Author Q&A: The power of presidential language during the Cold War

Allison M. Prasch is an expert in language and how people — especially U.S. presidents — use words to persuade and present a certain image of U.S. democracy to audiences at home and abroad.

In the last nine years, Prasch traveled to four presidential libraries; accessed documents online; and visited locations in Europe to research the rhetoric — and the strategy behind that rhetoric — of five United States presidents who led during the Cold War. Her first book, “The World is Our Stage: The Global Rhetorical Presidency and the Cold War,” was published in January from the University of Chicago Press. She will discuss the book during an event later this month at Mystery to Me bookstore.

Q: Please start with a little about your background — you teach at UW-Madison?

A: I’m an assistant professor of Rhetoric, Politics and Culture at UW-Madison. I have been at UW-Madison since the fall of 2019. I got my M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Prior to UW-Madison, I was an assistant professor at Colorado State University for three years.

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Q: What led you to write the book?

A: I am a rhetorician by training, so I study how people use language to persuade the public — specifically in relation to U.S. presidents and foreign policy. For a very long time, people who were interested in writing and thinking about presidential rhetoric … would look at a speech as the president delivered it — such as FDR’s “Fireside Chat” after Pearl Harbor or Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” declaration in 1987 — and just examine the words that were uttered.

One of the things that always fascinated me was the relationship between the words that were spoken and the other aspects of their delivery. How did the words a president said interact with the places they traveled? How did the movement of their body … really change and shape how the public understands the presidency and foreign policy? As I moved out of graduate school, I wanted to pursue those questions, particularly as it pertained to the Cold War.

Q: So you weren’t just studying the speeches themselves, but where they were delivered and why?

A: Yes. Over the course of my research, I discovered that all U.S. presidents during the Cold War saw the act of traveling outside the U.S. as an explicit rhetorical strategy, a way to expand U.S. power and influence on the Cold War world stage. When U.S. officials were concerned about a growing Soviet influence in Latin America in the late 1950s, they suggested that Eisenhower do a 10-day tour of the region. After the Berlin Wall went up, Kennedy decided to visit West Berlin.

These were more than mere diplomatic visits. They were a way of making American influence abroad explicit — and made visible through the physical travel of the U.S. president. As I found these little archival tidbits, over many months of research trips, I was able to build an argument (that there was) a pattern of how presidents enacted foreign policy over the Cold War.

Q: What type of travel and research did you do?

A: I traveled to four of the five presidential archives: Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan. The Kennedy Library in Boston is probably the most advanced in terms of the collections they have online (so I was able to) work with archivists to get PDFs (of needed documents). I also did field work in Europe related to Truman’s visit to Potsdam (Germany), Kennedy’s visit to Berlin (Germany), and Reagan’s visit to Normandy (France).

Q: How challenging was it to piece together the details of these travel timelines?

A: I chose these case studies very specifically to demonstrate how the strategy of “going global” worked at different times during the Cold War. Once I zeroed in on these case studies, one of the challenges was to account for a variety of different offices, staff members and moments in time.

For example, when you go to the Nixon Library to re-create Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, you’re looking at the speech writers’ (documents), State Department (documents) and declassified CIA documents, in addition to the briefing books put together for Nixon’s own use. You’re working across dozens if not hundreds of different archival collections. The job of the researcher is to know enough … to pull those documents and then read and re-create (the situation). It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.

Q: Did anything in your research surprise you?

A: I think for me, one of the most surprising and troubling things I discovered … and to see it in the level of archival detail that I did … is when we think of a Cold War narrative, there is very much this idea of the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. Democracy versus communism. There were so many other things going on motivating U.S. actions abroad. It was an attempt to sell an image of the U.S. to an international and domestic public. As I detail in the book, there were moments in which various presidents were presented with an opportunity: Are we going to advocate for civil rights in the U.S. or sell a sanitized image of the U.S. abroad?

For example, in early 1963, the White House had to decide if Kennedy would travel to West Berlin or stay in the United States to respond to the Birmingham Campaign (in May 1963). There is this exchange between senior White House officials, State Department officials and Kennedy himself about whether he should intervene on the issue of civil rights at home or focus on cultivating his image as a “world leader.” The choice was that stark. And he chose to go to West Berlin. That’s just one really clear example, but you can see it across case studies.

Q: How does this put into perspective the actions we see from leaders today?

A: I think it’s an opportunity within our contemporary moment to think about how sometimes we think about foreign policy as neutral even in terms of how the United States acts. All foreign policy decisions are always motivated in some way by a desire to project a certain image of the nation at home and abroad. We may not see it until 20 or 30 years later. For example, much of the documentation from the Kennedy administration was only made available in the ‘90s. I think it shows us the nuance and complexities of how foreign policy gets made.

Q: What might the average history buff find surprising about these presidential trips during the Cold War?

A: I think one of the things that I really tried to do when writing this book was appeal to a general audience, but fascinate (readers) by these intricacies of a bigger story. When we think about the Cold War, we think about espionage, prisoner exchanges, or the mechanics of spy craft. One of the things that I found was that U.S. presidents … very much understood that the words they used and actions they took had incredible power to shape public perception and contribute to how the public understood the United States’ role in the Cold War world. And they cared about audiences in the United States and audiences overseas. They were exceptionally deliberate about contributing to that narrative.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how these tours overseas were very much designed for an international audience. They are also seeking to craft a narrative of U.S. national identity that allowed the U.S. public to see themselves as part of fighting for democracy and freedom. It was incredibly calculated. When Reagan went to Normandy, for example, he wanted to help the U.S. public connect the events of D-Day to the ongoing Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1984.

As a presidential scholar, it is sometimes difficult to make claims about what a president hoped to accomplish. Thanks to recently declassified archival documents, however, I was able to make arguments about these end goals. There is a lot about intent and design that my book documents. You’re able to make arguments literally from the archives about what they were planning to accomplish.

Q: After this project, do you plan to write another book?

A: Yes! I’m currently writing a history of the rhetorical construction and spatial design of Washington, D.C. In particular, I focus on the relationship between the city’s location (geographical and topographical) and the racial politics of the new nation. Why is it, for example, that Washington, D.C., was built between two slave-holding states (Virginia and Maryland) with direct access to waterways that made the trade of tobacco, cotton and enslaved persons possible? We often think about Washington, D.C., as this embodiment of freedom and democracy. But the city was literally built by and upon the institution of slavery and anti-Black racism. If you walk on the National Mall and see landmarks to Jefferson and Washington, you might not know that this space was also once the site of a slave market.

In this new book, I ask how we first acknowledge and then reconcile that history. This summer, I’ll be taking a research trip to Washington, D.C., to work in the National Archives and Library of Congress to continue the project. In many ways, this new book is asking similar questions to those I pursued in “The World is Our Stage.” But where my first book analyzed how rhetorical strategies of movement, place and embodiment influenced the Cold War global order, my second one asks how U.S. politicians approached the spatial design and physical construction of Washington, D.C., as an opportunity to create, as French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant put it to President George Washington, the “capital of an extensive empire.”

“… All U.S. presidents during the Cold War saw the act of traveling outside the U.S. as an explicit rhetorical strategy, a way to expand U.S. power and influence on the Cold War world stage.”