- Historic Sites
Telling America’s Story
The United States Information Agency did not long survive the Cold War it helped wage. But today the lessons it taught us may be more useful than ever.
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
This daily news file was supplemented by other media activities. For a while USIA was the world’s largest publisher of newspapers, magazines, and books. By the 1960s the agency was producing 57 magazines in 20 languages, together with 22 newspapers in 14 languages. Amid this torrent, one of USIA’s most influential publications was a small-circulation bimonthly called Problems of Communism. Scholarly and plain-looking, it featured heavily footnoted articles on Soviet and Chinese developments written by specialists here and abroad. The POC’s success was due largely to the fact that its editor, a maverick New Yorker named Abraham Brumberg, was particularly averse to taking advice about his magazine’s contents from agency higher-ups for the good reason that he knew more about communism than they did. (He once reviewed a sex guide to Soviet-bloc countries, complete with ideological analysis.) The Soviet journal World Marxist Review paid a backhand tribute to the POC by describing it as “the marshalling of the maximum of brains and energy to place anti-communism on some semblance of scientific footing.” The London Economist was more sympathetic in describing the magazine as “one of a handful of serious Western guides to what was going on in the recesses of the Marxist-Leninist mind.”
USIA workers sometimes liked to joke that their library was just a stone’s throw from the local university.
USIA also made heavy use of the most potent mass-media instrument developed in the last century: movies. In addition to distributing commercial films, the agency produced hundreds of its own. One of its documentaries, Nine From Little Rock, won the Oscar for best documentary film of 1964. As television viewing expanded abroad, USIA moved into video production, supplying programs to hundreds of stations. One of its most popular offerings was a Spanish-language soap opera, “Nuestro Barrio” (Our Neighborhood). Made in Mexico City with popular local actors, the series focused on a family in a poor district of an unnamed city and described events in the barrio in ways that related subtly to U.S. policies in Latin America. There were good guys and bad guys, noble doctors and priests, reactionary officials opposed to change, and communists who sought to exploit the barrio’s residents, as well as plenty of dramatic moments and a muted touch of sex. “Nuestro Barrio” proved a durable success throughout Latin America; in Mexico it captured almost 90 percent of the audience. USIA built on the show’s success by creating a companion radio program and a comic-book series.
USIA programs also subsidized, directly and indirectly, the overseas export of American commercial media products. The most successful USIA-industry collaboration involved books. The project, Franklin Publications, a nonprofit enterprise that included most of the major New York book publishers, set up affiliates abroad that published and distributed books in translated paperback editions. During the 1950s and 1960s these affiliates turned out 43 million copies of 2,500 books. One of their most successful offerings was Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, adapted to local baby-rearing conditions. More than half of Franklin’s output, however, consisted of American textbooks in translation for use in local schools from kindergartens to colleges.
USIA had no say in how Franklin should be run or what books its overseas affiliates should publish. Its contribution lay largely in helping set up local affiliates abroad and in sharing its own book-publishing experience. The agency also bought large quantities of Franklin books for distribution to schools and libraries. The result was a healthy collaboration in which all sides benefited: Franklin, the local publishers, and the overall USIA effort to make American books available in Third World countries.
The agency officers who managed these activities overseas were part of a pickup crew that got most of their training on the job. Although they were formally part of the Foreign Service, they were not cast in any traditional diplomatic mold. Many came from newspaper careers or academia, others from more diverse backgrounds: Stephen Dachi had been a dentist in Budapest; Gene Karst was a press agent for the St. Louis Cardinals; Ed Harper wrote successful detective novels; John Maddux was a former Jesuit; and Patricia van Delden served in the underground during World War II, later returning to Europe to run the USIS post in Holland.