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Memorable Encounters with Two Early Public Diplomacy Stalwarts

Stephen M. Carney

April 14, 2012

Trying to remember what took place in Nicaragua more than sixty-five years ago I encountered the names of two individuals who were significant in the early annals of public diplomacy and whom I knew personally — Muna Lee and Jake Canter.

Several months out of the Army in early 1946 I was looking for suitable employment to help pay for my civilian uniform. Applications at the State Department and Library of Congress brought a quicker response from the Library. I was comfortably installed at the Legislative Reference Service when a call from State informing me that Kessel Schwartz, director of its English language teaching program in Nicaragua, had been medically evacuated and they would like to send me to Nicaragua as his replacement if I could get ready in ten days. Why ten days? Well, it would take some time to get suitably engraved calling cards, and there was the matter of a passport. Should I stay at the library or go with State? Advice sought from three people: Dr. Griffith, head of LRS; Lewis Hanke, who was in charge of Hispanic matters at the library; and Muna Lee at State. The score was two to one so within ten days and with calling cards in hand, I was on my way to Nicaragua.

Muna Lee

Muna gave me sound advice and that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted beyond her retirement and return to Puerto Rico to be with her children. She was the former wife of Munoz Marin, one time governor of Puerto Rico. I was given to understand they had been young writers together in Greenwich Village, N.Y.

Several scenes with Muna come back into focus. During a visit to Martinique in the early fifties we were on our way from Fort de France to St. Pierre through the rainforest surrounding La Trace, the inland road, when Muna suddenly said to Sam, our driver, “Stop, stop!” She had heard the haunting bell-like call of a bird, the siffleur de bois, mentioned in Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies and considered to be extinct. She mentioned that every time our paths crossed.

When I returned from Martinique, I brought the rough draft of an anthology of writings on Martinique illustrated with color photos I had taken. When Muna saw it she insisted I take it to her publisher, Annie Laurie (who did well by Margaret Michell) in New York. My understanding was that Muna wrote mysteries under a pen name.

Not to be missed was lunch at DACOR with Dona Felicia Rincon de Gautier, mayor of San Juan, when she came to visit Muna in Washington. She was a lady who knew her way through the political pluff mud, patrician in appearance and demeanor, but with a common touch. She paid a private visit to Barcelona, Spain when I was the BPAO there. I was seeing her off at the airport when we encountered the mayor of Sabadell (I think it was), no great friend of the United States. He mentioned that she must have a relatively easy job as mayor, exporting all her unemployed to New York. She gave him both barrels and he literally wilted before our eyes.

I attended Muna’s retirement party at State and had several communications from her before the curtain fell.

Coming across Richard Arndt’s book, The First Resort of Kings, I found on page 107 this reference to Muna and her work. To paraphrase: When Archibald MacLeish was head of the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs, he asked Muna Lee and Ruth McMurray to do a study of how culture fit into the accomplishment of foreign policy objectives. The result was The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations, with a six page introduction by MacLeish which saw the light of day in early 1947. Arndt also refers to The Cultural Approach as “the world’s first major book in the then-unnamed field of cultural diplomacy…this text was the most coherent and influential statement about a peace-time cultural diplomacy ever articulated, including in France.” And regarding Lee, he notes that she was “brought into IICA by MacLeish, was a poetess and wife of Puerto Rican president (actually governor) Munuz Marin, (and) she and MacLeish had collaborated on a 1944 series of radio dramas about the discoverers of America.”

Jacob Canter

Continuing my trek through Richard Arndt’s book I found numerous mention of Jake Canter who, having taught previously at Harvard and Annapolis, came to rest for a year in Nicaragua in 1946 as the Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy. I was there several months before Jake arrived and as he entered the city of Managua he probably passed a sign which had attracted my attention: Agua Sola Cria Ranas. Tomelo con Ron Nica. (Water alone is for frogs. Try it with Nica rum)

He was on his way to the Lido Palace Hotel which sheltered both of us for a number of months. We could sit in the lobby and listen to music from the radio: “Managua, Nicaragua is a wonderful town. You buy a hacienda for a few pesos down.”  (This was a Spanish version of a song popular in the U.S. at the time.) Jake had been given the title of Public Affairs Officer instead of Cultural Affairs Officer and he was not all that conversant with his responsibilities as PAO.

If he was my boss, he held a very loose rein and I continued to keep my own house in order. We functioned on the same wave length, an advantage at a small post. He was very circumspect in his comportment and fastidious in his dress. He could wear all whites in that tropical climate without anyone calling him a banana planter. Having recently taught at the U. S. Naval Academy I guess he picked up the know-how from all the surrounding white uniforms. His calm demeanor was ruffled a bit during one lunch period at the hotel when Fanor, the Panamanian minister’s  adolescent son, went over to Jake’s table to show him his recently acquired pet bird, unfortunately not yet housebroken. I noticed a sudden commotion, with Fanor and bird beating a hasty retreat and Jake being installed at another table some distance from his first seating.

One of Jake’s well publicized, well attended lectures was given at the Club Internacional. I attended and was on standby for any required service. His first words were well punctuated by very loud sounds of pool/billiard balls from an adjoining salon.  This caused him to pause in mid-sentence, so I was deputized to suppress the clicking sounds.

I invited the cue wielders to attend the lecture, but when they found that the subject was some esoteric literary trend, they said that they would rather continue their game, which they did. You could see Jake flinch every time the clicks came through louder than his words. It turned into a real mano-a-mano, with no real winner ever declared. We both departed Nicaragua after a year there. Our paths crossed years later when we were involved in matters pertaining to Iberia at USIA/CU.

I gathered from reading The First Resort of Kings that Richard Arndt considers Jake one of the prototype cultural affairs officers in the period before and after the emergence of USIA in 1953. On page 133 he has this to say: “In 1950, he (Jake) moved to Cuba, then Mexico, to Spain, and finally to a career in Washington which he capped as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, the first – and last – field officer ever to ascend to that position.”

Muna Lee was a prime advocate for the cultural side of public diplomacy and Jake Canter was a prime performer in that arena.

Stephen M. Carney is a retired USIA  FSO. He served at 9 posts in Europe & Latin America and as USIA Desk Officer for France, Spain & Portugal in the 1960s.

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