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Yale Richmond, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey

New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008

Excerpts from …

  • Review by National Council for International Visitors
  • Review by Patricia Kushlis
  • Review by John Brown
  • The book itself

Review by National Council for International VisitorsNetwork News, May 2008

Yale Richmond’s recent book, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey, explores the importance of cultural and ideological communication between the United States and other countries in promoting international cooperation and freedom. As a cultural affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Mr. Richmond practiced public diplomacy mainly in five countries—Germany, Laos, Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union—while also working on cultural exchanges in the United States. Mr. Richmond’s narrative provides an informative and personal account of his travels in these diverse locations, the interesting people with whom he met and worked, and his reflections on the deep importance of public diplomacy for improving U.S. international relations. His writing blends a professional diplomatic perspective with the personal story of his successes and struggles. His career as a cultural officer reminds the reader that an individual can make a difference in promoting the positive side of the American ethos and liberal values through communication, and that “soft power” is just as crucial as hard power in overcoming political conflicts and tensions.

To Mr. Richmond, non-political, personal contact between a foreign civil society and American representatives was a unique part of what made public diplomacy effective in building American influence and friendship. In his words, “attending an American musical performance, seeing an American exhibit, hearing a lecture by a visiting American, borrowing a book from an American library, or better still, traveling to the United States on an exchange and seeing for themselves, turned out to be far more effective in winning those hearts and minds [than political propaganda].”

Points of interest for citizen diplomats are found throughout each chapter, describing the author’s experiences in each of the countries in which he served. Mr. Richmond fondly recalls how “America Houses” provided information about the United States and its people for German citizens, emphasizing a vision of cooperation and encouraging Germans to attend town meetings and question their elected officials in order to engage them in the civic process and improve governance. He reflects that perhaps the most significant development for public diplomacy in Germany was a post war exchange program for German students, teachers, scholars, and leaders enabling them to visit the United States for education and professional development, which was a part of what was later named the International Visitor Leadership Program. This program provided foreign visitors with a direct and candid experience of life and culture in the United States. As Mr. Richmond puts it, “Seeing is believing”.

Full text of the review

Review by Patricia Kushlis. WhirledView, 10 April 2008

Richmond knew the Soviet Union like few other American diplomats. This was undoubtedly because so much of his lengthy career was devoted to US-Soviet relations although in truth, he recalls that an early assignment at a happier time in his life to Poland was his favorite. It’s also because, in my experience, cultural officers and exhibit guides, in particular, had much greater opportunities to get to know the Soviet Union, its societies and its peoples than most others who worked in the U.S. Mission there during the Cold War. Richmond grasped this opportunity well – as so many of his anecdotes indicate.

Richmond’s relationship with the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” began in 1967 when he first studied Russian. It concluded in 1980 as chief US negotiator for the renewed US-Soviet Cultural Agreement. The agreement itself fell to pieces when it was 97% completed because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan over the Christmas/New Year’s break and the U.S. government torpedoed – among other things – the almost finished cultural negotiations in retaliation. I remember this all too vividly as the most junior member of the delegation.

Richmond explains well how politics influenced cultural exchange and that the work of cultural officers in the Soviet Union – of which I was one – was often as much political as it was cultural. He also recognized that cultural exchange was a two way street because through “cultural exchange we learned much about each other.” And he stressed that “while the immediate objective may have been improved mutual understanding, the long-range objective was a more stable relationship between the two countries.”

Full text of the review

Review by John Brown., 8 April 2008

In his memoir, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey, Yale Richmond tells us what public diplomacy is in a lively and personal way, by recounting his many experiences, in Asia and Eastern Europe (as well as Washington, DC), as a Foreign Service officer (FSO) handling press, educational, and cultural affairs during the second half of the past century. Thanks to his subtle, engaging, and witty narrative about his distinguished 30-year career, the reader learns a great deal about how public diplomacy is carried out in the field by a model FSO (for what overarching policy purposes, however, is not covered in detail by this slim volume).

Richmond’s elucidating anecdotes about the key persons he met throughout his career abroad underscore that public diplomacy — as Edward R. Murrow, the Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the Kennedy administration, famously said — “is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. … The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.” Focusing on individuals (rather than governments), public diplomacy encompasses an infinite variety of activities, some of which can have important (but hard to quantify) long-term consequences: from building “national consciousness in a new country” (Richmond on what he did while posted in Laos in 1954-1956) to organizing educational exchanges, a “vital part of Public Diplomacy” (to cite Richmond again) which (in the case of the Soviet Union, where Richmond served 1967-1969) can be effective “in bringing about change in a country that had isolated itself from the West for so many years.” …

Richmond ends his instructive book (much more enlightening about down-to-earth public diplomacy than a training manual or abstract academic treatise can ever be) by noting that “we now live in a much different world with an explosion of information, thanks to computers, the internet, and satellite television, but we can still employ some of the public activities that proved their worth in the past.” Among these he lists exchanges of people, information activities, exhibitions, performing arts exchanges, and English teaching.

Full text of the review

Excerpt from the book:

It’s not often that an American cultural attaché gets to visit a Soviet army camp, but I was probably the first, and the last, to do so.

It was an election day in Poland in 1960, and accompanied by my wife, I was part of an embassy effort to see how the Poles were going to the polls. In western Poland, where I was assigned to observe the elections, the Russians had several military camps, one of which I stumbled upon as I drove down a rural road. As I approached the camp entrance, I noticed a Soviet soldier, in baggy pants, peaked cap, and a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, standing guard by the gate.

Shto delat’? (What to do?), as the Russians would say. To come to a screeching halt and turn around would certainly have attracted the guard’s attention, and perhaps a few rounds from his Kalashnikov. So I continued my slow approach to the camp, and the guard, impressed by my big blue Ford sedan, snapped to attention with a “present arms” salute as we drove by and entered the camp.

To make a quick exit would have attracted more attention, so I drove around the camp for a while and exited as I had entered–with the guard again giving me a snappy salute–and relieved that I had not created a diplomatic incident. In retrospect, however, I missed an opportunity to conduct some Public Diplomacy with the Russians.

Several years later, when assigned to Moscow, I had a better opportunity to practice Public Diplomacy with the Russians. At Moscow’s Journalist Club, a waiter mistakenly took me to a room where prominent Soviet journalists were celebrating the 50th anniversary of TASS, the Soviet wire service, and I found myself sitting next to an army officer with general’s stars on his shoulder boards. And so it came about that, at the height of the Vietnam War, an American diplomat dined with the chief editor of Krasnaya Zvezda, the Red Army daily.

We exchanged views on the war and other issues in US-Soviet relations.Omnia pro patria!

Yale Richmond is a a retired Cultural Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, practiced public diplomacy for thirty years, including postings abroad in Germany, Laos, Poland, Austria (Vienna), and the Soviet Union. A specialist in intercultural communication, his books have been translated and published in China and Korea.

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