Selling democracy: The United States Information Agency's portrayal of American race relations, 1953–1976

Melinda M Schwenk-Borrell, University of Pennsylvania


During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) communicated with other nations to promote U.S. foreign policy goals. Created in 1953, the USIA's central mission was to engage in public diplomacy and to produce and disseminate media products promoting democratic values. In its films, publications, television and radio programs, the USIA's propaganda about American society showed the advantages of democracy over communism. From the 1950s through the 1976 Bicentennial, however, racism marred the positive portrait of democracy the USIA disseminated, having a particularly negative impact on U.S. relations with new nations emerging from colonial rule. By examining Department of State and USIA archives, as well as more than ninety Agency films and dozens of its publications, this study shows how the USIA responded to racism and the civil rights movement and reflected the changing foreign and domestic policy imperatives of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. This study details the USIA's response over fifteen years to the integration crisis at Little Rock. It explains why and how, during the Kennedy administration, the USIA significantly changed its policies on portraying civil rights and also began to include images of peaceful dissent as a central right in a democracy. African Americans in USIA films include The Little Rock Nine, Marian Anderson, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King, Althea Gibson, Duke Ellington, Leon Sullivan, Wilson Riles, Jesse Jackson, Carl Stokes, and Walter Washington. USIA films about American society, integration, Africa, and civil rights by Walter de Hoog, Bruce Herschensohn, Charles Guggenheim, James Blue, William Greaves and other film-makers are analyzed within their social and political contexts. This study assesses the impact of several Agency directors, including Edward R. Murrow, the effects of testing audience response to the documentaries, and the implementation of new communication technologies. President Johnson and the first Nixon administration emphasized African Americans' achievements in politics and employment. By the mid-1970s, however, USIA films did not seriously treat race and civil rights issues. The Agency's Bicentennial films revealed how the USIA lacked an understanding of how to portray African Americans in U.S. history and democratic life.

Subject Area

Mass media|Motion Pictures|American history

Recommended Citation

Schwenk-Borrell, Melinda M, "Selling democracy: The United States Information Agency's portrayal of American race relations, 1953–1976" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125895.