Tuesday, June 27, 2017

H-Diplo Article Review 706 on “Behind Cinerama’s Aluminum Curtain: Cold War Spectacle and Propaganda at the First Damascus International Exposition.”

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Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Kevin W. Martin.  “Behind Cinerama’s Aluminum Curtain:  Cold War Spectacle and Propaganda at the First Damascus International Exposition.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 17:4 (Fall 2015): 59-85.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/JCWS_a_00597.
Review by Andrew James Wulf, New Mexico History Museum and the Palace of the Governors
Any discussion of a nation’s efforts to win hearts and minds through the display of its cultural achievements must acknowledge as a reference point the Great Exhibition of 1851, which “crystallized and put into its proper place an imperial fantasy world or imaginary geography of all peoples and products, with the modern citizen-consumer…at and as its (imaginary) center.”[1] In the words of art historian Donald Preziosi, “we’ve never left this building.”[2] And semiotician Umberto Eco describes the visiting of twentieth-century trade fairs as “a devout pilgrimage to one of the sanctuaries of mass communication…”[3] The nature of trade fairs during the Cold War as arenas of material culture-as-propaganda is a commonly accepted notion today among cultural diplomacy scholars.[4] As Kevin W. Martin aptly describes the Damascus International Exposition in September of 1954, these fairs would become a battleground of warring ideologies—the U.S. versus the USSR—in a no-holds barred game for global cultural supremacy.

A worthy attribute of this article is its case-study approach to the singular phenomenon of the This is Cinerama film and its reception by Syrians and Americans at this moment in history. While the broad strokes of cultural diplomacy have been covered by public-diplomacy scholars who give valuable overviews of U.S. soft-power efforts during the Cold War,[5] it is through articles such as this one, with a focus on the particular, that universal themes relating to U.S. cultural diplomacy are made intelligible. Martin contributes to this body of research by drilling down into this cultural-diplomacy subplot, which marks the advent of earnest U.S. involvement in representing the country to non-aligned nations at a decisive moment in the first decade of the Cold War. His delimitation of available resources employed to shed light on this event—U.S. government archives and Syrian press coverage—demonstrates what is often a challenge for cultural-diplomacy researchers when describing these phenomena, such as temporal fairs, in which getting any accurate data on visitors’ perceptions of these events is predictably difficult. The author’s description of this event, the Cinerama experience at the U.S. pavilion in Damascus, offers scholars a window into how U.S. policy wonks might try to reframe the image of ‘America’ at future similar venues. This episode is set at a time when the U.S. government sought information-driven solutions to contain and ultimately “rollback” the Soviet communist threat, in the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[6]

Martin usefully describes the rather plodding start to official U.S. involvement in international exhibitions, leading up to and following the Damascus lesson, citing budget cuts to foreign informational programs as the reason. While lack of funds did work against the evolution of full-fledged U.S. engagement in international exhibitions, an important truth is often overlooked by scholars: it quickly became evident to policymakers that there was no one on the government side with the expertise to set the groundwork for these events down the road. Those that did hold positions of power in the Office of International Trade Fairs (OITF) and the United States Information Agency (USIA), known as the United States Information Service (USIS) abroad, could not decide on exactly what tone to set—and what to show—at these fairs. On 11 February 1955, Robert Warner, Assistant Director for the Far East and Near East, Office of International Trade Fairs, wrote to Roy F. Williams, Director of OITF, describing feedback on the U.S. pavilion at the Damascus International Exposition, at the conclusion of discussions with members of the Asia Foundation, a stakeholder advisory group, in San Francisco. He writes:

The Asia Foundation people do not go along with the USIA thinking at all in feeling that all you have to do is provide topnotch entertainment and you have won the show. In the opinion of those I talked with we missed the boat very badly in Damascus by not showing industrial goods, and Russia accomplished more there than we did in spite of all the “hoopla” about Cinerama. I personally feel much better having an industrialist of McDonald’s capabilities on board.[7]

The author’s use of the loaded term “spectacle” in the title of his article is important to note. While Guy DeBord describes the spectacle as “…a form of drama, a form of theater, and a craze of information flows, music, entertainment, and other strategies intended to attract consumers from all walks of life,” Jonathan Matusitz asserts these fairs are less about refrigerators, stoves, and furniture and more about the unattainable and unreplicable experience of the spectacle itself.[8]Importantly, Martin questions just how the Cinerama film experience would be capable of winning the hearts and minds of Syrians who had already grown up with broad exposure to all of the cinematic tricks of the Hollywood film trade. While he quotes the reactive press coverage of local newspapers in Syria at the time of the showing, in which local reporters described Cinerama as “the latest marvel,” the “closest thing to reality,” and “science fiction,” these archival findings alone do not fully make the Cinerama film intelligible to the lay reader living in the twenty-first century. Instead, as museologist Simon K. Knell proposes, as a corrective solution to studying only a singular example of cultural production, in this case the Cinerama film, researchers should “uncover the ‘looking’ (the interpretive frame) of the founders.”[9] Martin does offer a fascinating biography on the inventor of the Cinerama medium, Lowell Thomas, who, following World War I, began to master the concept of spectacle with his traveling show celebrating the mystique of British military officer T.E. Lawrence through a “great mass audience multimedia spectacle” (82).

Historical press coverage of the U.S. pavilion anointed—with a handful of Syrian detractors also from the Fourth Estate—This is Cinerama the showstopper at the Damascus fair. With generous assistance from USIS-developed advertising in local Syrian newspapers, this exhibit, based on the new widescreen process in which a manipulation of the aspect ratio and synchronized projectors show film sequences on a large curved screen, ultimately stumped the Soviets. They had no answer for the popularity of the film exhibit, as it was constantly mobbed by throngs of interested locals. The Soviets ultimately withdrew from the fair ten days before it was set to open. Soon after, the U.S. won first prize at its showing at the fair in Bangkok. Life magazine hailed the U.S. offering at the fair a propaganda triumph:

All too often the Soviet Union’s psychological warfarers seem to run rings around their American counterparts, partly because they have more money but also because they frequently seem more clever… Harris Peel, the U.S. Information Agency officer in Damascus, learned that the Soviets were spending $500,000 to build the biggest pavilion at the Damascus trade fair. Peel had no money to spend. But he used his noodle. He knew that Cinerama had never been shown outside the U.S. He got in touch with its owners, the Stanley Warner Corp., in the U.S. They agreed to send it out free. An Air Force transport flew out 35 tons of equipment which was set up in an improvised open-air theater.[10]

Martin describes the Cinerama experience as a “borrowed instrument for influencing the minds of Syrians,” (70) yet there is very little in the way of rank-and-file feedback on the film, except for one vocal exponent of the film who ‘escaped’ because of the loud volume of the presentation. It is doubtful whether ample material exists anywhere describing what the Syrian majority felt and thought about the film, beyond the praise and occasional criticism of Syrian newspaper editorials. The wealth of material the author provides in the form of reporter feedback from the Syrian perspective is important to note in and of itself, for it nuances the description of this moment in history, noting the obvious demonstration of U.S. exceptionalism (even triumphalism, according to the author) within the Cinerama experience, the lack of know-how by USIS organizers, and the heavy-handedness they brought to bear at this early effort at U.S. international exhibition abroad.

In addition, Martin credits the culturally tone-deaf success of Cinerama to the larger theme of failed American propaganda in the Middle East. But the real success of Cinerama should be given more recognition, for the Damascus fair marked the birthing of the earnest involvement of the U.S. in international trade fairs throughout the 1950s. Importantly, it would be the designers of these exhibitions and their content who would become the answer for the success of these efforts sponsored by the U.S. government, time and time again until the end of the Cold War. It is worth remembering that by the start of 1955, new management of the U.S. presence at international trade fairs was taken over by Harrison McClung, a former advertising executive who saw that the success of these events relied solely on the expertise of industrial and exhibition designers who were outside the government. As Jane Fisk Mitarachi, writer for Industrial Design magazine avows:

...There is little doubt that today American politicians are more aware that people of the world, like any group of constituents, are deeply sensitive to America’s attitude toward their own interests. What is best for a citizen of the U.S.A. may be entirely meaningless for life in Bangkok; an Afghan or Syrian may be deeply    attached to his somewhat tedious and unsanitary life, too proud to want it disrupted by ideas that we may consider superior…With this insight to help formulate the communications problem, the OITF turned to outside designers for help in solving it.”[11] 

Eventually, by the late 1950s, policy makers had little to say about the look, feel, and messaging of the U.S. presence at these fairs. Why? Because they themselves had little idea about how to win hearts and minds overseas in the way that designers (and the international language of design) could. This “approach to problem-solving,” conveying national values through national pavilions, became “undoubtedly one of the most serious responsibilities that the design profession has ever assumed.”[12]
While it is important to position the Damascus fair within the larger trajectory of U.S. efforts at international exhibitions abroad, the author offers ample insight into the earliest Cold War chapter of U.S. involvement within this theme of cultural diplomacy.

Andrew James Wulf, Ph.D., serves as Executive Director of the New Mexico History Museum and the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the last 12 years, Dr. Wulf has served as a senior creative museum professional at international institutions.

He has broad historical passions, including the Cold War, medieval studies, and industrial design. His recent book, U.S. International Exhibitions During the Cold War: Winning Hearts and Minds through Cultural Diplomacy (Rowman and Littlefield) was released in April 2015. Dr. Wulf holds multiple bachelor and master degrees, including an M.A. in Art History from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. In summer 2014, he graduated from the prestigious Getty Leadership Institute’s residency management program for museum executives.

[1] Donald Preziosi, Brain of the Earth’s Body: Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of Modernity, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 113.
[2] Ibid., 114.
[3] Umberto Eco, “Two Families of Objects,” in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt, 1986), 183.
[4] See Robert H. Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty: Exhibiting American Culture Abroad in the 1950s (Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), and,Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachman, Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).
[5] Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: US propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings, 2008; Yale Richmond, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997). Studies that focus on cultural exhibitions themselves which address U.S. participation in trade fairs at this time include, Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Laura Belmonte, Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan, Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008); and, Andrew James Wulf, U.S. International Exhibitions During the Cold War: Winning Hearts and Minds through Cultural Diplomacy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
[6] See NSC 20/4,"U.S. Objectives with Respect to the USSR to Counter Soviet Threats to U.S. Security," Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, Department of State, 1948), 663-669.
[7] NA RG 40 General Records of the Department of Commerce, Office of International Trade Fairs, International Trade Fairs Historic Document File, 1957, Box 1, Folder “Trade Fair Program, Miscellaneous Correspondence thru 4/30/55, OITF.”
[8] See Jonathan Matusitz, “Cathedrals of Consumption,” The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization, 1st ed., George Ritzer, ed., (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470670590.wbeog064, and, Guy DeBord, The Society of the Spectacle (Cambridge: Zone Books, 1995)
[9] See Simon J. Knell, “Museums, Fossils and the Cultural Revolution of Science: Mapping Change in the Politics of Knowledge in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” in Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed, eds. Simon J. Knell, Suzanne MacLeod and Sheila Watson (London: Routledge, 2007), 30.
[10] “Cinerama in Damascus,” Life, 27 September 1954, 22.
[11] Jane Fisk Mitarachi, “Design as a Political Force,” Industrial Design (February 1957): 4-5.
[12] Mitarachi, 5-16. See also See Arthur J. Pulos, The American Design Adventure, 1940-1975 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), 243.

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