Jacqueline Kennedy and Cold War Propaganda

By Schwalbe, Carol B. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Jacqueline Kennedy and Cold War Propaganda


Schwalbe, Carol B., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


As First Lady from January 1961 until November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy dazzled the American public with her intelligence, charm, and traditional femininity. Millions of people around the world were captivated as well by this beautiful young mother, who spoke several languages and adored art, music, and history. They came to know Mrs. Kennedy not only through intense coverage in the popular media but also through propaganda efforts orchestrated by the U.S. government. As part of its Cold War campaign to promote U.S. interests and ideology abroad, the United States Information Agency (USIA) capitalized on and enhanced the First Lady's growing currency as a diplomatic force and an agent of propaganda. Three films distributed overseas by the USIA in 1962 made her an increasingly visible First Lady abroad and a potent diplomatic asset to the Kennedy administration. An interview with noted filmmaker George S. Stevens, Jr., and a thorough examination of archival documents in the John F. Kennedy Library and the National Archives illuminate the international success of a CBS special about the White House and two USIA productions featuring her goodwill trip to India and Pakistan. These documentaries exemplify the First Lady's propaganda value abroad.

Feminist historians generally underrate Mrs. Kennedy. Sochen (1974), for example, asserted that the First Lady reinforced the prevailing cultural view of women as pre-occupied with "taste, fashion, superficial culture, and ceremony" (p. 384). Since the late 1980s, however, scholars have recognized the important role played by Mrs. Kennedy and other presidential wives (Gould, 1990). R. P. Watson (1997) identified three ways that presidential spouses wield political influence: (a) direct influence, such as by lobbying or writing speeches; (b) behind-the-scenes pillow influence as lover, confidante, and partner; and (c) influence as a public figure, which includes entertaining dignitaries and traveling overseas. As a celebrity and high-profile symbol of the New Frontier, Jacqueline Kennedy excelled in R. P. Watson's third category. Learning (2001) made a persuasive case for Mrs. Kennedy's substantive contribution as a goodwill ambassador. In two studies of modern First Ladies as public communicators, Gutin (1989, 2000) categorized her as an emerging spokesperson who used television and the press to promote the White House restoration, thereby expanding the First Lady's role from ceremonial presence to involved, visible partner. Troy (2000a) described her as a public relations asset at home and abroad, making "inroads against communism by wearing a pillbox hat and redecorating her home" (p. 110).

Despite the growing body of literature on presidential wives, few scholars have examined the three 1962 documentaries featuring the First Lady: the CBS special "A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy" and two USIA productions, Invitation to India and Invitation to Pakistan. In studies of the White House tour as a historical artifact, M. A. Watson (1988, p. 96; 1990, pp. 139-144) only touched on its overseas distribution. Cull (1999) chronicled how the India and Pakistan films cast light on the propaganda value of the USIA's changing filmmaking style as well as the subtle cultural and diplomatic images the First Lady conveyed of the New Frontier.

This article illuminates Mrs. Kennedy's role as a diplomatic force by examining primary sources from the National Archives and Kennedy Library, along with a key interview with filmmaker Stevens, who took over the reins of the USIA's Motion Picture Service in 1962. The three documentaries contributed to Cold War diplomacy by helping propel Mrs. Kennedy from the realm of presidential wife into what Gould (1986) called "the even more alluring venue of international stardom" (p. 533). I first analyze the nature of Mrs. Kennedy's charisma and then examine the role of USIA film and television propaganda in shaping global public opinion during the war of ideologies between the Soviet-led East and the U.

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