Let them wear nylons

Parting the Curtain Propaganda
September 19, 1997

In 1951, American sociologist David Riesman published a satiric essay entitled "The nylon war", in which he envisioned an American aerial offensive to bombard Soviet citizens with consumer goods, ranging from "nylon hose", to radios and even jeeps. Deluged by public requests for further references, Riesman took rather a dim view of his fellow citizens who had mistaken his fantasy for actuality, and wondered with hindsight whether satire was "too playful and perhaps too snobbish a mode" for the average American. But perhaps those who believed that a "nylon war" was actually under way in the early 1950s were not so wide of the mark. As Walter Hixson's absorbing study shows, if the US government were not literally dropping toasters and Tampax on the Soviets, it was doing everything short thereof to promote an appetite for such products, including aerial bombardments of the Eastern bloc with millions of leaflets encouraging consumerist disaffection.

In his exemplary work of cultural international history, Hixson explores various American efforts to undermine the Soviet bloc by non-military means, including propaganda of the leaflet, the airwaves, the newsstands, and the international trade fair. Avoiding an exclusive focus on radio broadcasting, Hixson reveals the perhaps surprising degree of mutually agreed, East-West cultural penetration that occurred during the Truman and Eisenhower years. Whatever tensions existed between the superpowers, both superpowers believed that their own side would gain from certain circumscribed exchanges during the latter part of the 1950s.

Despite Soviet jamming of Voice of America and Radio Liberation broadcasts, and justifiable mutual fears that the other would seek to subvert youthful beneficiaries of educational exchanges, Eisenhower and Khrushchev still managed to agree on reciprocal national displays in 1959 by the Soviets in New York, and the Americans in Sokolniki Park, on Moscow's outskirts. The Soviets hoped to showcase their scientific and technological advances, capitalising on the universal appeal of Yuri Gagarin, while the Americans grasped the opportunity to take something akin to the nylon war to the heart of the Soviet empire.

America's "Six weeks at Sokolniki" - scene of Nixon and Khrushchev's infamous "kitchen debate" - forms the rousing finale to Hixson's book. American propaganda planners had to grapple with the censoriousness of both the Soviets and domestic critics. Their intended tableau featuring an interracial marriage, in refutation of Soviet propaganda attacking American racial discrimination (an acknowledged Achilles' heel), was dropped in the face of protest from certain southern Congressional representatives. Meanwhile, the Soviets scuppered the projected giveaway of American cosmetic samples on the grounds that "there might be a stampede dangerous to life and limb" by rampaging Soviet women, who are depicted on the book's dustjacket looking admiringly at America's latest missile - the stiletto-heeled shoe.

Such setbacks aside, the American National Exhibition went ahead. In fact, it marked the zenith of the decade's cultural interchanges, revealing the benefits of an "evolutionary" approach to undermining the Soviet bloc, rather than the cruder psywar attempts at "rollback" which Hixson documents in earlier chapters. Russian visitors were apparently wowed by a giant IBM computer (programmed to answer any question on America, from "Numbers of unmarried men and women in America?" to "Reasons for Abstract Art?", to which Hixson's history regrettably does not record the reply), the Circarama, fashion and motor car displays, and free samples of Pepsi-Cola, whose taste impressed even Khrushchev. Indeed Soviet citizens generally seem to have been far more intrigued by American culture than one could ever imagine was reciprocally the case of their American counterparts vis-a-vis things Russian.

However, Hixson, while stressing the significance of cultural offensives, is too subtle a historian to engage in retrospective self-congratulation over consumerism's triumph over communism, or indeed to proffer such propaganda alone as a new monocausal explanation for the cold war's end.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Parting the Curtain Propaganda: Culture and the Cold War, 1945-61

Author - Walter L. Hixson
ISBN - 0 333 69420 1
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £30.00
Pages - 283

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