Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2023, ISBN: 9781487518721; 339pp.; Price: £50.00
University of Birmingham
Date accessed: 28 February, 2024
Historians of the Cold War have long relished the incongruous image of the infamous July 1959 ‘Kitchen Debate’ that saw Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon debate the merits of their respective philosophies in a model American kitchen at the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokol’niki Park. While Nixon extolled the benefits of American consumerism which had produced an Aladdin’s Cave of labour-saving devices to make life easier for housewives, Khrushchev dismissed these innovations as decadent trinkets designed to mask how capitalism kept women shackled to the hearth. Diana Cucuz’s excellent monograph Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds: Selling Cold War Culture in the US and USSR makes the compelling case that the Kitchen Debate was far from anomalous — gender, consumerism, and women’s aspirations were all crucial battlegrounds in the US-Soviet ideological conflict.
In the years between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the onset of Nixonian détente in the early 1970s, American propagandists hoped to reach the hearts and minds of Soviet women by showing them idealised images of their American sisters. Cucuz tells this story through an in-depth analysis of Amerika, a Russian-language propaganda magazine that was first distributed within the Soviet Union by the State Department between 1945 and 1952 and then much more successfully between 1956 and 1994 by the United States Information Agency (USIA). The second iteration of Amerika reflected the increasing sophistication of American psychological warfare under the Eisenhower administration. Established by Eisenhower in 1953, the USIA sought to rebut Soviet propaganda while cultivating a benevolent image of the United States. The two central tenets of its Soviet information programme were ‘to reach Russian citizens in order to convey broad information and ideas about American democratic values’ and to ‘expose these citizens, particularly women, to the American ‘way of life’ and consumer culture so they could develop a favourable view of the United States.’ (p. 6) Amerika was deliberately designed to mirror the glossy lifestyle magazines that were so popular in the postwar United States. Within its pages, Soviet readers encountered an entrancing mirage of American life populated by citizen-consumers who were able to enjoy the ‘special privilege’ of a lifestyle centred on home and family thanks to ‘The American Way’: which synergised the freedom of liberal democracy with the abundance of a vibrant consumer economy.
Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds is the latest history to illuminate the Cold War through the lens of gender. Elaine Tyler May’s 1988 monograph Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era introduced the idea of ‘Domestic containment’ to argue that the cultural reinforcement of patriarchal gender roles that followed the end of the Second World War was not a return to ‘tradition’, but rather a deliberate construction that was informed by a context of Cold War insecurity.(1) Subsequently, historians have analysed the masculine worldview that informed how the first generation of Cold Warriors waged their anti-communist crusade as well as how fatherhood and childhood were weaponised within Cold War rhetoric.(2) A recent edited collection, Gender, Sexuality and the Cold War: A Global Perspective brought this approach to bear on the Global Cold War, illuminating how masculinity, femininity, and heteronormativity informed the struggle between communism and capitalism in spaces as diverse as Iceland, India, Berlin, and Brazil.(3) By exploring gendered images of consumerism in Cold War propaganda, Cucuz connects the approach pioneered by Homeward Bound to the global history of American consumerism exemplified by Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: Selling American Economic and Cultural Expansion: 1890-1945.(4) In doing so, she emphasises that ‘domestic containment’ was not merely a domestic phenomenon, it was exported transnationally through American public diplomacy.
Cucuz begins by analysing how the Ladies’ Home Journal, the leading US women’s magazine of the 1950s, reproduced an ideal of American womanhood for domestic audiences that the feminist author Betty Friedan would later criticise as that of the ‘happy housewife heroine’ (p. 25). Through articles, editorials, makeover features, advice columns, fashion spreads, and recipes, the Journal consistently linked a woman’s worth to her success as a wife and homemaker. The magazine also articulated a political vision that asserted that America’s unique combination of democracy, free enterprise, and consumer abundance enabled a woman to enjoy the ‘special privileges’ of traditional gender roles, unencumbered by the demands of paid employment. For all that it glorified hearth and home, the Journal did not argue for female seclusion. Central to the magazine’s vision of the American Way was an engaged citizenry and its readers were urged to take an active part in civic affairs lest the nation fail to resist communism through apathy or decadence. (p. 43) The modern woman found in the pages of the Journal formed the prototype for the ideal exported to the USSR in Amerika. The first chapter highlights what a rich source the Ladies’ Home Journal is for historians of American political culture; Cucuz contrasts the Journal’s skilful hidden persuasion with the blunt editorialising of Life, the best-selling pictorial weekly, ‘Life lectured American readers, but the Journal addressed them, calling itself ‘the magazine women believed in’. (p. 28)
Chapter 2 argues that the Journal constructed an image of Soviet women as benighted and pitiable to solidify its image of idealised American womanhood. While American women enjoyed the ‘special privilege’ of a life centred on home and family, Soviet women suffered under ‘special hardships’ of being simultaneously forced to work and being denied the opportunity to cultivate their natural femininity. (p. 53) Cold Warriors seized on this idea to portray communism as an unnatural system that contorted women into men in its perverse quest to perfect humanity. A 1948 tour of the USSR that the Journal arranged for photojournalist Robert Capa and writer John Steinbeck set the tone for Cold War portrayals of Soviet women that were simultaneously moving and patronising. (p. 62) The Journal depicted Soviet women as bent-backed ‘Babushkas’, shabbily dressed in ill-fitting, mannish clothes, exhausted and prematurely aged by the hardships of toiling in traditionally masculine workplaces like construction sites and factories. In detailing how this image of the babushka functioned as a Cold War ‘Other’, Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds builds on Robert Griswold’s article on American perceptions of Soviet women, ‘Russian Blonde in Space’.(5) Cucuz’s focus is less on how American observers sought to categorise individual women like Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova or Nina Khrushcheva and more on how an image of Soviet female victimhood was constructed to encourage American women to count their blessings. The Journal’s fixation on the plight of ordinary Soviet women served to humanise the Russian people while denouncing the communist system they lived under.
American propagandists were canny enough to realise that Soviet women might resent being caricatured as miserable babushkas so, when it came to selling the American way abroad, the USIA used Amerika to convey an idealised image of middle-class American womanhood. This upbeat depiction emphasised the American Way’s role in helping its female citizens live meaningful and fulfilling lives as mothers, wives, and consumers. Aside from a few notable exceptions, this image was also overwhelmingly white. African American women were largely ignored by Amerika during the 1950s for fear of drawing attention to the United States’ abysmal treatment of racial minorities. (p. 117) A 1959 USIA paper noted that this image was partly dedicated to rebutting ‘distortions’ from Soviet propaganda that portrayed the American woman as an ‘irresponsible glamour girl’ or an ‘unfeminine materialistic being whose interest in her life was her job’. The paper also related how the USIA hoped to popularise a more accurate image of American womanhood ‘characterised by devotion to family, womanliness and industriousness’. (p. 99) The first iteration of Amerika was published between 1945 and 1952 and was phenomenally popular with Russian readers, only to founder as US-Soviet tensions rose with the onset of the Cold War. The magazine was resurrected by the Eisenhower administration and published through the USIA in 1956. In keeping with the cautious expansion of US-Soviet ties that followed the Geneva Summit of that year and Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’, an agreement was signed that led to the Russian-language Amerika being distributed in the USSR and an English-language Soviet equivalent USSR (later renamed Soviet Life) being distributed in the US. Amerika was one of three channels through which the US sought to reach the Russian people, alongside the Voice of America radio station and international expositions like the one held in Sokol’niki Park in 1959. The Voice of America was vulnerable to jamming during times of increased superpower tensions and, while expositions had a profound impact on attendees, this was invariably a small fraction of the Soviet population. Contextualising the magazine within the Eisenhower administration’s propaganda and diplomacy strategy, Cucuz convincingly argues that
‘Amerika’s importance cannot be understated because it was the sole vehicle by which the USIA could advertise widely and consistently to Russian women the benefits of American gender norms and consumer culture’. (p. 118)
The real highlight of Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds is Cucuz’s analysis of Amerika’s attempts to appeal to increasingly demanding Soviet consumers during Khrushchev’s tenure as Soviet leader. Chapter 4, ‘Modelling the American Dream’, and Chapter 5, ‘Living the American Dream’, showcase Cucuz’s skill at deftly weaving together well-chosen primary material with arguments from the secondary literatures on Soviet consumerism and American public diplomacy. These chapters detail how vibrant images of American women modelling seasonal fashions and enjoying the convenience of modern electrical appliances or suburban shopping developments created an enchanting image of a society predicated on freedom of choice. through this focus, Cucuz provides a fascinating transnational case study to augment the growing literature on Soviet fashion and that which uses domestic appliances as artefacts through which to explore the cultural Cold War.(6) Amerika forged a direct conduit to the Soviet people by encouraging Russian women to emulate not just American fashions but the American way of consumerist individualism. Cucuz contends that subtly encouraging Soviet women to think of themselves as consumers was a major Cold War victory for the West. (p. 145) Images and descriptions of modern kitchens were used to exemplify more than just American technological supremacy. High tech domestic appliances testified to the moral benevolence of a system that liberated women through labour-saving technology, allowing them to live more fulfilling lives as wives and mothers. While Soviet women may have viewed Amerika’s gender ideology with some scepticism, they could not help but be affected by its visions of plenty.
Amerika’s romanticised image of American womanhood was an airbrushed creation that grew less grounded in reality with each passing year. Chapter 6 analyses Amerika’s ambiguous response to the growing influence of Second Wave Feminism and its questioning of traditional gender roles. In marked contrast to the magazine’s increasing coverage of the Civil Rights movement as the decade progressed, Amerika chose to ignore the feminist movement. ‘Happy housewife heroines’ appeared in the magazine less frequently, though this was because articles on women in general declined across the decade. By contrast, Amerika’s Soviet counterpart trumpeted the gender equality that supposedly existed under the socialist system. A special issue on Soviet women in 1962 boasted of the USSR’s unique commitment to female emancipation: ‘it is simpler by far to offer a woman a seat in a bus than in a national legislature…’, the first was merely the mark of a ‘well-bred person’, the second was the true measure of ‘the “gallantry” of a society’ (pp. 189-191) The chapter’s second half relates how Amerika belatedly responded with its own special issue on American womanhood in March 1971 which dealt with topics like changing roles and expectations, feminism, female employment, and divorce. Taking its cues from the Ladies’ Home Journal, Amerika treated the new feminism with caution; an article by the anthropologist Margaret Mead ‘appeared to absolve the government of its long-entrenched role in perpetuating gender inequality’. (p. 201) While hardly radical by the standards of contemporaneous feminist activism, this was still a major reversal from its previous glorification of domestic containment.
Cucuz contends that Khrushchev’s failed attempt to reconcile the abundance and choice of Western consumerism with the Soviet planned economy demonstrates ‘that women, gender, and consumption were integral to international relations’ (p. 223). Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds does a good job of detailing how Amerika fits into this bigger picture, but it did leave me wanting more direct evidence of how its female readership responded to the magazine. Cucuz’s focus is firmly on contextualising and analysing the images that the United States sought to transmit, on the message and the medium rather than on the audience. It is only during the conclusion that Cucuz devotes sustained analysis to how Amerika and the broader charm offensive that it represented were received by Soviet women. Due to her reliance on US archives, much of Cucuz’s analysis of Soviet responses to Amerika comes from her expansive knowledge of the secondary literature on Soviet consumerism and social history. Further evidence of the magazine’s success can be seen in the decision to create similar publications targeting Poland and Yugoslavia.
However, none of this material resonates in quite the same way as the tantalising glimpses of Amerika’s magnetic effect on its Soviet readership that we get from the archives. In a 1950 memo, a US diplomat recounted a ‘cultured’ woman from Leningrad who was so captivated by the magazine and its articles on American women that she was reluctant to hand it back to him and later sought him out to request more copies, and of a group of young Soviets who declared the magazine ‘too good to be true’. (p. 213) The conclusion left me yearning for more such stories of how Soviet readers encountered, interpreted, and internalised Amerika’s message, of how issues were passed from hand to hand, and the emotions that were roused by the magazine’s window to another world. While Amerika outlived the Cold War and only ceased publication in 1994, Cucuz’s narrative ends with the March 1971 special issue on American women. I was left curious about what happened next: how did Amerika weather the turbulent two decades between 1971 and 1991? Did the 1971 issue really banish the ghost of the happy housewife heroine for good? How did gendered images of consumerism influence American outreach to Soviet citizens during détente, the so-called ‘second Cold War’ of the early 1980s, and Gorbachev’s glasnost?
That the book left me eager for more testifies to the fact Cucuz has identified a rich seam for further scholarship. There are times where the prevailing scholarly orthodoxy of the ‘Global Cold War’ can feel like diplomatic history as it was practiced before the Cultural Turn. Historians deploy governmental memoranda to track high-level actors trundling from summit to summit and crisis to crisis, with the main innovation being that the bureaucrats and statesmen being chronicled are from anywhere but Washington or Moscow. Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds bucks this trend by taking culture seriously as it uses gender to better integrate histories of public diplomacy with global histories of capitalism and consumerism. Furthermore, in detailing how Amerika’s idealised images of American womanhood encouraged Soviet consumerism, Cucuz provides a compelling example of the glacial power of public diplomacy. It might take decades for the effects of cultural outreach campaigns to become fully apparent but such efforts can totally reshape the political landscape. With US-Russian relations arguably as frosty as they were in the late 1950s, if not worse, this is an important story to tell.
- Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988)Back to (1)
- Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst, MA: 2001); Frank Costigliola, ‘“Unceasing Pressure for Penetration”: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War’ (1997) 83,4, 1309-1339; Thomas Bishop, Every Home a Fortress: Cold War Fatherhood and the Family Fallout Shelter (Amherst, 2020); Margaret Peacock, Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: 2016)Back to (2)
- 3. Philip E Muehlenbeck, ed, Gender Sexuality and the Cold War: A Global Perspective (Nashville, 2017)Back to (3)
- 4. Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: Selling American Economic and Cultural Expansion: 1890-1945 (New York, 1982)Back to (4)
- 5. Robert L. Griswold ‘“Russian Blonde in Space”: Soviet Women in the American Imagination, 1950-1965’ Journal of Social History (2012) 45,4, 881-907Back to (5)
- 6. Djurdja Bartlett, Fashion East: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Cambridge, MA, 2010); Jukka Gronow and Sergey Zhuravlev, Fashion Meets Socialism: Fashion Industry in the Soviet Union after the Second World War (Helsinki, 2015); Stephanie Amerian, ‘The Fashion Gap: The Cold War Politics of American and Soviet Fashion’ Journal of Historical Research in Marketing (2016) 8,1, 65-82; Natalya Chernyshova, Soviet Consumer Culture in the Brezhnev Era (Abingdon, 2013); Ruth Oldenziel & Karin Zachmann, eds, Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology and European Users (Cambridge, MA, 2011); Kate A. Baldwin, The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen: From Sokol’niki Park to Chicago’s Southside (Lebanon, NH, 2015)Back to (6)
I am very grateful to Dr Thomas Ellis for providing such a thoughtful review of my monograph, Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds: Selling Cold War Culture in the US and the USSR. He thoroughly explains its central tenets, the goals of America’s overseas information program in the Soviet Union during the early Cold War era, and elaborates on my use of the rarely discussed Amerika magazine, as a core component of that program, when it was reissued beginning in 1956. In writing on the Cold War through the not often enough discussed lens of gender and consumption, I am honored to be part of a community of historians of cultural diplomacy, both female (and male!), whose work has shaped my own, several of whom Ellis notes.
I appreciate the thoroughness of Ellis’s review. What I appreciate most are his final paragraphs. This is where he insightfully articulates potential avenues of future research, each of which I wholeheartedly agree would be fruitful. First, he articulates an interest in seeing more stories of how Russian readers encountered, interpreted, and internalized Amerika, and its clearly Westernized (and often biased) messages and images. As a Canadian historian writing on American foreign policy I intentionally focused on the American overseas information program, Western interpretations of Russian women, and how it attempted to sway these women towards a supposedly superior way of life. Part of my approach was practical. For example, in speaking with the lead archivist at the National Archives at College Park, in Maryland, I was told that Amerika’s records were quite literally on the verge of being shredded before they were “rescued’ at the last minute. Unfortunately, within American archives (and Presidential Libraries), stories of Russian women’s responses to Amerika were difficult to obtain. The sources I did find that described Russian women’s responses to Amerika were akin to finding a pot of gold. They were extremely fascinating to read. This is an unfortunate testament to the fact that cultural records are rarely taken as seriously as those of a political or military nature—although times are fortunately changing. Aware of the limitations of these archives, and my great interest in print culture, my approach was to discuss Amerika from a U.S. perspective, rather than exploring a fulsome Russian reaction, even if I wish I could have. Letters and responses to the magazine may exist in Russian-based archives, and this would be an interesting avenue of further research. Whether positive or negative, they would certainly contribute to a thorough analysis of the impact of Amerika on Russian women, their access to the magazine, and their thoughts and interpretations.
Second, Ellis also expresses a curiosity about the nature of the magazine after 1971, when my analysis ends. I have received this comment on many occasions. My logic for concluding my study at this point (with a sizeable gap during the 1960s) was that during this year the magazine’s editors created what I believe to be a pinnacle issue, at least in relation to women’s rights. This issue was one that finally contained a “special report” on the feminist movement, after years of neglecting this subject matter. I agree with Ellis. The years beyond 1971 to the end of Amerika’s existence in 1994 would provide a fascinating case study on its relationship to gender and the Cold War. The 1980s would be of particular interest, when the women’s rights movement stagnated, but the Cold War escalated under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, as would the 1950s, when we witnessed a veneration of women’s traditional roles during a heightened conservative era. During these periods, how avidly were women’s roles, and the Cold War, reflected in Amerika, or in other U.S. cultural pursuits in relation to the Soviet Union? This question highlights another area to be further explored, namely the many national exhibitions, 23 in total, that the U.S. organized from 1959 to 1991. In each of these exhibitions, with the exception of the 1959 American National Exhibition, known for its “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, Amerika was banned. This is a testament to the impact of this magazine, particularly amongst women. As Ellis articulates, and regardless of how we refer to it, the statement remains the same: public diplomacy, or cultural diplomacy, or propaganda, or soft power, can and should be explored further for its larger impact on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and should be studied in conjunction with political and military might in inciting that collapse. Each of these aspects is important. To this I ask, perhaps this is the subject of a future book? One which I look forward to pursuing, as I hope other researchers do as well. Thank you, Dr Ellis for your thoughtful review, and important insights.