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USIA Exhibits: Highly Effective Public Diplomacy

Charles Spencer

September 2, 2011

“As was demonstrated repeatedly at these [cultural exhibits] from 1959 to 1991, Americans and Russians, as people, did indeed discover a mutual understanding.”

So concludes Andrew Wulf, curator of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and a doctoral candidate in museum studies, who has delved deeply into the U.S. Information Agency records at the National Archives in Washington and at the Reagan Library in California.

His findings were published in a long, well-illustrated article, “Cultural Diplomacy With the Evil Empire: The Reagan Administration’s Other Front in the Cold War.”  The article appears in the summer 2011 issue of Prologue, a glossy general-circulation quarterly published by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The article includes a thumbnail history of USIA, from its creation by President Eisenhower in 1953, through the late 1970s when President Carter “shied away from outright ideological confrontation with … the Soviet Union,” to its “restoration to its original status” by President Reagan in the 1980s.  Wulf characterizes Charles Z. Wick, Reagan’s appointee as USIA director, as “an ardent nationalist who failed to see the more nuanced, intellectual side of … public diplomacy,” but who was fully attuned to “… his President’s appraisal of the Soviet Union as an ‘Evil Empire.'”  They both believed that Soviet influence in the world could be effectively undermined, over time, by a combination of aggressive information programs, counter-disinformation releases (“Project Truth”), and cultural exchanges, “especially traveling exhibits.”

The article concludes by highlighting as particularly effective USIA’s 1987 exhibit entitled “Information USA: Linking People and Knowledge,” about computers and popular culture.  It was designed specifically for Soviet audiences.  It toured Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi, Tashkent and several other cities, “averaging 200,000 visitors a day,” mainly youth, many of whom seemed to conclude that the United States was a land of plenty, while they themselves “subsisted in a ‘sacrifice society.'”

At this writing, the summer issue of Prologue had not yet been posted online.  When it has been posted, go to to read the complete article.

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