The USIA exhibits that grew in size and complexity through the Cold War era were spawned by the belief that personal contact—with enemies as well as friends—was an important element in creating more favorable conditions for stability and peace (Masey and Morgan, p. 402).
Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan’s Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War is not a typical historical analysis of American cultural diplomacy, refracted through archival evidence and extensive interviews with foreign service personnel. This book does not attempt to tell a comprehensive story of how America “laid claim to the cultural sector” in its nearly five-decade face-off with the Soviet Union. At first glance, the authors’ method of historiography reminds this reader of Joseph Ellis’ fascinating biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx. Both are popular histories that, instead of taking on the full freight of their subjects they attempt a nuanced, even cinematic approach, to invoke Ellis, in explicating providential moments that best explain the subject at hand.
This book tells the seldom heard story of American design at World’s Fairs and international exhibitions within their political and cultural contexts, based mainly on Masey’s personal archives, declassified documents, and his own accounts of his work with the United States Information Agency from 1951 to 1979, where for much of that period he was director of design. It is from this unique perspective in which the thought-provoking contribution to the literature is most profound, for Masey was seemingly everywhere during this period, designing America’s charm war, from “the kitchen” in Moscow to kimonos in Osaka.
Masey’s description of his many years on the Cold War’s cultural front lines:
For those who lived through it, it was a real experience of combat, and a combat in which all weapons, except the nuclear ultimate, could be used. For the USIA the chosen weapon was information outreach, and part of its arsenal of communication was the medium of exhibitions, designed to illuminate, inform and influence as wide an audience as possible (p. 412).
Masey began his career as an exhibits designer in Company B of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, a sub-unit of the “Ghost Army”. After D-Day it used decoy inflatable rubber tanks and assorted battle materiel to dupe the German armies on the battlefields of World War II Europe. Remarkably, his brothers in subterfuge included future fashion legend Bill Blass and color field painter Ellsworth Kelly. Conway Lloyd Morgan is a British author whose works on contemporary architecture and design include works devoted to Jean Nouvel, Philippe Starck, and Marc Newson.
As in the Ellis biography, the authors address only a handful of important moments in the history of U.S. sponsored exhibitions, yet they do so with a zoom lens. The book follows a chronological trajectory—replete with hundreds of photos that illustrated the visitor’s experience of a series of exhibitions, particularly those that visited the Soviet Union, which preached against the hysteria that Americans were monsters. These traveling shows initially targeted Western Europe in the days of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, specifically to safeguard Germany’s revitalization as a demilitarized and democratic republic, and Europe’s ongoing alliance and identification with America and the ideals for which the Allies fought so hard.
In the introduction, Masey and Morgan effectively situate the genesis of the cultural Cold War within its proper historical setting. Additionally, they remind the reader of a prominent clause in Truman’s policy: the promise of American support for free peoples “who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.” This phrase referenced more than the risk of a rising communist regime in Greece. In short, both Truman’s and Marshall’s ideas directly echoed George Kennan’s 1946 telegram that urged American containment of the post-war Soviet regime, a “conspiracy within a conspiracy” that understands only force, disrespect for objective truth, and “the exploiting of differences and conflicts between capitalist powers.” This warning shot across the bow of American foreign relations would help ignite decades of nuclear proliferation, proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam, and endless spy games on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This brief history of the international climate in the first years of the Cold War sets the stage for America’s drive to contain through culture, and this is where Jack Masey steps into the picture.
By the mid-1950s these international exhibitions were focused on a wider audience base and began to enlist the talents of a number of designers who, half a century later, continue to influence modern aesthetics. These individuals included R. Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Peter Blake, Ivan Chermayeff, and Thomas Geismar. These designers and others, not to mention legions of government and museum personnel, contributed to the ultimate look, feel, and message of these displays of American values.
A brief overview of the scope of this book: at the 1955 Indian Industries Fair in New Delhi, the U.S. pavilion featured an “atomics” exhibition that echoed Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace address to the United Nations general assembly. In 1956, the U.S. built a pavilion at the Jeshyn International Fair in Kabul, Afghanistan, showcasing Fuller’s nylon- encased dome. The year 1957 saw the beginning of a series of U.S. exhibitions at the George C. Marshall House in West Berlin (designed by Blake), which delivered a sleek, modern aesthetic to otherwise odd exhibition subjects of medicine, building, and daily life in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The 1958 Brussels Universal Exposition emphasized the theme of nuclear energy; however the U.S. aimed to show a more human side by including fashion shows, New York “streetscapes” designed by Chermayeff and Geismar, and a display of voting machines. The authors lend a considerable focus to the American National Exhibition of 1959 in Moscow and additional exhibitions on all things American—from plastics to books—that toured the Soviet Union through the mid-1960s.
Throughout this compelling study, Masey and Morgan offer unusual insight into the process of how America’s cultural values were projected to the world during the Cold War. It is arguable that as a result of personal memoirs such as these, the international exhibitions are becoming identified by scholars less as curious relics of bygone eras and more as learning tools for future American foreign relations. Admittedly, a cultural historian is hard pressed to describe just how good design could effectively send America’s message to foreign publics. The authors conclude their descriptions of exhibitions with two world’s fairs. At Montreal’s Expo ’67, American newspapers lambasted the American pavilion. The Washington Star declared:
The net effect of the U.S. pavilion is one of gawky self- consciousness…the disproportionate emphasis…on aging film sirens…can only tend to reaffirm the shopworn cliché once cherished by all foreigners— that American culture is composed of movies and chewing gum.
The Charleston Gazette took the rebuke of the American section one step further: “What the hell does all this mean?” However, as was sometimes the case in which attitudes at home toward American culture differed from those abroad, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated:
Wit, elegance and irony are best accomplished in the American exhibition which we look upon as the sensation of Expo ’67. There is no boasting about technical achievements, nor about industrial products; the largest industrial nation in the world does not exhibit one single automobile… they are not trying to educate, to boast; they are just pleasing.
What is richly evident in Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan’s book is that exhibitions do not stop having relevance after their de- installation. This paean to a vital chapter of American public diplomacy offers an insider’s view as to just how and why American cultural exhibitions abroad took shape during the Cold War when the United States and Soviet Union brandished culture as an ideological weapon. Ultimately, the authors champion the human element of these cultural endeavors: the presence of American guides speaking with inquisitive visitors at these venues around the world. This is what Edward R. Murrow meant when he celebrated “the last three feet…one person talking to another.”
Reviewed by Andrew Wulf