"Those White Guys Are Working for Me": Dizzy Gillespie, Jazz, and the Cultural Politics of the Cold War during the Eisenhower Administration

By Carletta, David M. | International Social Science Review, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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"Those White Guys Are Working for Me": Dizzy Gillespie, Jazz, and the Cultural Politics of the Cold War during the Eisenhower Administration


Carletta, David M., International Social Science Review


Convinced that cultural influence was linked to political and economic power, the Eisenhower administration (1953-61) sponsored America's premier jazz musicians' goodwill tours abroad as part of its cultural foreign policy agenda. These tours helped the United States government in its global propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union and its communist allies, who widely reported and successfully exploited the racial tension and violence that accompanied the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. These "jazz ambassadors" also helped the United States government counter claims made by communist propagandists that hyper-materialistic capitalists were "cultural barbarians" who produced commodities rather than sophisticated culture. (1) In short, they helped the Eisenhower administration combat communism during the early years of the Cold War.

Wary that the Soviets were making political gains around the world through their cultural diplomacy offensive, (2) the Eisenhower administration launched a two-pronged effort to counter communist propaganda activities. In August 1953, it established the United States Information Agency (USIA) an agency within the executive branch, separate from the State Department, to support American foreign policy objectives and national interests around the world. The agency was active in anticommunism propaganda, particularly efforts to refute the anti-capitalist rhetoric of TASS, the official news agency of the Soviet government. USIA's mass media activities were buttressed by its operation of libraries, cultural exhibits, and exchange programs overseas. (3) One year later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower secured emergency funding from Congress for "psychological" anti-communist programs. In both 1954 and 1955, the President's Emergency Fund for International Affairs spent $5 million to support the presentation of American industrial and cultural accomplishments abroad. In 1956, Congress enacted the International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act, establishing permanent funding for the Eisenhower administration's cultural international relations programs. (4)

In addition to establishing the USIA, securing funding for its cultural foreign relations programs, and providing economic, military, and technical foreign assistance, the Eisenhower administration used the State Department to sponsor cultural programs as a means of bolstering American influence throughout the world. Wide-ranging psychological warfare programs were developed both at home and abroad, including campaigns such as Atoms for Peace and People-to-People, that presented to the world an image of daily life in the United States where its citizens enjoyed fulfilling and cheery lives in a classless society where economic abundance was shared by all. (5) Jazz was incorporated into this cultural diplomacy offensive.

These tours, inspired by the success of the Voice of America radio show Music, U.S.A., financed by the State Department, and promoted by USIA, served the needs of the United States government, civil rights advocates, and those interested in securing federal support for the arts. The State Department sent interracial jazz bands overseas to portray an image of the nation progressing towards racial harmony and to prove to the world that the capitalist system bestowed cultural as well as material benefits upon those who embraced it. Civil rights advocates tried to exploit the United States government's pursuit of global leadership by linking moral credibility in foreign relations to domestic justice and equality. At the same time, many of the nation's politicians and cultural enthusiasts used the Cold War to seek federal support for the arts, arguing that the arts were a feature of national prestige that could serve as a useful tool for attracting allies. (6) That argument influenced the State Department's decision to use jazz to portray a positive image of African-American life.

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