This week’s guest post is from Richard Green, an archives technician with the Motion Picture, Video and Recorded Sound Division of NARA’s Research Services, located in College Park, MD. He is currently studying history and psychology at the University of Maryland and is looking forward to attending graduate school in the fall of 2013.
The National Archives in College Park currently houses tens of thousands of films, videos and audio clips from the United States Information Agency. Yet this large collection is distinct from others for one obvious reason: the vast majority of it was never intended to be seen by anyone living in the United States.
In 1948 the U.S. Congress passed a bill known as the Smith-Mundt Act. The act allowed the United States to spread information to foreign countries during times of peace. The act also prohibited the distribution of information within the United States.
By the 1950s, Soviet information agencies were spreading their beliefs around the world. When it became evident that the U.S. was losing this “war of ideas” the need to spread information grew even stronger. In 1953, President Eisenhower created the United States Information Agency (USIA). The agency was designed to make foreign nations more receptive to U.S. foreign policy.
As Cold War tensions continued to escalate, the desire to spread American ideas increased accordingly. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy took steps to advance American influence abroad. Kennedy appointed media icon Edward R. Murrow to lead the USIA and increased the agency’s budget dramatically.
Yet the USIA still faced the monumental task of convincing skeptical foreign nations that their government should embody the principles of the United States. This message was especially difficult to convey while hundreds of thousands of Americans were protesting inequality in the nation’s capital.
On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people gathered in Washington D.C. to “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Better known today as the March on Washington, the famous protest took place on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Though there were many prominent speakers that day, the march will always be synonymous with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Coverage of the event was broadcast to Britain and France, and relayed to other countries around the world.
Since the world was already aware of the March on Washington, USIA directors had no choice but to embrace the event. In fact, the USIA produced multiple films about the march. All of these films focused on the advancement of minority rights through the inherently American principle of free speech. The most recognized of these films was a documentary titled The March, ( 306.765 ) , which focused on the planning and execution of the iconic rally.
I was particularly struck by another USIA film called the Hollywood Roundtable (306.1757). In addition to the popular masses, the March on Washington was attended and organized by many celebrities. Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Joseph Mankiewicz, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and many others were in attendance. After the march, some of these men gathered in front of USIA cameras to share their thoughts about the March on Washington and the Civil Rights movement in general. That footage can be seen below.
The Hollywood Roundtable did not portray the United States as a perfect nation. Instead, the USIA used honesty and humility in an attempt to relate to foreign audiences. Throughout the film, the celebrities emphasized the nation’s faults while still promoting American values. Writer and director Joseph Mankiewicz perhaps put this best, “This is the only country in the Western world where this [the march] is possible, but also the only country where this is necessary.” (11:45)
The emphasis on hope and potential is another theme meant to lure foreign viewers to the American way of life. James Baldwin states, “No matter how bitter I become I always believed in the potential of this country. For the first time in our history, the nation has shown signs of dealing with this central problem.” (18:58)
In a subtle attack on communism, moderator of the debate, David Schoenburn, said, “The hope of our country is that we can have demonstrations of this kind, there is no ‘March on Moscow’ or ‘March on Peking.’” (11:10)
In September of 1963, The March and The Hollywood Roundtable were shown as a pair. In the production files for The March, I came across a memo from a USIA station in Hong Kong. The memo mentions that both films were shown together on a local television show to over 120,000 people. Additionally, the film was shown in schools and at the USIA auditorium. “The television station reported a favorable reaction from viewers.”
During the Hollywood Roundtable, Schoenburn mentions that over 100 countries would see their discussion (22:10). Due to the Smith-Mundt Act, this estimate did not include the United States. When word spread that the government was broadcasting images of domestic inequality to foreign nations, many Americans were not pleased with USIA officials. Shortly after, Edward R. Murrow stepped down as USIA president and was replaced by Carl Rowan. At the time, this made Rowan the highest ranked African American in public office.
The USIA disbanded in 1999. Many of the agency’s records , including films such as The March and The Hollywood Roundtable, are now available to the public at the National Archives.