Carnegie Mellon University

Filmic Aesthetics and Technologies of War, Policy, and "Truth" in the Motion Pictures of the United States Information Agency

Author: Bret Vukoder

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary & Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2020

While scholars in media and cultural studies such as Saunders, Shaw, Doherty, and Iber have meaningfully investigated the relationships between Cold War politics and popular culture, fewer works have addressed the role of government-attributed media within the larger cultural Cold War. My dissertation explores the motion pictures of the United States Information Agency (USIA), the nation’s primary propaganda office during the Cold War, in order to better understand how the machinery of a global agency informed filmic output and viewing cultures. Between 1953 and 1999, the USIA produced or distributed roughly 20,000 motion-picture titles, spanning 160 countries and 50 languages. However, these materials are relatively unknown to media scholars within the United States. A domestic distribution ban over the agency’s materials that extended into the 1990s has rendered these films relatively invisible.

My work reconsiders prevailing assumptions regarding the “Cultural” Cold War by closely investigating the bureaucracy of the USIA and how policymakers and film producers created propaganda films and presented them to global audiences.

The USIA motion pictures, which were primarily documentary in form, represent an eclectic collection of films that were diverse in style, tone, and messaging. My dissertation investigates five cases from 1953 to 1989, situating formalist readings of films alongside theoretical work concerning topics such as wartime imagery (Torchin, Butler, Tagg, and Lowe), the rhetorical presidency (Tudda, Parry-Giles, and Chernus), American frontier mythologies (Grandin, Jessup, and Turner), and televisual aesthetics (Gehr, Hilderbrand, and Longmore). I trace the tensions between policy, culture, technology, and economics within the films’ aesthetics to foster readings that argue against predominantly bipolar frameworks in the study of the cultural Cold War. My analysis primarily relies on documentaries released in response to active conflict. Produced and distributed with greater immediacy, these films and their paper trails more directly express specific policies and reveal the operations behind the USIA apparatuses. Furthermore, many of these documentaries also represent or capture scenes of violence, warfare, and atrocity. By linking “violence” to truth and veracity I argue that we can effectively determine the way the USIA manufactured adaptable “truths” for political necessity on the global stage.

My dissertation therefore seeks to realize three goals: make visible the motion pictures and processes of this massive agency to American scholars; instantiate viable methodologies to facilitate new and decentralized readings of the cultural Cold War; and delineate theory that helps articulate connections between filmic aesthetics and governmental policy and bureaucracy.