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Culture in Causes of the Cold War

American Cultural Diplomacy

Americans and Soviets both viewed popular culture as an important weapon in the struggle to win influence in Europe during the Cold War. Each thought that increasing the vitality of its culture could play a key role in winning support for its side.

In terms of American culture, as a matter of policy the United States sought to promote its high culture in Europe, believing that Europeans would share the tastes of American elites more than they would respond to popular culture, which politicians viewed as belonging to the lower classes. Thus the American government sponsored highbrow cultural exports such the American opera Porgy and Bess, which toured through Western Europe in 1955. The newly created Information Services Branch of the government served to promote American culture and anticommunist sentiments in Europe. In the late 1940s, it created US Information Centers, called "America Houses," which had free lending libraries of American literary classics. However, the most frequently checked out books proved to be not great works of literature but rather contemporary potboilers. Europeans flocked not to the American philharmonic concerts but to record stores where they could buy American rock and roll albums.

Thus American cultural diplomacy did not have its intended effect. Not only did Europeans consume mass popular culture instead of American high culture, they did not translate that enjoyment of culture into overwhelming support for American politics. Just like American parents in the period, European adults were concerned about the effects of rock and roll on their youth, and the youth interpreted and experienced the culture in their own way.

The Soviets, on the other hand, were not merely concerned but downright alarmed by the spread of American popular culture. Trying to promote their own culture in Europe through carefully disseminated propaganda, the Soviets were dismayed to see their own youth sneaking around, listening to American rock and roll. East German teens tuned into broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, a radio station founded and funded by Americans in 1950 to counter Communist propaganda with American propaganda. Russian youth secretly obtained records and formed listening clubs. Soviet rulers first tried to ban jazz and rock music, but as they realized that the music kept creeping into nations under their control, they changed strategies. Instead of trying to ban popular music, they sought to compete with Western influences by promoting alternatives under their own control. They developed their own radio programming in the 1960s and promoted homegrown bands, a few with lyrics written by party officials. They had limited success with these tactics as Radio Free Europe continued to receive letters from Eastern Europe requesting many of the same bands popular in the West.

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