The Big Picture

The Cold War on the Small Screen

John W. Lemza

Capitalizing on thousands of feet of accumulated footage captured by combat camera crews during the early years of the Korean War, a small group of US Army officers conceptualized a film series that would widen viewers’ understanding of the service and its mission. Their efforts produced the documentary television series that in late 1951 would become The Big Picture.

Although it would take years to fully utilize the emerging technologies and develop the concept into a popularly recognized television series, The Big Picture did evolve into a vehicle whose intention was to help the army tell its story, sell its relevance in the emerging Cold War, and inform and educate its audience about American ideals. Its messages captured the early post-1945 zeitgeist and reflected a national mood that was anticommunist, steeped in foundational principles of American exceptionalism, and trusting of elite leadership.

“The past is always a foreign country, but few media documents underline that more clearly than The Big Picture, the US Army’s documentary television program that played on US channels from the 1950s to the early 1970s. John W. Lemza’s pathbreaking study reveals the astonishing penetration of US government propaganda into Cold War homes through this program. He goes on to show how an analysis of that material can itself become an important window on shifting ideas of nation, race, and gender. This book is a remarkable addition to the literature on US Cold War media history, made all the more exciting by the new accessibility of the programs themselves online.”

—Nicholas J. Cull, author of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989

“John W. Lemza turns our attention to a technology of warfare deployed far from the battlefield: the small screen. The Big Picture explains the significance of the television show the US Army used to tell its story and sell its relevance, from the interservice rivalries of the early Cold War through the social divisions of the US war in Vietnam.”

—Beth Bailey, Foundation Distinguished Professor and director, Center for Military, War, and Society Studies, University of Kansas

John W. Lemza’s The Big Picture argues that the show, like others produced for television during that time by the armed forces, served as a vehicle for directed propaganda, scripted to send important Cold War messages to both those in uniform and the American public. In this first systematic study of its production and reception history as well as its themes and cultural impact, Lemza shows how the producers incorporated specific Cold War themes, such as anticommunism, into episodes and deployed television’s small screen as the intersection of propaganda and policy during the Cold War period.

John Lemza’s study reveals that the longer The Big Picture maintained those themes the more they began to lose their resonance, especially when the cultural and social environment of the United States began changing in the mid-1960s. The series producers chose to continue on a course that was set during the early Cold War years, and the credibility of the show began to suffer. Throughout the course of its two-decade production run, however, The Big Picture cast a big shadow as the premier military program influencing viewing audiences through primetime television and syndication.

About the Author

John W. Lemza is adjunct professor of history, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of American Military Communities in West Germany: Life in the Cold War Badlands, 1945–1990.

Additional Titles in the War on Screen Series