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The Sea Chanters - Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, 1961

The Sea Chanters in Berlin

“…you see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts, but it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise.”

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 20 Sept. 1785


On January 23rd and 24th, The United States Navy Band will join the Kennedy Center in honoring the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration by presenting the program, “John F. Kennedy: Celebrating Fifty years of Diplomacy Through Culture”. This program will highlight the Navy Band’s contribution to our nation’s diplomacy during the Cold War.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, America has relied upon our cultural riches to enhance international diplomatic relationships. According to a 2005 State Department Advisory Committee report on cultural diplomacy, “America’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership.”  Further, cultural diplomacy can “counterbalance misunderstanding, hatred, and terrorism.” As military musicians, we know first-hand the power of these words. The spread of cultural richness is one function military music plays in the defense of our democracy throughout the world. This was never more true than during the Cold War. From 1948-1991, members of the Navy Band travelled throughout the United States, South America and Europe, performing for millions while playing their part in the advancement our national diplomatic interests. The Sea Chanters performing in Berlin in 1961

One such Cold War mission occurred on December 1961, when 29 members of the United States Navy Band were sent to West Berlin to participate in a series of concerts sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA, led at the time by Edward R. Murrow, was charged with influencing a positive image of the United States overseas. It accomplished this mission through propaganda campaigns that included motion pictures, television and radio broadcasts, funding of libraries, arts exchanges, etc. The USIA’s main goal at this time was to thwart the spread of communism and counter the negative propaganda created by the Soviet government.

The catalyst for this particular Navy Band Cold War mission began on June 24, 1961. In his first months as president, John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit. In a strong response to a war threat made by Khrushchev, Kennedy stated, “Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a long, cold winter.” A few months later the Berlin Wall was constructed and the battle lines were effectively drawn.

With tensions running high, it became absolutely necessary that a positive diplomatic message be sent throughout the Eastern Bloc countries. To do this the State Department and the USIA turned to the United States Navy Band. A USIA letter to the band stated that Berlin had requested a “first-rank American choir” to participate in a special “Berlin Christmas” broadcast. The Sea Chanters, formed in 1956, had already established an international reputation and were perfect for the task at hand.  

On December 20th, members of the Navy Band including the Sea Chanters, a small jazz combo, vocalist Ben Mitchell Morris, and Harmonica soloist Dick Bain, departed for West Berlin. Over the next four days these musicians performed a dozen special concerts for American military personnel, German civilian groups, hospital patients, and radio broadcast audiences.

Recently, Sea Chanter alumnus, Sam Lowe, offered the following recollections,

“We were billeted at the Berlin Hotel. Over the next several days we made the usual rounds of singing at hospitals, military installations, and other venues. We were taken on several bus tours of the city, East Berlin, which we entered and left through Checkpoint Charlie. West Berlin had been largely rebuilt by then and was a lively, festive place, brightly decorated for Christmas. East Berlin was for the most part rubble. The only Christmas decoration was a pitiful string of lights on the sign of a small shop. That section of the city was almost completely dark. The Russians used buildings, with the windows and doors bricked in, as part of the wall. One of the most moving sights on the trip was a Bible that one of the masons had mortared in as a brick in one of the windows.

We were encouraged to go into East Berlin often to establish that, although the Russians had cut it off from the West by the wall, the Eastern Zone was still occupied in part by the Allies, and American military personnel had the right to access the entire city. ”

The trip culminated in a very special 90 minute “television spectacular.” Taped on December 23rd, this concert featured the Sea Chanters, the famous American contralto Marian Anderson, The Oberkirchen Boys Choir, The St. Hedwig Cathedral Choir, The Berlin Radio Orchestra, Cardinal Spellman of New York, and taped messages from President Kennedy, British Prime Minster Harold McMillan, and French President Charles De Gaulle. This live broadcast was telecast throughout Germany and fed to the Eurovision TV Network. With an estimated audience of over 200 million viewers, including an estimated several million viewers in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, the Sea Chanters performed brilliantly and were an integral part to the success of this mission.

It is difficult to judge the importance of this type of cultural diplomacy. What is definite, however, is that the members of the Navy Band distinguished themselves by projecting a positive American image at a time of heightened Cold War tensions. This is a legacy that the men and women of the Navy Band have proudly maintained.

“I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well."

– John F. Kennedy