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On Common Ground': Cold War Narratives of Urban America

Mary Lui, Yale University

To shore up America's position in the growing Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States State Department, largely under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA), employed cultural diplomacy to win the "hearts and minds" of the third world. The USIA produced numerous written and visual racial liberalist narratives showcasing the nation’s famous cities and their ethnically mixed populations as representative of the postwar nation’s modernity. Films such as “Living in a Metropolis (Greater New York)” produced in 1949 for example, featured the familiar neighborhoods of Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown to reframe the city’s racial geography as a reflection of the city’s cosmopolitanism. “San Francisco – Pacific Gateway” also produced in 1953 similarly employed the city’s racialized geography produced out of 19th and early 20th c. Asian Exclusion in the form of Chinatown to reimagine the city as a postwar “gateway” for diplomatic and economic exchange between the U.S. and the Pacific. “On Common Ground,” a 1953 short film showcasing the multiracial and multiethnic communities that resided along one major thoroughfare in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle revised the city’s history of racial and ethnic segregation into a narrative of postwar inclusion that would appeal to diverse audiences.

These and many other USIA films produced in the early years of the Cold War employed the postwar U.S. city to demonstrate the nation’s potential for cross-cultural exchanges and possibilities for racial equality and harmony under American liberal democracy both domestically and abroad in the decolonizing territories of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  These films, as I will discuss in the paper, also imparted clear messages of modernity and global power through representations of U.S. urban architecture, consumerism, and leisure. With many major European and Asian cities – London, Berlin, Tokyo and Hong Kong to name a few – poorly damaged and in need of great postwar reconstruction, U.S. cities by contrast remained physically intact. In these USIA films from the early Cold War, American cities expand outward and upward as examples of postwar U.S. industrial, economic, and military power. The essay examines a range of USIA films featuring the Cold War U.S. urban landscape to discuss the ways in which these films transmitted messages of U.S. modernity in the form of racial inclusion and economic integration as well as political power and technological progress to international audiences.