As Americans, we are detached from our history. True, remaining anchored to the past can hold back progress, understanding what came before and thus the trajectory of past activities that shape today is helpful. As the saying goes, those who fail to grasp history are doomed to repeat it.
Understanding the context of public diplomacy, the institutions, and methods is important. For too many, public diplomacy began in the 1980s when the beginning of recent memory. At a 2009 conference organized by Doug Wilson, now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, I sat on a “scene setting” panel with Harriet Fulbright, widow of the late Senator Fulbright, Len Baldyga, former Director of the Office of European Affairs of USIA, Barry Fulton, former Associate Director of USIA, and moderated by Bob Coonrod, former deputy director of VOA and former president and CEO for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. (I still don’t know why I was on this panel of luminaries.) Each person told a terrific example of public diplomacy. My job was to wrap it up, so I did. I realized there was a common theme: at one time we prioritized the resources (people, money, and “things”) to identify and engage the right audiences.
This idea of appreciating the imperative and the necessary activities is at the root of what was once simply public affairs, before politics in DC necessitated a distinction between audiences and bureaucracies that we are still struggling to overcome (though many still have yet to grasp the damage caused).
In 1944, the State Department underwent two bold, self-imposed reorganizations. Over the previous years, “students, publicists, members of Congress, and members of the Department itself have repeatedly pointed out that the Department has not been geared up to performing the functions required of the foreign office of a great twentieth-century world power.” Besides empowering the current geographic bureau system to support country teams, a product was the creation of the Office of Cultural and Public Affairs led by a new Assistant of Public Affairs. (The first Assistant Secretary held the office for less than a year. The second dropped “cultural” to shift Congressional attention away from artworks and exchange and on to information activities.)
In August 1945, President Truman reorganized the government’s war-time information apparatus. The foreign information services of the Office of War Information (OWI) were transferred to the State Department, along with those of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. Truman declared that “the nature of our present-day foreign relations makes it essential for the United States to maintain information services abroad as an integral part of the conduct of our foreign policy” and that domestic information activities of OWI were “no longer necessary” and discontinued.
Almost immediately, the State Department went to Congress to permanently authorize and fund these peace-time services as they recognized the rising ideological and informational struggle against Communism. In October 1945, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the world has gotten small and the autonomy of states is diminishing. “Relations between nations,” Benton told the committee, “have constantly been broadened to include not merely governments but also peoples. The peoples of the world are exercising an ever larger influence upon decisions of foreign policy. That is as it should be. … The people themselves, as well as their ideas, are moving about the world farther and faster.”
Benton reiterated his arguments to the House Committee In an article published in The New York Times Magazine on December 2, 1945. Highlights below are mine.
Because we have risen to be one of the most powerful nations in the history of the world, we may reap envy, fear and hate. We do not want such a harvest. Our national security is threatened by it. This was true before Hiroshima. It is even more true now.
The proposal for a state Department foreign information service, supplementing the department’s diplomatic activities, is a new idea for Americans in peacetime. In the critical years just before the war, and in the midst of the war itself, it became painfully clear that accurate, well balanced information about the United States was urgently needed in many countries. Nelson Rockefeller discovered this in South America. The Office of War Information encountered it across the globe. Along with its “psychological warfare” activities directed at enemy countries, the OWl found that it was equally necessary to provide information about America to the people of Allied and neutral countries.
Is it any longer important to us in peacetime what the peoples of other countries think of the United States? Does it realiy matter what a New Zealand farmer, a Chinese peasant, a French business man or an Argentine school teacher knows about our life, our customs, our aspirations, our foreign policy?
Some Americans, contemplating our great power, would say no. Others – and I am among them — believe that foreign opinion about the United States may determine our future peace and security and the peace and security of the world.
We have committed ourselves to a policy of active participation in world affairs. We do not intend to forsake that policy. It will involve us In new problems, carrying the risk that our strength will be feared and our Intentions misunderstood. The solution will not be less active participation. It can only be the active promotion of understanding.
Fear and misunderstanding of America will act against our own security because it may cost us friends and allies in time of crisis. It will also act against the world’s progress toward international security. The successful development of the United Nations Organization, upon which we are placing so much hope, is not something which will occur of itself. The United Nations Organization is simply an instrument. The value of that instrument will depend upon the spirit in which it is used. And that, in turn, will depend basically upon a better understanding of each other among the peoples of the world: the peoples are going to have a great deal to say about the policies which their Governments will advocate _ in – the Security Council and in the Assembly and the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Organization. …
Private initiative and private facilities can do a very big part — indeed. an overwhelming proportion-of the job of disseminating abroad information about America. The more of It they will do, the better. The Government should not undertake to do what private press, radio and motion-picture organizations do better, or what our tourists, salesmen, technicians, book publishers, play producers and universities do regularly and well. The soundest procedure is for the State Department to determine, and to keep determining as conditions change, our information needs area by area, then to support and help private industry to do everything it can to meet these needs. The remainder of the job will devolve upon the department.
In news distribution the Government will progressively retire from the field, which it moved into as a war necessity. My hope is that The Associated Press, The United Press and International News Service, highly competitive organizations, will greatly expand their world coverage. Before very long governmental overseas news will be limited mainly to such background information as full texts of Presidential statements, acts of Congress, or reports like that of General Marshall, which have proved of great value to foreign editors, writers and organizations and which are essential to our embassies and missions abroad
In short – wave radio the role of private enterprise is under study. This is a much more complex problem. There is no profit in short-wave radio. The Government must put up the money. Other Governments are using short – wave on an increasing scale. Technical efficiency grows from day to day. We cannot retire from the field. We have not yet determined how to operate it or who should own and control it. .
The motion picture industry’s sales abroad, estimated at about $90,000,000 annually, are said to provide 30 to 40 per cent of the industry’s gross revenue. As
every traveler knows, the people of other countries have gained their strongest impressions of us from the movies. These impressions have not always been “full and fair.” There is no thought by the State Department of “censoring” American films which are exported. It is in touch with the industry, which in wartime has shown a real desire to produce pictures for export which are broadly representative of
American life. The department may produce some inexpensive documentaries, under contract, for use abroad. Col. John Hay Whitney is advising with me and the department in this area. He has had experience in Hollywood and served as head of Nelson Rockefeller’s OIAA film division before entering the Army.
Exports’ of American books and magazines will be encouraged through our information libraries and through other means. Before the war hardly 3 per cent of the output of American publishers was sold abroad. …
“We need to open our own doors and minds, and invite a greater inflow of knowledge about other countries and peoples. International information must be a two-way traffic. We do not intend to take part in any sort of international ‘information race.’ Nor do we propose to depend on other nations to speak to the rest of the world on our behalf.”