50. Paper Prepared by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (Isenbergh)1

A National Cultural Policy

In his Inaugural Address, following upon Robert Frost’s prophecy of “a next Augustan age”2 the President called for encouragement of the arts and for a global alliance to “assure a more fruitful life for all mankind”.3 By this and other declarations, this administration has committed itself, before the country and the world, to cultural advancement as a major national aim. It will now want to address itself to fulfilling this commitment.

I. National and World Importance

That other great issues at home and abroad press upon the nation does not mean that this is the wrong moment to start. On the contrary, in times like these, the decisive national resources are courage and resolution, and nothing can add to these as well as the vision of a worthy goal beyond current crises and the sense of moving toward it despite stalemate or setback elsewhere.

At the least, therefore, a serious effort to improve the quality of American cultural life would be a boost to national morale. It would inevitably be more. It would confirm that in the endless striving for peace and material well-being, we have not lost sight of why we want them. And if it resulted, as thoughtfully and energetically carried out it surely could, in restoring the pursuit of happiness to the place it had in American thought and faith at the time of the Declaration of [Page 140] Independence, it would do no less than transform the national character and open, for the whole world to see, an exhilarating new chapter in the American Revolution for the nineteen sixties.

In our international relations, establishment of cultural advancement as a major aim of the United States could not fail to make us more effective. Among nations of like heritage and development, it would raise our standing as a leader; it would make the less developed nations think better of us as a model; and to the nations of the Soviet bloc, it would show devotion on our part to a humanism transcending political differences, a demonstration which holds more promise than any other approach tried thus far of bringing forth affirmative response from their side. Arts, letters, and learning are the only goods for which a world common market exists. In a world otherwise divided on fundamentals, this cultural common market has better prospect of thriving than any other institution of unifying tendency. If it does thrive, ties will be established among peoples as never before and a new force will be at work everywhere to make peace durable.

II. Main Elements of a Policy: Views of the Executive Branch

The foregoing observations provide the central premises of a national cultural4 policy: that cultural advancement is of crucial importance to the nation and the world; that it must now be recognized as a major national goal; and that, in setting priorities on expenditure of effort and resources, it must be treated accordingly.

For present purposes, it would be premature to put forward, however tentatively, a more detailed statement. The particulars of a national cultural policy should not be proposed a priori, but should emerge from assiduous study of a number of specific issues of which the attached list is illustrative. Before such a study is started, a sounding of opinion within the Executive Branch should be made to determine, first, whether the cultural policy just stated in broad outline is acceptable as a starting point, and second, whether the prospect of support [Page 141] is sufficiently good to justify further effort to work out the policy fully and put it into effect. If the response is positive, organizing for action is the immediate next step.

III. Organizing for Action

For a program of cultural advancement, the Executive Branch, which must be the moving force, is strong in the essentials: the President and Mrs. Kennedy, whose personal identification with arts, letters, and learning is universally known and respected, are ideally suited for leadership in this field; cultural leaders, able and willing to contribute ideas, advice, and effort have joined the Administration in good number; public reaction promises to be dominantly favorable; Congressional support seems to be getting stronger; and private citizens, organizations, business enterprises, labor unions, and foundations, as well as academic institutions, learned and professional societies, and religious groups can be counted upon to give their backing.

One lack within the Executive Branch is an administrative unit specially qualified to set this new departure in motion. The only agencies of the Federal Government officially invested with responsibilities in this field are the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department, the United States Information Agency, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. By the terms of their legislative mandates, State and USIA are concerned primarily with international cultural programs, and HEW with domestic. Moreover, the authorized activities of each fall within one or more strictly defined fields, with the consequence that none of the three can claim that by experience or statutory prescription it is the indicated instrument for launching a comprehensive program of cultural advancement. Nor could the three taken together. A first step should therefore be the establishment of a steering committee to lay out strategy and get the campaign under way.

The steering committee should have as few members as compatible with being broadly representative. It should be made up of individuals who both ex officio and as a matter of personal faith can be counted upon to work wholeheartedly. In addition to representatives of the White House, State, USIA, and HEW, it might draw from the following: the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Interior (esp. National Parks), the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation, and although it would mean going outside the strict confines of the Executive Branch, the Library of Congress. Without blinking the requirement of small size, it should remain open to such additional representatives of the Executive Branch as in the opinion of the members would increase its effectiveness. The task of the steering committee should be twofold: (1) to develop a comprehensive national cultural [Page 142] policy; and (2) to work out and set in motion a plan of action to put it into effect. The first specific objective of the committee should be tentative formulation of both the policy and the plan of action for review with the President. As soon afterwards as feasible, a conference of cultural and intellectual leaders should be called for the purpose of advancing the work of the committee and stirring public interest and support.5

An illustrative list of issues bearing on national cultural policy, for consideration by the committee, the conference, and all others concerned, is attached.6

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Schlesinger Papers, White House Files, Subject File 1961–1964, Box WH–16, National Cultural Policy 10/5/61–1/7/64 General. No classification marking. Drafted by Isenbergh on September 11. An unknown hand wrote “[9/15/61]” in the top right-hand corner of the paper. Schlesinger sent the paper to McMurrin under a September 15 covering memorandum, indicating that the paper would serve as “a basis for our discussion” on September 20. (Ibid.)
  2. Frost intended to deliver the poem “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” which contained the reference to the “next Augustan age,” but he could not see the text due to sun glare and instead recited one of his older poems “The Gift Outright.”
  3. In his inaugural address, the President stated: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?” (Public Papers: Kennedy, 1961, p. 2)
  4. It is in order to say what the term culture as used here means. Culture is not seen as something apart from life, a set of superficial adornments to add or take away, but as an element, infused and inseparable, of the main stream. It shows itself not just in museums, concert halls, theaters, and universities, but in homes, clothes, talk, cities, villages, parks, roads, packages, automobiles, gadgets, churches, radio, television, cemeteries, baseball stadiums—a list without end. Yet, in this context, culture must mean less than the whole complex of attainments, beliefs, traditions, excellences, and deficiencies which differentiate one nation from another. It may be enough for present purposes to say that culture is art, letters, and learning as distinguished from skill, didactic writing, and professional knowledge; that although, like the latter, it may be utilitarian as well, its distinguishing qualities are elevation and aesthetic value; that it is spiritual rather than materialistic; that it is an integral and pervasive element of human existence; and that it is the clearest and most direct expression of man’s aspirations and capacity. [Footnote is in the original.]
  5. In an October 16 memorandum to Schlesinger, Thomas Sorensen stated that “USIA is prepared to join State in recommending executive endorsement of the proposal to establish a steering committee within the Executive Branch, charged with the responsibility to develop a cultural policy and plan of action at the national level.” (Kennedy Library, Schlesinger Papers, White House Files, Subject File 1961–1964, Box WH–16, National Cultural Policy 10/5/61–1/7/64 General)
  6. Attached but not printed is a list entitled “Issues Bearing upon National Cultural Policy,” which Isenbergh drafted on September 11.