This essay is an excerpt from Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic ‘60s, University of Chicago Press, 2013.


In a small gray box on a metal shelf deep in the cool recesses of the National Archives, there is a typescript labeled “Communications Research and USIS Operations.” Written in 1959, it is one of hundreds of such papers prepared over the years for officers of the United States Information Agency and its overseas operational element, the United States Information Service, by the agency’s research wing. Most such documents surveyed public attitudes toward the United States abroad or plotted propaganda tactics to change them. But this one made a different, more comprehensive case: it argued that the USIA should think of each of its communication operations as an act of psychotherapeutic intervention.

The USIA should divide each action into three phases, the report explained: diagnosis, treatment, and the evaluation of effects. The “diagnostic task” consisted of assessing the target nation’s attitudes toward the United States, as reflected primarily in the press and in surveys of citizens. Treatment consisted of enlisting target audiences in modes of communication that could provide “prophylaxis to avoid an ‘unhealthful’ condition and therapy to bring about recovery from such a condition [emphases original].” After treatment, the report explained, the agency would need to assess the target audience’s state of mind by once again analyzing the contents of mass media, by conducting surveys of the populace, or, where that was not possible, by sending American personnel out among the people to report their impressions as best they could. In any case, the report suggested that even as it tried to change international attitudes on specific questions of policy, the USIA should aim to foster deeper “sociopsychological” transformations. When confronted with communists or fascists, for instance, the USIA should not challenge their belief systems individually, but should instead aim to defuse the authoritarian psychology underlying both. As the report put it, they should not “work at the level of symptoms” but “closer to the level of causes.”[1]

Today, the notion that psychotherapy could provide a model for propagandists may seem deeply alien. We tend to think of therapy as an interpersonal process and one aimed at empowering rather than controlling the person seeking aid. But by the late 1950s, a substantial number of American intellectuals and government officials understood international relations in essentially interpersonal terms. Individuals and nations each had dominant personality styles, as the relevant experts in the social sciences had shown. And since they did, managing the psychological reactions of individual citizens and of whole nations became two sides of the same coin. In the early 1940s this understanding shaped the promotion of democratic morale at home. In the second half of the 1950s, it helped guide American propaganda tactics abroad.


Not all American propaganda in this period had a psychotherapeutic cast. As a generation of historians has amply demonstrated, the late 1950s saw the American government deploy an incredibly diverse array of propaganda methods.[2] But among them, the psychotherapeutic pattern outlined in the 1959 report did in fact enjoy an important and long forgotten place. So too did the aesthetic form developed to promote personality change in the 1940s, the surround. In the late 1950s, The Family of Man toured the globe under the aegis of the USIA; Victor D’Amico built creative art classrooms for American pavilions at European trade fairs; and the USIA even commissioned Buckminster Fuller to construct new versions of the geodesic dome he had first tried to build at Black Mountain College. Each of these environments surrounded audiences with multiple images and urged them to integrate those images into their own psyches. Overseas, the work of Steichen and Bayer, D’Amico, Fuller, and others again asked their visitors to engage in the perceptual practices associated with the formation of democratic personalities: mobility, choice, the constraint of emotion, the elevation of rational thought, and the assertion of individuality within an egalitarian group. As they did, they transformed the universal values they had once invoked to boost American morale in the face of fascism into tools with which to bring together the citizens of the world, as if they were all Americans, to face down communism.

These new uses for the surround evolved alongside a new vision of the democratic personality. In the 1940s, the whole, free person envisioned by, say, Gordon Allport or Erich Fromm enjoyed freedom of choice and expression primarily in the interpersonal and political realms. By the late 1950s, government officials, corporate leaders and a number of well-placed American academics had begun to argue that these life spheres had been ineluctably shaped by the American economy. The democratic person, in turn, became one who enjoyed a freedom to choose not only from an array of expressive styles or a slate of political leaders, but from a range of consumer goods. As the engines of postwar industry thrummed, politics, economics, and the making of American selves became so entwined that to many theorists’ choices in one realm often seemed to be choices in the others as well. Designers and architects, in turn, became not only the shapers of consumer goods and of consumers’ encounters with them, but of psychological and political choices at home and abroad.

The turn toward fusing consumption and politics paralleled a shift in the American propaganda enterprise. Since the end of World War II, the United States had bombarded the Soviet Union and its allies with a steady barrage of pro-democratic messages. In April 1950, just before North Korea invaded the South, President Truman intensified the assault by launching a “campaign of truth” in a speech to a group of newspaper editors. The Cold War, he said, was “a struggle, above all else, for the minds of men. . . . Unless we get the real story across to people in other countries, we will lose the battle for men’s minds by default.”[3] By 1952, on any given day the Voice of America could be heard in a hundred nations and forty-six languages; an American government press service fed stories to some ten thousand newspapers; and Americans sponsored US information centers in sixty countries and 190 cities.[4]


“People’s Capitalism” made the perfect counterpunch to the Soviet term “people’s democracy.” Under People’s Capitalism, individuals became owners of the means of production—not through the state but directly, through the stock market.


By the mid-1950s, however, it had become clear that such methods were not working. The Soviets retained their grip on their satellite states even after Stalin’s death in 1953. With a few small-scale exceptions, the peoples of communist nations remained quiescent. In response, American leaders simultaneously redoubled their efforts to undermine communist regimes and turned toward a less ballistic model of communication. In January 1955, a National Security Council memorandum articulated a new international information objective. The United States should “stress evolutionary rather than revolutionary change,” it wrote, and should employ “a forceful and direct approach, avoiding a propagandistic or strident tone.”[5]

This memo marked a dramatic widening of the cultural portion of America’s propaganda offensive, and the opening of a new front in the ideological battle: trade fairs and international expositions. Over the preceding four years, the Soviet Union had sent delegations to more than 130 trade fairs around the globe, while the United States had sent almost none.[6] In 1954, President Eisenhower ignited a new American effort to participate. Over the next six years, the Department of Commerce helped fund American participation in ninety-seven exhibitions in twenty-nine countries. More than five thousand American companies contributed to these events, and according to the Commerce Department, more than sixty million people visited them.[7]

Trade exhibitions thus became premier venues for displaying both American goods and American ideals. At one level, American industries of the late 1950s hoped to secure new markets. At another, though, they hoped to join their government in entwining democratic citizenship, universal humanism, and the consumption of mass-produced goods. A sales manager who traveled to Italy in 1955 recalled that “our objective was selling; selling on many levels. We were selling our government’s sincerity and interest in promoting two-way trade; selling our president’s over-all interest and sincerity of purpose in bringing a closer rapprochement between countries; selling the American way of life and the democratic philosophy of our government.”[8]


To counter Soviet propaganda deriding capitalism, often left unchallenged by the negligible American presence at international exhibitions, the American advertising industry tried to rebrand the American economy.[9] In 1955 the president of the Advertising Council, Theodore Repplier, hit on a phrase that seemed to bottle the essence of American life: “People’s Capitalism.” The council quickly began to promote it and the editors of Collier’s magazine heralded its arrival with a full-page editorial. “People’s Capitalism” made the perfect counterpunch to the Soviet term “people’s democracy,” they explained. Under People’s Capitalism, individuals competed with one another and made money, and when they did, they bought shares in the companies in which they and their fellow citizens worked. They became owners of the means of production—not through the state but directly, through the stock market.

President Eisenhower agreed and made People’s Capitalism the unifying theme of all American exhibitions in 1956. When he did, he also internationalized a vision of the American psyche articulated two years earlier by Yale historian David Potter. In his extraordinarily popular volume People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character, Potter brought together Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis” of American development with work on culture and character published by Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, David Riesman, and others. Drawing primarily on the anthropologists, Potter argued that the individual psyche and the society at large structured one another through the medium of culture. For that reason, the character of the individual, his or her social group, and his or her society tended to mirror one another. At the same time, Potter invoked neo-Freudians Horney and Fromm to point out that cultures relied on material goods to transmit their values across generations and to shape patterns of interpersonal interaction. Thus he argued that the material conditions in which children were brought up shaped their personalities as well.

Finally, Potter turned to Turner. Most American historians at the time agreed with Turner that the key characteristics of the democratic individual—a willingness to change oneself, to uproot one’s family, to form egalitarian communities—emerged as America expanded westward. Potter pointed out that neither the westward migration nor the democratic character could have come into being had the American landscape not been extraordinarily fertile. Only its abundance had made the democratic personality and the democratic political system possible. That abundance persisted despite the fact that the western frontier had closed long ago. In fact, if anything, mid-20th century American science and industry were bringing the nation to new levels of wealth. This new wealth, Potter argued, had begun to make individuals geographically mobile, psychologically flexible, and interpersonally tolerant, even of racial and class differences, all over again.

For Repplier and the Advertising Council, Potter’s logic and prestige were unassailable. At a political level, the council and numerous others agreed that People’s Capitalism fused the pursuit of abundance and the pursuit of democracy. In the marketplace, people had the opportunity to “vote with their dollars,” and thus to decide “for themselves what would be produced.”[10] Economic and political life, in turn, relied on individuals psychologically attuned to practices of choice, physical mobility, and adaptability in the face of change. In that sense the group concluded, in Potter’s words, that “material and spiritual values” went “hand-in-hand” in American society.[11] Together with the leisure provided by the mechanization of labor, these values helped make People’s Capitalism “an extraordinary opportunity for the realization of human potentialities.”[12]


Few communities were better positioned to help export these values than the loose network of artists and designers associated with the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By 1954 Herbert Bayer, Buckminster Fuller, and many others had participated in an annual design symposium in Aspen, Colorado, that set the agenda for American design in Bauhaus terms. High in the mountains, painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy’s former patron in Chicago, Walter Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America, promoted the fusion of good design and mass production and, with them, the old Bauhaus ideal of the psychologically integrated, industrially sustained “New Man.”[13] In Washington, DC, the same Nelson Rockefeller who had served as president of the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 to 1948 had become a special assistant to President Eisenhower and formed a committee to advise him on how to bring together economic and psychological elements in American policy abroad.[14]

Individually and together, these artists, designers, and administrators helped set the aesthetic terms for America’s international exhibitions across the 1950s and beyond. It was Buckminster Fuller who supplied the canonical architectural form for American exhibitions. In 1956, at the Kabul International Trade Fair in Afghanistan, Fuller designed the first of at least nine geodesic domes to house American exhibitions.[15] Originally, the United States had planned to skip the Kabul fair. But in the spring of 1956 they learned that China and the Soviet Union were each planning massive pavilions. The Eisenhower administration wanted to meet them in the field, but had to move quickly: the fair was scheduled to open in August. Jack Masey, the USIA official charged with mounting the show turned to Fuller. Two years earlier, Fuller had shown two large cardboard geodesic domes at the Milan Triennale to great effect.[16] Masey correctly believed that the dome might be one of the few structures that could be built in time for Kabul. Fuller designed a dome one hundred feet in diameter, made of 480 aluminum tubes covered by a nylon skin, and had it shipped to Afghanistan. There a handful of American engineers worked with several dozen Afghan laborers and erected the dome in forty-eight hours.


When the Americans teamed up with locals and produced a pavilion in mere hours, the Afghans marveled. The dome itself seemed to whisper of the power of American engineering.


The propaganda value of this event was substantial. The Soviets and Chinese had built their pavilions using only their own workers—two hundred of them in the Soviet case—and had taken weeks with their work. When the Americans teamed up with locals and produced a pavilion in mere hours, the Afghans marveled. The dome itself seemed to whisper of the power of American engineering. An American press release told visiting journalists that “The American building . . . turned out to be U.S. Exhibit #01. Covered with a translucent plastic-coated nylon which glowed at night, the geodesic dome called dramatic attention to American technological progress.”[17] Guides told visitors that the dome was a “demonstration of the degree of industrial progress attained in the U.S. . . . It emphasizes the marriage of aesthetics and technology—two very vital phenomena which are symbolic of a people who believe that only through peace can there be progress.”[18]

The geodesic dome would become a symbol of American innovation well into the 1980s. As a close look at the Kabul pavilion suggests however, Cold War domes did not simply represent a modern American vision; they transformed it into a three-dimensional, all-encompassing experience. When they entered the dome, visitors found themselves surrounded by black-and-white photographs of Americans hung at every level on a lightweight metal framing system. Around the rim of the dome, the designers arrayed static displays of sewing machines, aircraft models, and life-sized plastic models of farm animals, as well as black-and-white panoramas of the American landscape. Toward the center of the dome, they installed a model of a television studio.

In a sense, the dome served as a model of America itself. Its roundness hinted at the roundness of the globe and the universality of American ideals. The openness of the space it enclosed suggested the wide-open vistas of the American landscape and the American technological future. Visitors’ freedom to pick their own direction through the show echoed the claims of Hollywood Westerns that Americans could wander the land in any direction they wished. And like postwar Americans, Afghan visitors found themselves surrounded by abundance. Images, artifacts, and the dome collaborated to invite Afghans into a three-dimensional representation of a world of commercial, perceptual, and ultimately political possibilities: a world in which you could see what you had never seen before and do what you had never done, a world in which you could experience yourself as modern, driven by your own desires, supported by a well-designed aesthetic infrastructure and a powerful mass-production economy.

Despite their admiration for the dome, Afghan visitors were not bowled over by the exhibition as a whole. The USIA sponsored a public opinion poll at the fair, which revealed that the Afghans had expected the American pavilion to be much more sophisticated than those of the seven other countries on display. When it wasn’t, they were disappointed. The poll showed the American pavilion as the fourth favorite at the fair, behind those of the Soviet Union and China.[19] Yet the fact that Americans sought this information at all marked an important transition in the nature of the surround form. At one level, Masey and his team had commissioned the dome and designed its contents to represent America to the Afghans. The high-tech dome, the cutaway plastic farm animals, even the arrays of multi-sized photographs—all were built to channel Afghan desires for modernization in a Western direction. The environment was designed to offer visitors a range of choices as to where to place their attention, from a set of objects that had already been selected by invisible experts.


For a moment, at least, these images asked Afghans to imagine themselves as representatives of a universal human type. As they interacted with the images, the Afghans also transformed their emotions into data.


Yet the environment also rendered visitors available to monitoring. The designers of the Kabul pavilion did not simply want to offer Afghans the opportunity to practice the perceptual skills of independent democratic citizens, nor did they merely want to orient their affections toward America. They wanted to be sure that the environment had caused measurable psychological change. Pollsters at the fair solicited viewers’ opinions in two ways. First, twelve professors from the University of Kabul recruited to survey the audience simply asked visitors to express their opinion verbally—that is, to answer questions. Second, the professors showed the often illiterate Afghans drawings of turbaned men ostensibly expressing different moods and asked them to pick the one that represented their own mood most effectively. These images were meant to be mirrors into which visitors could gaze and recognize themselves, while requiring Afghans to orient their own identities toward images supplied by American psychologists. To recognize their feelings and answer the questions, they had to match their emotions to images the psychologists had designed to represent universal human feelings and universal human expressions.

For a moment, at least, these images asked Afghans to imagine themselves as representatives of a universal human type. As they interacted with the images, the Afghans also transformed their emotions into data. Collated by researchers and delivered to their American managers, Afghan responses to the exhibition could shape the design of future exhibitions, and perhaps even that of American policy toward Afghanistan and other nations. In this way, visitors became elements in an extended feedback loop. By measuring audience responses to the exhibition, American officials could feed them back into the next round of exhibition design. Each iteration of the cycle would in turn, in theory at least, intensify the psychological impact of the next exhibition.

This effort to promote psychological change continued at later exhibitions in Moscow, Greece, and elsewhere. The USIA repeatedly adapted the aesthetics and the ideals of the surround to the work of reorienting the desires of foreign nationals away from the temptations of communism and toward the carefully managed consumer society of America. In each case, exhibition designers attempted to create a certain type of democratic personality characterized by capitalist desire and accessible through a specific psychological framework. But this was not the end of this therapeutic capitalism: even as the American press proclaimed the exhibitions national triumphs, a small group of artists was already decoupling these multimedia aesthetics and surround-based architectures from the work of the state. Within a few short years, their efforts would provide the aesthetic foundations of the 1960s American counterculture.

Fred Turner is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author of three books: The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2013), from which this text is excerpted; From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (Anchor/Doubleday, 1996; 2nd ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Before coming to Stanford, he taught Communication at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He also worked for ten years as a journalist. He has written for newspapers and magazines ranging from the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine to Nature.

Reprinted with permission from The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties by Fred Turner, published by the University of Chicago Press.
© 2014 by Fred Turner. All rights reserved.


[1] US Information Agency, “Communications Research and USIS Operations,” USIA special reports S-65-59, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 306, records of the US Information Agency Office of Research, entry P160, special reports (S): 1953–1997 S–51–59 through S–5–60, container 15, folder S–65–59, 1-3, 10.

[2] The literature on American propaganda in this period is voluminous. Good places to start include Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); Nicholas John Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Kenneth Alan Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2006); Laura A. Belmonte, Selling the American Way: US Propaganda and the Cold War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[3] Harry S. Truman, “Address on Foreign Policy at a Luncheon of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,” April 20, 1950; quoted in Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 14.

[4] Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 21.

[5] NSC 5505/1, January 31, 1955; quoted in Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 101.

[6] Jane Fiske Mitarachi, “Design as a Political Force,” Industrial Design 4, no. 2 (1957): 38.

[7] Department of Commerce, “What’s OITF?” Fair Facts 2 (December 1960); quoted in Robert H. Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty: Exhibiting American Culture Abroad in the 1950s (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), xiv.

[8] Fred Wittner, “What Should Trade Missions Mean to You?” Industrial Marketing 44 (July 1957), 47-8; quoted in Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty, 41.

[9] Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty, 40.

[10] David Morris Potter, “The American Round Table Discussions on People’s Capitalism,” ed. Advertising Council, Inc. (1957), 10.

[11] Ibid., 54.

[12] Ibid., 25-6.

[13] James Sloan Allen, Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 296-78.

[14] Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty, 8.

[15] Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “Dome Days: Buckminster Fuller in the Cold War,” in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, and Invention, ed. Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996), 187.

[16] Ibid., 179.

[17] Untitled press release, United States Office of International Trade Fairs, quoted ibid., 187.

[18] Speeches by guides at American National Exhibition, quoted in Pang, “Dome Days,” 187.

[19] US Information Agency, “An Analysis of Visitor Reaction to the US Trade Fair, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24 to September 7, 1956,” RG 306, records of the US Information Agency Office of Research, entry P160, special reports (S): 1953–1997 S–15–56 through S–20–57, Container 11, Folder S–18–56, 1.

Image from Flickr via Joe Penniston


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