Back Issues of PDAA Today

Back issues of PDAA Today, PDAA’s quarterly print newsletter are now online and available for download.

The Power of Ideas That Won the Cold War is Still Needed

by Christopher Datta

Twenty years ago, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was consolidated into the United States Department of State. On this 20th anniversary of that event, it is time to reexamine the wisdom of that decision. In my opinion, it was a mistake.

To win the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan did something for which he is never credited: he dramatically increased the budget of the United States Information Agency, the public diplomacy arm of our struggle against communism.

The Cold War was won not by our military strength but by the power of ideas, and USIA was the lead Cold Warrior in the Soviet/U.S. clash of ideologies. The Soviet Union collapsed because its people lost faith in communism. We won because we had better ideas, and because our values of free expression and personal liberty, among others, converted world opinion. USIA was the little federal agency that played a major role in making that happen.

When the Cold War ended, some said that the United States no longer needed USIA to defend our values and to counter Russian disinformation, and the agency was abolished. Many of its functions were absorbed into the State Department.

ISIS and Russia, new enemy and old

Today we face ISIS, a new enemy, and Russia, a revitalized old one. Our problem is that we treat the conflict with ISIS as a military struggle instead of an ideological one, while the Russians are humiliating us, not with their military might, but through hacking and social media. As we see in Afghanistan, the Taliban has risen from its ashes and is again a threat to the government in Kabul, and the continuing bloody attacks in Europe and elsewhere by ISIS show the resilience of the appeal of its ideology. Regarding Russia, never has a country so humiliated us at so little cost by leveraging tools that should be our strength, not theirs. In the effort to win the social media struggle, we are coming in last.

Afghanistan operation

American soldiers at a checkpoint last year during a patrol against Islamic State militants in the eastern Afghan district of Deh Bala. (Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images)

Recent events in Syria have taken a dramatic turn, to the benefit of Russia, Iran, Assad and, last but not least, ISIS. It appears that thousands of ISIS fighters are escaping or being released from their former prisons in Kurdish controlled areas. Russia and ISIS have become stronger, and today they present a bigger menace than ever to America, Europe and to the region. We will not defeat them until we have discredited their ideological allure.

Winning this war of ideologies ought to be a cakewalk. We have freedom of expression, freedom of worship, education, tolerance, prosperity and the prospect of peace. On their side is the ruthless suppression of human rights, the brutalization of women, intolerance of other views, poverty, endless war that is doomed to failure in the long run and an ideology of hate and division.

The State Department is seldom credited with how much it has done to project American power and to keep us safe. It is staffed with some of the best and brightest our country has to offer. It is excellent at government-to-government negotiations, creating treaties and promoting American business interests. What it is not good at is people-to-people diplomacy. It is not a part of the corporate culture of the Department and is essentially alien to its methods of operation, which primarily involve closed-door negotiations and press conferences. All too often, press conferences are what leaders in the Department think is public diplomacy.

Creating common ground with public diplomacy

Public diplomacy is about establishing relationships between foreign audiences and Americans. Often, it has little to do with directly advocating foreign policy goals and is more about creating common ground even when we disagree with others about specific issues. It is about developing alliances and partnerships with foreign publics and their opinion leader

Two of USIA’s public diplomacy programs, from “USIA: A Commemoration”

It is also about nurturing democratic development through support for the evolution of institutions that underpin the rule of law. Democracy is a fragile form of government, as our Founding Fathers understood. In 1860, the democratic election of Abraham Lincoln sparked a war that killed over 625,000 Americans. That is the level of violence elections all too often ignite, and did, even in our own country.

Without the proper social, cultural and institutional foundations, elections are a prescription for violent upheaval, a lesson we have failed to learn.

In September of 1999 I went to Senegal in West Africa, where I was the Public Affairs Officer at our embassy in Dakar. Senegal was remarkable for its activist media, especially in the developing world.

Senegal, USIA, and independent media

Senegal did not always have independent print and radio organizations. They exist today, at least in part, due to the work of USIA public affairs officers over two decades. Early on, they recognized the potential for media liberalization in Senegal and began to send journalists, editors and government officials on short and long term journalism study tours in the U.S. They brought media and democratization experts to Senegal to give lectures and hold conferences. Brick by brick, year by year, they planned and worked to build a new media environment in Senegal, believing that an independent media, one that could hold the government accountable, was a key leverage point to creating the means to achieve democratic reform.

image of toopic magazine

USIA’s Topic magazine for Africa devoted a third or more of every issue to African subjects with a U.S. connection.

Senegal, in September of 1999, was about to hold a presidential election. Because of USIA’s long history of promoting journalism in Senegal, the embassy decided to work in partnership with the local Print, Radio and Television Journalists Federation to hold a series of workshops on the role of journalists in covering elections. The most popular lecture during the conference concerned the use of new technologies, with a focus on how cell phones could be used to provide breaking news. The journalists used what they learned. In one instance, a radio reporter found a politician from the ruling party openly buying votes. He called his radio station and they put him on the air, live. He walked straight up to the man, identified him, asked him what he was doing and shoved the cell phone in his face. The man stuttered a few words, and then turned and ran from the scene, to the laughter of all.

It caught on. Reporters everywhere went looking for cases of voter fraud to expose. On election night, the results were sent to a central vote collection office in Dakar, where the government supposedly would confirm the tallies before announcing them. But when the polls closed, reporters started announcing the totals live on the radio, precinct by precinct. People kept their own tallies on scraps of paper and, by the next morning, everyone knew who the winner was. For the first time in the history of the country, it was not the incumbent, and everyone knew it no matter what the government claimed.

USIA was uniquely organized to promote democratic development through the long term support of human rights organizations, journalism, programs that helped build the rule of law, educational programs that encouraged the acceptance of diversity in society and, perhaps most importantly, through partnering with and supporting local opinion leaders to help them promote democratic values that stand in opposition to ideologies hostile to the West. USIA worked over decades to set the foundations that must be established before democracy can flourish.

This was public diplomacy as USIA practiced it. We need this approach and we need these tools back again if we are to defeat the ideology of ISIS, counter Russian disinformation and build democracies without igniting violence. It is time to bring back the United States Information Agency.

Christopher Datta is a retired Foreign Service Officer who began his career in the United States Information Agency and is the author of a memoir, Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of American Diplomacy Journal ( Reprinted with permission.

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After the Merger: Public Diplomacy at State – video now available

Photo of Audience

After the Merger: Public Diplomacy at State, a program presented by the Public Diplomacy Association of America, the Public Diplomacy Council, and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy on October 7, 2019. (Photos: Bruce Guthrie)

The Public Diplomacy Association of America, the Public Diplomacy Council, and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy co-sponsored the October 7, 2019, First Monday program focused on the 20-year anniversary of the merger of the United States Information Agency and the U.S. Department of State.

Speaker included former PDAA President Cynthia Efird, Ambassador Kenton Keith; Ambassador Jean Manes; and Dr. Shawn Powers.

A report on the program is available on the Public Diplomacy Council website; it was prepared by Joe Johnson.

A video of the program is available on the Public Diplomacy Association of America’s video channel. Click here to view.


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Memories of Lou Olom (1917-2019)

By Bruce Gregory
He was one of the most thoughtful, dedicated, and politically savvy public diplomacy professionals of his generation. Louis T. Olom (1917-2019), a career civil servant, will be remembered for his many contributions to public diplomacy during the years in which it was gradually gaining acceptance as a field of professional practice in US diplomacy.

Lou’s interest in what became known as public diplomacy began when he was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. There, as a research assistant to the distinguished political scientist Charles Merriam, he discovered the work of Harold Lasswell, one of the 20th century’s leading scholars of propaganda and communications studies. Deeply impressed, Lou went to New York to meet Lasswell, who hired him to work on his propaganda research team. At the invitation of Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, Lasswell, Olom, and others on the team moved to Washington in 1940 to create the Library’s wartime communications research division.  Continued here.

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After the Merger: Public Diplomacy at State

The impact of the 1999 merger of the United States Information Agency into the Department of State will be the focus of the Mon., Oct. 7, 2019, First Monday luncheon.

The speakers will include:

The forum will start at 12 noon and take place at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, 1957 E Street NW, room 602. The program is free and incudes lunch, but those planning to attend are asked to register at

First Monday programs are presented by PDAA, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the Public Diplomacy Council.

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The Deaths of Two Journalistic Giants: Landmark Leaders in the History of America’s Voice

By Alan Heil

In the 20th century, two distinguished leaders at VOA were indispensable in the growth of the nation’s largest U.S.-funded international broadcaster: former Central News editor-in-chief and White House correspondent Philomena (Phil) Jurey, 91, and Near East and South Asia director Salman (Sam) M. Hilmy, 89. Their work significantly amplified America’s public diplomacy during the final years of the Cold War, and beyond.

The two served collectively for six decades, and insisted on the highest standards of accuracy and objectivity in their writing and reporting and in the news they offered to a curious planet — in times of both crisis and tranquility. They passed away within three weeks of each other in late July and mid-August, 2019.

Phil Jurey: Distinguished Editor and Correspondent

Philomena Jurey

Philomena Jurey, from the Washington Post obituaries.

Phil Jurey was VOA’s White House correspondent during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan presidencies and traveled more than a quarter of a million miles to numerous countries to cover them with timely and insightful reports.

When she retired in 1989, a headline in Tokyo’s Mainichi Daily News said: “Famous VOA Unknown Retires.” “The headline made me laugh,” Philomena explained on page one of her book about her White House years, A Basement Seat to History: Tales of Covering Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan for the Voice of America.

In those days, VOA was not permitted, under law, to broadcast to the United States. Not so, to a curious world. Philomena, as the Voice’s White House correspondent, accompanied President Nixon to China in the early 70s. When she emerged from the press plane in Beijing, word spread quickly that she was in the presidential party. Scores of Chinese rushed up to her during that trip, eager to shake hands with “a famous American” during her visit to their country.

In September 1998, the University of Missouri’s Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism was awarded to Ms. Jurey, citing her “unfettered journalism in the public interest, and her careful and thorough coverage of the White House and Presidency for the World.” (Phil had received her B.A. degree in Journalism from that university’s well known School of Journalism in 1949.)

Timely Tributes to Sam Hilmy

Sam Hilmy

Sam Hilmy, from the the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Four days after his death August 14, Salman M. Hilmy’s colleagues at VOA’s Arabic Branch paid tribute to their late leader. They were gathered at the 6th reunion of the former service at a community center in Annadale, Virginia. (VOA Arabic was abolished in 2002 by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which created a separate U.S. government-funded Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic.) The gathering of 21 retired colleagues of the former VOA Arabic Branch and their families had high praise for their late director.

Mr. Hilmy’s successor, Dr. Ismail Dahiyat, lauded Sam as “a very wise leader whom we remember fondly” and praised especially not only his Middle East expertise, but his knowledge and scholarly command of American literature.

Born in Iraq, American citizen Sam Hilmy joined the Voice in 1960 and played a leading role as director of the Arabic service beginning in 1972, and later, the head of the Near East and South Asia Division. That division encompassed Arabic, Turkish, Hindi to India, Urdu to Pakistan, Dari, and Pashto to Afghanistan.

Among major events in the tumultuous Middle East and South Asia during Mr. Hilmy’s VOA career were the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, turmoil in Afghanistan, the more than decade-long Lebanese civil war, the ongoing but failing Arab-Israeli peace initiatives, and expansion of the Palestinian refugee camps.

When VOA moved its Arabic Branch program service from Washington to the Greek island of Rhodes in 1963, Mr. Hilmy and his wife Kate were among pioneers who established that unit, initially a group of trailers in a pasture on Rhodes. Soon, a headquarters and VOA Arabic studios were established on the island during a time when famed U.S. commercial broadcasters John Chancellor and his successor John Charles Daly directed the Voice.

In 1971, VOA Arabic moved back to Washington, and Mr. Hilmy was appointed chief of the service. As his supervisor on Rhodes Dick Curtiss recalled: “Just how well the 53-member Arabic Branch performed under Sam’s leadership was made clear in 1986 when he was named VOA’s Outstanding Employee of the Year.”

The organizer of the VOA Arabic reunions, which continue nearly two decades after the service was abolished is Mohamed al-Shinnawi. He launched the tribute to Salman Hilmy with these words:

“A wise man once said:

Those we love do not go away

They walk beside us every day

Unseen, unheard, but always near

Still loved, still missed, and very dear.”


As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More

Reprinted by permission of the Public Diplomacy Council

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VOA Director to Discuss Mandarin, Persian Programming & Women’s Voices, Reaching Refugees

Voice of America logoVOA Director Amanda Bennett will be PDAA’s speaker at the Sep.16 luncheon kicking off the 2019-2020 program year. Bennett will discuss new VOA Mandarin and Persian programming as well as VOA initiatives to reach refugees, include more women’s voices in programs, and undertake investigative reporting.

Bennett will also discuss challenges facing international journalists in the age of dwindling press freedom and disinformation.

photo of amanda bennett

Amanda Bennett became Director of the Voice of America on April 18, 2016

Amanda Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist, and editor; she was named Director of the Voice of America in March 2016.

Through 2013, she was Executive Editor, Bloomberg News, where she created and ran a global team of investigative reporters and editors. She was also co-founder of Bloomberg News’ Women’s project and was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from June 2003 to November 2006; prior to that was editor of the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky. She also served for three years as managing editor/projects for The Oregonian in Portland.

Bennett served as a Wall Street Journal reporter for more than 20 years. A graduate of Harvard College, she held numerous posts at the Journal, including auto industry reporter in Detroit in the late 70s and early 80s, Pentagon and State Department reporter, Beijing correspondent, management editor/reporter, national economics correspondent, and, finally, chief of the Atlanta bureau until 1998, when she moved to The Oregonian.

Bennett shared the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with her Journal colleagues, and in 2001 led a team from The Oregonian to a Pulitzer for public service. Together with her husband, Donald Graham, she is a co-founder of TheDream.US, which provides college scholarships to the children of undocumented immigrants.

The discussion will take place on Mon., Sep. 16, from 12:00 to 2:00, at DACOR Bacon House, 1801 F St., NW. To register, please complete the form on page 7 of the newsletter or register on-line using the drop-down menu below. Deadline is Sep. 12.

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