Journal of e-Media Studies, Special Issue: 6.1 (2022)

The Motion Pictures of the United States Information Agency: Studying a Global Film and Television Operation

by Hadi Gharabaghi and Bret Vukoder

Key History, Context, and Concepts related to USIA Motion Pictures
>Scaffolding the Agency in the Wake of World War II (1945–1953)
>Paradigmatic Motion Pictures and Local Iterations from the Early Cold War
>USIA Motion Pictures and the Cold War (1953–1989)
>Waning and Adapting after the Cold War (1989–Today)
Methods and Theories for Navigating USIA Motion Pictures
>“Moving Image Diplomacy”
>Reading Hollywood into USIA
>The Universalizing Documentary
Literature Review
>Significant Works and Trends from the Cold War Era
>Foundational and Contemporary Scholarship after the Archive Opens
Conclusion: Opportunities with the USIA Motion Picture Archive

One of the largest and farthest-reaching motion picture operations of the twentieth century has remained one of the most invisible within film and media studies. The United States Information Agency (USIA) worked in over 150 nations1 and sixty languages, employed thousands of multinational artists and administrators, and at its peak reached nearly one fifth of the world’s population annually. However, its history rarely registers within our accounts of the Cold War. Tasked with “telling America’s story” throughout the world, USIA created, circulated, and curated several media through a robust bureaucratic and technological infrastructure. Among these media, motion pictures served as one of the agency’s most prolific, expensive, and (according to some) effective outlets.2 Between 1953 and 1999, USIA produced or distributed approximately twenty thousand moving image titles throughout the world. The expanse of USIA motion pictures, as this special issue will begin to show, covers an eclectic range of subject matter in a variety of cinematic idioms. Although ostensibly working within the parameters of propaganda, the films within this complicated and diverse corpus constituently participated in what we define as “moving image diplomacy.” As scholars have begun to unpack the agency’s genealogies and trace its legacies, they have found a compelling domain through which to expand, complicate, and decentralize many of the paradigms that have shaped the field of film and media studies and the entrenched historiographies of the Cold War.

In its wake, USIA left an incredible archive of moving images and a fittingly massive paper trail, yet film and media scholars have granted relatively little attention to the corpus. Legal and logistical realities within the United States during much of the twentieth century played a key factor in the paucity of research. The congressional bill that launched the agency—the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948—not only established the framework of what became USIA in 1953, it also tacitly prohibited the domestic distribution of its media within the boundaries of the nation that funded it. Before a 1990 amendment began to thaw the ban,3 research on the motion pictures was understandably difficult to pursue. Although the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, have continued herculean efforts to preserve, organize, and make available USIA materials materially and digitally,4 the majority of titles remain on film reels or videos that must be viewed in person. Even more, several titles are likely still located at residual archival spaces in which the agency operated throughout the world, mostly unavailable to the public today. In addition to these barriers, the scale of the agency’s prodigious filmic output and correspondingly complex transnational histories has only exacerbated its invisibility. The seeming impenetrability of a diffuse global archive holding thousands of films and bursting with contradictions has perhaps informed an impulse to label the collection under reductive conceptualizations of “government film” or “propaganda.”

Building on the recent wave of scholarship and the efforts at the National Archives, the variety of invaluable contributions within this issue highlight the breadth of historical, theoretical, and methodological opportunities possible through USIA materials, repudiating assumptions of an aesthetically and ideologically homogeneous archive. Brian Real opens our article section, detailing the complicated role USIA motion pictures played at Expo ’67 through the story of its chief designer, Jack Masey. Embodied in the production of the three-screen A Time to Play (1967), Masey’s journey highlights compelling tensions between bureaucracy, personalities, politics, and art. Sueyoung Park-Primiano defines the “tentacular reach” of USIS motion picture infrastructure in South Korea, tracing its foundations and mapping out its place within the wider information and military ecosystem between 1940 and 1960. I-Lin Liu, looking at the films and programming of a transnational “experimental” film screening put on by USIS in Taipei in 1973, interrogates the agency’s role as curator and how “experimental” may be conceptualized within a governmental rationale. And through fascinating primary sources, Jülide Etem investigates what the connection between the Educational Film, Radio, and Television Center (EFRTC) and USIS in Turkey can tell us about governmental media infrastructure and the fraught notion of education through film. In the following section, an expert array of archivists and scholars describe personal, procedural, and cultural details of their experiences with the global moving image archive, detailing the plurality of these spaces and underscoring the necessity of interdisciplinary and transnational research frameworks. Lastly, in a closer examination of day-to-day agency operations and USIA historiography, our Conversations section features two interviews with former agency officials, Peter Vaselopulos and Chas Freeman, and another with Nick Cull, author of the seminal book The Cold War and the United States Information Agency.5 

We, the editors, hope this issue serves as an invitation to explore the domain of USIA moving images and contributes to a growing community of international scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and citizens collectively unfolding and narrating the legacies of the motion pictures of the US Information Agency.

Key History, Context, and Concepts related to USIA Motion Pictures

Given its expansive transnational operations over nearly fifty years, the historicization of the USIA motion picture apparatus reveals deeply variegated and often conflicting contexts. No single narrative tells the agency’s story, despite the governing hegemony of American operations and a clear bureaucratic chain of authority. USIA stories are multicultural and multinational, even in the face of a top-down governmental apparatus. To contextualize the pieces within this issue and suggest historiographic frameworks, this section offers a periodization of key moments and trends within the history of USIA’s motion picture operations drawn from legal, cultural, and political domains.

Scaffolding the Agency in the Wake of World War II (1945–1953)

Between the end of World War II and the official launch of the independent US Information Agency in 1953, three notable factors came to shape the agency’s complex and diversified trajectory throughout the Cold War. First, the legal parameters and discourse surrounding the 1948 Smith–Mundt Act, which established the agency’s foundations, frequently served as the grammar for debate concerning USIA’s role and identity over the life of the agency. Second, the Marshall Plan and the iterative series of State Department information offices provided testing grounds for a unilateral moving image diplomacy based in documentary campaigns of modernization from which USIA formulated its own bureaucratic structures. Third, within these information offices, a significant multinational administrative and creative labor structure took root that led to fascinating dialectics within later USIA motion pictures,6 even though the earlier generation of American officials often conceptualized this multivocality through reductive Orientalist interpretations of culture that claimed the knowledge and authorship of how Others felt and thought.

The experiments with US media systems in embassies and cultural centers during World War II led some lawmakers to immediately call for a continuation and expansion of overseas operations while terminating domestic propaganda. In October 1945, Representative Sol Bloom authored the so-called Bloom Bill, which made the first call for a permanent peacetime information agency.7 After some lawmakers questioned the value and ethics of propaganda in a peacetime context, the Bloom Bill died in July 1946. Upon the United States’ adoption of a hardline containment policy under the Truman Doctrine in 1947,8 advocates of the Bloom Bill had new legs to make another push for an information agency, but they still had to negotiate their constituents’ distaste for propaganda. The passage of the Smith–Mundt Act in 1948, with its legal language ambiguously construed, ultimately codified the push-and-pull of this debate throughout the Cold War.

A widespread concern among lawmakers about the Soviets’ own vast propaganda systems gave Smith–Mundt the push it needed. A few months earlier, in October 1947, a joint congressional committee reported a series of “successive nightmares” in discovering the “incessant falsification of our country’s motives by Communist propagandists” after a visit to OIC9 offices in twenty-two European countries.10 In the face of disinformation and what some members of Congress thought a broader threat to democracy, supporters of the bill devised a moral argument, believing they had to facilitate the spread of liberal, market-based democracy as a “natural state of human affairs.”11 This growing momentum eventually led to the passage of the Smith–Mundt Act on January 27, 1948. To mitigate the criticism coming from the bill’s opponents, the act worked to protect the interests of private media entities within the US.12 Interestingly, the original language of Smith–Mundt never made explicit its most referenced component—the domestic distribution ban, which only existed in a de facto capacity. At the time, access was limited to only “representatives of United States press associations” and members of Congress; academics were added to the list in 1972.13 

While Congress was debating the scope of the Smith–Mundt Act, the State Department experimented with an iterative set of information offices, which cumulatively set the stage for the independent US Information Agency in 1953. Sensing the oncoming and unprecedented geopolitical landscape and recognizing the inescapably transnational dynamic of media, President Truman rubber-stamped a continuation of the propaganda systems built during the war. Rather than gutting the Office of War Information (OWI), as the country had done with its media infrastructure after WWI, Truman transferred its considerable resources to the State Department via Executive Order 9608. Reflecting the new dynamics of the postwar environment, the State Department broke tradition and hired William Benton, an advertising executive, rather than a journalist.14 State expanded the extant infrastructure of the US Information Service15 posts throughout the world, cycling through a convoluted alphabet soup of offices16 to manage overseas information initiatives between 1945 and 1953. Though each of these offices articulated goals of cultural diplomacy reflective of a peacetime scenario, their growing mandate to directly combat Soviet propaganda—particularly after the congressional committee’s OIC visits in late 1947—reconstituted certain wartime sensibilities within their operations.

The US government's broader involvement in documentary missions overseas was the result of a unilateral and geopolitically motivated use of the documentary format in campaigns of modernization, which diverged from the approach of the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Dovetailing documentary with foreign policy went beyond UNESCO’s campaign to bring people together and promote the “free flow of ideas.” Governmentalizing documentary diplomacy through the Department of State, in turn, weaponized UNESCO's initiative as a strategy of Soviet containment. Herbert Edwards, the head of the International Motion Picture Division (IMPD) at the Department of State, justified the use of the documentary format as an alternative to traditional practices of official foreign policy. Working with Edwards, corporate executives of the American film industry formed the Film Advisory Committee in the Department of State and pledged to advise the US government on formulating protocols for the local production of various documentaries outside the United States.

Relative to State Department initiatives, though, the media operations of the Marshall Plan best signify the transition from the one-directional wartime efficiencies of OWI and Signal Corps to the globally expansive binational systems that later defined USIA. The Marshall Plan’s motion picture apparatuses elevated local idioms through skilled multinational labor while navigating the focused, urgent mandates central to the plan. Under the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) and the subsequent Mutual Security Agency (MSA), the Marshall Plan’s eighteen binational partnerships resulted in two hundred stylistically diverse documentary titles addressing a variety of themes.17 According to the former deputy chief of its Motion Picture Branch, Albert Hemsing, the ECA-MSA “made full use of [regional] 16 mm film networks” contracted from local filmmakers, several of whom were European “luminaries.” Interestingly, as Hemsing explains, these artists were granted “near total liberty” with less “policy control” than USIA filmmakers later faced.18 Handicraft Town (1949), The Home We Love (1950), and The Hour of Choice (1951)19 are among the most notable of the Marshall Plan films, exhibiting distinct filmmaking approaches without forgoing attention to clear policy goals.20 Beyond serving as a blueprint to later USIA operations, all the Marshall Plan titles were absorbed into and circulated within later agency networks until the mid-1970s.21 22  

The transitional period from the implementation of the Marshall Plan to the institutionalization of USIA in 1953—its liminality embodied within Truman’s Campaign of Truth—marks a crucial era. Information agencies benefitted from the opportunities of multicultural and multinational local filmmaking operations while also suppressing any chance of two-way diplomacy, instead favoring a neoimperial ideology orientalizing foreigners. The government planners behind film diplomacy conceptualized USIA through secret negotiations with the American movie industry at the levels of policy and style. Through direct conversation with Hollywood heavyweights like Frank Capra, government officials molded its motion picture operations relative to the American imaginary of Hollywood’s role on the world stage. Since World War II, they had learned that moving image diplomacy would have to negotiate the protection of Hollywood’s overseas markets with a political impetus to mitigate the impact of Hollywood films they thought might damage America’s international brand.

Government officials within IMPD met with Hollywood representatives in September 1951 [Figure 1]. Called the Film Advising Committee, their discussions demonstrate the extent to which they caricatured the local agency of foreign nationals. As the head of IMPD, Herbert Edwards had publicly supported a unilateral governance of the documentary apparatus away from the UNESCO unit in 1947 within a special issue of Hollywood Quarterly.23 Mark May, the chairperson of the Film Advising Committee, who had a record of promoting educational films since the 1930s, also played a key role in convincing the lawmakers to support the Smith–Mundt Act in 1947 by justifying the success of mobile screening campaigns in Europe. Exchanges among these Film Advisory Committee members indicate uncertainties concerning methods of control and influence. The new framework that sponsored film production with foreign nationals felt alien to government officials, leading them to reductively essentialize the identities of non-American participants. Similarly, Margaret Mead’s four-hundred-page “documentary bible” of prescriptive advice and formal analysis, titled the Common Denominator Film Series, suggested methods of designating some agency for foreigners through conceptualizing their cultures while still essentializing them in the process.24 It was too abstract at one end and too formulaic at the other. Put differently, the meeting lacked any actual representation of foreign nationals while planning binational film operations at the highest level. Though Hollywood had a horrible track record in its systemic misrepresentation of Others (deeply informed by its homogeneous production practices), the government officials nevertheless looked to its model while engaging in these new transnational dynamics.  

The exchanges within the transcript from the 1951 meeting, worth quoting at length, show how government officials recognized the potential resonance that local voices could have in reaching different audiences. Yet they articulated this potential through a language of codified stereotypes. In hypothesizing how to fund such a local project, namely in the Philippines, Mark May asks the committee: 

Does the United States Government . . . get our best money’s worth out of this program by doing it that way by having the picture for the Philippines produced in the Philippines, certain pictures for the Iranians produced in Iran, certain pictures for the Indians produced in India? Is that sound policy from the standpoint of getting the job done? 

The conversation accordingly begins to address the question of authorship within such a system, with Edwards responding, “It was written in the Philippines. An American started to write it, we gave it the line and then it was turned over to a Filipino writer, who took that American line and presented it in Filipino terms. . . . The Filipino motion picture company will handle it in the Philippines as one of their own pictures.” Such a duplicitous framework of manufacturing diplomacy, in turn, leads University of Wisconsin film professor Walter Wittich25 to ask how they can ensure “this particular version of life in the Philippines is true . . . and accurate.” Edwards then explains the foundations of a binational bureaucracy that later evolved and expanded within USIA:

In the Philippines . . . we have a Filipino Advisory Committee that is made up of nine very knowledgeable people in the Philippines, and this isn’t upper crust at all. These are people whose lives are dedicated to fighting something. . . . This Filipino Committee advises on everything we do down there, on the posters, the leaflets, the films, everything else. They develop the themes. . . . We own it. We finance it.

Relative to a scenario in which Americans only tell the world about a “better-off” America, which the committee argues is “natural [to] . . . resent” and can often “boomerang against you,” they arrive at a consensus believing this “Filipino picture” offers an authenticity because it is a “message from a Filipino to his people.”26

By 1953 Edwards more confidently justified how foreign nationals’ cultural “idioms” could be situated relative to the American ideological and aesthetic imaginary. During a congressional hearing focused on the “Overseas Information Programs of the United States,” Senator Fulbright asks Edwards about the nature of foreign nationals’ authorship of the films. Edwards responds, “The ones that are produced abroad are invariably produced by local private concerns, so that the finished product will be completely in the visual idiom of the country. . . . These people have been able to see themselves on the screen.”27 Although ideologically supportive of the hegemony of liberal market capitalism, the othering of the multinational labor and joint authorship took form at the highest level of planning. Nevertheless, vast and radical multiplicity within these bureaucratic operations effectively led to examples of genuine and subversive cinematic diplomacy through which filmmaking practices incorporated the dialectical perspectives of local voices. The weaponizing USIA experiment, therefore, diverged from earlier colonial filmmaking as the agency incorporated a multitude of lenses, which led to a somewhat plural and complicated history for its motion picture operations during the Cold War.

Paradigmatic Motion Pictures and Local Iterations from the Early Cold War 

A 1951 SCAP-CIE28 film titled New Eyes, New Ears, which was jointly produced by the United States and Japan, illustrates in great detail the process behind these binational motion picture operations. The film uses the idea of “process” to signify motion pictures’ value and credibility to facilitate open dialogue within their target contexts.29 For one, the documentary offers a granular, step-by-step narration of a film’s planning, production, circulation, and exhibition protocols in a similar binational system that USIA later employed. Yet it also represents and romanticizes the emergent philosophy undergirding US moving image diplomacy, in which an outwardly dialogic, binational motion picture system supposedly allows cultural “gap[s] to be bridged” by expanding the viewer’s “circle of experience.” Although the film foregrounds Japanese citizens’ reception of American cultural/educational content, it ultimately claims the American governing brand of communication as a universalized commonsense. 

New Eyes, New Ears starts with a voiceover guiding the viewer through a montage showing a Japanese child growing to adulthood, with a continually expanding circle serving as a visual metaphor for how he experiences the world. Yet as an adult, this ring becomes static and remains isolated in his specific corner of the nation. The isolation, as the film implies, is overcome through American motion picture diplomacy. An infographic map illustrates how regional audiovisual centers distribute films throughout Japan, which serves to reactivate the man’s (and other people’s) growing sphere of experience. The film compellingly expresses this process within its conclusion, using live-action scenes to show the actual physical transit of the films to various locations. A montage of fluid-dissolve transitions shows how people transport boxes of films through varying landscapes to their destinations, moving by bus, sled, ox-drawn carriage, backpacks on mountainous roads, big and small boats, and, finally, small vans [Figure 2]. Close-ups of the attentive faces of Japanese audiences blend into a wider tracking shot of larger audiences. The voiceover returns, claiming, “Audiovisual materials are giving new eyes and new ears to the people of Japan to help them become informed citizens of the world community.” In its story of motion picture production, distribution, and exhibition in Japan, the film showcases a neoimperial framework of communication within radically localized apparatuses—a tension inherent to the binational structures on which USIA would come to rely over the coming decades. 

If New Eyes, New Ears presupposed the idiomatic and procedural complexity of USIA’s institutional structures, Earthquake Village (1963)30 shows how these paradoxes central to the foundational debates in 1951 continued to imbue later agency films and incorporate elements of local authorship. A documentary sponsored by USIS Iran, Earthquake Village showcases Hassan, a village boy in Iran who was orphaned after losing his entire family in the devastating earthquake of 1962. In the aftermath of the disaster, Hassan befriends “the tall American,” an expert advisor who uses the boy’s help while introducing techniques for modernizing Iran [Figure 3]. Their parting scene is filled with emotion and a poetry that strategically advocates binational friendship as a condition of humanity. The tall American offers Hassan a young goat, and Hassan offers his flute in return. The deep and soothing music of the flute fills the nondiegetic space while the “US AID” sign on the van mediates the space between the adult American and the Iranian kid. The concluding voiceover dramatically proclaims: 

The Iranian poet Saadi wrote the moral of this story hundreds of years ago. The sons of Adam are members of one another, for in their creation they have common origin. If the vicissitudes of fortune involve one member in pain, all the other members will be of sympathy. Thou who are indifferent to other men’s affliction, if they call thee a man, art unworthy of the name.

The film parlays the profound tragedy of an earthquake, which translates across every culture, into a promodernization, technocratic message through a distinctly Iranian idiom. A curious entanglement of different ideological, cultural, and aesthetic elements, Earthquake Village exemplifies the juxtapositions that defined many of USIA’s transnational motion pictures. 

USIA Motion Pictures and the Cold War (1953–1989)

The lawmakers’ debate over the principles that shaped the Smith-Mundt Act—continuously weighing the mandates to combat disinformation, “educate,” and manifest American ideology across geopolitical and cultural contexts—never subsided over the life of the Cold War and powerfully shaped the agency’s motion picture output. However, these titles also reflect a multitude of variables within the complicated ecosystem in which they were produced, distributed, and seen. Beyond this dynamic surrounding the agency’s core mission, we can read the ethos of a given presidential administration, local regional idioms, and contemporaneous moving image cultures into the agency’s roughly twenty thousand titles. In this sense, although supportive of liberal capitalism, the USIA corpus resists any singular ideological, methodological, or aesthetic lens through which to read the motion pictures, as they were uniquely subject to their different—and sometimes competing—cultural and political contexts.  

The official formation of USIA as an independent agency in 1953, backed with increased funding and more robust audiovisual infrastructure, in essence gave it leverage to expand its motion picture operations across multiple localities. Despite the opportunities of this expansion, many of the more widely distributed titles myopically mirrored Eisenhower’s militaristic sensibilities, prioritizing efficiency and quantifiable results in the exercise of soft power.31 Fittingly, the president appointed Theodore Streibert as its first director, a former assistant dean of Harvard Business School and broadcasting executive with extensive experience advising government information outlets.32 J. Cheever Cowdin, a former chairman of Universal Pictures recommended by Cecil B. DeMille, served as the agency’s first acting director of the motion picture division, with Andrew W. Smith Jr. taking over the role before the end of 1953.33 Although some scholars have perhaps overstated the didacticism of the motion pictures during this period, many titles indeed operate as cogs in the machine of worldwide campaigns or as quickly mobilized tools by which to dictate the US response to hot conflicts. On one end, USIA developed several films to supplement Eisenhower’s massive Atoms for Peace campaign, which sought to highlight the clean energy potential of nuclear fission and mitigate the sweeping anxiety that came with America’s usage of atomic bombs. For example, an episode of USIS Iran–sponsored Akhbār-e Iran [Iran News]—locally produced in Persian—films the official ceremony celebrating the sharing and export of nuclear research and technology to Iran in the 1950s.34 On the other end, the agency circulated a host of titles in response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which leveraged the conflict to create an exploitable aura of war while avoiding any actual involvement in it.35   

By the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, USIA was no longer in lockstep with the dynamics of the changing world.36 Many of the agency’s employees and artists believed its media did not speak meaningfully to the emergent postcolonial landscape and increasingly connected world. Their tune quickly changed, however, upon the election of John F. Kennedy, the establishment of his New Frontier policy, and his appointment of the seasoned journalist Edward R. Murrow as the agency’s director. In the spirit of what became known as Kennedy’s Court of Camelot,37 USIA found new means to recruit young and visionary talent. George Stevens Jr., the son of the famous Hollywood director, whom Murrow selected as the head of the motion picture division in November 1961, was one such hire. After Stevens took over the agency’s motion pictures and hired a slew of talented US-based filmmakers, USIA became entwined with the new milieu of university film programs, American documentary culture, and the wider Hollywood ecosystem.38 Stevens capitalized on his connections and searched film festival and television communities to find standout work, inviting skilled filmmakers like William Greaves, James Blue, and Charles Guggenheim to the agency. He would also put out open calls in trade journals and recruited some of the most gifted students from film schools in Southern California, such as Kent Mackenzie, Erik Daarstad, and Carroll Ballard.39 Some of the films from this period are among the most well-known within the USIA corpus, like Nine from Little Rock (1964), A Skill for Molina (1964), The Five Cities of June (1963), and Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (1964), which was among the few agency films to circulate domestically during the Cold War  [Figures 5 and 6].

During the first decade of the agency, Eisenhower and Kennedy left clear fingerprints on much of the filmic output. In the following decade, however, the motion pictures were less subject to the style of a given president and more a function of the totalizing war in Vietnam. Although USIA and its subsidiary USIS posts throughout the world continued their operations as they had in previous years, the sheer gravitational pull of the war drained the agency of much of its creative, monetary, and labor capital.40 In terms of its motion pictures, Stevens’s ambition and management style remained visible in the agency’s filmic output through his departure in 1965, even amid the machinery of the Vietnam War. Within certain USIS-supported titles primarily made by South Vietnamese filmmakers, we see nuance, artistry, and even moral ambivalence speaking to their experience with the war. In these films, the perspectives of the local filmmakers could take precedence over US policy goals, even if the two were at odds with one another. For example, films such as Sons of Hai Ba Trung (1962) and The Rag Doll (1965)41 employ Vietnamese idioms and mythologies to make sense of the prolonged war the nation faced, evoking an elegiac tone and a complex visual aesthetic. 

While the paper trail attached to the production and distribution of The Rag Doll illuminates bureaucratic and political tensions between US and Vietnamese filmmaking operations,42 Sons of Hai Ba Trung provides a productive example through which to read binational dynamics into the aesthetic of a given film. Directed by Duong Quy Binh, this colorful 35mm documentary exhibits qualities reflective of both the emerging agency aesthetic under George Stevens Jr. and stylistic idioms scholars associate with Vietnamese cinema.43 The film draws from Vietnamese mythology to allegorize South Vietnam’s struggle with the North, drawing connections between the Trung sisters’ heroic resistance to the Chinese invasion in 40 CE to the conflict the South faced. Many of the sequences in Sons of Hai Ba Trung reveal the fingerprints of USIA and the American imaginary of Vietnam, moving between sweeping pastoral shots, montages of military preparedness, and scenes of graphic simulated violence upon people of the South—making the film ultimately prowar. However, the documentary renders a complicated, almost paradoxical visual expression of homeland defense. Instead of framing victory as likely and death as something to avoid, the allusions to familiar mythology cosmically situate the South’s resistance as a tragic duty that spans the long history of their nation. But the nation is split, and this lament is rendered ambivalently in the film’s representation of the land itself. The documentary’s pastoral images go beyond the Western image of a threatened Eden—a conceit on which USIA relied throughout much of its history. The lush shots of dense jungles, wide seas, sandy beaches, and open fields signify something sacred to protect that is essential to their plans for defense. Yet these natural terrains also present a terrifying, defamiliarized wilderness within which the Northern guerrillas may hide [Figure 7].

In the eyes of USIA, the film’s engagements with homeland defense myths were intended to make the message of the documentaries more legible to the Vietnamese, giving opportunity to reflect on the complexities of their relationship to their civil war. It wears the horror of war on its sleeve, and the perpetuity of the struggle makes their resistance transcendent, connecting generations. In a 1969 interview with Film Comment, William Bayer speaks to the supposed popularity and effectiveness of this approach. “The South Vietnamese government,” he says, “wanted to do one of their great historical myths or stories on film” to formulate a “parable of modern events.” Though he does not recall its title in the interview, he clearly alludes to Sons of Hai Ba Trung, calling the sisters “kind of double Joan of Arcs who led a rebellion against the Chinese.” These myths, he argues, offered a familiar grammar for citizens in urban and rural areas alike. “If there was one thing the South Vietnamese had going for them,” he adds, “it was this ingrained cultural thing that all children of South Vietnam just fed upon—the hatred of the Chinese, the memory of the Chinese invasion, and the Vietnamese heroes who may have been defeated but who rebelled.”44 However, Bayer disregards the film’s tonal undercurrents—the weight of the conflict that Southern soldiers (and the Vietnamese filmmakers) bear after decades of brutal colonialism turned their nation against itself. 

As the war grew more violent and USIA started overseeing the wartime conglomerate alongside the military, the Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), the agency began to dismiss these approaches to filmmaking and even the films themselves, barring their distribution in some instances. The motion pictures were increasingly bottlenecked into destructive black-and-white sensibilities of total war, moving away from a more dialogic and filmmaker-first approach. The USIA motion picture apparatus did not adapt as it might have done in the previous decade, planting its feet in the ground to defend a naïve and Manichean vision of the ongoing conflict, even while US and international opinion quickly soured on the war. More than any other title, Vietnam, Vietnam! (1971), the most expensive film the agency had ever produced at that point, exemplifies this position. Framing the United States’ continued involvement as a moral obligation to the South Vietnamese and negatively portraying protesters, the film’s nakedly hardline rhetoric even led several USIS posts to refuse to show it.45

In the twilight of the Vietnam War, the budget, influence, and output of USIA and its motion picture divisions greatly diminished. Whereas the director in the agency’s first fifteen years had often played a key role in shaping foreign policy, contributing through a seat on the National Security Council, the agency now seemed a relic of the early Cold War. Back in the United States, the public criticized USIA’s role in the war and began to more directly question the need for a propaganda office, which led to a thorough external review.46 Those working for the agency recognized the urgency of adopting a more progressive approach47 that embraced new styles and technologies within its media. To both symbolic and practical effects, the agency’s reshuffling48 and rebranding into the US International Communication Agency (USICA) facilitated these changes. Almost immediately after his election, President Carter outspokenly supported these developments, elevating the agency’s “reverse” or “second mandate,” which had “two distinct but related goals”: to not only “tell the world about our society and policy . . . [but] also tell ourselves about the world, so as to enrich our own culture” and aid “the understanding . . . [of] problems among nations.”49 One manifestation of this second mandate took shape in the agency’s investment in innovative satellite television technology, planting the seeds for a more dialogic and multinational programming focused on interviews and conversations rather than a more unidirectional narration of official American interests. The agency had even begun to experiment with the new delivery system right before Carter took office, giving him a base from which to further the investment. In the summer of 1976, USIA broadcast Salute by Satellite simultaneously throughout the world to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial.50 Beyond the novel technology, the bicentennial gave the agency occasion to revisit some of Stevens’s tactics, providing grants to young and visionary filmmakers and resulting in some of the agency’s most memorable titles.51 In addition to new terrain in aesthetics, more films and programs under Carter foregrounded voices and topics emerging from contemporary civil rights movements, hiring a more diverse workforce and even exhibiting a willingness to critique embedded elements of American society that justly warranted the movements.52

As much as USIA engineered bureaucratic levees to maintain some level of institutional stability, its operations and media were nevertheless subject to the equal and opposite reactions often found in American politics and culture. In the eyes of some politicians and public figures, the changes that eventually manifested in USICA, while well intentioned, suffocated the potential of a global information agency, rendering it unnecessary, particularly amid the rise of international news conglomerates. Even former USIA filmmaker and head of the motion picture division Bruce Herschensohn publicly criticized the direction of the agency, claiming “creativity . . . dies a quick death” in “rooms that house conference tables.”53  

Ronald Reagan and his longtime friend Charles Wick, whom he appointed as director of the agency, not only sought to reinvigorate USIA,54 they used the agency in efforts to amplify the Cold War and rhetorically replicate the good-vs.-evil urgency of American culture in the 1950s. While USIA continued to utilize its developing satellite technology in a similar capacity to Carter’s USICA through “dialogues” and Worldnet, Wick exploited its reach to enact campaigns similar to the Atoms for Peace initiative and systematically mobilize hardline responses to conflict as Eisenhower did with Hungary. One prominent example is the globally broadcast program ostensibly made in support of the Polish Solidarity movement, Let Poland Be Poland (1982). Displacing Vietnam, Vietnam! as the agency’s most expensive production,55 the telethon-like show featured twenty-three world leaders, a slew of American celebrities, and Polish artists and activists. More than anything, though, it was a proof of concept of how programming broadcast globally through satellite could signify hegemony, as the show and the technology that enabled it aimed to corral world opinion rather than facilitate meaningful, plural discourse.

​​As the news media landscape of the 1980s changed and fragmented, USIA worked to stay ahead in international markets by further investing in satellite technology and programming while also creating new ways by which to disseminate its audiovisual materials. These efforts dovetailed with Wick’s salesman style of directorship as he proactively branded the agency’s new channel, Worldnet, broadcast (primarily) via satellite. Evolving from a particular type of show in which US public figures could be interviewed in real time,56 Wick extrapolated the name onto a full channel, which featured shows like America Today, CINE Showcase, Science Today, and English: American Style [Figure 8]. Beyond Worldnet, USIA developed methods by which to capture and circulate its media, often in an unattributed manner, which opened a backdoor for their images to be shown by US news outlets. One prominent example came through the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC),57 which echoed many of the USIA audiovisual training initiatives from the early years of the Cold War.58 USIA launched the AMRC in 1985, six years into the Soviet-Afghan War, contracting some Boston University professors to train local mujahideen59 in videography, among other skills. Sent out into every corner of Afghanistan, these local filmmakers captured fragments—moments of everyday life or shards of live scenes of war. This footage would be lightly edited, packaged, and sold by USIA to television networks around the world, not only allowing for the circulation of unattributed media but also making invisible the authorship of the mujahideen who risked their lives to gather the footage.

Waning and Adapting after the Cold War (1989–Today)

While the Cold War remained active, USIA could justify its participation in the increasingly competitive media landscape and earn congressional funding to back its efforts. However, as the conflict faded in the 1990s and other US media outlets achieved a similarly global reach, it became harder for the agency to convince Congress to provide money and resources. Worldnet proved to not be as popular as Wick had advertised,60 and countries became less inclined to host USIA materials as alternative cable and satellite programming became available. 

The one wing of USIA that remained popular, however, was Voice of America, which maintained a relatively strong reputation of journalistic integrity and continued to produce content “in-language,” unlike the other major news outlets. As USIA shut its doors and dissolved into the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 1999, VOA served as the constant during this transition and even began to take up the mantle of the USIA’s former motion picture divisions. As Peter Vaselopulos discusses in this issue, VOA was among the early adopters of an online news website, starting in 1999. In addition to hosting radio stations, VOA also produces and circulates audiovisual footage captured by an international team of employees. To this day, VOA (now managed under the US Agency for Global Media) still has a very international presence and gathers stories and perspectives in which other private outlets choose not to invest. Following the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which opened agency material for domestic distribution, VOA footage often circulates beyond its platforms, continuing to leave a mark on transnational discourse and people’s perceptions of the United States and world events. 

Indeed, VOA has become the key space in which new iterations of USIA engage with and produce national and diasporic visual culture. VOA started exclusive audiovisual programming in different languages in 1994. By 2014 twenty-five stations offered video programming online in different languages. One prominent and exemplary case can be found in the Persian division (VOA-PNN), which steadily grew in size in the early 2000s, offering seven hours of daily programs for television and online programming by 2007. It also sponsored two satirical news shows, Parazit (Static; 2008–2012) and OnTen (Antenna; 2012–2015). Following in the footsteps of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, Parazit emerged through a journalistic collaboration between Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi in response to the disputed presidential election of 2009 in Iran. Parazit61 was an unusual experiment relative to the VOA's typically serious tone, offering a creative and powerful critique of police brutality in the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the peak of its popularity, Parazit acquired a sizable following in both Iran and the diaspora, which was also unusual for VOA programming.62 The satirical news show took on a life of its own through VOA’s YouTube channel and garnered a lot of attention among Iranians worldwide as well as many mainstream news media inside the US. 

The contemporary example of VOA-PNN illustrates both a continuity in the legacy of USIA moving images and the current fragmentation of the larger USAGM ecosystem. In this sense, the study of USIA motion pictures not only enables more granular historical insights within Cold War narratives residually shaped by the period’s bipolar power structures, it can also instantiate methodologies by which to navigate our present transnational, market-based, and increasingly chaotic media landscape. Though USAGM ostensibly adopted a similar top-down model to USIA upon its reorganization in 2018,63 the focus and consolidation that were meant to bring efficiency were recently hijacked by starkly partisan interests. In his brief stint as USAGM director, filmmaker Michael Pack managed the agency in a manner that blatantly prioritized the self-interests of an administration.64 Amid the threat of the agency becoming a direct and expansive propaganda device of the executive, USAGM and many of its career employees—especially through its traditionally respected VOA brand and its corresponding apparatuses—still produce audiovisual content that carves out spaces distinct from social media and corporate news. In addition to radio and web content, VOA produces several television programs and broadcasts live television, giving particular focus to Africa with shows like Africa 54 and Our Voices. If these shows maintain VOA’s tradition of more dialogic content and relatively credible news,65 other programming exemplifies the extant mark of Reagan and Wick’s USIA. Business-focused shows like StartUp Africa and VOA’s vast multimedia infrastructure to teach English are emblematic of wider US foreign policy efforts at work within today’s prevalent grammar of global capitalism. 

Though the history of USIA moving images is deep and mostly unexplored, our continued research of the domain may shape how we navigate and engage the increasingly complex state of our media landscape and the USAGM’s role within it. More troublingly, recent geopolitical events have reconstituted supposedly archaic Cold War bipolarities, imbuing this research with real and present stakes. In the weeks before the publication of this special issue, the world witnessed the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, leading to another refugee crisis after the horrific events during the United States’ removal of troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. The messy package of news-media and user-uploaded images coming from these tragic circumstances—mixed with spectacle, fakery, and raw humanity— is both frighteningly new and old.  The images remind us of the profound and lasting violence of the Cold War and hearken back to the ways the world responded to the widely-circulated footage of conflicts like the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the U.S. war in Vietnam, and the 1968 Prague Spring. The history of USIA’s hyper-awareness of atrocities caused by the Soviets, however, reads in sharp contrast to the agency’s muted reactions to similar atrocities committed by the American government, especially the half a century of CIA meddling in regime change across three continents. As we continue to unpack the role USIA played in the coverage and memory of such conflicts, we hope our historical research may inform the work of those proactively seeking to unpack the chaos of our present moment. 

Methods and Theories for Navigating USIA Motion Pictures

The heterogeneity of USIA motion pictures, which operated within incredibly diverse production and reception contexts, necessitates a variety of methodological and theoretical lenses spanning and connecting several disciplines. Rather than exhaustively exploring each potential approach to the archive here, we suggest three relatively novel and apt frameworks by which to navigate the collection.

“Moving Image Diplomacy”

USIA’s film operation is recognized under the rubrics of propaganda, public diplomacy, and cultural diplomacy. Given the genealogical legacies of each concept and their entanglement with histories of the Cold War, we find the framework of moving image diplomacy as an apt lens through which to investigate the film and media of the USIA/USIS archives. While the concept of diplomacy addresses the governmental and institutional dimension of research, a focus on moving image media carves out a position of scholarly distance that remains in dialogue with historical emergence and reconfigurations of the aforementioned practices without owing ideological allegiance [Figure 9]. This approach, in turn, allows researchers to conveniently draw from a range of existing theoretical and methodological approaches salient to film and media scholarship.66

USIA research also challenges a methodological tradition within film and media research—and perhaps humanities research, more broadly—that renders governmental and bureaucratic processes invisible in the production of knowledge. Even though the films operated ideologically as propaganda, the study of the USIA collection demonstrates how aspects of bureaucracy are fundamental to the production of film culture as experienced within and across national borders and as civic discourse among various publics within national and international civil societies [Figure 10]. In this sense, Foucault’s concept of “governmentality” can provide a productive means by which to address the USIA domain, expanding upon the idea of how governmental planning aspires to encourage and manage moving image cultures diplomatically through invitational packages. However, Foucault himself never researched messy bureaucratic rationalities such as USIA’s within unfamiliar cultural and national contexts. Governmentality, therefore, leaves open the possibility of investigating the complexity of power relations, giving particular attention to the nuances of the binational bureaucracies that underscored Cold War paradigms of global capitalist citizenship.67 

Reading Hollywood into USIA

Although USIA motion pictures functioned in distinct ways and places relative to popular cinema, the agency’s complicated relationship to Hollywood throughout the Cold War may still provide scholars a generative historical and methodological baseline. In the course of its operations, USIA addressed the hegemony of popular Hollywood cinema by spinning discourses that mythologized, supplemented, and even “corrected” its international imprint, while continuously supporting the political economy of its distribution. On the one hand, the agency’s motion pictures fundamentally justified its existence as a vessel to project a less sensationalized and more honest image of America relative to Hollywood films.68 On the other hand, it often relied on big names from Hollywood to advise its officials, refine its operations, or make films for the agency, while also relying on Hollywood’s permission to curate and circulate select popular cinema to targeted areas [Figure 11].69 

However, the exchanges between Hollywood and USIA were not exclusively oppositional or unidirectional. During the 1960s, for example, the agency became a breeding ground for young talent. Some scholars have spoken to the agency’s connections to American documentary and independent filmmaking cultures,70 yet it also provided platforms for people who later became notable figures in Hollywood, such as Verna Fields, who mentored names like George Lucas, Marcia Lucas, and Robert Dalva71 via work at USIA.72 Other institutions of American cinema can also trace their pedigree back to USIA. One of the founding editors of Film Comment, Gordon Hitchens, directed six films for USIA and made efforts to integrate other agency voices, such as those of James Blue and William Bayer.73 And as one of our issue’s authors, Brian Real, has shown, the seeds of George Stevens Jr.’s vision for the American Film Institute, though unrealized through the agency, were planted during his time as head of the USIA motion picture division.74

USIA’s connections to Hollywood, of course, warrant scholarly interest in a historical capacity through novel opportunities to map out genealogies important to each respective institution. Yet we also suggest the vast body of research on Hollywood production and culture may offer constructive frameworks by which to interrogate USIA moving images. Through what is perhaps the most visible of research domains in our field—works on classic Hollywood cinema, which is concretely theorized nearly to the point of common sense—we can bring light to this incredibly invisible corpus. Though the studio system’s relatively closed and vertically integrated system is not a perfect analog for USIA’s sprawling multinational and diffuse bureaucratic architecture of logistics and practices,75 we may be able to transpose elements of the methodology of the scholarship of classic Hollywood onto our reading of USIA moving images. This theoretical corpus correlates the signature of a studio to its films’ aesthetics and cultures. We can similarly understand USIA’s filmic output as a product of the negotiated interests of given administrations, leadership, and regional operations. The classic Hollywood methodology’s attention to the full breadth of the system can provide a model for deeper inquiry into wider notions of labor, moving image technologies, and noteworthy tensions between local filmmakers and the transnational bureaucracy in which they worked. In this sense, more recent scholarship on the “runaway Hollywood” of the midtwentieth century76 can also inform our work on USIA, teasing out the dynamics of localized production and multinational labor within the forces of a larger hegemonic system.  

The Universalizing Documentary

USIA’s governing investment in producing documentaries with foreign subjects as well as American citizens demands theoretical investigation with respect to the generalizing and abstracting work of the documentary. Its documentary apparatus sharply contrasts with World War II propaganda but recalls earlier government sponsorship of New Deal and “good neighbor” documentaries, which used archetypes of American life to communicate an abstraction of "the nation" and friendly diplomatic relations. What do the abstractions of the American citizen and the foreign (overwhelmingly rural) subject of the USIA documentary suggest? They suggest a subjective field that ambiguates national identity and advocates a universalizing claim to free world citizenship. This ideal of citizenship is grounded in anti-authoritarian principles of democratic governing and efficient capitalist modes of production, which may, in turn, echo Cold War iterations of neoimperial and neoliberal ideologies.

Margaret Mead and a number of her colleagues had advanced ideas about a technocratic understanding of human relations within early theories of communication during the 1930s. Informing the International Motion Picture Division of the Department of State in 1951, Mead further conceptualized how to stage documentary units by balancing economic and political hierarchies within scenarios of familial relations. Accordingly, if culturally different people can be assumed to  make up the world, that difference can be observed through an “expert” gaze and utilized toward a technocratic manufacturing of difference. The “experts” create their own version of a culturerealizing their vision of the world as long as it is available for observation and the cinematic gaze of the observer. Here, Mead provides an “expert” version realizing a vision of the world:

Democracy may be defined essentially as occurring when individuals are free to take the initiative to each other... Throughout our society, the development and acceptance of patterns of equal opportunity to take the initiative in the family, in business, or in government, is the prime characteristic of the democratic process. It is also fortunately a process that can be easily shown in motion picture form. Its significance to the peoples in other countries is that it is an essential part of the American way of life ... and the most effective aid to the growth of the personality of any mode of behavior. It is also the most efficient method of operating in a complicated industrial technology.

It takes all kinds of people to make a world, and so it must be remembered that it takes all kinds of people to make up an Iranian village, an American factory town, an imaginary cartoon world or a community threatened by communism.77

Sampling the individual case within the communitarian context of “family,” “business,” and “government” was a hallmark of the state-funded New Deal documentaries. Many New Deal documentaries generalized American life as an allegory of the nation. The USIA documentary abstraction still allegorizes the nation, yet it represents a neoimperial nation in absentia (as the films were viewed outside the US) and proxy nations as the subject of film diplomacy operations. For example, the Japanese subject of the aforementioned New Eyes, New Ears (1951) communicates an abstraction that neither fully represents Japan nor the United States. At the same time, the Japanese subject in the film aims to communicate the concept of nationhood to Others as a universalist vision of free world citizenship. The exemplary US citizen-subject of the documentary—whom the US government had earlier used to communicate with the nation in the New Deal campaign—now comes to metonymize a sampling of the nation and some of its welfare programs to those people outside the nation. The film ultimately serves a neoimperial mandate justified as containment under Cold War diplomatic conditions. In the case of New Eyes, New Ears, for example, the Smith–Mundt Act ironically made the documentary provisionally un-see-able to Japanese-Americans and other American subjects. The exemplary USIA documentary subject, located outside the U.S., was positioned to occupy a liminal state, since the presumption of the USIA was that they (their exemplary audience members) were already willfully considering themselves to be part of or becoming part of the "American experience." Representationally, such documentary subjects were analogized to those living in the US as either a recent or settled immigrant. Just as Mead conceptualized, the USIA assumed the viewing audiences across the globe would share in the abstraction of democracy as "an American experience," implying a literal but circumscribed pathway of desire towards the "American experience." 

Quarterly reports of mobile screenings that showed American documentaries throughout the postcolonial and neocolonial world demonstrate the dissatisfaction of USIS officers regarding rural viewers' responses to the films. The officers highlighted rural audiences' misunderstanding of technological machinery in the films and their apprehension toward identifying with the documentary subjects—whom Mead called the "settled Americans" at the onset of the Cold War—that performed mastery of this machinery. Mead identified recent American immigrants in their rural and working-class life as the proper subjects for what later became USIA documentaries. Their lifestyle, accordingly, was more familiar and recognizable by foreign rural populations. The ideology behind such documentary discourse assumes that the American lifestyle is the natural way of pursuing happiness according to efficient capitalist democratic principles. Furthermore, this ideology can be powerfully communicated via the documentary medium, through which every foreign viewer can potentially emulate and identify with the democratic principle, framed as immanent human nature. Put differently, inside every foreign subject, there is an inherently “American” impulse to realize the democratic principle. The documentary discourse, expressing this impulse, implies a trajectory that identifies the foreign rural subject, the recent American immigrant, and the “settled immigrant.” Such ideology is built upon the assumption that everyone is an American-to-be, an American-to-become.

The neoimperial and neoliberal phase of government investment in documentary had to invent a representative citizenry to navigate the ambiguity that existed between the identity of an American immigrant and that of a foreign subject hailed to adopt a position as a liberal, democratic capitalist-to-be. This citizenry was sometimes imaged via representations that showcased postcolonial rural subjects who had participated in yearlong audiovisual modernization training. Several films also feature candidates for higher education in professional fields in American universities on visitor or educational visas issued and financially sponsored by the US government. The accounts of these visits show up in the archival paper trail in the form of binational government and university–government contracts alongside planning and organization memoranda. Footage of these "visits" usually showed up in USIS-sponsored local magazine newsreels during mobile screening campaigns or before feature films in movie theaters. Within these sequences, the overwhelming majority of these "visitors" are seen to return to their countries after the training. This subset of USIA films underscore and literalize the ambiguity inherent to the invitational promise of American-to-be and American-to-become.78 This invitational promise becomes the characteristic feature of the neoimperial capitalist relationship exported by the US government through USIA documentary discourse. Meanwhile, the US government prided itself on using tax money to circulate these images of American ambiguity that packaged stories of Americans-to-be and Americans-to-become within foreign public spheres while censorially keeping these stories away from the watchful eyes of the American public. Ironically, the contemporary neoliberal iteration of this ambiguity can be witnessed nowhere more concretely than in the horrifying, globally circulated footage from August 2021 of Afghan citizens clinging to an American aircraft while it gradually lifts off from Kabul airport, signifying the hazardous state of the refugee-to-become!

Literature Review

Several academic and professional fields have published a variety of texts addressing USIA over the past seventy years, but the former legal limitations concerning the access and circulation of its media, as well as the nearly incomprehensible scope of the agency’s operations, have resulted in a disproportionately small amount of research relative to the size and diversity of the archive. The majority of the literature related to USIA fittingly comes from public diplomacy circles and proximate fields such as communication studies or international relations. Though the publications are few, some notable works in film and media studies did emerge during and immediately after the Cold War. On the shoulders of NARA’s herculean efforts to bring logic to the unwieldy archive over the past thirty years and a small handful of seminal histories, a recent and exciting burst of film and media studies scholarship has emerged across disciplinary and national boundaries, building the foundation of a potential subfield.

Significant Works and Trends from the Cold War Era

Given its invisibility within the US context and essentially no internal apparatus to record agency memory during the Cold War,79 USIA garnered little attention among scholars, the press, and the wider American public. The lack of attention translated to a lack of meaningful critique and accountability for an agency missing its own instruments for historical record keeping. Therefore, many of the publications addressing agency operations during the twentieth century come from those with a direct connection to USIA, resulting in mostly favorable narratives and histories.80 While many of these texts read like dry summaries or memoirs, some provide essential procedural and historic details concerning the agency’s motion picture apparatus. For example, Wilson Dizard’s The Strategy of Truth (1961)81 and Robert Elder’s The Information Machine (1968) extensively delineate the bureaucratic perspective of film operations, at times offering noteworthy on-the-ground details. More recently, Warriors of Disinformation (1995) by Alvin Snyder, who oversaw the film and television division during Reagan’s presidency, provides intimate insider knowledge detailing this erratic, partisan, but technology-forward era of USIA moving images.

Although the commentary and historicization specifically concerning USIA moving images sparingly entered academic or journalistic discourse during the Cold War, a few standout publications emerged alongside a fragmented collection of articles from the press and graduate theses. Perhaps the most significant works from this era that directly address USIA films come from the film scholar Richard Dyer MacCann.82 While we have some evidence that he previously wrote scripts for the agency83 (giving potential explanation to his mostly uncritical approach), his work nevertheless goes beyond the purely expository or memoir style in other texts, connecting the policy and people behind the films to ideological and aesthetic readings. Another former employee of the agency, Mohammad Issari, wrote his dissertation at the University of Southern California on the cinema of Iran, making him one of the first to give significant attention to USIS filmmaking in a given national context.84 Building from Issari’s work, Hamid Naficy produced the invaluable Iran Media Index in 1984,85 which collected rich metadata of several USIA/S titles despite difficulties of access. Other former agency filmmakers within the Film Comment circle—such as James Blue, William Bayer, Alvin Fiering, and Gordon Hitchens—composed more self-reflective material regarding the filmmaking processes, some of which directly addressed films made for USIA.86 

During this period, some US-based and international journalists also wrote incisive pieces on the more expensive and widely disseminated agency titles, like Vietnam, Vietnam! (1971) or Let Poland Be Poland (1982).87 Among prominent film journalists of the time, however, only the New York Times’s head film critic, Bosley Crowther, gave prolonged attention to USIA motion pictures, at times trumpeting their quality and calling for domestic distribution.88  

Relative to these other texts, a collection of graduate theses produced during the Cold War essentially remain unexplored. Many only have USIA/S film as a component to a larger study, with some scholars situating USIA/S moving images within a longer national history of film89 and others contextualizing them within a detailed study of USIS operations in a given country.90 Though inconsistent in their coverage, parsing these theses can offer a boon to the study of USIA moving images given the often specific and idiosyncratic details found within.91

Foundational and Contemporary Scholarship after the Archive Opens

As the USIA archive opened up and the Cold War wound down, researchers had enough historical distance to begin piecing together more comprehensive accounts of the global agency’s run during the latter half of the twentieth century. These multidisciplinary scholars spent years synthesizing archival artifacts at NARA and the presidential libraries, interviews with former agency officials, and a wealth of other primary documents to produce seminal studies that gave multiple fields a foundation from which to construct more particularized work. More than any other scholar, Nicholas Cull—especially in his 2008 tome, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency—generated an essential record from which other researchers may enter the complicated domain. Alongside Cull, other well-researched books have helped lay key groundwork:  Shawn Parry-Giles’s Rhetorical Presidency, Propaganda, and the Cold War, 1945–1955 (2001); Wilson Dizard’s Inventing Public Diplomacy (2004); Kenneth Osgood’s Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006); and Gregory Tomlin’s Murrow’s Cold War: Public Diplomacy for the Kennedy Administration (2016).92 While these publications have become indispensable to researchers of USIA, these US-based scholars understandably exhibit similar trends to earlier texts on the agency given what and to whom they had access during their research.93 While they welcome more horizontal, transnational, and critical readings, they ultimately rely upon a top-down history through the lens of American policy and culture.

A contemporary wave of USIA/S research within film and media studies has surfaced in recent years, employing a diversity of more acute methodological approaches and utilizing newfound access to an increasingly organized and digitized archive. Though the last five years have seen a relative burst of publications, some scholars had earlier recognized the potential of the domain, leading the way for the more recent contributors. Jennifer Horne’s work on James Blue’s Colombia Trilogy of documentaries gave a model of how to read policy into film aesthetics. Over the past twenty years, Yuka Tsuchiya’s archivally rich publications have provided an authoritative portrait of USIS (and other agencies’) media in postwar Japan.94 Additionally, scholars Melinda Schwenk-Borrell and Carol Schwalbe were among the first to incisively explore dynamics of race and gender within USIA filmic operations.95 In another foundational study, Regina Longo broke new ground connecting aesthetics of state-sponsored documentaries in Italy to the Marshall Plan filmmaking networks from which they emerged.96 In the past few years, the works of Sangjoon Lee and Han Sang Kim have inaugurated an exciting, vigorous discourse on the USIA/S and other government films within East Asia.97 And many of our contributors to this issue—Brian Real, Sueyoung Park-Primiano, Jülide Etem, Lotte Hoek, Hadi Gharabaghi, and Bret Vukoder—have previously produced scholarly material on USIA moving images.98 Several NARA archivists—including Audrey Amidon, Heidi Holmstrom, Ivy Donnell, and Criss Austin, contributors to this issue—have provided insightful pieces on USIA titles that compellingly synthesize archival, historical, and critical perspectives.99 100

Conclusion: Opportunities with the USIA Motion Picture Archive 

Before this special issue, no books, edited volumes, or any other journal issues have granted exclusive attention to the motion picture operations of USIA. Despite its novelty, we hope to have designed this issue as a nexus point rather than a divergence into unexplored terrain, which would only cordon us off within parameters exclusive to our field. The breadth of scholarship embodying different disciplinary frameworks, theoretical lenses, and cultural perspectives deeply inform the shape of this issue. Accordingly, we hope scholars outside of film and media studies find these authors’ works to be generative, helping foster transdisciplinary, transmedial, and transnational discourse. 

In this spirit, we want to conclude this introductory section by suggesting tangible opportunities the USIA motion picture archive can offer beyond its theoretical and historical potential. First, the massive scope and transnational design of agency films and operations are relatively unique among the motion picture cultures of the twentieth century. The residual USIA archive is multinational, though NARA’s College Park location likely holds the vast majority of materials. Nevertheless, these materials can serve as a springboard to develop novel networks between other national archives, libraries, and footage houses throughout the world. In addition to developing beneficial and practical partnerships, such a network could play a significant role in decentralizing the historicization of the Cold War from embedded national, institutional, and disciplinary hegemonies. Recent events like the Excavated Footage Conference at Ajou University in South Korea and the Films of State Conference at NARA have already broken ground in this regard.101 Each of these multinational and multidisciplinary events brought together scholars, archivists, and artists interacting within novel discursive terrains, negotiating new lexicons and methods by which to understand complex motion picture archives like USIA’s.  

Second, how we choose to animate and participate in these new research networks offers an opportunity in and of itself, particularly within the digital humanities. An eclectic archive of twenty thousand motion picture titles will benefit from and serve key initiatives like the Media Ecology Project (MEP) at Dartmouth College.102 The platform utilizes a “virtuous cycle” by which scholars may access films while also contributing local, time-based annotations to facilitate future discovery, hone new methods, and create shared terminologies. As archives like USIA’s become increasingly digitized, these annotations will also inform and complement artificial intelligence designed to read moving images at scale,103 further enhancing research and searchability. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as accessibility to the USIA motion picture archive (and archival collections, more generally) grows, so too grows the potential to expand pedagogies within film and media studies classrooms. USIA’s massive digital and material archive provides a space in which students can experience genuine historical discovery, allowing them real agency in annotating the materials, dialogically situating their meaning, and influencing the terms by which future researchers navigate the variegated histories of the Cold War. In its scope and plurality, the USIA motion picture archive, specifically, can foster meaningful and direct inquiry on several topics, such as cinematic aesthetics, media technologies, film genre, visible/invisible media labor, cultural policy, national cinemas, copyright, logistics of film distribution, film festival cultures, and political rhetoric, among many others. Importantly, in leveraging platforms such as MEP, NARA’s online tools, and even YouTube, these pedagogical and annotative opportunities can and should extend beyond academic circles, helping disentangle the hierarchical and often exclusionary systems by which history takes shape. 

We, the editors, are incredibly thankful to our contributors, our interviewees, our reviewers, our copy editor, Denise Logsdon, the Dartmouth Library, the Journal of e-Media Studies, and Dr. Mark Williams, who initiated this enriching experience for us. We are also thankful for their patience and collaborative spirit in making this issue happen during the difficulties of a pandemic. Coming to this as two adjunct professors in a state of precarious employment, we hope this issue and future USIA research are imbued with a recognition of the labor inherent in the preservation, restoration, cataloging, and research of the archive as well as the diverse and typically invisible labor behind the USIA films themselves. Above all, we want this special issue to serve as an invitation to anyone interested in the rich and complicated motion picture archive of the United States Information Agency. 

Hadi Gharabaghi has a PhD in cinema studies from New York University. His archival research makes a case for the emergence of documentary diplomacy during the early history of the United States Information Service (USIS)/Iran relations. His publications include a chapter in the edited volume Cinema of the Arab World: Contemporary Directions in Theory and Practice (Palgrave, 2020), essays in the summer 2021 print issue and the Winter 2022 online teaching dossier section of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, an essay on the emerging Iranian horror genre in the forthcoming volume Global Horror: Hybridity and Alterity in Transnational Horror Film (Cognella, 2022), and the edited volume, Governing Genealogies of Film Education (co-edited with Terri Ginsberg, forthcoming 2022). 

Bret Vukoder recently received his PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He has published chapters (with Mark Williams) in the edited volumes, Documentary Film: An Aesthetic and Political Crossroads (Promoteo Editorial, 2020) and Provenance and Early Cinema (Indiana UP, 2021). His forthcoming works further engage USIA and WWI archives, addressing how systems of policy, culture, and bureaucracy inform motion picture aesthetics, circulation, and reception. Dr. Vukoder also serves as the co-director of the USIA and WWI studies for the Media Ecology Project at Dartmouth College.
Title Image: The U.S. Overseas Information Program (1954), screenshot of graphic of US information posts around the world, stylized by the editors [NARA 306.3].

The Motion Pictures of the United States Information Agency: Studying a Global Film and Television Operation © 2022 by Hadi Gharabaghi and Bret Vukoder is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The Journal of e-Media Studies is published by the Dartmouth Library.