Staging the Cold War : negotiating American national identity in film and television, 1940-1960

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Falk, Andrew Justin

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This dissertation responds to historiography that overlooks roles played by nonstate actors in shaping American foreign relations, domestic politics, and popular culture. It looks at ways in which influential Americans – in government, cultural industries, and business – joined audiences in defining principles of foreign relations and in manipulating the national image during the years 1940-1960. It shows how debates over American national identity changed over time and how political ideologies transferred to other venues. During the 1940s, the motion picture industry confronted problems related to international affairs: anti-communism, anti-Semitism, isolationism, foreign trade, the Second World War, and “domestic fascism.” While producers emphasized their American identities and formed partnerships with the government, progressive talent sought to fashion a new world order based on principles of liberal internationalism: universalism, anti-colonialism, self-determination, humane capitalism, and impartiality in dealing with all nations. They used their influence in cultural affairs to enter political fights over the atomic bomb, foreign aid, Palestine, and the United Nations. Progressive ideology also permeated film content. As superpower relations deteriorated, these political activities came under scrutiny by cold warriors who cast the Soviet “Other,” an image antithetical to representations of America. Anti-communists alienated radicals and opened foreign markets to friendly producers who silenced liberal internationalism in Hollywood. With traditional avenues of political protest closed to them, progressives used television – a utopian experiment – to articulate their alternative vision. In the early 1950s, the Truman administration viewed the Cold War in ideological terms and constructed a cultural weapon to complement military and economic might. Anticommunists policed television as networks re-defined the “public interest.” Progressive programs vanished, replaced by genres touting American exceptionalism. Progressives soon transported liberal internationalism to outlets overseas. They presented Europeans with a different perspective than cultural exports sponsored by the government. Rabid anti-communists purged American exports of liberal internationalism. These methods appalled Europeans and embarrassed the Eisenhower administration, which learned that it was losing European “hearts and minds.” By the mid-1950s the administration embraced progressive productions as cold-war weapons. Themes mattered less; commodities mattered more. By co-opting liberal-internationalist productions, the administration appeared to “further understanding” while staging the Cold War.




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