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Relations between the USA and Franco’s Spain form an aspect of Cold War history and a key element of the Spanish regime’s foreign policy, and also provide an interesting case study for assessing the role of so-called «public diplomacy» in international history. Distinct from propaganda, public diplomacy, as Nicolas Cull and Francisco Javier Rodríguez Jiménez explain in their introduction to this collection of essays on the topic, is a long-term strategy of engagement that cultivates dialogue and seeks mutual understanding.

The stated aim of American public diplomacy during the Cold War was to promote democracy abroad, a national project that dated in some measure back to the early days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams differed over whether the USA should actively seek to export democracy or concentrate on building a shining example of popular self-government for others to follow if they wished. In his chapter on American democracy promotion during the Cold War, Nicolas Cull brings this foundational debate into the twentieth century. As the US rose to global hegemony, promoting democracy abroad became, depending on one’s perspective, either a direct security concern or a moral legitimation of American military and economic power. Whereas private philanthropies had been the main democracy promoters in earlier periods, the American government became increasingly active after World War II. As Soviet Communism learned to command mass appeal in many countries, America’s institutions of public diplomacy reckoned with numerous contradictions arising from the fact that popular self-determination did not necessarily lead to American-style liberal democracy.

The book’s remaining chapters deal with one of those contradictions, the American relationship with Franco’s dictatorship. The editors shrewdly include a chapter on the wider context of American geopolitical interest in Spain by Rosa Pardo Sanz, a specialist on Spanish international relations in this period. Pardo Sanz outlines how the Iberian nations fit into America’s grand strategy throughout the Cold War, arguing that the security gained through American patronage helped nudge the two dictatorships toward institutional and economic modernization, but at the cost of repression and a certain anti-American backlash in civil society.

Pardo Sanz’s essay effectively sets up the book’s central question of whether American support worked to promote democratization or to consolidate authoritarian regimes. The American foreign policy establishment sought to resolve this paradox in the 1960s with the concept of modernization theory, a sort of mirror image of the Soviet «people’s democracy» concept, holding that nations must pass through intermediate phases of before reaching the highest level of socio-political development. In the American case, Washington developed several cultural and academic institutions to exert «low-profile and long-range» influence to modernize Spanish society on pro-American lines (p. 85). Chapters by Lorenzo Delgado Gómez-Escalonilla, Pablo León-Aguinaga, Rodríguez Jiménez, and Neal M. Rosendorf examine several of these initiatives. These included the Fulbright program, the production of Hollywood films, the promotion of American Studies as an academic discipline, and the deployment of official media and information services to convey American politics and current events to the Spanish public in a favorable light. As the Americans sought to cast themselves as benevolent patrons, Rosendorf observes that the Franco regime also initiated an international branding effort as early as the mid-1950s, based on the three pillars of tourism, cinema, and conventional public relations. In a separate chapter, American Ambassador Mark Asquino offers a short memoir of his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid in late 1975 and as director of the US Cultural Center in 1982, in which he recalls the emphasis on dialogue and exchange. Asquino recalls leading students in the unfamiliar activity of discussing politics openly in the classroom. Later, four luminaries of contemporary American bluegrass (whose music this reviewer, incidentally, has long enjoyed) performed for and did workshops with young Spaniards.

For historians and policy makers alike, the efficacy of public diplomacy is notoriously difficult to measure. Some of the contributors argue that American efforts acted as a crucial palliative to the anti-American propaganda that dominated much of European cultural life throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but faltered in the early 1970s. Escalation of the Vietnam War necessitated major reductions in the budget for American cultural diplomacy and reinforced anti-American attitudes during the critical years before Franco’s death. Summarizing the contributors’ findings, Delgado Gómez-Escalonilla concludes that American public diplomacy succeeded in encouraging convergence with Western European social, cultural, and economic norms, but did not broadly inspire Spaniards to embrace American-style democratic values per se. This assertion seems quite valid, but also calls attention to the problem, common to all forms of cultural history, of gauging reception. The book explores many patterns and trends among the producers of cultural diplomacy, but its collective format prevents individual authors from engaging deep, systematic study of how and to what extent Spaniards actually consumed them, beyond a few anecdotes and responses by individual officials.

It would be more just, however, to evaluate this book on its stated aim to bring together multiple historiographical strands – the history of American public diplomacy, the origins of democratic Spain, and the relationship between democracy promotion and informal empire – into a single conceptual frame. Readers will gain a thorough and informed idea of the forms public diplomacy can take and the methods available to historians to research them. The book also succeeds in demonstrating that cultural and public diplomacy are inseparable from the broader thrust of US-Spain relations during the Cold War. The book will moreover be useful to scholars of public diplomacy more generally, gesturing toward useful methodologies for framing studies in «soft power» beyond the Iberian Cold-War conjuncture.