Jesse Helms, RIP, and USIA (updated)

Got an email from a new blog that’s coming online – Undiplomatic – about the passing of Jesse Helms.  Charlie Brown, the blog’s editor (no other contributors are yet listed, the blog is still coming together according to Brown), offers both praise and criticism of the Republican Senator from North Carolina.

Observation one:  Senator Helms was actually quite good on certain human rights questions, particularly those regarding China and Cuba. …

Observation two:  it’s hard picking the worst thing Senator Helms ever did, but one that should rank in the top five — one that most people overlook — is his willful destruction of the United States Information Agency. …

But abolishing the USIA was not a one-man show.  There was more to it than a choice by President Clinton, even if it was his desk where the buck ultimately stopped.  There was the USAID director who had the guts to fight for his agency and the USIA director who did not.  There was also the co-star in the form of a Secretary of State who may have later acknowledged her complicity was her biggest mistake.

It should be noted that Senator Helms succeeded where the equally, if not more, legendary Senator Fulbright (D-AR, and as I just learned a fraternity brother of this blogger) failed.  The 1972 Amendment to Smith-Mundt was, in fact, the best Senator Fulbright could do in his attempt to abolish USIA.  According to Nick Cull, Fulbright demanded that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty “should be given an opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” But they escaped with the creation of the Board for International Broadcasting, the predecessor to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  According to contemporary news accounts, votes he brought to the floor as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee were losing and losing not on merit but on personality.  He had lost support, an especially bad situation for a Chairman.  The New York Times would remark on the “eclipse of Senator Fulbright and the weakening of the Foreign Relations Committee” and wonder if the Senator would support the pending Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty when he couldn’t count on the support of the Administration or of his own committee.  Soon after he remarked that he would not even bring something up for a vote because he knew it wouldn’t pass.

While he lost the battle and his next election, he won the war against USIA as he adjusted perceptions of USIA and Smith-Mundt, the Act he never fully supported.  His conflict with USIA was openly reported in the papers and explored by Nick Cull in his forthcoming book on the history of USIA, as well as by Stacey Cone in her 2005 “Pulling the Plug on America’s Propaganda: Sen. J.W. Fulbright’s Leadership of the Antipropaganda Movement, 1943-74” in the journal Journalism History.

It’s also noteworthy, for the detail oriented reader, that the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has no authority by law over the Fulbright scholarship board.  (Nor does it have any authority on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, but that’s another story and one that is conceptually foreign to modern Americans.)

Addendum: An interesting footnote to this: a colleague John Brown notes these two Southern Senators, one Republican and one Democrat, were both opposed to civil rights legislation.

Fulbright served as chairman of the Senate banking and currency committee (1955–59) and, as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee (1959–74), he conducted frequent open hearings to educate the public and to reassert the Senate’s influence in long-range policy formulation. An outspoken critic of U.S. military intervention abroad, Fulbright opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), the landing of marines in the Dominican Republic (1965), and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. However, Fulbright could be conservative as well; he voted against civil-rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1974 Democratic primary in Arkansas, he was defeated for the senatorial nomination by Dale Bumpers. He wrote Old Myths and New Realities (1964), The Arrogance of Power (1966), The Pentagon Propaganda Machine (1970), The Crippled Giant (1972), and The Price of Empire (1989).

Jesse Helms forever changed North Carolina politics and the conservative movement. The former senator did it without ever changing much about himself.

There is perhaps no better example of Helms’ unwavering commitment to his beliefs than on the issue of race. Helms was a staunch opponent of the nation’s civil rights movement, where he joined the likes of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in a fight to keep outsiders from meddling in what he called “the Southern way of life.”

Here’s some cocktail trivia for you.  Senator Buckley, the one who showed a USIA film on his TV show for his constituents that ultimately led to the 1972 amendment, was to be Senator Helms’s candidate at the 1976 Republican National Convention to replace Ronald Reagan if Reagan kept his “too liberal” of a running mate, Senator Richard Schweiker (R-PA).

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One thought on “Jesse Helms, RIP, and USIA (updated)

  1. Mr. Helms also successfully delayed the US govt entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention by four years. He argued that the US govt ought not get involved in sharing chemical defense technology with signatories, which I think was a part of the deal, similar to the NPT. Not sure if the US ratification was modified to downplay that aspect, but I know that we barely squeeked in by the deadline of April 27, 1997, because of his “leadership.” I shed no tears for the man.

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