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Review by John H. Brown, Ph.D

Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U. S. Foreign Policy by Justin Hart, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978- 0-19-077794-5, hardcover, 279 pp., $34.95 (list)

In recent years the U.S. foreign affairs community has become increasingly aware that public diplomacy — defined by the State Department homepage as “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences”1 — has a history.

Such a historical perspective, so important for understanding the present and planning for the future, was an element regrettably missing in the dozens of reports that appeared after 9/11 on how PD (public diplomacy) had failed to meet the challenges of the so-called “war on terror.”2

This gap in the past has been filled by diligent scholars, including Nicholas Cull, author of the magisterial 533-page The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (2008). As its title suggest, Cull’s story goes back the Truman Years. Richard Arndt’s equally magisterial volume, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (2007), more concerned with the cultural rather than propaganda side of public diplomacy (a term he dislikes), is also a must read.

Given that history can — granted for optimists — be a guide for policy, it is good news that Justin Hart, a professor at Texas Tech University, has joined his fellow scholars in providing an analysis on PD’s historical roots. Hart argues, in the book under review, that public diplomacy’s origins can be traced back to the Buenos Aires conference (1936), “where the State Department proposed a series of government-sponsored technological and educational exchanges with the nations of Latin America,” calling this international initiative “cultural relations.”

Focusing on the late 30s to the early 50s, Hart covers, in varying detail, the information, cultural, and educational overseas outreach programs carried out by U.S. government agencies.

If the busy reader of this review will bear with me, allow me to list organizations, some little known, covered by Hart: The State Department Division on Cultural Relations; the Committee on Cooperation with the American Republics (CCAR); the Office of the Coordinator on Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller, whose turf-conscious relations with the State Department were at times intense; the Office of War Information (OWI, 1942-1945), also frequently at odds with State; the Department’s own Office of International and Cultural Affairs (OIC), organized after the abolishment of the OWI, as well as Foggy Bottom’s Office of Public Affairs; and the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), founded during the Truman Administration.

(One cannot help but ask, and as Hart suggests: Did not the large number of such alphabet-soup agencies complicate the task of carrying out their programs coherently)?

While Hart acknowledges his book “does not attempt to provide a comprehensive institutional history of public diplomacy or any of its component programs,” he enlightens with well-researched information (much of it culled from archival materials) about these often forgotten agencies and their leaders — including the key figure Archibald McLeish, a Harvard-trained lawyer and poet who went on to be the Librarian of Congress.

In workmanlike prose, the Texas Tech historian outlines the debates (which doubtless would resonate today at inside-the-beltway interagency meetings) among those he calls “public diplomats” about the methods needed implement their job — an obligation aiming, he contends, to depict America positively in “a new era in which the U.S. government could no longer remain indifferent to perception of the United States abroad.”

By 1945, according to Hart, a compromise had been found: “cultural diplomacy and propaganda formed the core of the public diplomacy matrix in the postwar period.” The U.S., or so the Washington consensus went, would win over the post-WWII world — including emerging non-European powers (e.g., China, India) — not by colonialism or territorial expansion, but by disseminating overseas an attractive and persuasive image of American values and achievements.

Hart argues that “policymakers,” as he vaguely brands them, believed that “the traditional notion of public opinion as a factor … to accommodate or manipulate” was insufficient in establishing an American Empire of Ideas. Americans themselves had to willingly participate in this process. He aptly cites MacLeish, who noted at a State Department meeting in 1945 that “electric communications has made foreign relations domestic affair.” “The idea of public participation,” Hart notes, “simply meant that ordinary people played the defining role in creating the image of ‘America’ projected to the world.”

(An intriguing account of how such public participation was used for propaganda purposes during the Eisenhower presidency can also be found in another essential book pertaining to PD, Kenneth Osgood’s Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, 2008.)

While Hart’s volume is a valuable contribution to the specialized literature, including on the challenge McCarthyism posed to USG overseas information programs during the early Cold War, I found gaps in this monograph’s meticulous research.

Take the Fulbright program, initiated in 1946, which became so important in presenting America to the world in a non-propagandistic fashion: Hart mentions it in only two pages (pp. 6, 54). The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, “the first statute to address public diplomacy efforts”3 is only briefly cited (pp. 109, 132-133, 135-137).

I have more substantive issues with Professor Hart’s study. First, he gives the impression that “public diplomacy” was the term employed in 1936-1953 to describe the information, cultural, and educational USG programs mentioned in his book. He notes, in footnote 1 of chapter 4, that “Official legend has it that Edward [sic — should be Edmund] Gullion [dean at the Tufts Fletcher School], coined the term ‘public diplomacy’ in 1965.” He adds that, “as Nicholas J. Cull has demonstrated, the phrase actually dates back to the mid-19th century, and it was commonly used both during World War I and World War II.”

This statement is a misreading, in my view, of Professor Cull’s illuminating article4, in which this distinguished University of Southern California scholar writes: “Gullion was the first to use the phrase [public diplomacy] in its modern meaning”; “The term was seldom used during the Second World War.” Moreover, never in his article does Cull state that term was “commonly” in circulation before the Cold War (for more details, see the appendix to this review).

My main concerns with Professor Hart’s work extend not only on how, historically, he misplaces a term — public diplomacy — but how he periodizes, incorrectly in my view, public diplomacy as an activity. He claims — or so I read his study — that U.S. PD essentially began in 1936.

But, it can be said, public diplomacy — or, more precisely, its assumptions and aims — has been long been part of America’s relations with the world. The first U.S. propaganda agency that dared not speak its name, Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919 (only briefly cited by Hart), was served, according to its chairman, George Creel, by more than 150,000 people5, far greater than the number of employees in today’s Public Diplomacy office at the State Department.

But to identify the origins of U.S. public diplomacy we must go back further in the past, to the very beginning of America’s history: to the Declaration of Independence, written to show respect and to woo “the opinions of mankind.” And some of its signers (e.g., Franklin and Jefferson, called our “first public diplomats”6) served their new country by representing it abroad.

To be sure, the flip side of America’s internationalism is its isolationism, a recurring trend in our history. The U.S. has often seen military power, moreover, as a more effective tool than diplomacy, traditional or public. But the principle of non-violently winning over hearts and minds overseas, of making “an appeal to the tribunal of the world” (to cite Jefferson7) has been an American tradition — is ideal a better word? — since 1776.

Indeed, “The Declaration of Independence is, in fact, a work of propaganda — or, to put it more politely, an exercise in public diplomacy intended to enlist other countries to the cause.”8 So wisely wrote on July 4, 2004 Walter Isaacson, a Franklin biographer and former Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees USG non-military international broadcasting.

Of course, the nature of public opinion and of communications has changed immensely since the late eighteenth century. So have the audiences and programs for U.S. government overseas outreach. But U.S public diplomacy, no matter what you call it, did not begin in 1936. It began, unnamed, with the Founding Founders, “we the people,” who knew they had to blow their horns to get the world’s attention. And blow their horns they did, with arguably far greater success than the twittering U.S. public diplomacy of today.bluestar

Appendix: From Nicholas Cull, “‘Public Diplomacy’ Before Gullion: The Evolution of a Phrase,” USC Center on Public Diplomacy
“The reason that the term ‘public diplomacy’ took off in 1965 was that there was a real need for such a concept in Washington DC. A dozen years into its life, the United States Information Agency needed alternative to the anodyne term information or malignant term propaganda: a fresh turn of phrase upon which it could build new and benign meanings. Gullion’s term ‘public diplomacy’ covered every aspect of USIA activity and a number of the cultural and exchange functions jealously guarded by the Department of State. The phrase gave a respectable identity to the USIA career officer, for it was one step removed from the ‘vulgar’ realm of ‘public relations’ and by its use of the term ‘diplomacy,’ explicitly enshrined the USIA along side the State Department as a legitimate organ of American foreign relations. The term itself became an argument for USIA and against the rump of exchange and cultural work at State. If public diplomacy existed as a variety of diplomacy in the modern world — the argument ran — then surely the United States surely needed a dedicated agency to conduct this work, and that agency was best structured to control all work in the field. … During the course of the 1990s the term public diplomacy finally entered common use in foreign policy circles overseas.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

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