On September 11, 1956, three years after creating the United States Information Agency, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the People-to-People program within USIA by saying:
I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals.
Indeed, in May 1947, in testimony to Congress in support of pending legislation on the promotion of comity among nations and information programs, Eisenhower stressed that
real security, in contrast, to the relative security of armaments, could develop only from understanding and mutual comprehension.
Sister Cities International and People-to-People are products of Eisenhower’s citizen diplomacy initiative launched over fifty years ago. The mission of Sister Cities is to foster direct engagement between US cities and communities abroad with the purpose of creating cultural understanding and awareness through direct person-to-person contact by inspiring private citizens to travel abroad and to host citizens from outside America. It was, and remains, a quintessential public diplomacy program.
Today, despite its impact, Sister Cities is underappreciated. Today, the over 650 US communities that partner with more than 2,000 sister cities in 135 countries do more than just student, culture, and art exchanges. The members of Sister Cities operate extensively in the areas of humanitarian assistance, economic and sustainable development, education, and technical assistance. This includes helping locally elected officials in Iraq develop city budgets to providing assistance to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan and Iraq to post-disaster assistance. In other words, the Sister Cities network does the work of the State Department and USAID, but at the municipal level.