Can Poetry and Music Win Friends?

By 1938 the United States government realized that a nonintervention policy was not enough to build up a truly inter-American good neighborhood. We were all too ignorant of each other’s languages, history, customs, and objectives. Too many persons in this country were not sure whether a given nation was in South or Central America or an island in the Caribbean. Too many Latin Americans learned about us only through second-rate Hollywood movies. We were thought of as, at best, fast-living materialists without morals or culture; at worst, gangsters and irreligious heathen who got divorces as casually as we brushed our teeth.

It is true that the Pan American Union has been steadily improving relationships among all the American republics for over half a century. Its beautiful building in Washington, D. C., has provided a center for many significant economic, legal, and cultural developments. The Union has also served as the secretariat for the various Pan-American congresses that have become of increasing importance.

The Good Neighbor policy needed an underpinning of real knowledge if it was to stand firm, however, and the United States government therefore deliberately entered upon a program to help create this understanding. The Department of State established a Division of Cultural Relations to foster educational and scientific contacts, and an Interdepartmental Committee on Cooperation with the American Republics to mobilize all federal government agencies for this same end. Finally in 1940 President Roosevelt appointed Nelson Rockefeller as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to work out an over-all emergency program.

These agencies have assisted health and sanitation developments all over Latin America. They have improved road and air transportation, aided in developing new agricultural crops and improving others needed for the war effort, and assisted Latin America to build up its industries wherever possible to manufacture articles that could not be obtained abroad in wartime. In many other ways they helped to cushion the shock of war to Latin-American economies and to make Latin-American products more available for war purposes.

Besides taking these practical steps to satisfy immediate war needs, these agencies built for future understanding. Journalists, engineers, librarians, professors, doctors, and other technicians and professional leaders were brought to the United States to see this country at first hand and to visit with their colleagues. For most of these men and women it was their first glimpse of the “Colossus of the North.” They came to know us and our country as they lectured in universities, visited laboratories, and rubbed elbows with Americans in cafeterias.

Likewise, Americans went south on special missions, which unfortunately came to be called “good-will trips.” These often did generate good will—but weren’t so apt to when the North American visitors didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. More often, however, these Americans were trained technicians, professors, and scientists whose presence was welcomed by the Latin Americans because their knowledge and skill were helpful to the countries they visited. Our journalists and professors went to study their political and economic conditions, their history and culture, and returned to the United States to enlighten other Americans by speeches and writings.

Much attention was also paid in this country to arousing a permanent interest in Latin-American culture to provide a broad, popular basis for the Good Neighbor policy. School children by the thousands studied Spanish and lesser numbers tackled Portuguese. Meanwhile English classes mushroomed throughout Latin America. Their literature, music, and art were studied in adult forums, schools, and universities, and in thousands of our women’s clubs. We sent southward our books and art exhibits. The Yale Glee Club was a big hit in South America, and we established American libraries in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Uruguay so that our books and ideas would be readily available there.

Mistakes were made in working out this program, of course, since human beings directed it. We probably tried to do too much in too short a time. And there developed sometimes a rather superficial interest in things Latin American, which led to what some of our enemies called “Blah Blah Pan-Americanism.” But overshadowing all our efforts was the Axis menace, and we worked with one eye on the clock. Nevertheless, the final result is an honest achievement of which all Americans may well be proud.