Pushing the Limits: The NASA Space Shuttle (Photos)

For more than half a century, the people at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have captured the hearts and minds of the American people.  From man’s initial voyages through Earth’s atmosphere, to the recent exploration of Pluto, NASA has continued push the limits of scientific exploration. While NASA’s accomplishments are too numerous for any blog to recount, perhaps one of the agency’s greatest feats was developing a reusable space shuttle.

STS-116 Launch, 12/9/2006; Local ID: 255-ESD-ksc-306d-1348_0029

Photos featured in this blog have been recently processed by the Still Photos Branch.  STS-116 Launch, 12/9/2006; Local ID: 255-ESD-ksc-306d-1348_0029

The idea of a space shuttle was a radical departure from NASA’s previous space-exploratory vehicles.  Unlike its predecessors, the shuttle was the first spacecraft with wings.  The revolutionary shuttle was also launched by rockets and landed like a plane.  Most importantly, however, the shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft.  By creating a reusable ship, NASA was able to continually send astronauts into low Earth orbit, greatly enhancing our knowledge of the solar system.

Richard Nixon formally launched the Space Shuttle program on January 5, 1972.  It took another nine years for engineers and scientists to successfully launch what many believed was the greatest machine ever developed.  On April 12, 1981, exactly twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, NASA launched Columbia from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  After orbiting the Earth thirty-six times, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on April 14.

STS-118 Launch, 8/8/2007; Local ID: 255-ESD-ksc-307d-1104_0021

STS-118 Launch, 8/8/2007; Local ID: 255-ESD-ksc-307d-1104_0021

For thirty years, NASA’s Shuttle program exposed the potential of human exploration, and the harsh reality of space travel.  Two disasters, the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, will forever tarnish the legacy of the Space Shuttle program.  Yet the vast majority of shuttle missions were successful.  Between 1981 and 2011, NASA launched 135 missions, many of which helped to build and service the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS).  Both the Hubble and the ISS are unquestionably two of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, all made possible by NASA’s Shuttle program.

Although the Space Shuttle program has ended, its legacy continues to live on at the National Archives. The Still Photos branch has recently processed digital photographs taken from Space Transportation System (STS) 114 through 135.  These photos span from 2005 to 2011 and represent the last twenty-two missions of the Space Shuttle program.  The photographs depict pre-flight procedures, shuttle launches, and shuttle landings.  The National Archives also houses photos related to earlier shuttle missions and other NASA activities.

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All photos from 255-ESD will be made available on the NARA website shortly.

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Wealth Comes in Many Forms: William Greaves’ USIA Films

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I’m fortunate that my job allows me to make a difference every day. Most days it’s because I’ve preserved a piece of history, made something accessible for research, or contributed to the archival community. It’s rare, however, that I see how my work has made a difference in the life of a single person. This past spring I had that chance along with the opportunity to bring attention to two great films and the life of their multifaceted and talented director. A simple request from the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a 16mm theater print of William Greaves’Wealth of a Nation(1964) began it all.

NARA gets requests for theater prints on a regular basis, so I didn’t give much thought to it until, a couple of weeks after sending the print out, I received an email from Louise Greaves. She’d attended the screening at Lincoln Center and was delighted to know that her husband’s film was preserved at the National Archives as there wasn’t a copy in his personal archive.

William Greaves was a prominent African-American filmmaker and producer from the 1960s through the 2000s. He won an Emmy Award for the groundbreaking TV newsmagazine series Black Journal and is perhaps best known for his films Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) and Ali, the Fighter (1971). Mr. Greaves began as an actor, becoming a member of The Actors Studio in 1948. His career led him everywhere from the National Film Board of Canada, to Africa, to India and around the world. One of the stops along the way was with the United States Information Agency (USIA).

The USIA’s primary goal was to promote understanding, “inform, and influence foreign publics in promotion of the U.S. national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad.” The USIA was particularly prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, during the post World War II period and throughout the Cold War. It was during this period, in the mid-1960s, that William Greaves produced and directed Wealth of a Nation and The First World Festival of Negro Arts for the USIA. NARA holds the original negatives for both of these titles along with 54 reels of outtakes for First World Festival.

Both films are beautifully shot and composed and highlight the joy found in personal and collective expression. Wealth of a Nation explores how freedom of speech is afforded to all Americans, showing freedom of expression in art, music, dance, architecture, and science. The film emphasizes the importance of the individual’s contribution to the whole of society and shows how a productive and creative society is formed by the open and respectful exchange of ideas.

The First World Festival of Negro Arts documents the 1966 festival in Dakar, Senegal, which was put on by UNESCO, with the participation of forty-five African, European, Caribbean, and North and South American countries. The festival featured black literature, music, theater, visual arts, film and dance. Greaves filmed international performers, along with American artists Duke Ellington, Alvin Ailey, and Langston Hughes.

Providing digital copies of the films to Louise Greaves for inclusion in her husband’s archive was an immensely rewarding experience.  NARA was also fortunate to gain more information about these two titles from Mrs. Greaves. In one email exchange she wrote, “Wealth of a Nation is not just a beautiful film, it is actually the first film that Bill made independently after he returned to the States. So, in effect, the USIA helped launch his career as an independent filmmaker. George Stevens, Jr. was the person in charge of the program at that time and deserves credit for having made this happen – a fact that Bill always referred to whenever he was asked how he started his career as an independent filmmaker.”

Louise was able to provide some production information for us as well – the 35mm copies of First World Festival of Negro Arts were likely released in black and white and 16mm copies of the film were released with a sepia tone (all of NARA’s copies are 35mm). Without our conversations with her, this information may have been lost.

Collaboration and an exchange of information helped bring to light the legacy of art and freedom of expression that William Greaves illustrates in these two films. Personal moments like these that make my job worth so much more to me. Being able to provide increased access to important content is part of the job, but being able to make an impact in the life of an individual is a gift.

Many thanks to Louise Greaves for filling in details and fact-checking this post. You can find out more about William Greaves at http://williamgreaves.com. Wealth of a Nation will be screened at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater in Washington, D.C. September 10th at noon.

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When Slates Attack: A Shark Week Surprise

In most cases, film slates provide basic information about the scene that follows. In our military holdings, the slates tell us the unit, who the cameraman is, and the film’s subject. Sometimes the camera model is identified and the location and date are included.

They usually look like this, an example taken from reel 8 of the unedited footage for Training During Combat:


This 1944 film slate includes a title, the name of the military unit (9th Combat Camera), the name of the cameraman (Lt. W.T. Blume), and a headless assistant. (Still from 18-CS-2538, Reel 8)

Slates are meant to be functional and pass by quickly. In fact, we usually barely notice them at all.

Last week was an exception. After spending a good chunk of time transferring a researcher request that consisted of half-hour long reels of silent unedited footage of Vietnam-era river patrol boats (also called PBRs for their official name, “Patrol Boat, River“), I came across this slate:


In this slate, the cameraman decided to include an artistic rendering of the PBR as a shark, complete with a scary set of chompers and two muscular arms. One hand is gripping the hilt of a large knife, while the other clutches a Viet Cong soldier. (Still from 111-LC-53808)

I think I can safely say that in all the hours of unedited footage I’ve inspected or transferred, I have never before seen a shark boat. This slate serves as a reminder that when dealing with moving images, even the most ordinary aspect can contain extraordinary detail. Don’t blink or you might miss it!

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Re-establishing Diplomatic Relations with Cuba (Historic Photos)

It has been 54 years since the U.S. Embassy in Havana closed its doors.  Upon ending diplomatic relations with our neighboring island nation, President Eisenhower announced, “It is my hope and my conviction that it is in the not too distant future that it will be possible for the historic friendship between us once again to find its reflection in normal relations of every sort.” Although it has taken more than half a century, President Obama recently announced that the United States would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Coincidentally, the National Archives Still Photos Division recently acquired a large collection of photos from the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.  The collection includes photos of embassies, consulates, and diplomatic residencies from all over the world.  Included in this collection are a number of photos from the original U.S. embassy in Cuba.  These photos were processed earlier this month and can be viewed below:

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Photos from the Overseas Building Operations are currently being processed and will be made available to researchers in the near future.

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Happy July Fourth! John Huston’s “Birthday Present” to America

“All films are created equal. I don’t think there is such a thing as a small film. We’re not pulling any punches here. Scene for scene, everything is being done to the best of our abilities. Each scene as we make it is the best scene I’ve ever made—in my imagination.” –John Huston, on Independence

In June of 1975 director John Huston and a team of Hollywood professionals rolled into Philadelphia to make a film at Independence Hall. Four decades later, the film still screens at Independence National Historical Park, with twelve shows a day.


John Huston directed Independence as a bicentennial “birthday present” to America.

How, you might ask, did a little government film draw stars like John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), and cinematographer Owen Roizman, (The Exorcist)? The answer is that it was never a “little” film in the sense that so many government productions were quickly out of date and replaced. The National Park Service commissioned the film as a centerpiece to its Bicentennial celebrations and intended that it would be in use at Independence National Historical Park for twenty years. NPS budgeted nearly $400,000 for the production, a fortune for a non-theatrical film, even if it would have been low-budget by 1975 Hollywood standards.

Independence tells the story of our nation’s beginnings by bringing back the founding fathers from “a cask of Madeira wine” where, as a result of a wish by Benjamin Franklin, they had apparently been preserved for two hundred years so they could see how we turned out.

In a letter to Orson Welles, Huston called the project his “200th birthday present to the United States,” and he threw around a lot of weight in order to create the best possible product, including asking Welles to star as Benjamin Franklin, and bringing on board an Academy Award nominated cinematographer. Welles turned the role down, but Eli Wallach did not, telling a Philadelphia newspaper that working with John Huston again was “part of the lure, but that he also wanted to make the film because the Park Service planned to show it “for years and years”. Wallach said that he and his wife (who plays Abigail Adams) “turned down a lot to do it.”

With all the pieces in place, Huston fought to maintain a high level of quality for the production. In an article in the Philadelphia Bulletin, producer Lloyd Ritter noted that a John Huston film cannot be made “with a Bell and Howell and a candle.” He recounted one time when Huston arrived to find that there were not nearly enough extras in a scene of a room full of delegates. Ritter told Huston that the production could not afford more extras, “but Mr. Huston is perfectly capable of sitting in his camp chair until the 20 extras show up. And he did so.” Ritter added that Huston also found creative ways to keep costs down. Still, Independence ran $125,000 over budget, resulting in a dispute between producers Twentieth Century Fox and the government over who should pay the difference (all of the information for this post comes from a one and a half inch thick file labeled “Cost Overrun”).

The production clearly meant a lot to Huston and the other participants. The actors and crew famously received union scale rather than their usual asking price, and when Fox fired the producer and shut the production down on the seventh day of shooting, Huston offered $5000 of his own money and held a midnight meeting in Congress Hall to get everyone to come back the following day for no pay.

The result of John Huston’s “birthday present” is a film that holds up remarkably well and continues to serve its original purpose twenty years beyond its expected lifespan—the only other government film that comes close is John Ford’s Sex Hygiene, which I have been told was still in use in the 1960s, but would have been dreadfully dated even by then (you can’t really compare the two, of course).

If you have time this holiday, have a look at Independence. Even if you don’t learn something, I promise you’ll be entertained!

Why Do I Know That Face?

Most of the actors starring in Independence may not have well-known names, but you’ve probably seen their faces. Their IMDb pages feature hundreds of credits over decades of working as character actors. Most of them played more than one part in Murder She Wrote, apparently the Law and Order of its day. Click through the slideshow to find out why you might recognize them.

Note on sources: Most of the information for this post came from the “Cost Overrun” file, including photocopies of newspaper articles from June of 1975. In some cases, the full date or title was not copied and I’m guessing, but the articles I referenced are below.

-“Bicen Movie Rolls at Historic Site.” Naedele, Walter F. Philadelphia Bulletin. June 24, 1975

-“Huston Told to Halt Bicen Film 5 Days Early.” Naedele, Walter F. Philadelphia Bulletin. June 29, 1975.

-“Independence No Easier To Win Today Than in 1776.” Seltzer, Ruth. Philadelphia Inquirer.  June 30, 1975.

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Declassified Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings – 3rd Quarter

In an effort to provide information on recently declassified motion pictures and sound recordings the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch will publish a quarterly list of newly declassified records.

This quarter’s list includes a film from a series of Air Force Intelligence Reports (Local Identifier 341-IR/National Archives Identifier 5964869). The reports cover countries around the world during the 1950s and 1960s. The film below shows the pomp and circumstance of a military parade in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia May Day Parade, 1953 (Local Identifier 341-IR-98-53/National Archives Identifier 18559968) *This catalog entry is not currently live in our catalog. We apologize for the inconvenience and will repair the link for this entry as soon as possible.


From April 1, 2015 through June 30, 2015 the following records were declassified.

Motion Pictures:

Local Identifier           Title

341-IR-98-53              May Day Parade, Yugoslavia, 1953

342-USAF-28653      Operational Systems Test Facility for ICBM Titan at Vandenberg

                                      AFB, April 1960

342-USAF-34616      TAC Operations, McCoy AFB, November 1962

342-USAF-49604*  Operation Eagle Pull / Operation Frequent Wind

*Only Reels 5, 12, 49, 69, 106 and 164 have been declassified


Sound Recordings:

Local Identifier           Title

No sound recordings were declassified during this quarter.


Descriptive information for declassified records can be accessed by searching for the item number, ex. “341-IR-38-56”, in NARA’s catalog. You may also search on the Declassification Project Number (NND), if you know one. For example, searching on the declassification number “NND 64803” returns entries that are part of Declassification Project 64803. A list of declassified textual records can be found on the National Declassification Center’s web page.

Check out the post “From Top Secret Vault to Open Stacks: Declassification of Moving Images” to learn more about the declassification process. Lists of other recently declassified moving images and sound recordings can be located by clicking on the Declassification Quarterly Reports category on the left side of the blog.

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From War Dogs to Remote Controlled Monkeys: Animals in the Military

Dogs have a long history serving alongside humans in military campaigns. The earliest recorded use of war dogs is from around 600 BC, and dogs have acted as scouts, sentries, and fighters in conflicts around the globe. Some dogs, such as Sergeant Stubby in World War I and Chips in World War II, have even been decorated for bravery and exemplary service.

One reason why dogs have been so successful in the military is likely the species’ long relationship with humans. Dogs are intelligent and can be trained to perform a wide array of tasks, as seen in the film below.

Not all military uses of animals have been so successful. Twentieth-century warfare contains many grand ideas that were never implemented, even after significant financial investment. One example is the bat bomb under development during World War II. The Marine Corps spent over $2 million on Project X-Ray, which involved a plan to drop thousands of hibernating bats carrying incendiary devices over Japanese towns and cities. When the bats awoke, they would spread out to roost in flammable local structures, at which time the bombs were set to ignite. The project was cancelled before deployment (possibly because focus had shifted to the atomic bomb), but not before some accidentally-released bats set fire to a hangar at the Carlsbad Army Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico.

A second project that never made it out of development during World War II was Project Pigeon. Overseen by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the goal of this project was to create a pigeon-guided missile. Three pigeons trained to recognize a target would be enclosed within the nose cone of a missile and would peck at the image of the target as displayed on a small movable screen. This action would cause the missile to correct course toward the target. Though this particular project was cancelled, carrier pigeons played a large part in both World Wars, transporting messages over the battlefield. They may also have been used to some extent for aerial photography and reconnaissance purposes.

Another fascinating military animal project is described in a United States Air Force film that was declassified in 2012. Identified as Paisley Print Task I, the 1972 film depicts a project to train rhesus monkeys to follow remote direction to penetrate enemy territory for reconnaissance and sabotage purposes. The project was carried out by the Environmental Medicine and Human Engineering divisions of the 6570th Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The film describes the training given to the monkey, and then demonstrates an electrode vest that is remotely controlled by an operator to correct the monkey if it strays off of the desired course. According to the film’s narrator, successful implementation of the Paisley Print project would allow the Air Force to send monkeys equipped with cameras, or carrying explosives or supplies, into enemy territory that humans could not safely enter in order to carry out offensive countermeasures. Though the monkey successfully performs on the largely obstacle-free course at Wright-Patterson, it is unlikely that a remote-controlled vest would override the monkey’s instincts in a true combat situation.

There is very little documentation available about Paisley Print, and it is likely that the project never progressed beyond the development stage. You can watch the film report Paisley Print Task I below.

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The Great Beard Contest of 1941

Last week, Heidi transferred several reels of film documenting “overseas activity” in the summer of 1941. Nestled among shots of city streets and training exercises were playful scenes depicting a facial hair contest at Fort Stotsenburg in the Philippines. If a beard contest doesn’t scream “put me on the Internet” I don’t know what does, so here you have it.

At the end of May 1941, the United States found itself up against the brink of war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed an “unlimited national emergency” that required the nation to ready itself “to repel any and all acts or threats of aggression directed toward any part of the Western Hemisphere” and again reminded Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The commanding officer’s memo announcing that the men should allow their beards to grow appears to be an attempt to lighten the grave situation.

In the scenes that follow, the beards are displayed and the judges examine them. They declare a winner and hand over the prize.

The images captured in these scenes may be some of the last light moments the soldiers experienced. Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8th 1941. After six months of battle, the Philippines was surrendered to the Japanese. The American and Filipino soldiers left behind were treated harshly, forced to participate in the Bataan Death March and suffering in prison camps. The Allied Forces did not return to win back the Philippines until October of 1944, completing their task upon the Japanese surrender ten months later.

Watch the complete reel (the beard contest begins at 2:42):

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The Case of Sergeant Jon M. Sweeney

In February 1969, only a few weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Sergeant Jon Sweeney disappeared from Company M, 3d Battalion, 9th Marines. Unable to keep up with his company he was left behind and told to join the rear guard that was only minutes behind. When the rear guard arrived Sweeney was nowhere to be found. During the search Marines found Sweeney’s gun and ammunition, but nothing else. It would be nine months before anything more was heard of Sweeney.

Jon M. Sweeney

Jon M. Sweeney

During World War II President Franklin Roosevelt created the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS), under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to monitor axis radio broadcasts. In 1947 the FBMS was moved to the CIA and renamed the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). FBIS continued monitoring foreign broadcasts after World War II ended and it was through a North Vietnamese monitored broadcast that Sweeney was discovered. In his broadcasts Sweeney referred to himself as a deserter and spoke of joining the Vietnamese cause. Some broadcasts even provided instructions to others on how to desert and join the North Vietnamese, including this statement on July 16, 1970.

In August 1970 Sweeney was taken to Stockholm on a North Vietnamese passport and released. On his return to the United States he was charged with desertion and aiding the enemy. Executive Order 10631, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 established a Code of Conduct to be followed by US Prisoners of War. The Code says “I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.” At the time the US did not have a policy protecting Prisoners of War (POWs) from being tried for statements made in captivity. Sweeney admitted to participating in broadcasts, but said he did so under duress. After the trial Sweeney was found not guilty on all charges and honorably discharged from the Marine Corps.

Although he was tried and found not guilty, to this day there are some who believe that this was a miscarriage of justice and that Sweeney deserted and freely participated in North Vietnamese propaganda. You can learn more about the case of Sergeant Sweeney from the records in 127-IIFa (NAID 12005668), Sound Recordings Relating to Former POW Sgt. Jon M. Sweeney, 2/22/1969 – 9/1/1970, as well as textual records here at the National Archives.

A number of these audio recordings have poor sound quality due to being recorded from on-air broadcasts from Hanoi and Moscow.

This recording contains Christmas greetings from POWs to their families in the United States. Sweeney’s message begins at 24:48. Followed by his poem “Black Tomorrow”, which begins below.

NARA Local Identifier: 127-IIFa-16


Sweeney broadcast regarding Marine Corps Code of Conduct, May 14, 1970

NARA Local Identifier: 127-IIFa-26


Sweeney message to US Troops fighting in Vietnam, January 21, 1970

NARA Local Identifier: 127-IIFa-17

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Topic Magazine: Spreading Information to Africa

In 1990, editors at the Harvard Law Review elected their first black president in the journal’s 102-year history.  The newly elected 28-year-old president was a law student and community activist.  By that time, the lawyer-to-be had gained the respect of his peers and professors, all of who praised the student’s modesty, integrity, and drive to succeed.  The young student understood the significance of his appointment, “This is my 15 minutes…I think I have something to say.”  As it would turn out, the young academic would have a little more than fifteen minutes.  Eighteen years later, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review became first black president of the United States.

Barack Obama’s election to president of the Harvard Law Review was covered by Topic magazine. The United States Information Agency (USIA) printed Topic from 1965 to 1994.  The USIA printed the magazine in English and French, specifically targeting intellectuals in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In an attempt to appeal to their audience, the magazine often highlighted individuals with ties to Africa.  Barack Obama was no exception.  In addition to his academic credentials, Topic highlighted the fact that Obama’s grandfather was an herbalist in a Kenyan village some 60 years prior.  The magazine also mentioned Obama’s relatives in Kenya, and his African father, an economist at Oxford and Harvard.

Topic Magazine Issue 190, Photo Credited to Joe Wrinn , Harvard News Office

306-TM-Issue 190. Photo Credited to Joe Wrinn , Harvard News Office

When the USIA first published Topic in 1965, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War.  The first two decades of the Cold War also witnessed the birth of thirty-five new African nations.  Americans and Soviets vied for allegiance with the independent African countries. The new African countries represented potential trade partners and military allies.  In addition, many African nations were rich in raw materials and minerals that were essential to American industry.  Most importantly, however, Americans were concerned that if they did not convince the new African nations to embrace capitalism, the nascent countries would turn communist.  If Africa fell into the communist sphere, Americans believed it would put the safety of the United States and their Western allies in jeopardy.

Yet just as Americans touted their industrial capacity and moral superiority, critics around the world pointed out the hypocrisy of American foreign policy.  Americans preached freedom, but oppressed blacks in their own country.  Americans encouraged individual rights, but denied them to 20 million African Americans.  The later years of the 1960s proved to be some of the most turbulent times in American history.  Race riots, coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, left millions of Americans scared and uncertain about their country’s future.

As Cold War hostilities grew, the disparity between American ideology and their domestic relations became even more of a problem.  Soviet propaganda relayed news of Bull Connor’s attacks on blacks in Alabama, and enthusiastically covered the race riots in urban cities.  The USSR juxtaposed America’s claims of liberty with images of brutal lynchings and racist politicians. While America preached justice for all, the Soviets supplied stories of police brutality and arbitrary imprisonments of black men.  America’s race problem became its Achilles’ heel of international relations, and made it difficult to appeal to emerging African countries.

Topic Magazine Issue 41

306-TM-Issue 41

It was amidst this political climate that the United States Information Agency began to publish TopicTopic, as did many USIA publications, highlighted elements of the civil rights movement in a way that addressed the severity of the problem, but ultimately emphasized progress and hope for the future.   An article titled, “The Passionate Year,” recounted the domestic problems of 1966.  The author described how a sniper shot civil rights activist, James Meredith, and how riots flared in urban cities.  By acknowledging the problem, Topic presented itself as an unbiased magazine to its African readers.  The same article, however, ultimately emphasized improvement, “Behind the headlines there was steady, if slow, progress.” The magazine noted that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed 452,000 Southern blacks to vote, and average incomes among black families rose to new highs.  Similarly, the magazine showed how Southern schools were integrated and black senators were elected to congress.  Although the United States continued to face domestic problems, Topic argued that American race-relations were getting better.

Many articles highlighted the impact of black entertainers on American culture.  Prominent African Americans such as Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were all reoccurring celebrities throughout the magazine’s publication.  In many instances, Topic specifically highlighted the connection between American culture and Africa.  Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington credited their success to their African roots.  Nigerian boxer, Dick Tiger, was said to be an idol amongst American children.  Through these celebrities, Topic attempted to show that blacks could be successful in the United States, while simultaneously appealing to African audiences.

Topic Magazine Issue 21

306-TM-Issue 21

Topic also used politicians to place the civil rights movement within an international framework.  On a tour of the African continent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “We in America, and you in Africa, know that the conditions which stand in our way shall be overcome.”  In an exclusive interview with Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader preached, “The struggle for independence in Africa brought to the Negro American a new sense of dignity and destiny…I would also like to think that our progress here has in turn inspired Africans.”  By framing the American civil rights movement within the context of global affairs, Topic was able to acknowledge American problems and appeal to an African audience.

As Topic evolved through the years, the magazine remained true to its audience.  While the content reflected the changing times, the subject matter remained steady.  Editors at the USIA consistently focused on art, international politics, and emerging technologies.  Articles continued to focus on prominent athletes and musicians, often with ties to Africa.  Similarly, editors continued to emphasize education and African Americans in the United States.  It was no surprise then, that a young Barack Obama, of African ancestry and exceptional intellect found himself nestled within the pages of Topic magazine.

Topic Magazine, Issue 139

306-TM-Issue 139

Although publication of Topic ceased in 1994, the magazine remains a spectacular historical source.  The magazines reflect an important, and often forgotten, subject of U.S. foreign policy in Africa during the Cold War years.  A full collection of Topic magazines is now housed within the National Archives Still Photos division.  The Still Photos division also has prints of many photos used in Topic magazine.

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