- 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
Naturally, such diversity brought a new perspective to American diplomacy, and this fresh approach had considerable impact, for no other American government agency went so far into the field as USIA. It set up small posts in rural areas from the Norwegian town of Troms0, north of the Arctic Circle, to Barisal in tropical Bangladesh. USIS officers became modern circuit riders, traveling the world’s boondocks. They went by train, plane, boat, and, occasionally, mule. The Thailand post brought films and magazines upcountry behind an ancient steam engine dubbed the Casey Jones Special. Riverboat delivery was common in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But the most widely used USIS backcountry transport involved the indestructible jeep. The Willys Company developed a special model for this purpose with a reinforced roof that could be used as a platform for projecting films over the heads of the audience onto a blank wall in night-darkened village squares. More than 350 of these USIS mobile units roamed the world’s back roads during the Cold War decades.
The most sensitive USIA operations took place in the Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe. Although the agency relied primarily on round-the-clock Voice of America transmissions to reach listeners in these countries, other doors to this audience were opened by a series of information and cultural exchanges negotiated with the U.S.S.R. beginning in the 1950s. The Kremlin insisted on strict reciprocity: one Red Army chorus performance in New York for one Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Moscow, and so on. Despite their limitations, these arrangements encouraged a slow but steady exchange of scholars and artistic groups between the two countries. Other Soviet-American agreements provided for the reciprocal distribution of films, television programs, and magazines, including USIA’s Russian-language America Illustrated, a glossy Life-sized product whose articles covered everything from rodeos in Texas to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The magazine was so popular with Soviet readers that it became a black-market item, with copies sold or rented until they literally disintegrated. The reciprocal Soviet publication, Soviet Life, featured stories about communist achievements, complete with pictures of happy peasants and brawny steelworkers fulfilling their production quotas. Its copies languished on American newsstands, bringing complaints from Moscow officials that the U.S. government was discouraging its distribution.
The surprise hit of the show were the U.S. guides, young volunteers who spent their time answering questions about daily life in America.
The most successful effort to reach Soviet audiences was a series of big exhibitions that toured the U.S.S.R. The first of these, which opened in Moscow in 1959, provided a capsule view of American life for the 2.7 million Soviet citizens who trooped through a group of buildings that included a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome and a house decorated by Macy's department store. Free Pepsi-Cola was served, and visitors were interviewed in a studio featuring color television, a technology then unknown to Soviet viewers. The surprise hit of the show were the seventy-five young American guides, Russian-speaking volunteers who were given free transportation to Moscow and a $16 per diem stipend. The guides had been hired to explain the individual exhibits, but they spent most of their time answering questions from skeptical Russians on every aspect of life in the United States: “Are American slums underground? Is it true you publish Anna Karenina as a 12-page comic book? Are Marx and Engels banned or published only with critical annotations? What is your family’s income?” The direct, good-natured replies were effective enough to set off a propaganda barrage in the Soviet media in which the guides were variously accused of giving misleading answers, of insulting the Russian people, and, in one case, of pinching a Moscow hotel maid.
The exhibition earned a permanent niche in diplomatic history as the scene of a meeting between Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon in the kitchen of the show’s model American house. Their “kitchen debate” covered a range of issues in an exchange that was alternately good-humored and confrontational. Khrushchev, who visited the American exhibit twice, then moved on to a display of American paintings and sculptures, a project that had earlier raised congressional hackles in Washington because of its alleged bias in favor of radical modern works. Khrushchev reacted as violently as the members of Congress to the modern art. Walking past a large female nude statue, he commented, “Only a pederast would have done this.” Gazing at a John Marin watercolor, he said that it looked as if someone had peed on the canvas.