by Walter Roberts
On February 1, 1942 — almost 72 years ago — seven weeks after Pearl Harbor forced America into war — the US government started engaging in public diplomacy. This action was approved by President Franklin Roosevelt at the recommendation of Col. William Donovan and Robert Sherwood, the playwright who served as Roosevelt’s speech writer and information advisor. It was Sherwood who coined the term Voice of America. Public diplomacy’s birthplace was 270 Madison Ave. in New York City.
I know that some of my cultural program friends say that the conduct of American public diplomacy started earlier when Nelson Rockefeller’s Inter-American agency built bi-national centers in Latin America. I also know that several of my academic friends speak of Benjamin Franklin’s and Thomas Jefferson’s work in Paris. But I still say that American public diplomacy as we conduct and understand it today began when the US government set out to reach the people of Germany, France and Italy with broadcasts in their languages. And that occurred on February 1, 1942.
The US government had no facilities to reach these audiences. It did not own any short-wave transmitters. There were short-wave transmitters owned by private companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, NBC, CBS, but they were too weak to carry an audible signal to Europe. So these broadcasts in German, French and Italian were sent by telephone to London — there was already an underground cable connecting the US with Britain — where the British Broadcasting Corporation — the BBC — put them on medium wave transmitters which could be heard in Germany, France and Italy.
In the course of the war, the US built powerful short-wave transmitters that reached every corner of the world in multiple languages. Years later, television was added as a facility. Then internet appeared on the horizon. Today facebook and twitter have been added. I have no idea what new communication tools will appear in the future. But of one thing I am sure: international broadcasting is here to stay because there is no other medium through which, with one click, hundreds of million people can be reached.
International broadcasting is and will continue to be a vital element of public diplomacy which in turn is a vital element of diplomacy.
Walter Roberts started his government career with the Voice of America. He retired from the government after serving as Associate Director of the U.S. Information Agency. President George H. W. Bush appointed and President Bill Clinton reappointed him as member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He is the author of Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 and numerous articles on foreign policy.