In the world of U.S. public diplomacy, jazz is often portrayed as an “instrument” of “soft power" (pun intended, I suppose), and presumably of “public diplomacy”. The music is democratic by nature. It communicates, as does all music, but it has a particular way of “freeing” the listener to transport and convey messages. It is an art form that inspires. The Public Diplomacy Council recently co-hosted an event on this.
In 1945, however, the view from the State Department may not have been uniformly positive about the power of jazz, it seems.
In December 1945, Loy Henderson was the State Department’s Director for Near Eastern and African Affairs (click here to see how this position changed over the decades). On December 14, 1945, Mr. Henderson was on a radio program with Bill Benton, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, and Bill Stone, Director of the Office of International Information and and Cultural Affairs. The program was NBC’s University of the Air and the topic was “Our International Information Policy,” which was the 44th edition of a larger series entitled “Our Foreign Policy.” Sterling Fisher was the Director of the program and often served as the moderator of the discussion.
Mr. Fisher suggested to Mr. Henderson that America’s policies and purpose was well known and understood around the world: “I should think, Mr. Henderson, that our participation in the United Nations Organization would be a pretty good guarantee of our peaceful intentions.”
Mr. Henderson replied, “Perhaps, Mr. Fisher. But you have to remember that the success of the United Nations will depend on the extent to which the people of the different nations understand and trust one another. Now, people every corner of the world are observing and wondering about the developments in the United States. They have a real thirst for information about us, what we are like, what our policies are.”
Fisher prodded. “You really think that other people had no accurate idea of American life before the war?”
“I know they didn’t,” Mr. Henderson responded. “They had very little chance to know us. Their impressions were haphazard, based on scraps of news, sensational stories, odd bits of information. They knew more about the American gangsters of the 1920’s than they knew about the American educational system of the 1940’s. They thought we were all very wealthy, and that we got divorces every year or two. Thanks largely to the Axis propagandists, too many of them still think we are a rich, tawdry, gun-toting, jazz-loving, unscrupulous lot.”
No word on whetherMr. Henderson did, in fact, like jazz, or later came to appreciate jazz.