Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency

December 08, 2004 // 3:00pm4:30pm

Wilson Dizard, a former State Department official and a fifteen year veteran of the United States Information Agency (USIA), recently discussed his new book chronicling USIA's history from its founding in 1953 until its end in 1999. Mr. Dizard opened with a focus on the continuing importance of public diplomacy, or the role of government information programs in carrying out U.S. foreign policy, in today's world, especially considering that a significant portion of world opinion is currently opposed to the US. Mr. Dizard argued that the US has been slow to develop public diplomacy programs because propaganda has traditionally been viewed skeptically by U.S. public opinion. He contrasted the lack of official public information programs with the fact that the US has been the world's most successful society in projecting its cultural ideals abroad (e.g. Hollywood).

Official public diplomacy began in the US before the Second World War with the need to counter German propaganda in Latin America. This effort, led by Nelson Rockefeller and Bill Donovan, was eventually institutionalized as the Office of War Information (OWI), which was eliminated at the end of the war. The successes of the Fulbright program and the democratization programs in Germany and Japan in the immediate postwar period, along with the need to counter increasingly strident Soviet propaganda, led to the eventual establishment of the Voice of America and RFE/RFL radio stations, the Armed Forces Network, and in 1953, the USIA.

USIA operated in over fifty languages at 300 overseas posts by the end of the 1950s. Mr. Dizard argued that its exchange programs and libraries were the most effective programs, particularly in Eastern Europe: more than half of the Solidarity ministers who participated in the first post-communist government in Poland were veterans of USIA exchange programs. The Helsinki Accords and Détente, however, were essential to this opening of Eastern Europe to USIA influence. USIA also had major success in South Africa, where its libraries and auditoriums were opened to blacks in 1962. Mr. Dizard did admit that, despite an enormous investment of resources, USIA operations in Vietnam were a failure.

While the end of the Cold War sounded the eventual death knell for USIA, Mr. Dizard argued that, in today's hostile climate, there is still a role for public diplomacy. The administration's business-oriented attempt to "market" the US overseas has generally failed, and it has often been clumsy in its use of language (e.g. describing the war on terror as a "crusade"). Mr. Dizard thought that the cultural and personal exchanges that worked so well in the past might be helpful in the future.

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Associate
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project