Cultural Diplomacy

The Arts in the Kennedy Years


"To further the appreciation of culture among all the people. To increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art — this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days.

John F. Kennedy, 1962

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Even while the United States was entering the Cold War with the Soviet Union in 1961, the Kennedy administration strengthened its commitment to cultural diplomacy. This audio story will highlight some of the important ways President Kennedy used the arts to help improve the image of the United States around the world.

The Sea Chanters

In December 1961, in response to deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union and the building of the Berlin Wall, the United States Navy’s Sea Chanters chorus was sent to West Berlin to participate in a series of Christmas concerts designed to create a positive image of the United States overseas and counter the negative propaganda created by the Soviet government.

A live television program featuring a performance by the Sea Chanters and taped messages from President Kennedy, the British Prime Minster, and French President was telecast throughout Europe, with an estimated audience of over 200 million viewers, including those in the Eastern Bloc countries.

Think about…

Television programs can teach viewers from other cultures about differences in language, art, and daily life. What television shows from other cultures have you seen? What did you find to be different from your culture?

Voice of America

During World War II, the United States government created Voice of America, an international radio broadcast designed to provide news and entertainment, as well as to counter German propaganda. By the end of the war, VOA was broadcasting in 40 languages around the world.

During the Cold War, despite local efforts to block the radio signal, VOA programs were heard throughout Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. One of the most popular programs featured American jazz musicians, presented by Willis Conover, which helped build the international popularity of American culture.

Think about…

Jazz, blues, rock, hip hop and country music from the United States have been incorporated into the music of many other cultures. What international influences (styles, beats, instruments) have you heard on the music you listen to? How are these influences exchanged today?

Goodwill Ambassadors

In the 1950’s, the United States government began a program that sent American artists, including jazz musician Louis Armstrong, to perform overseas—the Goodwill Ambassadors. The Kennedy administration continued this program, including famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck.

Think about…

Attending a live performance not only lets you experience the work of an artist, you also take part in a shared experience as an audience member. What difference do you feel when listening to live music with a crowd versus listening to a recording by yourself? How might live performances by American musicians change the way people perceive American culture? Can you think of current artists who travel to other countries to perform?

State Visits

The Kennedy White House recognized the importance of visits by leaders from other nations, and made these occasions special through music and ceremony. Musicians from the United States military would perform in honor of the event, as would artists not only from the United States, but also from the visiting dignitary’s culture.

Think about…

A good host will make their guest feel welcome, often by trying to make them feel at home. When you travel, especially to a different culture, what things can make you feel more at home?

Tributes to JFK

When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, many artists paid tribute to him through performance or by creating new works of art. Composers Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, and Igor Stravinsky all dedicated music to Kennedy’s memory in the years after his death.

Think about…

In what ways do you think art can celebrate the life of a special person? What are songs you have heard or movies you have seen that not only tell a life story, but highlight an important quality in that person?

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