Amerika as a key tool of Cold War public diplomacy
by Elise Crane
A graduate student of public diplomacy looks at one of the most successful public diplomacy products during the Cold War. Are there lessons for today’s public diplomats contained in the glossy pages of USIA’s premier publication? -The Editor
“Amerika gave us the truth—and the illusion—of America.”
The Nuts and Bolts of Cold War Diplomacy
At its core, public diplomacy involves communicating directly with a foreign public to explain America, increase mutual understanding, and promote dialogue. It aims to present America’s best face to the world and to use soft power—culture, institutions, and the essence of Americana—to promote positive opinions about the United States and U.S. foreign policy among overseas audiences. Never was this more important, nor more challenging, than during the Cold War.
The Cold War was essentially a 56-year freeze on traditional diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. It necessitated alternative, creative approaches and elevated public diplomacy programs to vital importance. As Soviet authorities forbid travel outside of the Soviet Union, America was a black hole to most Soviet citizens; they had only Soviet propaganda, which was usually inaccurate and often malicious, from which to form their perceptions of the United States. Virtually airtight to outside influence, Soviet authorities created their own image of the world and relentlessly distributed these distortions to their subjects. The U.S. government, and specifically the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), confronted a critical need for programs to counter Soviet propaganda, present factual information about America, and provide Soviets with a highly demanded window on the West. With key exceptions such as the Moscow Kitchen Debate in 1959, however, USIA was prevented from using the bulk of its traditional tools, including unrestrained broadcasting and print publications, cultural exchange, exhibits, American centers, and direct personal contact.
Strict Soviet censorship was a key element affecting the formation and dissemination of Cold War-era public diplomacy programs. Because of its unique reciprocal distribution arrangement, Amerika, a striking USIA-produced Russian-language magazine, obviated tight Soviet censorship on print publications and provided its public with their only unfiltered view of the West. Certainly, broadcasting by the Voice of America and Radio Liberty played a huge role in changing hearts and minds and affecting perceptions about the West. Further, while Amerika stuck to what it did best—highlighting everyday life on the other side of the Iron Curtain—broadcasting presented U.S. foreign policy. However, given Russian reverence for the written word, Amerika arguably affected the public more powerfully than radio ever could. In short, Amerika functioned in a daunting, and often hostile, political environment and conquered steep challenges to serve as the ideal public diplomacy instrument for its place and time.
Amerika’s Unique Impact
Given the frigidity of Cold War politics, the Soviet crackdown on traditional public diplomacy methods, and the impossibility of direct cultural outreach, special USIA publications such as Amerika (known as America Illustrated in the United States) were the key instruments in appealing to a widely dispersed and culturally alienated Soviet audience. Amerika, published monthly from 1944-1994 under a special reciprocal distribution arrangement, corrected Soviet disinformation about America and provided Russians with a vivid depiction of everyday life in the West. Although it is notoriously difficult to measure the impact of public diplomacy, it seems that an absence of such programs as Amerika would have resulted in disastrously skewed Soviet perceptions of the United States, based entirely on virulently anti-American propaganda.
In his excellent book on USIA programs that transcended the Iron Curtain, Walter Hixson quotes a Moscow diplomat on the success of Amerika in 1959: “with the exception of personal contacts, Amerika magazine has made the greatest contribution to better understanding of America by the Soviets and to provision of accurate information about the U.S., thus counteracting to some degree anti-American propaganda.”1 This paper will examine the structure and key elements of Amerika, its deployment and evolution during the Cold War era, and its relative success to other USIA publications and broadcasting, and will examine current Russia-specific public diplomacy efforts as State moves toward a Web 2.0 model.
Why it Worked: the Social and Political Context that Required Special Treatment
Soviet society was, and Russian society remains, unique on several counts relevant to public diplomacy programs. Most importantly, intelligence has always carried a high value and literacy has been nearly universal. Dick Baker worked on Amerika for many years and viewed Soviet literacy rates as a “non-issue.”2 This was surely a rare luxury for public diplomacy professionals, given global illiteracy rates, and allowed them to use print media to effectively target not just elite opinion makers, but also the mass public. One cannot overstate the importance of print publications in a society that adulates the written word; knowing its audience, USIA officials had to develop an excellent print product that appealed to the Soviet intellect while providing images of daily American life. Amerika hit the target.
Despite nearly universal literacy, Amerika relied as much on images as on words. According to Dick Baker, who worked on the magazine for many years, most Soviet citizens were aware that their government fed them lies. By extension, they expected that the U.S. government would lie to them as well. However, “they trusted pictures more than words,” said former USIA official Howard Cincotta.3 One image of a fully stocked American supermarket provided an infinitely more credible and powerful image of life in the West than could have a 5000-word article about consumer goods.
From President Truman’s “Campaign of Truth” to President Reagan’s “Project Truth,” illusion versus reality was a constant theme in Soviet-U.S. relations and required external correction. Soviet propaganda was rife with accusations of U.S. racism, including official comparisons of Reagan administration attitudes to those of the Ku Klux Klan, implying that “the administration supported Klan activity.”4 Reports of a U.S. conspiracy to spread AIDS via biological warfare persisted until 1988.5 A 1979 CSIS report concluded that “horror stories about American society still abound in the Soviet press,” including claims of babies being sold under the evil aegis of capitalism. 6
Although Amerika shied away from responding overtly to such accusations, it featured images and stories that highlighted the relative merits of capitalism—such as fully stocked supermarket shelves—and that vividly promoted the “Leave it to Beaver” brand of 1950s familial love. The implicit message in such efforts, it seems, could be interpreted as “We do not sell our babies in America.” Amerika also featured such stories as “The Negro Today,” which aimed to present facts and figures of African American successes as anecdotes to allegations of entrenched racism.7 The success of such counterpropaganda is difficult to measure, but it seems justified against the alternative of passively watching the spread of malicious Soviet disinformation.
In its first issue, USIA’s Problems of Communism featured an article that acknowledged rampant Soviet propaganda but argued thatSoviet youth had not yet been completely indoctrinated.8 This gap provided a window of opportunity for such publications as Amerika to correct disinformation and appeal to certain Soviets who saw through the propaganda overload and began to sympathize, perhaps unconsciously, toward America.9 In this sense, the extremity and borderline absurdity of anti-American propaganda served to intensify Soviet fascination with America and to whet its palate for any available information.10
Of all public diplomacy programs aimed at the Soviet Union, including broadcasting and other print publications, Amerika responded most successfully to popular appetite for information about the West. Starved for images of and information about a land that must have seemed worlds away, Soviets developed an obsessive interest in Western, and particularly American, ways of life. Many former PD professionals involved in Amerika describe this obsession as integral to the magazine’s success. George Clack, Amerika’s last editor, emphasized Amerika’s ability to tap into an enormous hunger for information about the West in a country notoriously scarce on information.11 Howard Cincotta described his time at Amerika as “probably the only time in my editorial career when I was positive that our stuff was reaching a large, appreciative audience.” This opinion was substantiated by the booming black market for “unsold” issues and Soviet attempts to obviate the distribution agreement. As Yale Richmond aptly put it, “nothing attracts like forbidden fruit.”12 Amerika, in essence, was that forbidden fruit.
How it Worked: the Reciprocal Distribution Agreement
The cultural agreements initiated between Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt paved the way for Amerika’s reciprocal distribution with Soviet Life. Under the first agreement, signed in 1945, Amerika was publishedby the Office of War Information and lacked a Soviet counterpart. Realizing its impact on the mass public in early 1950, Soviet authorities began to manipulate circulation numbers and to claim that Soviet readers had “lost interest in Amerika,” returning 25,000 supposedly unsold copies to the U.S. embassy each month.13 This led USIA officials to discontinue Amerika in 1952 and to redouble efforts in broadcasting. Then-editor Marion Sanders fought valiantly to save the magazine, citing its centrality in reaching a broad and educated audience. A New York Times editorial supported her fight, claiming “the suspension of Amerika is regrettable because it was the last direct means of giving the Russian people a glimpse of American life and American aims in refutation of Soviet lies. That is the reason why the Soviets wished to keep it out of Russian hands.”14
Stalin’s death led to a renewed Soviet-American cultural agreement in October 1956 and the inception of a reciprocal distribution scheme. President Eisenhower led the re-launch of Amerika, which was once again an “instant success and invariably sold out quickly,” leading to renewed Soviet attempts to restrict its circulation in violation of the cultural agreement terms.15 These terms stipulated that each magazine could sell up to 50,000 copies in its respective market. The Soviet magazine distributed in the United States, originally called USSR but later changed to Soviet Life, sold for 20 cents and was by many accounts a burdensome product. Its first issue in July 1956 began promisingly enough, with “interesting if rose-tinted” articles on Russian jet liners, ballet, peaceful atom use, Soviet farming, sports, poetry, and cartoons.16 However, Soviet Life articles were “heavy with freight” and dripping with overt ideology that failed to resonate with U.S. readers.17 Unlike Amerika, which enjoyed the status of being virtually the only visual window on America in the USSR, Soviet Life competed with a range of U.S. magazines reporting on foreign affairs.18 In the booming U.S. media market, Soviet Life was not the only available presentation of Soviet life.
A ban on subscriptions meant that USIA was reliant on the Soyuzpechat press agency for Amerika’s distribution. Interpreting the reciprocity agreement to its strictest form, from their 50,000 copies each month Soviet authorities returned the same number of “unsold” copies of Amerika as American authorities returned of Soviet Life.19 The rate of return became a critical problem when Soviet Life distribution fell to 20,000 copies per month and led American officials to ask its DC employees to each buy a few copies to increase the figures.20 Former Amerika staff editors described cunning Soviet attempts to bypass the formal distribution agreement, including forcing news kiosk retailers to claim they were sold out of Amerika when in fact thousands of copies remained undistributed.21 The Soviets then returned these “unwanted” copies to the U.S. embassy, which Dick Baker describes as “ridiculous. America was a highly desirable item.” In an interview for State’s Oral History Project, Robert E. McCarthy described the regularity of allegedly unsellable returns and Soviet claims of insufficient demand. “This was simply to make a political point,” said McCarthy; public demand for Amerika was undeniable. Every USIA officer interviewed for this paper vividly described the winding queues that would form at news kiosks, with Soviets waiting hours for copies of Amerika.
As a minor and secondary effort to the official Soyuzpechat distribution system, the United States sent roughly 2,000 copies of Amerika to influential elites, targeted by Moscow embassy staff, along with clippings from the Wireless File.22 This list, significantly, included the young Mikhail Gorbachev; although the magazinewas just one piece in forming Gorbachev’s views on the West, it seems to speak for Amerika’s long-term contribution in toppling communism from within.23
Officially, the Soyuzpechat gave USIA the revenue from copies of Amerika sold on news kiosks, but as Dick Baker said, the money was “meaningless. It was about hearts and minds, not about money, but at least this was some way of keeping score” and attempting to reduce Soviet deviance in skirting the reciprocity agreement.
Some officials were more skeptical than others of the Soyuzpechat; former Moscow diplomat William Watts felt that “if you put it [Amerika] in the kiosk, the authorities would just take them away.”24 In light of this, USIA staff devised innovative ways of getting Amerika into Soviet hands. When embassy officers and workers left the building, they would take stacks of Amerika,leaving copies on trains and sometimes throwing them out of train windows. As Kenneth Skoug said, “We knew that they [Soviet authorities] would find it out eventually, but we thought that before they did somebody might have the chance to read something interesting.”25
Amerika as a Collector’s Item
Amerika’s greatest strength was its powerful images, factual presentation of the American way of life, and relatively hands-off approach to swaying hearts and minds. Modeled after Life and other popular U.S. magazines, Amerika featured vibrant color photos, thick, glossy paper, and an oversized format. In contrast to bleak Soviet publications, it had sensory appeal and wowed Soviet citizens with its detail and workmanship. “It was everything that the USSR wasn’t,” said McKinney Russell, a former USIA official who worked in the Moscow embassy in the late 1960s. “It was glossy, colorful, varied, and well-edited.”26
By relying on factual content, Amerika lived up to Creighton Peet’s definition of good public diplomacy: “never to tell other people what we think is wrong with them or how much better we are—but merely to show them what kind of people we are, how we live and work, and, indirectly, ask for their understanding and support.”27 Amerika eschewed political propaganda, focusing instead on rosy presentations of U.S. daily life.28 Images of happy families relaxing on beaches, taking airplane rides, and picnicking in parks were tantalizing to Russians entrenched in the daily grind of subsistence living. Images of new technology, such as variations on “The Automobile—Inside and Outside,” and photo essays on New York’s skyscrapers must have seemed to spring from an alien world for Russians accustomed to one car model and drab Soviet architecture.29
As Yale Richmond said, “There is no doubt that readers were impressed with the standard of living and everyday life in the United States portrayed in the magazine, and they made the inevitable comparisons with their own lives.”30 By showing America’s best face, Amerika allowed Soviets to draw their own conclusions about the relative merits of communism and contributed to a growing internal discontent with the Soviet way of life.
Howard Cincotta underlined Amerika’s strength in flaunting a prosperous U.S. lifestyle. “We would do a story on people who fix their own homes and would run a full-page picture of an entire wall of toilet seats in Home Depot. The story and the caption didn’t really matter; what riveted Soviet readers was the unbelievable idea that you could choose from 20 or more toilet seats. As a society built on the scarcity of consumer goods, the contrast was striking.” John Brown, another former Moscow diplomat who worked with Amerika, underlined its ability to gently present another way of life to Soviet readers: “it did not take much imagination on their part to conclude that this [U.S.] way of life was a better and freer one. [Amerika] also ‘looked’ far better than local publications—another way of telling readers that the USA, although not perfect, was a fine place to be.”31
Former editor George Clack described Amerika’s mission as two-fold: to demonstrate the superiority of America’s twin pillars of democracy and capitalism and to quench Soviet curiosity by showing how Americans lived. Amerika’s content reflected this mission by including reprints from such popular magazines as Life and Look, which were supplemented by USIA-solicited articles. Solicited articles more directly promoted capitalism and democracy, with such titles as “The Role of the President” and “Labor and Management: a Partnership,” but Amerika editors sensed their readers would respond better to human-interest stories. Thus they relied primarily on such reprints as “Best Dressed College Girls” and “America’s 1956 Automobiles to satiate Soviet curiosity while conveying subtle political messages.32
Perhaps Amerika’s greatest legacy, and evidence of its profound impact on the Soviet psyche, is its attainment of keepsake status. Dick Baker described the Soviet obsession with collecting the full set (454 issues in total) of the “classic production,” while George Clack highlighted the pass-along rate and resultant “multiplier effect,” which is a unique benefit of print publications. Because copies were so limited and kiosks often sold out (or “sold out,” depending the current level of Soviet distribution crackdown), citizens would often pass around the same dog-eared copy of Amerika to several people. Estimates of the pass-along rate vary between five and twelve per copy, but regardless of the exact figure, the “multiplier effect” necessitated heavy-duty paper and thick staples. Fitzhugh Green said that “each new issue disappears faster than rain in the desert, and the pass-along readership approaches a half dozen per copy.”33 A 1949 Time article estimated that the 50,000 sanctioned copies “get thumbed by about 1,000,000 Soviet citizens”;34 small wonder that Green cited Amerika as USIA’s “most notable” magazine and a model for other USIA publications.35
Measuring its Impact
Given strict Soviet control, USIA could not rely on traditional means such as focus groups or reader surveys to gauge Amerika’s popular reception. Dick Baker remembered only two audience surveys during his 14 years with Amerika. Embassy staff relied on Amerika’s obvious popularity with both the public and the elite, evidenced by constant scarcity problems and the flourishing black market, as the primary marker of its success. According to a 1946 Time article, on the black market Amerika could command 100 times its cover price of 10 rubles from Russians eager “for a look at the Amerika most of them will never see except in pictures.”36 Amerika was seen as “the thing to have on your coffee table” to show you were “in the know,” said George Clack, which effectively transformed the magazine into an elite prestige symbol. This symbolism reached the highest ranks of Soviet authority, Dick Baker argued. Even if Soviet officials were hostile to America, “they still wanted Amerika.” Baker described a recent visit with a Russian foreign ministry official. After seeing an issue of Amerika on Baker’s desk, the official rhapsodized at length about his fond memories of Amerika.
Amerika’s impact was also evident by tracking Soviet distribution crackdowns and propaganda counterblasts. According to former USIA official Robert Cattell, “when the Soviets got difficult about distribution it was a sign that our editors were doing something right.” Yale Richmond has similar views on distribution crackdowns: “the effectiveness of Amerika can best be assessed by the extreme measures taken by the Soviet authorities to limit its distribution.”37 Soviet counterpropaganda showed that authorities were reading Amerika too, or at least aware of its powerful impact on its populace. A 1949 Time article cited Pravda and Izvestia, major Soviet dailies, as launching frequent assaults against Amerika, and quoted former editor Marion Sanders as saying happily, “that means we must be getting read.”38 Propaganda counterblasts typically centered on U.S. race relations, vehemently denying the validity of such Amerika features as Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and drawing vivid comparisons, complete with “atrocity drawings,” to the Ku Klux Klan.39
Amerika’s Evolution and Demise
As with all good public diplomacy efforts, Amerika’s focus and content evolved to meet its audience’s changing demands and the mutating political context in which it operated. A series of high-profile defections in the 1960s, which included Joseph Stalin’s daughter, opened the door to more serious content in Amerika. Reflecting growing disillusionment with communism within the Soviet empire, these defections “spoke for themselves, and were more convincing (and devastating) without USIA pontificating,” gradually leading Amerika to focus on the “substance rather than the surface of American life.”40
Amerika took a marked turn toward more serious material when the USSR began opening to the outside world in the late 1980s. According to George Clack, the content shift was particularly striking after glasnost allowed foreign commercial media into the once info-scarce Soviet market and Amerika suddenly had to compete for readers in an info-rich, often cacophonous media environment. Clack described Amerika as “very eclectic” in the early 1990s, as it simultaneously appealed to Soviet interest in pop culture with features on Madonna and Schwarzenegger and responded to demand for more practical information with features by Milton Friedman on capitalism and Paul Samuelson on business start-ups.
Despite its swift response to changing tastes and demand, Amerika experienced a sharp drop in sales after 1989. Soyuzpechat, the Soviet distribution apparatus, presented then-editor George Clack with a trifecta of explanations for the decrease: 1) terrifically difficult economic times for Soviets meant they had no money for magazines, no matter how minimal the cost, 2) with the entrance of Western commercial media, Amerika was no longer the “forbidden fruit,” 3) Soviets were becoming more inward-looking, with no time or money to worry about the United States. Despite these challenges, and the “whole new ballgame” ushered in by glasnost, Clack said Amerika was still selling around 100,000 copies per month in 1994. Competing with Hollywood is no small feat; Amerika fought admirably for five years after glasnost and may well have continued if USIA Director Joe Duffy hadn’t eliminated the agency’s entire magazine division in 1994.
Amerika’s Relevance in the 21st Century
A key challenge for modern public diplomacy is in promoting dialogue over one-way projection of information. With limited resources and limitless issues to confront, it is imperative to find a new way of doing things and creating opportunities for conversation. Under-Secretary Judith McHale has highlighted the potential of new media and stressed the importance of two-way communication and continued engagement.41 Although Amerika arguably lacked a true dialogue function, it was responsive to Soviet demand for information and got people talking about the positive aspects of America. As George Clack says, the key is in “finding connections between the old and new ways of doing public diplomacy while maintaining the same basic principles.” Clack sees potential in new media’s “multiplier effect,” which is reminiscent of Amerika’s unique function. Clack draws particular focus to the distinctions of new media, in which State may lose control of the specific message but, in doing so, can invite questions, encourage dialogue and, ultimately, produce a genuine online community.
We need to find the best possible option for today’s unique circumstances and using today’s new tools, but we should not lose sight of successful programs from the past. Howard Cincotta argues that proper usage of technology in public diplomacy focuses on the four Rs: “right content, right audience, right format—right now.”42 If new media can be employed in a way that draws on successful lessons of the past—appealing content, soft persuasion, targeted impact, and increased opportunities for dialogue—and can highlight user-generated content, it will hugely strengthen modern public diplomacy and allow us to do more with less resources.
In a 2008 editorial, John McCain called attention to the continued importance of public diplomacy and identified its objective “not to force the American way of life on anyone else, but to expose the world to the American story of hope, opportunity, charity and liberty.”43 What made Amerika so popular was its vivid and factual presentation of life on the other side; although the West is no longer “forbidden fruit” and many Russians may have visited the United States, it remains critical to respond to demand for more in-depth information about our way of life and the best version of America.
5. Constance Holden. “Curbing Soviet Disinformation.” Science 242, no. 4879 (1988), 665.
6. Barry Rubin. “How Others Report Us: American in the Foreign Press.” The Washington Papers, Volume VII. Washington, DC: The Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University (1979), 52.
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerika_(magazine). Accessed 22 November 2009.
29.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerika_(magazine). Accessed 22 November 2009.
41. Joshua Fouts. “Social Media, Virtual Worlds and Public Diplomacy.” (World Politics Review 13 October 2009), Accessed online at http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4440 31 October 2009.
42, Howard Cincotta. “Wireless File to Web: State Department’s Print and Electronic Media in the Arab World.” In Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds Through Public Diplomacy, ed. William A. Rugh. (New York: Public Diplomacy Council, 2004), 151.
Elise Crane is a master’s candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. She is focusing on international communication and conflict resolution, with an emphasis on media as a tool of post-conflict reconciliation. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Colorado in 2006, where she studied international relations and Russian. Most recently, Elise worked in the Czech Republic as a media representative, which included business trips to Moscow to meet with newspaper editors. This summer she will intern with the Department of State’s Office of South Central Europe and plans to take the Foreign Service exam in early 2010.