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In addition to being a political and economic battle, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was a clash of cultures. Communist party leaders depicted the United States as a cultural black hole and cited their own significant culture as evidence that they were the inheritors of the European Enlightenment (Wilford 100). Americans, on the other hand accused the Soviets of “disregarding the inherent value of culture” and subjugating art to the controlling policies of a totalitarian political system. The United States saw itself as being saddled with the responsibility of preserving and fostering the best cultural traditions of western civilization, as many European artists sought refuge in the United States before, during, and after World War II (Wilford 101). Europe and European Universities turned out to be in the epicenter of the Cultural Cold War.
In 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) surreptitiously created the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) to counter the Cominform’s “peace offensive”(Wilford 101). The Congress had “offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances” at its peak (Saunders 2000). The intent of these endeavors was to “showcase” US and European high culture, including not just musical works but paintings, ballets, and other artistic avenues, for the benefit of neutralist foreign intellectuals (Wilford 102).
Many US government organizations used classical symphonies, Broadway musicals, and jazz performances (including musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie) in attempts to persuade audiences worldwide America was a cradle for the growth of music (Wilford 108-109). The CIA and, in turn the CCF, displayed reluctance to patronize America’s musical avant-garde, experimental, including artists such as Milton Babbitt and John Cage. The CCF took a more conservative approach, as outlined under its General Secretary, Nicolas Nabokov, and concentrated its efforts on presenting older European works that had been banned or condemned by the Communist Party (Wilford 109).
In 1952, the CCF sponsored the “Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Modern Arts” in Paris. Over the next thirty days, the festival hosted nine separate orchestras which performed works by over 70 composers, many of whom had been dismissed by communist critics as “degenerate” and “sterile,”; included in this group were composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Claude Debussy (Wilford 109). The festival opened with a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, as performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (109). Thomas Braden, a senior member of the CIA said: “The Boston Symphony Orchestra won more acclaim for the US in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have brought with a hundred speeches” (Wilford 110)
The CIA in particular utilized a wide range of musical genres, including Broadway musicals, and even the jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, to convince music enthusiasts across the globe that the U.S. was committed to the musical arts as much as they were to the literary and visual arts. Under the leadership of Nabokov, the CCF organized impressive musical events that were anti-communist in nature, transporting America’s prime musical talents to Berlin, Paris, and London to provide a steady series of performances and festivals. In order to promote cooperation between artists and the CCF, and thus extend their ideals, the CCF provided financial aid to artists in need of monetary assistance.
However, because the CCF failed to offer much support for classical music associated with the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, it was deemed an “authoritarian” tool of Soviet communism and wartime German and Italian fascism. The CCF also distanced itself from experimental musical avant-garde artists such as Milton Babbit and John Cage, preferring to focus on earlier European works that had been banned or condemned as “formalist” by Soviet authorities.
Nicolas Nabokov was a Russian-born composer and writer who developed the music program of the CCF as the Secretary-General. Before gaining this position, he composed several notable musical works, the first of which was the ballet-oratorio Ode, produced by Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in 1928. This composition was shortly followed by Nabokov’s Lyrical Symphony in 1931. Nabokov moved to the U.S. in 1933 to serve as a lecturer in music for the Barnes Foundation. A year after moving to the U.S. Nabokov composed another ballet, which was entitled Union Pacific. Nabokov’s career then leads him to teach music at Wells College in New York from 1936 to 1941, and later at St. John’s College in Maryland. During this time, Nabokov officially became a U.S citizen, in 1939.
In 1945, Nabokov moved to Germany to work for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey as a civilian cultural adviser. He returned to the U.S. just two years later to teach at the Peabody Conservatory before becoming the Secretary-General of the newly created CCF in 1951. Nabokov remained in this position for over fifteen years, spearheading popular music and cultural festivals during his tenure. During this time he also wrote music for the opera Rasputin's End in 1958 and was commissioned by the New York City Ballet to compose music for Don Quixote in 1966. When the CCF disbanded in 1967, Nabokov returned to a career in teaching at several universities throughout the U.S., and composed music for the opera Love's Labour's Lost in 1973.
This 30-day arts festival, held in Paris, was sponsored by the CCF in 1952 in order to alter the image of the U.S. as having a bleak and empty cultural scene. The CCF under Nabokov believed that American modernist culture could serve as an ideological resistance to the Soviet Union. As a result, the CCF commissioned nine different orchestras to perform concertos, operas, and ballets by over 70 composers who had been labeled by communist commissars as “degenerate” and “sterile.” This included compositions by Benjamin Britten, Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Pierre Boulez, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, and Claude Debussy.
The festival opened with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, conducted by Stravinsky and Pierre Monteux, the original conductor in 1913 when the ballet instigated a riot by the Parisian public. The entire Boston Symphony Orchestra was brought to Paris to perform the overture for the large sum of $160,000. The performance was so powerful in uniting the public under a common anti-Soviet stance that American journalist Tom Braden remarked that “the Boston Symphony Orchestra won more acclaim for the U.S. in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have brought with a hundred speeches.” An additional revolutionary performance at the festival was Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints, an opera that contained an all-black cast. This performance was selected to counter European criticisms of the treatment of African Americans living in the U.S.
During the Cold War, Louis Armstrong was promoted around the world as a symbol of US culture, racial progress, and foreign policy. It was during the Jim Crow Era that Armstrong was appointed a Goodwill Jazz Ambassador, and his job entailed representing the American government’s commitment to advance the liberties of African Americans at home, while also working to endorse the social freedom of those abroad.
Armstrong’s visit to Africa’s Gold Coast was hugely successful and attracted magnificent crowds and widespread press coverage. His band’s performance in Accra resulted in public enthusiasm due to what was deemed an “unbiased support for the African course….”.
Although Armstrong was indeed advocating the US foreign policy strategies in Africa, he did not whole-heartedly agree with some of the American government’s decisions in the South. During the 1957 school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, Armstrong made it a point to openly criticize President Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. Instigated by Faubus’s decision to use the National Guard to prevent Black students from integrating into Little Rock High School, Armstrong abandoned his ambassadorship periodically, jeopardizing the US’s attempt to use Armstrong to represent America’s racial position abroad, specifically in the Soviet Union.
It was not until Eisenhower sent federal troops to uphold integration that Armstrong reconsidered and went back to his position with the State Department. Although he had deserted his trip to the Soviet Union, he later went on to tour several times for the US government, including a six-month tour African tour in 1960-1961. It was during this time that Armstrong continued to criticize the American government for dragging its feet on the Civil Right issue, highlighting the contradictory nature of the Goodwill Jazz Ambassadors mission. Armstrong and Dave and Iona Brubeck (other Ambassadors at the time) asserted that although they represented the American government, they did not represent all of the same policies.
Ultimately, although America no doubt benefited from the tours by Black artists (including Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie), these ambassadors did not advocate a singularly American identity. They instead encouraged solidarity among Black peoples, and were constantly contesting those policies that did not fully sympathize with the aims of the Civil Rights movement.
1. Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945-1966. Culture, Politics, and the Cold War. Christian G. Appy. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
2. Wilford, Hugh. The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. London, England: Harvard University Press, 2008.
3. An American Half-century: Postwar Culture and Politics in the USA. Michael Klein. London & Boulder, Colorado: Pluto Press, 1994.
4. Saunders, Frances Stonor. Introduction to Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. Granta 1999/2000