Telling America’s Story

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Fifty years ago this summer the Eisenhower administration created a unique federal agency, one that most Americans never even knew about. Its name was the United States Information Agency; the reason for its obscurity was that by congressional fiat, it could not distribute its products and services within the United States.

USIA’s mission was to influence foreign audiences, to make them feel more receptive to America in general and to its foreign policies in particular. It was, in short, a propaganda effort. It operated in more than 150 countries during the Cold War years until it was closed down as an independent agency in 1999 and its surviving programs transferred to the State Department.

The agency’s influence lives on, however, as a guide to the Bush administration’s new concern about overseas public opinion in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq. Propaganda (now known more gently as “public diplomacy”) has emerged as a key element in the administration’s strategy for dealing with global terrorism. With strong congressional support, old USIA programs have been revived and many new ones added. For the first time, an Office of Global Communications has been set up in the White House to coordinate all government overseas information activities.

USIA invented the form and style of modern public diplomacy, and it did so with a particularly American flair. Although it was a small bureaucracy by Washington standards, the agency’s geographic reach was greater than that of any other U.S. government operation then or since. In its day it had a presence in some 300 foreign cities, from the staid precincts of London’s Grosvenor Square to the dusty upcountry Laotian town of Luang Prabang. USIA operations included the most extensive efforts ever mounted by any nation to influence foreign public opinion and spurred the largest global movement of men and women undertaken in support of cross-cultural understanding. Indeed, the name of one of these programs has become a noun, an adjective, and a verb in dozens of languages: A Fulbrighter is a Fulbright scholar who Fulbrights at an overseas school.

The best known of USIA’s operations was the Voice of America. From small beginnings in 1942, VOA radio broadcasts expanded during the Cold War to eventually include programs in more than 53 languages beamed from dozens of transmitters to every corner of the globe. Its primary target was listeners in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China, areas where Western radio stations were the only uncensored media available to local audiences. The role of these stations in undermining Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism was later acknowledged by, among others, Lech Walesa, the shipyard worker who founded the Solidarity movement that brought down the Communist regime in Poland: “If it were not for independent broadcasting, the world would look quite different today…. The struggle for freedom would have been more arduous, and the road to democracy much longer.”

The Voice of America gave USIA a worldwide reach, but the agency’s most extensive contact with overseas audiences centered on its local posts. These were run by the United States Information Service (USIS), and they were usually located on a main street, most often near a college or university. Their key feature was a street-front library offering books on open shelves that could be borrowed by anyone, something unprecedented in most cities where the service operated. For students and many others, the USIS library was the public face of the United States in these places.

The libraries were filled all day long. To ease the crush, the USIS post in Morocco issued library cards in seven different colors, restricting the holder to entry one day a week. In Calcutta and other Indian cities, students often had to make reservations for a reading-room seat.

Along with their open-shelf book services, the libraries sometimes served another purpose: They were convenient targets for political demonstrations against the country that sponsored them. The damage was usually limited to rocks flung at the library’s plate-glass windows. A New Yorker cartoon in the 1960s depicted a USIA training class in which agency employees were being taught window glazing, and USIA workers liked to joke that their library was just a stone’s throw from the local university.

In the offices above each library, the USIS staff carried out a variety of media operations. These included a daily news file, transmitted from Washington, that provided official texts and other news on current American policies and events. Its contents were edited to fit local interests, then translated and sent to government officials and media outlets. Thousands of newspapers and other publications used these news items, often identifying them with a USIS credit line similar to those of the Associated Press and United Press International.