in the New York World's Fair 1964-1965

Prologue


The basic purpose of the Fair is to help achieve 'Peace Through Understanding,' that is, to assist in educating the peoples of the world as to the interdependence of nations and the need for universal and lasting peace.

-Invitation of Foreign Nations to the New York World's Fair 1964-19651

 

What aspirations. This was not just the building of a park. This was not just convenient product placement. This was not just fun. This Fair took on meaning much greater than could be weighed in tons of steel and counted in sales of tickets. This was destined to be an "Olympics of Progress," a playground on which the bullies played on the same team as the skinny nerds, and everybody won. The New York World's Fair of 1964-1965 was going to bring the world together, bridge cultural gaps and celebrate "man's achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe."2 The Fair Corporation was a private non-profit company independent of the United States government, but in true American fashion it absorbed contemporary American ideals and imposed them upon participants and visitors alike. Ideals, however, could only take the Fair so far in an age of Cold War marked by nuclear threats, social uprisings and third-world suffering. What resulted in 1964 and 1965 was a fantasyland in which cooperation and brotherhood were smudged with the thumbprint of Cold War politics, the very circumstance that prompted the idealism of the Fair and created the need for such an event in the first place.

Visions of peace and progress have been part of world's fairs since the popularization
of modern fairs in 1851. Kenneth Luckhurst, in The Story of Exhibitions, chronicles the rise of fairs from their roots as trade markets of the Middle Ages in which the exchange between exhibitor and visitor created long-lasting effects.
3 Britain was the first nation to change the formula and hold an industrial exhibition, with France soon to follow. The two nations used exhibitions initially as a tool in their political rivalry during the eighteenth century. Both nations' exhibitions boasted of their respective achievements in the world spotlight. By the mid-nineteenth century, the scope of these exhibitions expanded. They "assumed an international character" and were "the means of ushering in an established and universal peace."4

It was about this time that the modern state system was fully established in the Western world, and exhibitions became important within this context. Nations worked to create an individual image of military, commercial and cultural strength in a competitive system. London's Crystal Palace of 1851 brought the emergent form of cultural competition to the world stage-the world's fair.

London's Crystal Palace of 1851*
London's Crystal Palace of 1851

The United States was quick to follow London with its own fair. The New York Crystal Palace of 1853 established the non-governmental approach to fair planning in the United States. The government only specified the building materials and the admission price. President Franklin Pierce, however, expressed his hope that the Fair would be useful in unifying the nation in a time of divisiveness. Instead, the Fair lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and was a pronounced failure. Five years later, the Crystal Palace burned to the ground, along with the motivation to bring the nation together with a fair for years to come.5

Fairs in the United States after the Civil War had a largely international focus, with
America's role in the world at the heart of them. According to Robert W. Rydell in All the World's a Fair, the American fairs of the Victorian Era dealt with the imperialistic urges of the reunited nation. The fairs in this time period were planned by city elites. They exhibited progress by emphasizing racial hierarchies alongside man's elevation from savagery to civilization. Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, for example, commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Western Hemisphere. Notions of discovery and expansion as inherently American ideals pervaded this Fair, uniting middle class citizens behind white supremacist and imperialist ambitions. Such ideologies helped relieve the concerns of visitors about the problems and hard times that lay beyond the gates of the Fair. From this point forward, fairs in America had the purpose of easing the tensions of the world in the minds of visitors.
6

After the devastation of World War I and the Depression, fairs in the United States
once again acted as tools for domestic reconstruction. Known as the Century-of-Progress exhibitions, these fairs were useful in restoring "popular faith in national progress." These fairs focused significant attention on the ways of modernizing American society in order to cope with the future.
7

Fairs both in the United States and abroad became more international in spirit following World War II. They emphasized the idea of a common humanity, while subtly advancing a domain of corporate exploits and globalization.8 Hence the New York World's Fair 1964-1965, an exposition overwhelmingly dominated by commercial exhibits, was given the theme of Peace Through Understanding. The competitive international system of the 1960s, which was powerfully shaped by the Cold War between the US and the USSR, was the context in which the 1964 Fair acquired its ideals.

The anthropologist Burton Benedict, discussing the symbolic nature of fairs, argues
that rituals such as these are a "stabilizing force acting to keep society in equilibrium."
9 Such rituals include the universal human tendency toward competition--an "Olympics of Progress" for instance. Benedict discusses how "fairs take people out of their ordinary routines and thus remove them temporarily from their usual positions in the social structure."10 In order for nations to be able to trade and act in such environments, "traditional enemies must lay aside the inclination to fight."11

As a site of healthy competition amongst nations, a site of romantic escape from international turmoil, and a site where arms were laid down and negotiations could take place between adversaries, it was anticipated that the 1964 Fair would be useful in the same ways as American fairs past. It could bring a divided nation together behind the ideals of democracy in contrast to pavilions of nations with alternative systems. It could exchange culture, art and ideas with competitors and cultivate new friendships from around the globe. It could enhance America's influence in and on the world. But the vision of the Fair was even more ambitious. Peace Through Understanding could actually save the world.

"An exhibition will simply foster whatever spirit pervades the people concerned with
it," wrote Luckhurst.
12 In the case of the 1964 Fair, the concerns of the organizers went beyond the walls of the administrative offices of the Fair Corporation. The Fair met the concerns of three presidential administrations, the Department of State and Bureau International des Expositions, the new nations of Africa, the Communist nations of the Europe and Asia, the warring nations of the Middle East and one very opinionated public servant in the role of Fair President. The abundance of concerns made it difficult for the International Affairs and Exhibits (IAE) department of the Fair to accomplish its grand dreams.

1964/1965 New York World's Fair President Robert Moses*
Robert Moses

The 1964 Fair Corporation intended to keep the Fair as apolitical and nongovernmental as possible. During the earliest planning stages in 1959, the directors made a policy decision banning patronage of political cronies or business contacts. When Robert Moses came on board as Fair President, he repeatedly wrestled the Fair out from under the influence of city and state politicians (although he did not always abide by the ban against business patronage). "Moses' distaste for kowtowing to anybody" and "an unerring knack of rubbing Congressmen the wrong way" are just a few in a long list of reasons why Moses was glad to keep the Fair away from politics.13 He was not entirely successful, though.

The members of the IAE constantly had to work within the confines of protocol, deal
with unstable governments and political uprisings, and dodge international crises in order to go about their business of arranging a world's fair that actually featured the nations of the world, all without the backing of an army or a powerful bureaucracy such as the State Department. The IAE had many failures, and gaping holes were left in the International Area by prominent nations. "A fair is not, after all, a government," wrote the New Yorker. Acting as "part diplomat and part salesman," the members of the IAE faced conditions that provided all the more prerogative for such a daring aspiration as Peace Through Understanding.
14

In his New York Times opening day essay, "Why a Fair? And Why This Fair?" Moses wrote, "What distinguishes a world's exposition from a local fair obviously must be its universality and its inquiry into the common destiny of mankind. All the talents are engaged in a fair; the hope is that if they can together build a big show, they can eventually build a viable world."15 Such a statement speaks to the post-World War II search for a connection between American destiny and worldwide peace, and to the importance of the exchanges of cultures and abilities during the Cold War.

© Copyright 2005 Sharyn Elise Jackson, All Rights Reserved.

 

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