Letters from Victoria

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  • Victoria Phillips, PhD

Updated: May 6

(Quote from Dave and Iola Brubeck with Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors)



Dance, like music, does not require a common verbal language and thus both became vital as Cold War “weapons.” Yet ironies in United States-Soviet exchange abound. In 1932, a delegation of American communist artists returned from Moscow and declared, “Art is a Weapon.” Ironically, after HUAC trials of artists in the 1940s led the way for the nation’s McCarthyism in the 1950s, the United States government used the arts to promote its interests abroad, and the arts became its own soft power cold war weapon to fight the Soviet threat.


Twists and turns abounded: following a congressional hearing on composer Aaron Copland’s support for “an alien ideology,” his Lincoln Portrait was pulled from the inaguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower; shortly thereafter, the Eisenhower administration’s Psychological Strategy Board particularly chose Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring for international export to represent American ideals, with its score by Aaron Copland. His “Americana” represented the state’s ideals on the global stage; he won the Pulitzer Prize for the score. As the Communist Party of the United States of America wrote in a 1930s cartoon, “If it’s bad art, its bad propaganda. If it’s good art, it’s good propaganda.” And Graham was good.


But back to governments: officials in the United States government called cultural exports ‘translational,’ meaning that if there were positive ideas about race or gender, truth, freedom, dignity, all expressed non-verbally in the cultural realm, that they would ‘translate’ into the political and economic arena. People would join Western democracies. In the early tours, the idea was to enact “trickle down diplomacy”; the elites, once brought to the Western side, would educate the people. Thus Graham was on the “cocktail circuit of diplomacy.” While ‘people-to-people exchange’ is a bit less Mad Men, this understanding of the power of meetings, of connections in-person, is something that we are losing in the Internet age. While extremely valuable as a tool to rally numbers, there is something to the handshake, the bow, the clinking glass - even filled with sparkling water.


Although it is not a popular or even politically appropriate concept at present, modernism and Graham’s dance art strove to express universal human essences, which I’m sure is what attracted me to this early modernism. From grief and fear to love, laughter, and joy, from the physical expression of terror or sorrow to the laugh – hearing a person weeping or a child laughing - dance can convey this to people across verbal and land boundaries. In Graham’s Lamentation or Diversion of Angels, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, I find pieces of myself.


This draws questions of ‘identity’ and identity politics into play, no doubt. But over decades and across geographic lines and economic zones, from high schoolers to early hospice, I have seen people rise to their feet in an explosion of applause for these works performed well, with dignity and honesty and passion. This is why they work: with words rendered useless, good dance art forges human connection. Then, our question is where to go from there.

  • Victoria Phillips, PhD

Mary Hinkson and Bertram Ross with Lady Bird Johnson and Martha Graham at the White House, Oct. 9, 1968, Robert Knudsen, photographer, Courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.

Discovering Martha Graham’s “hidden” life was unexpected and not at all what I had planned, but a journey fueled by curiosity led me to over twelve years of research across multiple continents, following the trail of the Graham company’s involvement in the Cold War. The first discovery came from a lesson I teach in my classes: It all started with a thank-you note.


While pursuing my M.A. thesis and the New Dance Group, I looked at various collections at the Library of Congress. While the bulk of my research was solidified in then private archives in New York City, I found some material in Washington. The archivist, Elizabeth Aldrich, came out to greet me. Although I didn’t find a lot, I wrote her a thank-you note. Apparently, it was one of the very few (perhaps only) thank you notes she had received while at LOC. When she went to bat to open the Martha Graham Collection at LOC to researchers, as soon as the papers were released to the public, she emailed me saying that she wanted me to be the first person to see them.


Graham always insisted that her work was not political; that it was not modern, but rather contemporary. With this bias, and not much interest, frankly, I opened the wonderful tour scrapbook. Still holding the smell, I touched the invitation to Graham from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, to perform in Germany, 1936; I saw the ink of politicians’ pens on letters of thanks for performances in Berlin, and Yugoslavia; the blue-inked mimeographed United States Information Agency reports to Washington about her performances; the onion skinned typed reports to the State Department; government telegrams; the embossed invitations to embassy dinners from the likes of George Kennan, the ‘father of containment’; a program for a summit on how to contain the Soviet threat in Asia to which she was invited after she returned from Asia in 1956. This looked pretty political.


I then went to the National Archives and then the Cultural Collections in Arkansas and found the likes of Henry Kissinger in her files in later years. It kept going. Finally, I saw a newspaper clipping of Graham that clearly showed her cooperation in the government venture promoting her as “Forever Modern.” It drove me to say, “What is this? Both political and modern?”


I started asking why she denied that she was political and modern; then it got interesting. This took a few seminar papers, an article, and a lot of reading and teaching. Allen Brinkley taught me that when you don’t understand something, write a syllabus. I did, and I taught my first semester of Cold War Cultural Diplomacy at Columbia as a Ph.D. student. I suggested to Eric Foner, my brilliant advisor, that since I should probably do my dissertation on Martha Graham’s State Department tours, I would write about India in 1955-56. He insisted that I do all the tours. Little did we know the extent of it.


For all the tours, it became vital to go to as many of the places Graham travelled as possible – whether through oral histories or radio shows or clips or documents - to look at those archives. I had to find what was not supposed to be there. In the case of the 1979 Graham tour, the story unveiled through archives and oral histories in Israel, Lebanon, Washington, and New York, as well as the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and the Joan Mondale Collections, all the networks of dancers, diplomats, and historians, and following the trail from one place to the other.


In all cases, when I was able to travel or work with other students and historians with languages in host countries, I found documents that transformed the narrative. I was not able to go to most of the countries Graham visited, so there is work for others to pursue. I hope this book finds a place in inspiring new research among tomorrow’s historians. I want that to be my legacy – questions, and how to ask them, not answers.


Well, a few solutions would be nice.

© 2019 by Victoria Phillips

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