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IWP research professor Caitlin Schindler reviews “Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy”

Caitlin Schindler, Research Professor and graduate of The Institute of World Politics, recently wrote a review of Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy by Danielle Fosler-Lussier. It was published by H-Diplo (November, 2015).

In the review, Ms. Schindler describes the complex manner in which the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Presentations program either hindered or advanced U.S. public diplomacy and its public image. Beginning in 1954, the Cultural Presentations program sent musicians from across the United States to perform around the world. The premise of the program was to control the flow of art, culture, ideas, and the effects these had on other nations. Although it was the State Department’s intention to amass musicians it deemed relevant to U.S. culture and society, many foreign audiences often influenced which musicians were selected to perform, the genre of the music played, and the performance program. This, in effect, made the foreign audiences collaborators: which defeats the purpose of this program for U.S. diplomacy. The Cultural Presentations program covered almost three decades of development with respect to U.S. music, politics, and culture. The major and recurring issue the program faced was defining what music best represented U.S. culture and society; this was notably difficult because U.S. music is evermore changing and progressing.

Classical music was selected for the first few years of the program, because the State Department believed this proved the U.S. to be a highly cultured nation with real achievement in the arts – something the Soviet Union deemed necessary in a world leader. Critics challenged that this was not truly American because most classical composers were of European descent. By the 1960s, the State Department started incorporating Jazz and Popular music into the program and started frequently to send African American classical musicians abroad who were asked questions about race and politics; they in effect became pseudo-ambassadors of the U.S. The same was true for folk musicians and rock-and-roll musicians who were outspoken against U.S. policies in Vietnam and even performed music which protested U.S. involvement. Ms. Schindler notes that the State Department did not censor these musicians because it wanted to emphasize freedom of speech, a far more powerful message than the music itself.

Ms. Schindler concludes that the book assesses the efficacy of the Cultural Presentations program, but arrives at a mixed conclusion. The program did not achieve the political impact the State Department desired, but ultimately cumulated a foreign public’s respect and bolstered cultural diplomacy, in terms of human and cross-cultural exchange.

Caitlin E. Schindler obtained a Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence from The Institute of World Politics in 2010. She recently completed her Ph.D. on the historical origins of US public diplomacy at the University of Leeds.  Her research focuses on using strategic communications in statecraft.

Her full review can be read here.