This article is originally written for an assignment at the Journalism Department of the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences, Babes-Bolyai University.
The Cold War is the inevitable aftermath of the Second World War and a defining era of humanity. Two of the world’s biggest superpowers at the time, namely the United States of America and the Soviet Union, were involved in a big scale power showdown to make their marks in the world through high-level competition in military, science, technology, espionage, ideology, and most importantly, propaganda.
This domain is where visuals play their part. Humans process visual information better than any other medium. It flocks on people’s minds and can trigger a chain of psychological reactions, ranging from sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, or even happiness (Grady et al., 1998). This topic will center around the presence of visual tools, whether that be pictures, cartoons, or moving images, in the Cold War era and how the governments used them to propel a political ideology on both sides and impact the public’s life in a country, based on available factoids.
The role of media in the Cold War era
To understand the matter better, it is crucial to first explore the media’s role of both sides during the height of the Cold War. At the time, the media culture had been slowly shifting from radio and print to television, catapulting the use of visual products even more than before. Through them, both blocs triggered and escalated public paranoia over mass destruction and possibly nuclear war through extreme slogans.
The Western media, for example, implemented the second “Red Scare” campaign nationwide to antagonize the enemy even further through McCarthyism — the practice of accusation over disloyalty to the country, named after its most prominent advocate Senator Joseph McCarthy (Bernhard, 1999). The United States Department of Education even obliged schools to screen Red Nightmare, a 30-minute short anti-Soviet propaganda film, as a part of the education curriculum to indoctrinate the youths.
Meanwhile, in the other bloc, the government had been developing moving images in television as a means of their communication medium since the 1930s, especially the post-Stalin era when televisions started becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The regime designed television as a medium to convey ideas, exposing the Soviet citizens to the dissemination of the propaganda on a daily basis.
Life vs. O Cruzeiro: A media dispute
This topic will take an example from the infamous dispute between American photography publication Life against Brazilian weekly magazine O Cruzeiro in the 1960s. The States, under John F. Kennedy’s administration, announced the Alliance for Progress initiative to strengthen the US’ position in Latin America through financial aid to “assist in casting off the chains of poverty.” At the time, the communist ideology had started to enter Latin America through Cuba under Fidel Castro’s leadership. The policy was proven to be costly for the US, spending over $1,4 billion per year between 1962 and 1967 (Smith, 1996).
Life believed that the media of its caliber could play its role in anti-communism propaganda, with goals like helping the US to “win the Cold War” and “create a better America” (Bussard & Gresh, 2020). To help the country cement its economic domination in Latin America, the publication, with a strong connection to Washington, dispatched photojournalist Gordon Parks to document the life in Brazilian favelas in Catacumba, Rio de Janeiro. Known for his stellar works in capturing social injustice and poverty, Parks followed a young Flávio da Silva and his family through their day-to-day lives surviving below the poverty line under harsh circumstances. He, then, published a photo essay in the magazine titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” (Parks, 1961).
Such a visual exposé on poverty received a heartfelt response from the American public, calling Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress initiative to start, but it ignited a bit of tension among the two countries. The US had the agenda to dominate Latin America through economic power, but Brazil felt insulted by the story as if the Americans think that “the misery is exclusively ours” (de Tacca, 2006).
In response to Parks’ story, O Cruzeiro challenged Life by sending photographer Henri Ballot to the slums of Harlem, New York City. He, then, recreated every single image Parks had captured identically with the Gonzales family of Mexican immigrants, frame-by-frame & page-by-page, under a photo-essay titled “Nôvo recorde americano: Miséria,” which translates to “New American Record: Misery.” The battle between two international mass media went for months, with Ballot further accusing Parks of fabricating his story.
Humans process visual information a lot better than any other medium, and that is something which visual tools, like pictures, cartoons, and moving images, capitalized during the height of the Cold War. In many regards, the governments from both blocs did more than merely convey messages for the mass through visuals, influencing the public through relentless stints of propaganda slogans.
One of the most critical examples this topic brought is Life magazine’s dispute against O Cruzeiro in the 1960s. Both national publications, which dominated the Latin American market at the time, sent their photographers to capture the life of the marginalized communities in the slum of the US and Brazil, exposing the poverty in both countries. For months, Life and O Cruzeiro accused each other back and forth about the legitimation of their stories.
In the end, the dispute shows us utter hypocrisy that aiding the marginalized community was never the sole goal in the first place. Rather than focusing on what matters, Life and O Cruzeiro sparked an outcry over public images of their respective countries. Nevertheless, it also demonstrates how powerful visuals can be in creating a moving story, hence a study on this domain is extremely important.
Cheryl L. Grady et al., Neural correlates of the episodic encoding of pictures and words, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, https://www.pnas.org/content/95/5/2703 (November 17, 2021).
Fernando de Tacca, O Cruzeiro versus Paris Match and Life Magazine: a specular game, in Libero, year IX, June 2006, n. 17, p. 63-71. Original title: O Cruzeiro versus Paris Match e Life Magazine: um jogo especular.
Gordon Parks, Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, in Life, June 16, 1961, p. 1-10.
Katherine Bussard, Kristen Gresh, Life Magazine and the Power of Photography, Yale University Press, London, 2020, p. 56-57.
Nancy Bernhard, U.S Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1999.
Laurence Butet-Roch, Gordon Parks, a Brazilian Child, and an Exposé that Shocked the World, in Aperture, https://aperture.org/editorial/gordon-parks-life-magazine/ (November 14, 2021).
Peter H. Smith, Talons of the eagle: dynamics of U.S.-Latin American relations, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996.