- 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
USIA made perhaps its greatest impact on the consciousness of the U.S. public in 1961, when John F. Kennedy picked the most famous journalist in America to run it. James Reston wrote in The New York Times: “Edward R. Murrow, the best left-handed putter in Christendom and the most influential reporter of his time, has been given the job of fixing his country’s overseas propaganda. Considering the fix it’s in this is quite a job, for no country had a better story to tell, or failed so lamentably to tell it well as the United States since the end of the war…. No doubt Ed Murrow has the qualities to do the job. He has the poetry of the nation in his bones….”
Unfortunately, Murrow got off to a poor start. One of the last projects he had overseen before leaving CBS was a documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” that gave a grim picture of migrant farm labor in the South. In his new post Murrow called the director of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which had contracted with CBS to run the program, and asked him not to air it. The director, an old friend of Murrow, bridled at this. The incident became public, and the incorruptible Murrow suddenly looked like a government censor. He was chagrined, and he let it be known that he had made a wrong move.
On the other hand, he was pleasantly surprised by what he found at USIA. “I could staff any commercial media outfit in the country with people from this agency,” he later remarked, “and it would be as good or better than any of its competitors.”
But even the best USIA people were confounded by the most difficult assignment given them during the Cold War decades: the war in Vietnam. In the 1950s the agency set up a small post in Saigon. It soon began helping French colonial authorities in their campaign to defeat communist guerrilla groups infiltrating from the northern half of the country. Following the disastrous French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States assumed the lead in dealing with the insurgency. It was a massive effort, in which USIA and the military services worked closely together. The agency’s post in Saigon was given overall coordinating control of the operation in 1965. By that time the Defense Department had six “psy-ops” (psychological operations) battalions scattered throughout the country, with a full array of radio stations, printing plants, and other media resources. The Air Force dropped 115 million leaflets across the Vietnamese countryside in 1966 alone. But in the end American efforts to influence public opinion fell short, in both North and South Vietnam. At times the agency overreached itself. Largely under pressure from Washington officials, work began in the late 1960s on a major documentary film that would describe U.S. objectives in Vietnam. The project ran into trouble when an American newspaper correspondent came across a film crew near Saigon faking a battle scene. In the ensuing uproar, production was closed down—forever, as it turned out, even though a quarter-million dollars had been spent on the film.
There were some individual successes, but the USIA operation increasingly served as a surrogate propaganda ministry for the Saigon government, and it failed to match the propagandistic appeals, couched largely in nationalistic terms, of the communist forces.
How effective was USIA during its four decades of life? Edward R. Murrow often pointed out that no cash register rang when it changed someone’s mind. USIA’s critics and supporters alike agreed that the agency’s most telling efforts were the ones that promoted a broad understanding of American ideas and purposes, the operations that focused largely on quiet long-range programs, such as libraries, book publishing, local seminars, and exchange programs. These last involved a two-way flow of millions of people. The largest single group was students. In 1945 there were fewer than 20,000 foreign students in American colleges and universities; today there are more than half a million. Fewer American students study abroad, but their number (currently about 130,000) has doubled in recent years.
The U.S. government’s role in cultural exchanges had its origins in 1946 congressional legislation sponsored by Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who was himself a former Rhodes scholar. His bill authorized the sale of surplus World War II military equipment to fund exchanges of students, professors, and other professionals. Fulbright grants became the best known of all the American efforts to strengthen cultural links with other societies. More than a quarter of a million people have benefited from the program in the past 55 years, among them Aaron Copland, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Maya Angelou, Stacy Keach, and the opera singer Anna Moffo. The daughter of a Pennsylvania shoemaker, Moffo saw her career blossom after she had spent a year studying in Italy. Complimented on her success, she once declared, “Most of all, I thank God for my Fulbright.”