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Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura

Print version ISSN 0120-2456

Anu. colomb. hist. soc. cult. vol.41 no.2 Bogotá July/Dec. 2014

Darlene J. Sadlier.

Americans All. Good Neighbor Cultural Diplomacy in World War II.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 251 pages.

This publication adds to a rapidly growing volume of scholarship on U.S. cultural diplomacy. Most of this scholarship focuses on the Cold War and on Europe. This volume, in turn, is concerned with a lesser-known episode that came to fruition during World War II and that focused not on Europe but on Latin America. As Nazi German troops entered Paris, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration set out to launch a massive campaign to win hearts and minds for inter-American cooperation and solidarity. This campaign came to be spearheaded by an emergency agency, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs or CIAA.1 Headed by the young multimillionaire and entrepreneur Nelson A. Rockefeller, the CIAA existed for only six years, but during its brief existence it helped to construct a dense State-private network that managed cultural relations with foreign countries and that continued to operate and expand long after the war was over. Of course, by then Latin Ame-rica was no longer at the center of geopolitical attention. Well before the end of hostilities, the State Department began to prepare for the winding down of the CIAA’s cultural programs. The agency itself was abolished in 1946. With the onset of the Cold War, the State-private network reshuffled, its main attention now focusing elsewhere and mainly on Europe.

Despite the fact that the CIAA’s archives were declassified in the 1970s, very few scholars have attempted to provide a comprehensive account of the agency. Most have concentrated on individual programs or even products. Hence, there are plenty of investigations on iconic products such as Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos or The Tres Caballeros and other films produced on behalf of the agency. Some scholars have grappled with broader issues, but have done so from the vantage point of a single country, mostly Brazil and Mexico. This state of affairs is due to numerous reasons most of which are beyond the scope of this review. Some however deserve to be mentioned in order to fully appreciate Darlene Sadlier’s contribution to the field.

The CIAA remains a somewhat unwieldy subject. It left behind a vast documentary footprint that overwhelms even those researchers most committed to archival legwork. More importantly, the agency’s modus operandi resists a more comprehensive approach. In order to instill (what was called) "sympathetic understanding" between the peoples north and south of the Rio Grande, the CIAA established a vast propaganda machine of its own that, by means of print, radio, and film, flooded the Americas with a large volume of rather tightly controlled contents. At the same time, however, it operated as a coordination agency that facilitated and supported a vast array of activities, which the government deemed worthy but did not fully control. The latter mode of operation produced an upsurge of initiatives that defy easy categorization, since the individuals, institutions, associations, and corporate businesses developing these initiatives comprised a politically and culturally very broad and diverse church.

Last not least, recent academic trends have further complicated efforts toward a more comprehensive approach. In the wake of (what came to be called) the postcolonial turn, fewer scholars in the field of U.S. cultural relations are now content with studying policies as cooked up at a desk in a government office in Washington, DC. Many researchers now feel obliged to develop at least a notion of how these policies actually worked out on the ground. Yet, such a research agenda requires following the line of evidence further downstream and into vastly different locales.

Americans All constitutes the first monograph in the English language that seeks to provide a comprehensive and, at the same time, fine-grained account of the cultural Good Neighbor policies as spearheaded by the CIAA. Based on extensive research in more than a dozen archives and libraries in the United States and in Brazil, it does not cover all of the CIAA’s operational theaters equally, which —for the reasons mentioned above— would have been difficult if not impossible. Its more deeply explored episodes relate to the United States itself and also to Brazil, which is the author’s main field of expertise.

In order to get a grip on her unwieldy subject matter, Sadlier borrows conceptually from the Frankfurt School in that she approaches the State-private network mentioned above as an integrated system, the "culture industry" (Chapter One: "The Culture Industry Goes to War"). Yet, rather than following Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their dark vision of the modern media as mass deception, the author presents a more nuanced and, on balance, rather bright picture of the culture industry as it mobilized for the battle over hearts and minds in the Americas, under guidance by the CIAA.

Sadlier organizes the main body of her book along the major functional divisions of the CIAA’s communications department; that is, she dedicates a chapter each to the Motion Picture, the Radio, and the Press and Publications divisions. A concluding chapter deals with an array of programs that are most typically associated with cultural diplomacy, such as art exhibitions or the translation of literary works. Many of these programs were sponsored not by the CIAA but by a parallel agency, the (more high-brow) Division of Cultural Relations of the U.S. Department of State. This chapter ("In Museums, in Libraries, and on the Home Front") also includes a brief discussion of some of the more important repercussions of the good-neighbor programs in the United States.

As other scholars have done in the past, Sadlier reviews Hollywood’s goodneighbor productions in a critical light (Chapter Two: "On Screen"). Even as the industry was now seeking to avoid negative stereotypes of Latin Americans, many of the films produced to win hearts and minds (as well as markets) continued to hark back to traditional imaginings of Latin Americans as the exotic, sensual, and (in the end) lesser other. Yet, while working closely with Hollywood, the CIAA also sponsored directors such as Orson Welles or Julien Bryan who worked hard to destabilize such notions by invoking a more inclusionary vision of what it meant to be "American". Theirs was a view ("Americans All") that encompassed all peoples of the Americas, regardless of their creed or race, as equals in an ongoing struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. For them, fighting fascism was not just about bringing down Nazi Germany. It was also about bringing justice to inter-American relations and to inter-racial relations at home.

The Americans All theme also appeared prominently in the CIAA’s radio broadcasts, most evidently in the documentary and educational genres. The series "Hello Americans," produced by Orson Welles for the CBS network, is one of the contents analyzed in greater detail in the Third Chapter ("On the Air"), along with programs directed at women and children. Much of this chapter, moreover, is dedicated to the multiple efforts undertaken by the CIAA to accurately gauge the taste and listening habits of Latin Americans, as well as audience responses to the CIAA’s programs. No doubt, the agency employed leading experts on public opinion and propaganda analysis, among them Leonard Doob, who figures more prominently in this study. Yet, judging by modern polling methods, it would seem that the agency’s impact analyses were too haphazard to produce reliable results.

Chapter Four ("In Print") revisits the impressive outpouring of materials from the CIAA’s press and publications division, much of which would qualify as straightforward propaganda. As in the preceding chapters, however, Sadlier is strongest where she engages with artists who entered the CIAA’s orbit because they were deeply committed with the idea of setting inter-American relations on a more equal footing: here, for instance, she provides a sensitive close-up of the photographer Genevieve Naylor, who in the early 1940s toured Brazil on behalf of the CIAA. The photos Sadlier selected for this volume nicely illustrate her characterization of Naylor’s work.

As is well known, the CIAA cooperated closely with the Museum of Modern Art and other metropolitan institutions in order to facilitate the exchange of artwork between the United States and Latin America. Cooperation with academic institutions and major publishers in the United States secured the translation of literary works. These and other programs greatly increased the exposure of U.S. citizens to Latin American culture and vice versa. Yet, although such programs seemed to have a clear-cut objective, that is, to teach audiences to appreciate the culture of their good neighbors, they were not without tensions and contradictions. For instance, as Chapter Five reminds us, whereas much of the (educational) film production at the hands of Julien Bryan and others was intent on presenting Latin American culture and civilization as modern, progressive, and rather similar to the United States, the curatorial practices of U.S. museums that exhibited Latin American paintings and other artwork tended to point into a very different direction (p. 160-162).

During World War II the U.S. government became acutely aware that racism at home was a liability in foreign relations terms. For obvious reasons, the CIAA was particularly concerned about discrimination against Hispanics, which caused very severe tensions in the U.S. Southwest. The CIAA feared that racism, as it surfaced very visibly during and in the aftermath of the so-called Zoot Suit riots that shook Los Angeles in 1943, provided ready material for the Nazi propaganda machine and also strained relations with Mexico and other American republics. Sadlier unearthed fresh evidence on the matter: the Walter H. C. Laves papers housed at the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library in Bloomington. Although political scientist Laves worked for only a brief stint for Rockefeller, his papers shine a light into the inner workings of the CIAA as it was called upon to respond to the crisis unfolding in Los Angeles. Since his office, the Division of Inter-American Activities in the United States, was a late addition to the CIAA’s functional structure, Laves had to cope with a fair amount of bureaucratic infighting when trying to take charge of a wider range of activities that aimed at producing "Good Neighbors at Home" (p. 178). Yet, Sadlier’s account of the tensions surrounding the CIAA’s response to the events in Los Angeles also suggests that Rockefeller’s willingness to openly engage in the struggle against discrimination was, in the end, rather limited (see, for instance, p. 189-191). These are findings that scholars working in a related field of inquiry, that is, the interconnectedness of U.S. foreign policies and domestic race relations, will no doubt find important and worthy of further exploration.

On balance, Sadlier suggests, the CIAA "was a rare and not ignoble instance of U.S. government investment in culture as a way of reaching out to other nations and to people at home" (p. 5). While certainly not in an uncritical fashion, her account highlights the activities of an "astonishingly large number of talented artists and intellectuals" (p. 3) who, in the peculiar historical conjuncture of the 1930s and early 1940s, entered the orbit of the U.S. government in order to bring about progressive change at home and abroad. She therefore tends to sharply delineate U.S. cultural diplomacy programs during World War II from the policies carried out later, during the Cold War (p. 83, 173, 196-200). "[A]t least in comparison to what followed", Sadlier concludes, the CIAA was "a remarkably enlightened example of the government’s enthusiastic prioritization of modern and relatively progressive forms of public culture as a powerful mediating force for political and economic interests" (p. 200).

Not all scholars will fully agree with Sadlier on this account. Those of us who focus primarily on the harder-edged policies pursued by the CIAA and related war agencies in order to influence public opinion in wartime Latin America tend to paint a somewhat darker picture of the agency, a view that suggests continuities to the Cold War period. Yet, to be fair to the author, such harder-edged policies to influence, say, the editorial policies of Latin American newspapers or radio stations hardly qualify as cultural diplomacy and thus are not the central concern of this book.

In contrast to much of the scholarly production in cultural studies, Sadlier, professor of Spanish and Portuguese with Indiana University at Bloomington, does not seek to impress her readers with a jargon-loaded pro-se. She provides a highly readable and beautifully illustrated account of U.S. cultural diplomacy during World War II that will find its way into the course syllabi on all levels of teaching.

Pie de página

1 Sadlier uses the acronym preferred by the office’s contemporaries. The agency was frequently restructured and thus became known under various acronyms: OCCCRBAR (Office for Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics), OCIAA (Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) or OIAA (Office of Inter-American Affairs).

Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, Colombia

Cómo citar.

Cramer, Gisella. "Darlene J. Sadlier. Americans All. Good Neighbor Cultural Diplimacy in World War II" (reseña). Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura 41.2 (2014): 347 – 352.