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Was It Public Diplomacy or a Telling Of America’s Story?

Fred Becchetti, USIA 1962-89

August 11, 2011

In 1962 on my first day at USIA Edward R. Murrow greeted me at the front door of 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue. He smiled and said good morning to me as he hurried out the main door to his waiting car.

Somewhat stunned by seeing him, I smiled back and thought how great to be greeted by the USIA director himself on my arrival from Arizona to help him tell America’s story.

Nobody ever told me how to tell that story, but for 27 years I told a story in Latin America that won me many good friends in five different countries and earned me various Agency awards. Officers of my generation, also without instructions on telling America’s story, told stories similar to mine around the world.

We were a relatively undisciplined bunch working hard on our stories on the fringe of American embassies staffed by very serious State people who never quite understood us. We, in turn, never understood why they were always so serious. After all, there was always a wonderful story of America to tell, no matter how we told it.

The term “public diplomacy” didn’t get invented until the mid-1960’s. Most of us in USIA never quite understood what it meant. I never heard the term in ordinary conversation, but I saw it in documents meant to impress people with how serious we were.

Now, a half-century later, I analyze some of my own projects and hear the exploits of some of my contemporaries in our war against Soviet communism and I wonder if what we were doing could be listed under the high-falutin term of “public diplomacy.” It may be that we were just having a good time being Americans and making friends.

Softball: For example, take the distinguished silver-haired CAO and the BNC director in Honduras who played first and second base for two years on a Honduran softball team and drank beer with their Honduran teammates in a local cantina after every game, win or lose, while replaying every inning and razzing one another in Spanish.

Space: Then there was the officer who spent an hour explaining to his family’s Panamanian maid what she had seen on the television screen when the scenes of the Apollo moon landing were shown. Bursting with pride, he told her that two American men — Si, Maria, americanos! — had actually walked on the moon. The maid listened courteously and informed him that she didn’t believe it. He asked why. With great seriousness and addressing the officer as though he were a child, Maria explained that a man cannot stand or walk on light.

Balalaika Diplomacy: High in the Bolivian Andes, an officer told his story of America to the tune of his balalaika. His artistry on the instrument won him fame throughout Bolivia, earning him invitations to concertize in other Latin American countries. His address in retirement is Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Crafts: An officer led a group of Indians attired in their native dress and carrying bulky bags through the Marine checkpoint and up the stairs of an American Embassy to his office in the USIS section. He invited the Indians to sit on the floor of an anteroom and display their crafts.  Embassy personnel drifted in to haggle and purchase items. On an invitation from the Indians, the officer later visited their village.

Opera: On a visit to the American Canal Zone, the BNC-Panama director met an American lieutenant colonel, whose sister, Metropolitan Opera star Leontyne Price, was visiting him in the Zone and wanted to go across “to see the real Panama.” The officer invited her to his binational center, housed in a dilapidated mansion in Old Panama. Accompanied by her brother, the opera singer visited the BNC and spent the afternoon chatting delightfully with members of Panama’s music community, including descendants of the men from the Caribbean islands who worked on building the Canal.

MOMA: An officer in Chile read of a retrospective exhibit of Picasso’s works to be mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He persuaded forty members of the Chilean art community to pay their own way to New York to see the exhibit, tour New York City and take a side tour to Philadelphia to visit the art museum there as well as Liberty Hall and the Liberty Bell.

TESOL: With his English-teaching seminars, an officer became friends with hundreds of Venezuelan English teachers. He organized a delegation of thirty-five teachers to travel to Miami Beach at their own cost to the first convention of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), where they were introduced to the revolutionary methodology of the time. On their return, the teachers founded their own English teacher association, updated the country’s English program and traveled to subsequent TESOL gatherings in San Antonio, Denver and other American cities.

Street Art: In the Benjamin Franklin American Cultural Center in Mexico City, an officer mounted an exhibit of art to be seen on the streets of the Mexican capital. It included a specially constructed window display of wedding dresses and a vendor’s street cart stacked artistically with colorfully packaged candies. That same officer even presented a musical program in which the same short composition was played over and over, day and night, for sixteen solid hours by Mexico’s leading pianists in relay.

Jazz: And there was the CAO in Panama who learned that Duke Ellington and his orchestra ending a tour in South America would be laying-over one day in Panama on their way back to the States. The officer contacted Duke Ellington and received a commitment that the group would do a concert in Panama the night of their arrival. In the space of five days, the officer found a local sponsor, lined up a concert venue and organized the sale of 7,000 tickets. The 70-year old Ellington was on stage the entire concert and spent another hour and a half into the night with Panamanian musicians lined up after the concert to express their admiration and show him their own compositions, standing in awe when he played their own works on the piano.

Theater: The Agency sent a huge presentation of the musical “Showboat” to Venezuela. The BNC officer arranged with the city fathers for the placement of the monstrous inflated tent theater in the middle of the city’s large park, Parque del Este. He also recruited American and Venezuelan families to take in cast members during their stay. The wife of the BNC director even did some personal laundry for cast members who stayed with them. Later, in Panama, she would do laundry for members of an American basketball team.

Ask just about any so-called USIA “warrior” of the Cold War and you will hear of similar projects such as:

Wheelchairs: A fund-raising campaign to purchase wheelchairs for the disabled.
College Counseling : The establishment of a counseling center for foreigners planning to attend college in the U.S.

Radio: A radio program of American classical music using Agency-furnished vinyl records and moderated by an American officer speaking in Anglo-accented Spanish.

English: The teaching of English to the president and top officials of the country.

High schools: Graduation speeches and the handing out of diplomas to hundreds of teenage graduates, including girls who, because of tradition, had to be kissed on both cheeks.

Art: Arrangements for exchanges between young artists and American artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who when asked why he painted large cartoons, replied, “Because they are there.”
English Centers: The management of large BNC English-teaching centers with enrollments of up to 10,000 students from kindergarten to college levels, with courses in typing and computers.

Were we diplomats without striped pants or were we simply Americans winging it in country after country? All I know is that we were a corps of exciting and hard-working men and women who charged fearlessly into new cultures all over the world and emerged rich in friendships forged with sophisticated and intelligent men and women, many of whom rose to leadership positions in their countries perhaps because of the story of America that we told in our wanderings under the inspiration of Edward R. Murrow, the man who greeted me at the door of USIA.

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