Jacqueline Kennedy and Cold War propaganda.

Author:Schwalbe, Carol B.
 
FREE EXCERPT

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.S.-led West. Finally, I evaluate evidence found in period newspapers, magazines, and U.S. government documents to gauge the international success of the three films as instruments of propaganda.

Jacqueline Kennedy's Mystique

What made Jacqueline Kennedy such a charismatic figure, placing either first or second in the annual Gallup poll of most admired women (R. P. Watson, 2000, p. 179)? Her glamour, patronage of the arts, linguistic skills, and interest in the history and culture of other countries won her millions of fans around the globe (Koestenbaum, 1995). At home, her intelligence, youthful beauty, and traditional femininity captivated the American people. In fact, when a 1962 Gallup poll asked what qualities Americans liked about the First Lady, these words and phrases occurred most often: "attractive, pretty, good-looking"; "good personality"; "intelligent, educated"; "makes a good impression abroad"; "interested in culture"; "a good mother"; "friendly, warm"; "a good mixer"; "poised"; and "sweet, nice" ("How the Public Rates," 1962, p. 28). Jacqueline Kennedy projected "a special kind of presence," wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead (1962), "a combination of qualities that Americans have long admired in young stage and screen stars but have seldom hoped to find in the wives of famous men" (p. 9). Her intelligence and "cultivated mind turned out to be womanly assets," declared Bender (1962, p. 14) in a New York Times article. The First Lady, he wrote, "made the world safe for brunettes.... It is now quite all right for a woman to be a bit brainy or cultured.... And hardly anyone considers it affected these days to be able to hold a conversation in a couple of languages" (p. 14). In addition, Jacqueline Kennedy offered the American people a change from her more staid predecessors, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.

Although her interest in foreign cultures, the arts, and historic preservation reinforced her image as a modern woman, Mrs. Kennedy held a traditional view of her role as wife and mother. Adding to her appeal was her oft-repeated statement that her first duty was to her husband and children (Giglio, 1995). "Jack's always so proud of me when I do something like this," she said after her successful goodwill trip to India and Pakistan, "but I can't stand being out in front. I know it sounds trite, but what I really want is to be behind him and to be a good wife and mother" (cited in Braden, 1962, p. 85). Her soft voice and devotion to motherhood reinforced her femininity.

The mass media fed the public's obsession with what Troy (2000b) called "the image-driven politics of personality and celebrity" (p. 593), reporting even the tiniest details about her personal life, clothing, and appearance. Ironically, even though she shied away from the limelight, her reserve enhanced her mystique. According to historian Betty Boyd Caroli (2003), President John F. Kennedy recognized the political value of his beautiful, charismatic wife and wanted to promote "her glamor and sophistication as part of the administration's glitter" (p. 337). The President had made America's image a campaign issue in 1960, claiming that a secret USIA poll revealed that the United States had slipped in world esteem. When the First Lady charmed the French people--and even the imperious Charles de Gaulle--in May 1961, the President introduced himself as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris" (cited in "La Presidente," 1961, p. 13). In December 1961 the editors of 106 international periodicals selected her as woman of the year ("Poll Hails," 1961, p. 6). More than any previous First Lady, she proved to be a potent diplomatic force in projecting a cultured, glamorous image of the United States abroad ("Films From Uncle Sam," 1966, p. 110).

Jacqueline Kennedy and the USIA

Jacqueline Kennedy embodied the youthful promise and ardent internationalism of the New Frontier. As the United States sought to marshal international support during the Cold War, the success or failure of foreign policy initiatives often was more profoundly affected by world public opinion than by traditional behind-the-scenes diplomacy, military might, or economic coercion (Bogart, 1976, p. xv). Nye and Owens (1996) defined this "soft power" as "the ability to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion. It works by convincing others to follow, or getting them to agree to, norms and institutions that produce the desired behavior" (p. 21). Attraction depends in large measure on the diffusion of information in order to sway public opinion (Gilboa, 2002, p. 731). In the global struggle for supremacy between East and West, the United States asserted itself as a superpower by consolidating its influence over the free world as well as by trying to win the loyalties of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. Though thousands of miles away, these developing nations exerted a powerful pull on American policy makers and propagandists: If they did not choose democracy, they were in danger of falling under Communist influence (Cohen, 1993).

The superpowers did not fight directly on the battlefield but rather on the propaganda front. As the government's main voice overseas, the USIA was charged with distributing Cold War propaganda. (1) Jowett and O'Donnell (1999) defined propaganda as "the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist" (p. 6). One way the USIA "sold" America to the world was by developing film and television propaganda.

In 1961 President Kennedy appointed renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow as director of the USIA. Murrow's goal was to bring clarity and cohesion to an agency long marked by a confused mission. The document that best clarifies the USIA's mission during this period is a...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP