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Book Review — Nicholas J. Cull: The Cold War and the US Information Agency.

Walter R. Roberts

Review of: Nicholas J. Cull: The Cold War and the US Information Agency.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 533 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-81997-8. Excerpts from Mediterranean Quarterly 19(4): 126-130. 2008 (subscription required)

Nicholas Cull, a British scholar who now teaches at the University of Southern California and previously studied and taught at Leeds and Leicester universities in England, has written a well-researched, comprehensive book on the history of the US Information Agency (USIA). It is the first, and so far only, work that relies heavily on documentary sources rather than the personal recollections of a former USIA officer. It is unique, and scholars as well as practitioners of public diplomacy will want to read this insightful and well-written book….

Cull gives us a remarkably accurate portrait of each USIA director’s personality and background. And there were different backgrounds indeed — two radio and TV managers (Streibert and Shakespeare); three journalists (Murrow, Rowan, and Keogh); two lawyers (Larson and Marks); two Foreign Service officers (Allen and Reinhardt); and one businessman (Wick). Their appointments by six very different presidents show no pattern.

By writing a history of USIA and connecting it with the Cold War, the author correctly reminds the reader that USIA was created in 1953 because of the Cold War. The Department of State that had conducted traditional diplomacy (government-to government) for almost two hundred years was not considered the proper agency to manage programs that were required in pursuit of US Cold War goals. A new government agency was established whose purpose was to reach foreign publics through VOA, press and publications operations, libraries and information centers, films, and cultural and exchange-of-persons programs. These government-to-foreign publics’ activities are now called public diplomacy. Invariably, funding for USIA was justified by various administrations to Congress on Cold War needs.

At the same time, the men and women who worked in USIA (including USIA directors and other political appointees) and the US Advisory Commission on Information labored hard to steer USIA away from solely Cold War efforts and turn the agency into a vital instrument of information-age foreign policy.

With perhaps one or two exceptions, none of the men who were appointed directors was an obvious candidate to lead a Cold War agency. Eisenhower knew why USIA was created and his appointment of Streibert was probably based on the assumption that the agency’s initial problem would be managerial. The reason why Eisenhower appointed Larson is less clear. Allen was the choice of the State Department and Eisenhower consented. Kennedy liked the idea of having a reputable newsman in his administration. Murrow and USIA seemed like a perfect fit. Johnson’s appointment of Rowan was heavily influenced by the fact that Rowan was a leading African-American newsman. Marks was nominated because he was Mrs. Johnson’s communications lawyer and also a man who Johnson knew and trusted.

Nixon’s selection of Shakespeare was based on the good work that Shakespeare had done in the 1968 presidential campaign to enhance Nixon’s television image. Nixon’s appointment of Keogh brought a seasoned newsman and former White House speech writer to USIA. Carter’s selection of Reinhardt was based on Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s recommendation — Reinhardt had been a successful ambassador to Nigeria and assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Reagan’s appointment of Wick was due to the personal friendship of the two families and Wick’s successful business career in communications.

Cull has described well each USIA director’s relationship with other administration elements. However, there is one exception: Frank Shakespeare. Although Cull correctly discusses the cold Henry Kissinger – Shakespeare relationship when Kissinger served as Nixon’s national security advisor, he does not mention the even frostier atmosphere between Secretary of State William Rogers and Shakespeare.

This discord was due to Shakespeare’s single-minded view that USIA did not have to follow State’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union — that USIA’s sole purpose was anticommunism and if this mission somehow impeded the policy of détente, USIA was justified in going its own way. Shakespeare thought that Nixon was on his side, but the president did not wish to get involved. This Shakespeare approach resulted in State’s cold-shouldering USIA at every level. It was the coolest period in the entire history of State-USIA relations. After Shakespeare’s departure and the arrival of Keogh in early 1973, Rogers, to make a point, attended the swearing-in of a new USIA deputy director, Eugene Kopp. Indeed, State-USIA relations almost overnight returned to the cooperative status of the pre-Shakespeare era.

The other day, a former USIA colleague phoned me and asked for details of one of the USIA programs in the late fifties. Frankly, my memory was too vague to give him a definitive reply, but I told him that conceivably the answer might be found in Cull’s new book. And, indeed, it was….

Walter R. Roberts has spent most of his career in the field of public diplomacy. He served in the US government in this country and overseas, taught at George Washington University, and was a presidentially appointed member of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

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