts at telling Europe otherwise, maybe we are not really the modern society we self-styled proponents of public diplomacy like to think we are.
The measure of a civilization’s advancement is its capacity to insulate its people from the cruelty of nature. Right now, Americans don’t seem to be dedicated to that principle. Civilizations build public roads, baths, aqueducts, and later transportation, healthcare, and education into the fabric of society, as givens. Instead of seeing the poor as deserving of discomfort, civilizations see all human beings as deserving of essential human dignity. The more a civilization can spread these basic human rights and freedoms through the world, the more advanced the civilization.
However, this particular understanding of modernity and enlightenment is not universal. Instead of breaking down boundaries and building an international society, America’s current stated goal is to reject globalism, build walls, and treat other nations as business competitors. The America we were once hiding behind billion-dollar international culture campaigns is now the America we are broadcasting to the world. Instead of compensating for our American-made missiles with progressive art and media, now we are justifying their sale and use with America-first rhetoric.
America’s best hope for cross-border connection, identification, and intimacy is its people. This means you and me, sharing our beliefs, aspirations, culture, and compassion with as much of the world as possible. Just as conservatives fought against the export of an America they didn’t agree with is, it’s the progressives’ turn to speak on behalf of the connected and collaborative world we still hope for — even if we aren’t fit to be its leader, anymore.