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Telling America’s Story

June 2024
13min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

One of USIA’s most effective programs brought young foreign leaders to the United States for a brief but intense exposure to American life and ideas. These tours usually lasted about a month, with each participant choosing whatever he or she wanted to see. Most wanted to visit with their professional counterparts throughout the country, but for years California’s Disneyland was very high on their lists of destinations. The International Visitor program’s success depended on the predictive ability of USIA officers. Some grantees returned home and faded into the background, but an impressive number rose to high positions in their countries, and more than 200 of them became heads of government or chiefs of state: Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Anwar al-Sadat, Julius Nyerere, Indira Gandhi, and Afghanistan’s current leader, Hamid Karzai, who was a little-known Kabul journalist when he participated in the program in 1987.

How effective was it? Murrow often pointed out that no cash register rang whenever USIA’s efforts changed someone’s mind.

White House and congressional support for exchange programs and other USIA activities faded during the 1990s, largely because of an assumption that with the end of the Cold War, the agency’s mission was completed. Funds for overseas exchange programs were cut back by a third, Voice of America programming in the Middle East was reduced, and five agency centers in Pakistan were either closed or downsized. Finally, USIA itself was abolished altogether, mainly as a result of pressure from Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had been a longtime critic of the agency. The remaining shards were transferred to the State Department with little indication that they would receive much attention there.

Official indifference toward what is now called public diplomacy ended on September 11, 2001. The Bush White House, with congressional support, expanded its activities dramatically, with programs specially directed toward Muslim audiences in the Middle East and Asia. The results so far have been mixed. The administration’s early attempts drew heavily on marketing techniques aimed at selling an “American brand” in foreign policy. Many of these bumptious efforts fell flat, and more recently the administration’s public diplomacy programs have adopted less aggressive approaches. This shift in emphasis draws heavily on lessons learned from USIA’s Cold War experience.

Although public diplomacy must articulate a clear message on current political issues, the USIA record suggests that it is most effective when it promotes more distant and, perhaps, deeper American purposes. In a rapidly changing global environment, presenting America’s many voices, both public and private, remains a great and challenging task—one suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald early in the last century when he wrote, “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.”

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