Barry Zorthian, public diplomacy legend, passes away at 90

imageA legendary member of the old guard of public diplomacy passed away December 30 at the age of 90. Barry Zorthian, seen at right at the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium, had a long career in the service of the United States and the media. I’m honored to have known Barry over the past two years.

Barry was born in Turkey in 1920. Emigrating with his family to the US, he graduated from Yale University in 1941 and joined the US Marine Corps, serving as an artillery officer in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Barry worked at CBS Radio in New York and earned a law degree from New York University. He also worked for the Voice of America for 13 years with Voice of America, first as a reporter, then an editor and finally as program manager.

In 1964, after three years in India for the State Department as a deputy public affairs officer. Back then, the public affairs officers worked for the United States Information Agency (or Service as it was known outside the US). Edward R. Murrow, as USIA Director and thus Barry’s boss, asked Barry to head the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam. Barry would say this was the first (and largest ever) joint State and Defense public affairs office. According to Barry, to get around the concern based on Smith-Mundt that the USIA should not be speaking to the US public, Barry was transferred to the State Department and USIA reimbursed State for his pay.

Barry Barry retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1973, served as Vice President of Time Inc. (now Time Warner) and served on the Board for International Broadcasting with jurisdiction over Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

In July 2010, his wife Margaret Aylaian Zorthian, died. They had been married for 62 years. Barry is survived by two sons, Greg and Steve.

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2 thoughts on “Barry Zorthian, public diplomacy legend, passes away at 90

  1. Below is the statement from the Broadcasting Board of Governors honoring Barry Zorthian, received 5 January 2010:Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Statement Honoring Barry Zorthian
    Washington, D.C., January 5, 2011 – Barry Zorthian, a veteran U.S. diplomat, media advisor during the Vietnam War, Time Inc. executive, and former Voice of America (VOA) Program Manager, died on December 30 at the age of 90. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting including VOA, issued the following statement.
    Barry Zorthian was one of the giants of United States international broadcasting. He understood early in the Cold War how vital broadcasting was to the successful practice of American foreign policy, and he championed the role of “The Radios” strongly and consistently.
    The Board was fortunate to have had a chance to hear Barry’s views on where broadcasting should be headed and why — and not a little on how to get there — just a few months ago. He was passionate that the BBG must put broadcasting on a new footing with a revitalized mission, and he insisted that we hook it once more securely to the timeless principles of American foreign policy.
    The Board extends condolences to the Zorthian family and shares in their loss.

  2. The New York Times obituary is copied below and may be found online here:

    Barry Zorthian, who as an American diplomat in Vietnam orchestrated a psychological warfare campaign while serving as his country’s principal spokesman in Saigon, sparring with a new generation of skeptical journalists in briefings that came to be known as the “five o’clock follies,” died on Dec. 30 in Washington. He was 90.
    The cause was a staph infection, his son Greg said.
    Mr. Zorthian arrived in Vietnam at a time when the United States’ involvement was deepening and public opinion in both the United States and Vietnam was volatile. He had the job of riding herd over an aggressive corps of journalists whose reporting in the field had led them to doubt official explanations.
    Edward R. Murrow, the former CBS newsman who had become director of the United States Information Agency, appointed Mr. Zorthian to head the 500-person Joint Public Affairs Office in Saigon as one of his last acts before being succeeded by Carl T. Rowan in January 1964. (Mr. Rowan later became a prominent newspaper columnist.) Mr. Zorthian had been a journalist, the No. 2 official at the Voice of America and a diplomat in India.
    The public affairs job was considered so sensitive that it was subject to the approval of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. President Lyndon B. Johnson also endorsed the appointment.
    By the time Mr. Zorthian left Vietnam in 1968 after four and a half years, he had become the longest-serving senior American official in Vietnam and one of the most visible.
    His daily news briefings, held in the rooftop garden of the Rex Hotel, became for journalists a critical source of information about the war. But reporters often expressed frustration about what they called “the five o’clock follies,” complaining about a dearth of real news and a drumbeat of dry statistics and body counts. Shouting matches, jokes and practiced cynicism were the order of the day.
    When the briefings ended after the cease-fire of 1973, Richard Pyle, the Saigon bureau chief of The Associated Press, characterized them as “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”
    Mr. Zorthian’s influence was more than that of a spokesman. In a 1967 article about him, Life magazine said, “Few major U.S. decisions are reached in Saigon without his approval.”
    Part of the United States Information Agency’s mission was to win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people — and erode the morale of the enemy forces — through what were called “hearts and minds” campaigns. Mr. Zorthian spent $10 million a year on activities that included distributing leaflets in villages; staging plays in which the Communist insurgents, the Vietcong, were always the villains; and rounding up peasants at gunpoint for propaganda lectures.
    Life magazine told of his dispatching planes to circle enemy positions while playing funeral music, then broadcasting a child’s voice crying in Vietnamese, “Daddy, Daddy, please come home!”
    But Mr. Zorthian became best known as ringmaster of the daily news briefings, which pitted a newly aggressive press corps against a long tradition of secrecy and optimism in official discussion of battles.
    In World War II and the Korean War, the military had controlled the release of battlefield information, but that responsibility was given to the information agency in Vietnam.
    Mr. Zorthian’s mandate from Mr. Rowan was to expand the flow of information at a time when ambitious war reporters like Peter Arnett of The A.P. and David Halberstam of The New York Times were directly questioning official explanations and exposing what became known as “the credibility gap.”
    “In Vietnam, we reached a stage where the government’s word was to be questioned until proven true, whereas in the past it had been the government’s word is valid until proven to be wrong,” Mr. Zorthian said in a 1982 oral history.
    Many reporters, including Mr. Arnett, praised Mr. Zorthian as candid and forthcoming in the briefings. Others were skeptical. Gloria Emerson, a Times correspondent and author who wrote about Vietnam, called him “a determined and brilliant liar” at a 1981 conference on the Vietnam experience.
    Mr. Zorthian denied that he had ever lied or that he had ever been told to lie, and acknowledged only that he had withheld sensitive information relating to military security or diplomacy.
    After The New York Times and other newspapers in 1971 published a history of the Vietnam War that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Zorthian wrote an Op-Ed column in The Times asserting that the Vietnam war had been “the most open war in history.” He said that almost all the important disclosures in the documents had already been known to journalists.
    In a letter to the editor in response, Elliot Bernstein, the ABC News Saigon bureau chief in the mid-1960s, countered that the press had been kept in the dark about the extent of American bombing of Laos beginning in 1964, as well as the fact that bases in Thailand were being used to conduct air raids on North Vietnam.
    But Mr. Bernstein said Mr. Zorthian and his aides sometimes veered in the other direction, and that journalists learned things “that perhaps we shouldn’t have at the time.” Without giving specifics, he said he and other journalists kept those disclosures secret to protect the troops.
    Baryoor Zorthian was born on Oct. 8, 1920, in Kutahya, Turkey, to an Armenian family. His father, a writer, was imprisoned by Turks at a time when Armenians were being massacred, but he escaped. His mother, refusing to give the authorities information about her husband, was jailed for a time along with the newborn Baryoor.
    The family eventually reunited and fled to Greece and Italy. They settled in New Haven, where Mr. Zorthian’s father found work as a pants presser.
    Mr. Zorthian went to Yale, where he was an editor of The Yale Daily News and a member of the secret campus society Skull and Bones. He was a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. After working for a Vermont newspaper, he joined CBS Radio and then the Voice of America. He earned a law degree by attending New York University at night. After 13 years at the Voice of America, he became a diplomat in India.
    After leaving Saigon in 1968, Mr. Zorthian was an executive at Time Inc. and a lobbyist on communications issues.
    Mr. Zorthian’s wife of 62 years, the former Margaret Aylaian, died in 2010. In addition to his son Greg, he is survived by another son, Steve, and two grandchildren.
    Mr. Zorthian’s reputation for an easy sense of humor was evident in two lapel pins he sometimes wore to conferences on Vietnam. One read “Zorthian, Chief Leak”; the other “Ambushed at Credibility Gap.”

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