By Thomas Cryer
In the 1970s, American foreign policy become a national confession booth, a place to reclaim the giddy idealism of a nation rocked by the retreat from Vietnam and the awakening, via Middle Eastern oil crises, to global interdependence. As the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell famously warned, “there is no longer a Manifest Destiny or mission. We have not been immune to the corruption of power. We have not been the exception.”
The 1970s, suggest Keys, Davies, and Bannan, were consequently characterized by a “search for recovery after trauma- for a new equilibrium and a revised sense of what America stood for in a changing world.” By sheer chronological coincidence, this introspection was punctuated by 1976’s American Revolutionary Bicentennial, a 200th national birthday inundated with both soothing nostalgia and cultural despair. For doomsayers including the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, America had been “forced to enter history a second time… The first time we entered proclaiming our independence and liberty, the second time frantically trying to conceal our dependence and servitude.”
Yet 1976 remained a remarkable opportunity to signal America’s future direction, particularly vis-à-vis foreign policy. The United States Information Agency (USIA) particularly sought to utilize international Bicentennial commemorations, to which 102 countries pledged over $100,000,000, as a “rostrum from which to reaffirm U.S. goals.” This effort is powerfully illustrated in the travelling exhibition ‘The World of Franklin & Jefferson,’ an IBM-sponsored $500,000-dollar “colonial Who’s Who” as chaotically crammed with high-minded ideas and orotund rhetoric as the 1970s in America itself. What the Guardian’s Hugh Hebert labelled “7,500 feet of brilliantly devised, grossly packaged confusion” consequently provides vital insights on how Americans used their Enlightenment heritage to reclaim their revolutionary reputation amidst this era of global decolonization and national atonement.
In the wake of history’s recent ‘memory boom,’ scholars are increasingly aware that memory works beyond the confines of the nation, travelling and evolving within different contexts and assuming multivalent and multi-directional resonances therein. Scholars have also emphasized memory’s frequent incorporation into American foreign policy and diplomacy, Michael Hunt suggesting that a culturally-driven foreign policy promotes “a relatively coherent, emotionally charged, and conceptually interlocking set of ideas.” Lending foreign policy this intellectual ballast was critical in a decade where the sources of American power were redefined, a transformation that Daniel Sargent argues was “neither foreordained nor planned” but instead “followed a series of adaptations to unexpected and confounding circumstances.”
Since its creation in 1953, the USIA had been the hub for such Cold War-era public diplomacy. As early as March 1973, USIA planners identified the Bicentennial as a “special opportunity to inform our audiences worldwide about America’s past, present and future as we see it.” A further paper entitled ‘Portraying the US to Foreign Audiences’ cited three chief goals: “let the world know what America stands for,” “show confidence in the United States,” and “show the United States on the frontiers of modern man’s existence.” Few episodes from American history would better demonstrate this than the Age of Revolution(s), USIA planners aiming to demonstrate the “exchange of ideas which were current on both sides of the Atlantic during the Age of Enlightenment and the resultant contribution to American thought.”
‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’ met this purpose perfectly. Jefferson was particularly resonant in the 1970s, exemplifying the effusive, world-changing effect of America’s soft power and revolutionary ideas, particularly to decolonizing nations in the Global South who increasingly questioned America’s revolutionary credentials. Franklin was added later to safeguard against presenting a one-note celebration of Jefferson but both figures were attractively multi-valent, being presentable as forefathers of the founding documents, wide-ranging polymaths, and men of thought and action who bridged both sides of the Atlantic across a cumulative span of 120 years.
This commission was passed to the husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, best known for designing chairs, but also celebrated for several informationally-laden exhibitions on historical figures including Newton and Copernicus. These exhibitions blended the forms and functions of the museum and art gallery. Overwhelming informational bombardment- the Eames’ signature style- consequently provided the ideal mechanism for celebrating Franklin and Jefferson’s supposedly universal contribution to philosophical and political enlightenment.
Indeed, the exhibition’s final brochure emphasized that Franklin and Jefferson were not isolated geniuses but instead, “members of an international community who believed that the sublime impartiality of sound knowledge could guarantee free men everywhere from arbitrary powers.” The Eames sought to revive an entire trans-Atlantic community of thought, the exhibition’s main features being two parallel Euro-American timelines presenting Franklin and Jefferson’s lives “against a background of major political, philosophical, military and social milestones, both in America and in Europe.”
The overall emphasis was cultural comity and universally-applicable ideas, the brochure transporting viewers to a moment where “transplanted Europeans became Americans almost without knowing it,” and the “immediate needs and opportunities of the American situation,” provided the “special combination of theory and circumstance that made the American experiment possible.” The Constitution and Declaration consequently featured as “bridge[s] between the cosmopolitan political theory of the Enlightenment and its American practice.”
As for the medium of this message, Charles Eames decided upon a popular approach, variously describing the exhibition as a “citizen’s exhibition,” or “the largest coloured tabloid the world has ever seen.” He informed the Times that 1976 was “clearly going to be a period of superlatives: this, the first trumpet, is a superlative commemoration of the prophets and founders who believed in a world run by reason and justice.” Nineteen Eames staff thus worked towards an exhibition-cum-extravaganza modelled after Jefferson’s neo-classical University of Virginia that contained 40,600 words, 1,000 prints (translated into French, Polish, and Spanish), and perhaps the most infamous stuffed bison in the history of American design.
This travelling roadshow first toured in Paris, Warsaw, and London, where Jack Marsh, President Ford’s de facto Bicentennial advisor-in-chief, celebrated the “great interest and enthusiasm in the exhibition” at the “highest levels of the British government and cultural world.” The pointed brochure “‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’-Inspired by British Political Traditions” argued that “the roots of the American republic lie deep in the soil of Britain,” identifying both figures as “direct product[s] of English civil libertarianism.” For the British, Eames offered an olive branch: “when a daughter leaves the family to start a new life, the trauma of that separation can be like a battle, or a war. But nobody thinks of it as the daughter’s victory, or the mother’s defeat. Four, six, ten years go by, and everyone comes together to celebrate the setting up of the new household.” Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II was apparently “fascinated by the farm implements used by Jefferson at Monticello and by his plans for the garden.”
Continental reviews were also glowing. The exhibition proved “the most successful United States exhibition ever presented in Europe,” receiving record audiences of 50,000 in Paris, 53,000 in Warsaw, and garnering one of the British Museum’s largest recorded audiences. Le Monde called it a “revolutionary presentation…. a feast… a living entity for those who do not come for a history lesson but more for impressions.” The French Press Agency also lauded “a living exhibition, with a great photographic appeal, whose first care is to please the visitor, but the effort of animation never detracts from the quality of the historic account.” The message remained readily appropriable for local contexts- L’Express noted that the ‘real theme’ was liberty, at a moment where it ‘ceasing to be a dream, became the law of the country,’ whilst the Polish émigré literary magazine Kultura, prominent amongst anti-Soviet dissidents,revealingly lauded its depiction of Jefferson’s “revolt against a reactionary Europe.”
Nevertheless, a distinct sector of Anglo-American arts criticism found the exhibition kitsch, offensively so. The TLS observed that “the bright hygienic colours and textures and the immaculate state of ‘period’ repair of every American monument never carry much conviction; but photographed, en masse, they are oppressive.” Most prominently, the New York Times’s Hilton Kramer lambasted a “contemptible way to make use of works of art” which made “a mockery of the museum function.” The exhibition was “mostly a lot of glossy color photographs” which “give us an anonymous, immaculate, idealized, unreal glimpse of a never-never land—a world at once cozy and glamorous, without flaws or imperfections, where the light always glows with an amber warmth and all emotions are either noble or picturesque.” Their effect was “deliberately sedative, deliberately designed to comfort and reassure.”
Perhaps the most problematic section was the concluding portion, “Jefferson and the West,” home to the exhibition’s notorious bison, several “wilderness paintings” and various “indigenous artefacts.” Here, the brochure suggested that Jefferson “was fascinated by the western wilderness, its unspoiled fertility and the societies that populated it.” Into this populated ‘wilderness,’ Jefferson fought for “fair constraints on the use of the land” which protected “an expanding society of society of responsible freeholders.” The exhibition concluded in 1826, arguing that at this point “the expansion and the individualism that were part of the Jeffersonian vision had brought America to the edge of a new wilderness- a new complexity of commerce and production, that would alter the conditions of the American experiment almost beyond recognition.”
Even at this moment then, ‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’ wholeheartedly eschewed mentioning colonial wars or those enslaved by Jefferson, epitomizing its rarefied intellectual presentation and nullifying, sedative focus, useful to a divided America, on comity and collective national will. The museal rendering of history as “an eternally present spectacle” thus returned viewers to an era of essential values and lost national purpose, attempting to excavate a Revolutionary ethos of participation and responsibility that could be re-embedded into the America of the ‘Age of Narcissism.’ As Charles Eames declared in response to his critics, “the ultimate use of any of these experiences is to plough them back into the business of life itself.”
The exhibition’s obscured outsourcing to IBM further asserts that memory is not reclaimed but instead produced in articulation with pre-existing material hierarchies and that, as De Certeau has suggested, the past revived as all-encompassing mise-en-scène necessarily “disguises the praxis that organizes it.” To echo Hayden White, Eames’ vicarious ‘emplotment’ of America’s Revolutionary story within Franklin and Jefferson’s lives highlights how common historical narratives represent a ‘structure of relationships…endowed with meaning… as part of an integrated whole.’ Memory’s stabilizing functions consequently add a useful nuance to recent intellectual histories of the 1970s which predominantly emphasize inexorable fracture and “a discomfort with preciseness in signification and representation.”
That the exhibition’s American hosts were New York and Los Angeles, not Washington, also indicates the Bicentennial’s broader move towards dispersed and local commemorations noted by Tammy Stone-Gordon and M. J. Rymzsa-Pawklowska, the Los Angeles exhibition bringing commemorations far beyond Revolutionary America’s original geography. To be sure, this was far from a narrative unhindered by racial or gendered logics. In retrospect, the silences sound like thunder. Yet the allocation of planning to Eames indicates the American state’s comparatively laissez-faire approach to public memory and the perennial capacity of rhetorics of American patriotism to “mediate both vernacular loyalties to local and familiar places and official loyalties to national and imagined structures.” Studying memory as a field of cultural and intellectual negotiation thus allows intellectual historians to look further beyond the nation, following trans-Atlantic networks of Cold War cultural diplomacy and tracing complex and often implicit histories of argumentation, reception, and contestation within imagery, design, and even the occasional stuffed bison.
Ultimately, by describing 1776 as an exceptional and daringly experimental outpouring of idealism the Eames encouraged subsequent pragmatic, non-violent change whilst doing little to take this Enlightenment-infused story beyond one corner of the North Atlantic. They consequently reasserted that one revolution proved enough and that America’s revolution, a ‘law-and-order’ revolution that was an organic confluence of European ideas and American circumstances, set the basic precedent for all subsequent revolutions, even those whose means and methods departed drastically from this American beau idéal.
Thomas Cryer is a LAHP-funded PhD student at UCL’s Institute of the Americas, where he is studying memory, race, and nationhood in late twentieth-century America through an intellectual biography of the historian John Hope Franklin.