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Cold War Cultural Diplomacy

In a terrible irony, Russia’s Soviet Union and Bloc—which imprisoned and oppressed millions, invaded and annexed neighboring nations, denied its people basic human rights, and under Stalin, had engaged in ethnic genocide as horrific as Hitler’s—made ample use of America’s hypocritical racial inequalities in their campaign to stoke distrust and fear of Western democracy. In 1961, a Herblock cartoon captured it this way: Russia and the United States are depicted as runners in a neck-and-neck track meet (to win international respect, the space race, and the Cold War), but Uncle Sam lags slightly behind, burdened by carrying a menacing demon on his back: racism.

During the year WALLS take place, the fight for civil rights and the disturbing white-lash against it often dominated our news. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent activists, following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, which had pushed the Supreme Court to integrate public transportation. Still to come, though, were the 1963 March on Washington and MLK’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial; the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project to register Black voters, organized by CORE (a group to which the grandmother of one of my important “supporting” characters, Shirley, belonged) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. These peaceful protestors were met with brutally conducted police arrests, beatings from bystanders, and even murder. 

While Army posts like the one in Berlin were integrated, (something the “Berlin Brats” of that day that I interviewed always commented on with some pride), back home the United States roiled with racial violence, such as what met the Freedom Riders in May 1961. In an effort to end segregation on public transport and waiting rooms—which the Supreme Court had ordered, but some states fought enacting—four hundred people banded together to ride “freedom buses” through the South. Black and white, young and old, they crossed several states, stopping to eat together at “whites-only” lunch counters. These kinds of peaceful “sit-ins” were taking place across the country, following MLK doing so at a department store in Atlanta. 

The Freedom Riders, however, were often met with police dogs and barricades. In Mississippi and Alabama riders were attacked and their buses set on fire. But the activists were the ones who were arrested for civil disobedience. 

At first hesitant to send in federal forces to protect the nonviolent demonstrators, the Kennedy administration started listening to the demands of civil rights leaders. But it was LBJ who spearheaded and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And it wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that laws that still prohibited interracial marriage in sixteen states were unconstitutional. (A sad and shocking fact that comes up in a scene in which my characters meet an American GI and his German fiancée.)

Starting in 1956, in part to combat international disapproval of our systemic racism, the State Department sent a stream of performing artists into the Soviet Bloc and underdeveloped countries at risk of falling into communism, calling it “cultural diplomacy.” 

Why? 

As explained in the East Berlin section, Soviet Russia and the communist party in their puppet regimes particularly feared Western music—because of radio. As Drew says to Matthias, who had explained listening to jazz and rock ‘n roll was prohibited in Berlin’s Eastern sector, “But how could they know?” Radio and the music it broadcast “floated free, like air, like imagination.” 

Exactly. Music in particular had the power to free minds and stir hearts. 

The State Department’s hope was that performances by jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck would spread first-hand awareness and appreciation of American music to nations saturated with anti-American rhetoric. The state department also believed these performances would combat overseas perceptions of America as racist, since these groups were integrated and jazz music such a wondrous amalgamation of diverse American musical traditions. 

A Band-aid on a gaping wound, obviously. Shirley asks Matthias: “Do the tours improve opinion of us?”

“No,” Matthias replied, ever blunt. “We still believe your capitalist society to be fascist and racist. Except in jazz. Perhaps if you ever live like American music, you will be different.”

It was in this scene at a Berlin jazz club that I was able to tuck in the fact that East Germans so longed to hear Western music that they managed to make pirated recordings on old, discarded chest X-rays that they then cut into circles. That occurred when David Brubeck’s band played in Eastern Europe.

Stop and think on that for a moment—music that was typically outlawed secretly recorded over images of hearts. That’s one of those gems of research that I tell teens about and why they should love primary documents. A little “revealing detail” about the setting/time period that can expand and expand within a scene. 

The small fact provided such a crystallizing symbol of that time period, its conflicts, its contradictions, and the power of hope and art to open minds. 

Of the six-country tour by Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, an American diplomat reported back to the State Department, “We could have built a tank with the cost of this tour, but you can’t get as much goodwill out of a tank as you can out of Dizzy Gillespie’s band.” The featured musicians often had mixed feelings about these tours, however, painfully aware that while they were being sent out to improve the United States’ image with nations we hoped to help liberate from authoritarian regimes, racism prevailed back home. 


For more, see: 

pbs.org/show/jazz-ambassadors/

nytimes.com/2020/07/18/us/politics/freedom-riders-john-lewis-work.html

pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/freedomriders/

nps.gov/frri/index.htm

smithsonianmag.com/history/the-freedom-riders-then-and-now-45351758/

youtu.be/J8WnT6v_W3o

edsitement.neh.gov/media-resources/jazz-ambassadors

edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plans/civil-rights-and-cold-war

edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plans/freedom-riders-and-popular-music-civil-rights-movement

edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plans/jfk-freedom-riders-and-civil-rights-movement

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