Americans in and out of government have relied on media and popular culture to construct the national identity, frame debates on military interventions, communicate core values abroad, and motivate citizens around the world to act in prescribed ways. During the late 19th century, as the United States emerged as a world power and expanded overseas, Americans adopted an ethos of worldliness in their everyday lives, even as some expressed worry about the nation’s position on war and peace. During the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, though America failed to join the League of Nations and retreated from foreign engagements, the nation also increased cultural interactions with the rest of the world through the export of motion pictures, music, consumer products, food, fashion, and sports. The policies and character of the Second World War were in part shaped by propaganda that evolved from earlier information campaigns. As the United States confronted communism during the Cold War, the government sanitized its cultural weapons to win the hearts and minds of Americans, allies, enemies, and nonaligned nations. But some cultural producers dissented from America’s “containment policy,” refashioned popular media for global audiences, and sparked a change in Washington’s cultural-diplomacy programs. An examination of popular culture also shows how people in the “Third World” deftly used the media to encourage superpower action. In the 21st century, activists and revolutionaries can be considered the inheritors of this tradition because they use social media to promote their political agendas. In short, understanding the roles popular culture played as America engaged the world greatly expands our understanding of modern American foreign relations.
Andrew J. Falk
The impact of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues on U.S. foreign relations is an understudied area, and only a handful of historians have addressed these issues in articles and books. Encounters with unexpected and condemnable (to European eyes) sexual behaviors and gender comportment arose from the first European forays into North America. As such, subduing heterodox sexual and gender expression has always been part of the colonizing endeavor in the so-called New World, tied in with the mission of civilizing and Christianizing the indigenous peoples that was so central to the forging of the United States and pressing its territorial expansion across the continent. These same impulses accompanied the further U.S. accumulation of territory across the Pacific and the Caribbean in the late 19th century, and they persisted even longer and further afield in its citizens’ missionary endeavors across the globe. During the 20th century, as the state’s foreign policy apparatus grew in size and scope, so too did the notions of homosexuality and transgender identity solidify as widely recognizable identity categories in the United States. Thus, it is during the 20th and 21st centuries, with ever greater intensity as the decades progressed, that one finds important influences of homosexuality and gender diversity on U.S. foreign policy: in immigration policies dating back to the late 19th century, in the Lavender Scare that plagued the State Department during the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, in more contemporary battles between religious conservatives and queer rights activists that have at times been exported to other countries, and in the increasing intersections of LGBTQ rights issues and the War on Terror that has been waged primarily in the Middle East since September 11, 2001.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each sought to portray their way of organizing society—liberal democracy or Communism, respectively—as materially and morally superior. In their bids for global leadership, each sponsored “front” groups that defended their priorities and values to audiences around the world. These campaigns frequently enrolled artists and intellectuals, whose lives, works, and prestige could be built up, torn down, exploited, or enhanced through their participation in these groups. Alongside overt diplomatic efforts, the United States funded a number of organizations secretly through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These efforts are often described as belonging to the “Cultural Cold War,” although the programs in fact supported overlapping networks that did anti-Communist work among labor unions, students, and others in addition to artists and intellectuals. The major CIA-sponsored group of intellectuals was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, established in 1950, and the “freedom” in its name was the major concept deployed by United States–aligned propagandists, to emphasize their differences from totalitarianism. The Cultural Cold War, as a program of psychological warfare conducted by the US government, grew out of the intersecting experiences of the left in the 1930s and the security apparatus of the United States at the dawn of the Cold War. The covert nature of the programs allowed them to evade scrutiny from the US Congress, and therefore to engage in activities that might otherwise have been stopped: working with people with radical political biographies or who still identified as “socialists,” or sponsoring avant-garde art, such as abstract expressionist painting. The programs spanned the globe, and grew in scope and ambition until their exposure in 1967. Subsequently, the United States has developed other mechanisms, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote organizations within civil society that support its interests.
Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.