My current research focuses on a specific key component of President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy during the 1950s: The use of radio, print media, and public diplomacy to wage the Cold War. During that decade, while political, economic, and military competition between the Western and Soviet blocs continued, Eisenhower sought to use new technology to blast positive images of American life and culture to peoples around the world. Such propaganda might, he thought, keep images of democracy and a higher standard of living within peoples held captive behind the Iron Curtain and among communities of color in Africa and Asia just then emerging from colonialism. If successful, these hopes might destabilize the Soviet sphere of influence and ensure that newly independent nations in the so-called “Third World” would tilt toward Washington rather than Moscow.
Yet Eisenhower had a human rights elephant in the room so to speak. Overt racism, as manifested by Jim Crow segregation, the denial of voting rights to African Americans, and periodic violence by white supremacists made his themes of America as the home of equal opportunity and democratic practice seem hollow and hypocritical. Moreover, the Soviet Union highlighted incidents such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, the violent opposition to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans to demonstrate the inequality and racial violence in order to discredit American propaganda.
My research, then, analyzes how President Eisenhower framed the United States to peoples around the world in ways that did not ignore or defend for America’s racial sins. This was a fine line to walk given that white supremacy has just begun to face challenges from domestic civil rights activists and thus seemed to be a strong and resilient system in the South. Moreover, Eisenhower was not a progressive on issues of race, and the Republican Party, despite being the “Party of Lincoln,” did not take up the banner of racial change. The solution, then, was a policy I call “admission with anonymity,” in which governmental agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency admitted that racial inequality existed but argued that progress was being made (usually using the passive voice so that the identity of those “making progress” was unknown and unspecified) and that the future would inevitably and mystically bring about change.
I have received a grant from Norwich to do primary research in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and my expectation is that I will publish my second book on this topic.