Cultural Diplomacy Following World War II

Today’s post comes from National Archives volunteer Cynthia Peterman.

After the allied victory in World War II, the United States played a pivotal role in rebuilding Europe both physically and culturally. Programs such as the Marshall Plan were designed to rebuild Europe’s economy, and indirectly the US economy, with stimulus aid and necessary provisions such as food, fuel, and other staples.

Residents Visit a Bookmobile in Mannheim, Germany
Residents Visit the Bookmobile in Mannheim, Germany (Photograph 306-BN-367-H-19824) Available at See many more bookmobile photos in “Mobile Libraries: Culture on the Go

Part of this humanitarian effort included developing cultural programs that served to boost morale in war-torn populations, as well as to create a positive international perception of America. The United States Information and Educational Exchange Act – popularly known as the Smith-Mundt Act – was passed in 1948 to “promote a better understanding of the United States in other countries, and to increase mutual understanding.”

International efforts included sending out bookmobiles with materials and programs for cultural enrichment. (For more on the history of bookmobiles both in the United States and abroad, readMobile Libraries: Culture on the Go on our sister blog the “Unwritten Record.”)

Cultural Diplomacy took on new meaning during the Cold War when the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union soured. The Government created movies (such as Wealth of a Nation), radio programs (Voice of America), and direct service programs (the Peace Corps) in order to counter Soviet influence and communicate the superiority of American freedoms over the tyranny of communism.

Peace Corps Volunteer with Students
Peace Corps Volunteer Roger Rhatton with Students in Tanganyika, Africa (now part of the nation of Tanzania), 1965. Available on DocsTeach and featured in the activity Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda During the Cold War.

DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives, offers a number of learning activities using Federal Government documents from this period.

Cultural Diplomacy and the Smith-Mundt Act is an activity that uses photographs and historical documents and asks students to explore initiatives such as the Peace Corps in promoting US goals abroad.

In Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda During the Cold War, students study photographs, documents, and film clips to evaluate and assess U.S. diplomatic goals during the Cold War.

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