BOONE—Dr. Michael L. Krenn, professor of history and faculty coordinator for First Year Seminar at Appalachian State University, recently participated in a conference on “Selling America in an Age of Uncertainty: U.S. Public Diplomacy in the 1970s” held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.
The conference brought together 14 scholars from the United States, Australia, Norway, Great Britain and the Netherlands, selected from nearly 80 applicants, to discuss the ways in which the United States attempted to “sell” a certain image to the rest of the world through propaganda during the unsettled period of the 1970s.
The conference was sponsored by the Department of Archaeology, Conservation, and History and the Forum for Contemporary History at the University of Oslo; the Embassy of the United States, Oslo; the Norwegian Board of Technology; the Fritt Ord Foundation; the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies at the University of South Carolina; and the Roosevelt Study Center in the Netherlands.
Key issues for America were the conclusion of the war in Vietnam, Watergate and the resulting congressional investigations of foreign policy actions, economic dislocation, and the continuing racial turmoil afflicting the nation.
Krenn’s presentation, titled “‘The Low Key Mulatto Coverage’: Race, Civil Rights, and American Public Diplomacy, 1965-1976,” addressed ways the United States tried to portray its struggles to make civil rights a reality in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. These acts were hailed as the most important civil rights legislation since the Civil War. Krenn said the nation’s hopes that these acts would solve the racial problem in America were dashed as race riots broke out in Harlem in 1964 and even more explosively in Watts in 1965.
“In the face of concerns from U.S. allies and endless assaults by communist propaganda, the United States Information Agency used a variety of its own propaganda schemes to try and reassure the world that the race problem was being solved,” Krenn said.
In his presentation, Krenn reported that notable African Americans were featured in USIA publications and films; the urban riots were portrayed as either the work of a small criminal element or, as anti-war riots joined in the tumult, as simply Americans trying to work out their own political and economic issues; and America’s commitment to racial equality was emphasized over and over.
His research also showed that some of the propaganda reached surreal heights as when the USIA funded a French-language version of “The Nipsey Russell Show” in 1969. “Targeted at former French colonies in northern Africa, it was hoped that the sight of a well-dressed, intelligent, humorous African-American would help ease concerns about America’s race problem,” he said. “That it did, but an unforeseen complication was that the ‘skimpily clad women dancers’ on the show brought down a firestorm of protest from the large Islamic population in those areas.”