Cultural interchange is “fundamentally reciprocal” and “a matter of give and take. It means influencing and being influenced.” These were themes in a speech to the Public Affairs Institute of the University of Virginia on July 8, 1939, by the Assistant Chief of the Division of Cultural Relations of the Department of State, Charles A. Thomson. Strikingly, he spoke of “The Profits of Cultural Interchange.” Not “benefits,” but “profits.”
This bracing speech will interest all students of U.S. relations with the American republics. In the body of his speech, Thomson reviewed Latin American cultural influences on the United States – in painting, music, architecture, education, and popular arts, archaeology and medicine. More than 75 years ago, he especially expressed an optimistic regard for the prospects of “cultural interchange” with Mexico.
Historians will note how Thomson drew on the thinking of Walter Prescott Webb when he noted “the Great Plains were won for American life by techniques and instruments that had been borrowed originally from Mexico.” He also cited Herbert E. Bolton’s insight that U.S. history is “part of the epic of that ‘greater America’ which we share with the other nations of this hemisphere.”
Long before Americans integrated “diversity” into our national thinking and historical narratives, moreover, Thomson noted how Brazilian scholars were revaluing “the African contribution to that country’s development, somewhat similar in character to the reinterpretation of the role of the Indian in national culture which has taken place in Mexico.” This “may be of value to our students of social relations,” he said modestly.
The speech’s main theme, however, addressed the American tendency to assume that the U.S. will “pour out knowledge and enlightenment.” The excerpts from the speech that follow this introduction rather voiced a positive sense of mutuality as the State Department sought to be “an official agency serving as a clearinghouse for exchange of information and a center of coordination and cooperation” that would help strengthen “significant activities toward international understanding now carried on by colleges, universities, foundations, institutes, and other private agencies.” The tendency to view the United States as a benefactor nation still affects popular thinking about development and public diplomacy. Thomson’s emphases from 80 years ago – “influencing and being influenced” — are worth a fresh read.
In much of our thinking within this country concerning cultural exchange, emphasis is placed on what we can contribute to the other American republics. Generosity seemingly prevails over self-interest. It is complacently and perhaps all too easily assumed that the United States is equipped to pour out knowledge and enlightenment on the peoples of the south. There is much talk of the contributions which may be made to the other American republics by our teachers, writers, and technical experts, but little consideration of what gifts of value we may receive from their creative thinkers and artists.
Yet cultural interchange in its nature is fundamentally reciprocal. It is necessarily a matter of give and take. It means influencing and being influenced. If we have much of value to contribute to the other American republics, we also have much to receive.
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. . . the profits of cultural interchange are real. The future may bring them to us far more abundantly than has the past. Both the United States and other American republics remained colonies in the cultural sense long after their political bonds with the mother countries had been broken. We looked to Britain for our models and standards; the countries to the south looked to Spain and France. But now we and they are coming of age. Both of us are learning to stand on our own feet, and to have confidence in our own judgments as to what is good in intellectual and cultural achievement. We in this hemisphere are developing, some more slowly than others, a culture which is not borrowed from across the seas, or reflected from other and older nations, but which is our own, which is made in America. Therefore the time is ripe as it has never been before for exchange between the two Americas. In the past the east-west bonds linking both Americas to Europe have been strong. Neither of us would see those bonds weakened. But now the two Americas have something to give each other. The argosies of the spirit for this hemisphere may come from the south and north, as well as from the east and west.
Source: Charles A. Thomson, “The Profits of Cultural Interchange,” Department of State, Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 2, July 8, 1939. 26, 31. A hat tip to Matt Armstrong.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.