Filming the World We Want (Part 1)

Please enjoy part one of a two-part guest blog from Dr. Catherine Bishop, who has been researching IULMIA’s collections remotely, by accessing digitized films from the New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum, which aired on public television in the 1950s. The IU Libraries Moving Image Archive is thrilled to be able to provide these materials (over 56 titles!) at a time when access to archives is severely limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently efforts underway to digitize remaining items from this series, so that Dr. Bishop and future researchers may continue their work.

You can watch full episodes of The World We Want and other National Educational Television (NET) programs featuring the Herald Tribune Youth Forum HERE

The Forum

What happens when you gather together 30 bright teenagers from across the world and ask them to discuss the education, women’s rights, and world peace? What happens when a 16-year-old Afrikaans girl discusses apartheid with a black African boy from Ghana? Or when an Israeli girl talks to boys from Syria and Jordan?

These conversations and more were the experiment of the Herald Tribune World Youth Forum that existed from 1947 until 1972 and even outlived the newspaper’s expiration in 1965. The Forum was the brainchild of Helen Rogers Reid, the New York Herald Tribune’s owner and editor. It was loosely based on the ‘adult’ Herald Tribune Forum, which originated in the 1930s, bringing together world business and political figures to discuss relevant issues in front of a general audience in New York. But the post-WWII era saw a new emphasis on youth as the means to securing world peace, with the New York Daily Mirror and the New York Times Youth Forum programming similar events. The Herald Tribune Forum also sparked a copycat program run by the Daily Mail in Britain from 1949 to 1951. Concurrently, this was also the era of mass gatherings of socialist youth organized by the USSR.

I have been researching the Forum for eight years, after discovering the youthful diary of my aunt who had just died. I knew she had won a trip to England as teenager; I had no idea that she had been a delegate to the Daily Mail World Youth Forum in London. What began as a small personal project expanded dramatically when I realized that there was an American version lasting 25 years. I have been tracking down documents and photographs in archives across the U.S, and of course enjoying the Herald Tribune newspaper articles. Even more rewarding, I have interviewed over 100 of the 800 people who attended the forum – now 65-90 year-olds, they reminisced about their experiences 50-70 years ago. I have also been privileged to connect with the Herald Tribune World Youth Forum Alumni Association for delegates, have contributed to their newsletter and attended some of their reunions in Sorrento and Singapore.

The Herald Tribune World Youth Forum was the most ambitious and longest lasting of all of these initiatives. However, little known about such programs in the U.S.. National committees around the globe selected (usually) one 16-18-year-old representative, who flew to the U.S. for 3 months. Based in the New York area, representatives stayed with 3 or 4 different American families, attended a variety of high schools, and travelled to Washington, meeting significant political figures, often including the incumbent American President. The culmination of their visit was a huge ‘high school forum’ held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March, where the delegates all performed and discussed a variety of topics in front of an audience of high school students. The Herald Tribune featured delegates’ activities in its pages for the three months and had a special 5-10 page feature for the Waldorf Astoria event. From the early 1950s the delegates also met in smaller panels for a series of discussions on topical issues. Initially these were broadcast on radio and later, beginning in 1953, on television.

The idea behind the forum was to encourage international understanding and co-operation by showing a handpicked group of young people from around the world that they were not so different after all. The organizers banked on these teenagers being their nation’s best and brightest (or in some cases, the most well-connected). They were expected to be potential future leaders and many would become influential in politics, business, education and religion. In addition to encouraging international understanding there was another motive. The newspaper organized the forum and provided a small amount of money for the program—mostly for the salary of the organizing staff. It relied on schools and families to host the students. It also cleverly obtained sponsorship from Pan Am and TWA airlines, which flew the delegates from all around the world for free. Scholastic Magazine was also a sponsor. But most important was the support of the U.S. government. Although respective national ministries of education selected delegates, the cultural attaches of American embassies and the United States Information Service assisted student representatives during their tours.

This was a ‘hearts and minds’ initiative, one of the many ‘soft power’ weapons in the Cold War, designed to showcase the U.S. to foreign representatives. It was, however, slightly more sophisticated than the mass Communist rallies, in that the flaws of American society, such as segregation, were not withheld. This was also an exercise in world citizenship. The students were to be ‘walking textbooks,’ youthful ambassadors, educating American high school students about the world.

The countries invited to send delegates were friends and allies of the US (the UK, continental Europe, Canada) but also countries in which the US hoped to maintain its influence (e.g. Korea, Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina). There were notable absentees. The only Communist country was Yugoslavia. Others do not seem to have been invited. The lack of Communist bloc countries provoked little comment; publicity around the forum made much of the fact that delegates came from ‘all over the world’.

The Films

One of the greatest thrills has been my access to the films in the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive (IULMIA). A serendipitous Google search during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown uncovered this gold mine of content related to the Forum. IULMIA holds a number of the televised programs broadcast in the 1950s.

The extensive IULMIA holdings include examples from each year between 1954 to 1959 and provide an historical snapshot of the Youth Forum. The films are indeed worth their weight in (research) gold.

Previously, I had seen photographs of the delegates and their activities, as well as a couple of stills from programs. I had seen lists of the program topics and the participants. I had even found a few scripts of what the delegates said. I had met some delegates who could remember what they discussed (and others who could remember the fabulous social time they had but who could not recall the issues discussed at the Forum—they were only teenagers after all!) But nothing prepared me for the delight of hearing their voices and seeing them in action. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then moving images are worth a million. The program depicts a staged setting with delegates performing their ambassadorial roles to the best of their ability and viewers get a sense of the participants’ personalities as they interact with each other and with Helen Hiett Waller, the formidable moderator and administrator of the Forum.

Panel participants were selected based on the topic being discussed as well as their ability to articulate ideas in English. Some delegates participated more often than others, but all appeared at least once. It was educational television that aimed to be entertaining and provocative. The programs were geared toward high school students. Popular topics for this age group included comparing the American education system with foreign schools, discussing if American teenagers had too much freedom or if parents the world over were out of touch, and giving their impressions of the U.S. and the benefits of student exchange. The delegates also discussed less immediately ‘youth-focused’ issues: ‘Does the Key to peace in this century rest with non-white peoples?’, Communism, American’s global influence, Africa’s future, the status of women, religion, and the role of the United Nations.

The Yugoslav delegate was ensured a place in the annual program discussing Communism. Finnish delegates were questioned about their country’s relationship with the Soviet Union, and Scandinavian delegates often found themselves defending ‘socialist’ policies in their countries, much to their bemusement. The South African delegate invariably came under pressure over the apartheid system, while the British delegate was in the spotlight in discussions of decolonization. When interviewed many years later, most delegates recalled their surprise at being taken seriously. Their opinions were sought and respected. Some remembered feeling very unqualified to discuss issues of politics and international affairs, while others were in their element.

By 1959, the Forum had hit its stride. It was a well-oiled machine, both on and off screen. The programs’ format and production had been fine-tuned, changing over time. One year students are all sitting on the floor; in another, they are grouped around an armchair, but by 1959 they are behind a table in a boardroom-like setting, in front of place cards identifying their respective countries like a model U.N.. In 1954 the strains of a jaunty orchestral version of ‘Getting to Know You’ accompany images of a rotating globe before moderator Helen Waller introduces the Forum. In 1957 an opening salvo, in which each delegate gives a very scripted response to a set question, is followed by the theme again against a stylized group portrait of good-looking youngsters idealistically gazing upwards towards a globe.

In earlier programs discussions take more time to warm up. The 1954 program on ‘Education,’ for instance, is very stilted as the Australian delegate pronounces his critique, with carefully prepared and stage-managed props. (He had brought along examples of exam papers from both countries).

The discussion begins to intensify during an exchange about freedom of speech in the classroom. The Australian delegate has been making pronouncements on the superiority of his country’s education system and then Helen Waller pulls the rug out from under him in what is clearly a surprising retort, by reading out a starkly loaded question from one of his Australian exam papers.

But the program becomes truly interesting during the conclusion of the program when the subject shifts. The white South African delegate explains apartheid, defending the policy vigorously against the two boys from Australia and the Gold Coast (Ghana).

 

Dr Catherine Bishop is a historian and postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University in Australia, writing a history of twentieth-century Australian businesswomen. She is the author of the award-winning Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney (NewSouth 2015) and of Women Mean Business: Colonial businesswomen in New Zealand (Otago University Press 2019). With Jennifer Aston she has co-edited Female Entrepreneurs in the Long Nineteenth Century: A Global Perspective (Palgrave 2020). She is working on a biography of Australian missionary Annie Lock and researching the history of the New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum.

Catherine.bishop@mq.edu.au

https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/persons/catherine-bishop

https://catherinebishop.wixsite.com/history

FB: @catherinebishophistorian

Make sure to read Part 2 of Dr. Catherine Bishop’s research on the Herald Tribune Youth Forum films from the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive.