Propaganda and Public Diplomacy

A version of this essay was published in the Journal of World-Systems Research in 2005.

In the manufacture of consent for its policies and practices abroad, the power elite of the American Empire—the dominant corporate, military, and political  sectors—depends heavily on the arts of propaganda and public diplomacy. To be sure, the fist of force always lies in reserve for the recalcitrant, a fact to which recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq attests. Nonetheless, shaping public attitudes towards the means and ends of US foreign policy has proven an efficient standard practice for the expansion of global domination. Over the past fifty years probably as many boots have stepped onto foreign soil via diplomatic designs as through armed means. Inventing Public Diplomacy (2004), by Wilson P. Dizard Jr., is a friendly examination of a key component of the American project to shape world opinion: the US Information Agency (USIA). 

United States Information Agency - Wikipedia

Of the multitude of published works concerning US public diplomacy (too many to recount here), observers from points beyond the charmed circle of government operatives have penned the majority. However, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) and the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR), have joined forces to produce a book series organizing the history of diplomacy and intelligence services from the standpoint of the diplomat and the information agent. The ADST is functionally and structurally close to formal state power. An NGO whose mission is to strengthen the efficacy of US diplomacy, it is located on the campus of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, home to the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and works alongside the FSI to complement the latter’s work, managing the archives of US diplomatic history and providing these materials to historians and diplomats. Thus the ADST plays a role in the way global history is shaped, both in the manner in which the past is recorded and interpreted by historians, and by supplying a ready and ideologically-consistent history for diplomats to base their present and future work upon. Inventing Public Diplomacy is a product of this project. 

Dizard’s account of US propaganda operations is that of a dedicated insider. From 1951 to 1980, he served in the State Department and the US Information Service (USIS). His expertise is international communications. The aim of Inventing Public Diplomacy is to measure the ideological impact of the US Information Agency and its precursors. Dizard’s account is sympathetic, although his appraisal is at times candid, such as his acknowledgement that Reagan’s Central American adventures, which entailed extensive use of the agency, involved illegal conduct. He is also frank in depicting the agency as a propaganda operation—one that matched the operations of other countries and regions with whom the US competed for global advantage. However, he fails to discuss as problematic the deeper aims of the agency and its sister organizations, namely, their function as instruments of global capitalist domination. Moreover, he fails in an explicit objective of his study: to substantiate his claim that, because the agency reflected the national strategic interests of the day, its structure and practices are explicable within analyses of that larger context. In the final analysis, because of Dizard’s loyalty to the agency, the book fails to develop a critical history of either the USIA or the geopolitical context. 

The book begins with an overview of the USIA. Created in 1955, state elites designed the USIA as an element of public diplomacy in the Cold War milieu. The mission of the agency was to present to contested parts of the world an idealized image of America that would promote foreign support for the economic and political aims of the United States. Dizard contends that until the USIA, America had no global propaganda system. He attributes this to “American exceptionalism,” theorizing that isolationism and disengagement with European cultural models were the major causes of America’s delayed entry into ideological warfare. This insular view of the world dominated elite consciousness until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Much as the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 shattered America’s sense of invulnerability, Pearl Harbor made a big world seem much smaller. In response, US elites built a global communications apparatus. 

The path to the USIA was a blend of international restructuring, historical conjuncture, the evolving configuration of intelligence and propaganda networks, and the personalities of leaders and sponsors. The Office of War Information (OWI) established the Voice of America (VOA) shortwave news service in February to take advantage of new communications technologies that had emerged from WWI. The overseas component of the OWI was the USIS. Nelson A. Rockefeller pushed the Roosevelt administration to embrace a larger role in the struggle against the Nazis, especially in checking their growing influence in the southern hemisphere of the Americas. Through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIA), which Rockefeller ran out of the State Department, the United States distributed pro-American press throughout South America and the Caribbean. Dizard credits Rockefeller with having devised the template for the USIA,the purpose of which was to penetrate Europe with pro-American propaganda in a fashion similar to US American operations. A related effort was the Coordinator of Information (COI), also created by Roosevelt in 1941. This agency morphed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. The COI and OSS represented the first institutional steps towards the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

The principal activity of the US propaganda efforts during the late 1940s and 1950s was to counter what President Harry Truman called “imperialistic communism” and its “propaganda of slavery.” In 1948, Truman signed into law the Smith-Mundt Act, which established ideological operations as a permanent part of US foreign policy. Legislative backing played a vital role in legitimating Truman’s “Campaign of Truth,” a propaganda offensive coordinating the information services of the United States and other capitalist countries. This direction figured into the design of psychological operations that accompanied the creation of the National Security Council and the CIA in 1947. The academic community, including research units at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, joined with the government intelligence community in designing psychological operations, in turn contributing to the development of the public opinion and public relations industry. (For a detailed historical account of this, see Christopher Simpson 1994 The Science of Coercion: Communications Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960.) Corporations with an interest in overseas operations and markets financed the operations. Largely based upon a particular reading of George Kennan’s thinking about the motives and nature of the Soviet Union, a view of the world emerged in which communications sciences were seen as a vital weapon in political warfare. 

When Eisenhower formally consolidated the various propaganda agencies in under the name USIA, the US commercial media, which was likewise extending its influence over world markets, moved to coordinate its activities even more closely with the government. The goal of the public and private mix of information was to shape cultural attitudes and present the United States, its products and services, as an attractive alternative to communism, as well as foster the development of business climates favorable to overseas investment. USIA and corporate propaganda targeted Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, countries with which, according to Dizard, the United States had limited previous cultural engagement. The USIA used several methods to preach the gospel of Americanism abroad, including shortwave radio, leaflets, magazines, news bulletins, pamphlets, a worldwide library network, exhibits on American life, and exchange programs. The activities of the USIA overlapped with the DOD and CIA, and USIA subsidies were vital in helping US media corporations establish firms in foreign countries. 

During the Kennedy years, elites restructured the USIA to keep pace with rapidly changing world realities and to reflect a unified ideological response to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s declaration of “wars of national liberation.” According to the US intelligence establishment, the USSR was sponsoring communists and left-wing guerrilla groups throughout the periphery of the capitalist world economy. Propagandists depicted global communism as a red army on the march. The US responded to the Soviet threat with modernization theory, a set of assumptions that posited that the infusion of Western ideals  and values would, if adopted, catapult the backward peoples of the undeveloped world into modernity. The USIA scaled back operations in Europe and Japan and stepped up activities in the periphery to advance the offensive. As a point of comparison, Dizard documents that in the USIA had twenty-four posts in thirteen African countries. Four years later, there were fifty-five posts in thirty-three countries on the African continent. To give its propaganda operations more polish, the Kennedy administration brought CBS documentarian Edward R. Murrow on board. Murrow believed the agency should not just inform but persuade. He oversaw propaganda operations during such tense moments as Operation Mongoose, the covert program to sabotage the Castro regime in Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident, where CIA-trained exiles attempted to overthrow the Cuban government, and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, in which the Soviet Union endeavored to build missile sites in Cuba. 

During the 1960s and 1970s, the USIA took advantage of several opportunities and struggled with many challenges. The agency successfully exploited the triumphs of the Apollo space program to project the image of a strong America abroad. Advancements in civil rights, however ineffective these were in dealing with the racist heart of America, allowed USIA propagandists to claim victory in the struggle for racial justice, which the Declaration of Human Rights had made an explicit priority in . The always-present specter of nuclear holocaust continued to present problems for the USIA; the agency confronted a world that understood the problem of nuclear weapons through the prisms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scandalous Nixon administration and the appointment of the ideologically-driven Frank Shakespeare to the USIA, which caused the agency’s objectivity to come into question, presented still more challenges. In response to the ideological bent of the agency under Nixon, Jimmy Carter moved to curtail the USIA’s propaganda efforts by suppressing activities he deemed “covert, manipulative, or propagandistic,” and renaming the agency as the US International Communications Agency. Carter’s attempt to steer the agency back towards its original mission—as objective information disseminating agency—would be short lived. 

Politicization of the USIA reemerged during the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. Although changing international communications patterns, such as commercial information firms and advanced communications technologies, complicated the agency’s mission, Reagan’s desire to wage intensive ideological warfare against the “Evil Empire” guaranteed that the USIA would see growth in its budget and a more aggressive outlook. Reagan doubled the USIA budget (its annual budget reached nearly one billion dollars by the end of the decade). The administration threw out the policies on balanced news treatment, and the USIA became a propaganda organ for the Reagan regime. The USIA became closely associated with the Special Planning Group (SPG), created in 1983, an association that made the agency a policy participant and not just a mouthpiece for US policy goals. The SPG was behind the creations of Project Democracy, which Reagan later restructured as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The SPG, along with the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, became part of Reagan’s shadow government during the Iran-Contra Affair. 

The last chapters in Dizard’s book end the study of the USIA in an abrupt manner, despite the number of pages dedicated to the matter. We learn that in 1999, Clinton returned public diplomacy operations to the Department of States and effectively closed down the USIA as an independent agency. In putting the agency to bed, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright eulogized that it was “the most effective anti-propaganda institution on the face of the earth.” The State Department takeover put operations formerly conducted by the USIA quite low on the priority list, evidenced by the fact that President George W. Bush waited nine months before appointing an undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. 

In his conclusion, Dizard suggests that the weakness of USIA-style operations during this period was in large part due to an inability to adapt to changing threats. Terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, present a problem for state propaganda operations. As Richard Holbrooke mused, “How can a man in a cave outmaneuver the world’s leading communications society?” The US government had no method for effectively spinning a threat unattached to a state apparatus. In an effort to be more effective in the “war on terrorism,” the White House took over propaganda production, creating the Coalition Information Center, which ran a 24-hour war room staffed with officials from the NSC, DOD, CIA, and State Department. This was followed in July of with the creation of the Office of Global Communications. 

Dizard leaves out much of the story. Because of these omissions, he fails to locate US propaganda operations within the structure of geopolitics and global capitalism. Dizard tells his readers what many of them already know: The official mission of the USIA from its inception through the s was, as Brigadier General Robert McClure put it during the Korean War, to win the “struggle for men’s minds.” This was, for US elites, the qualitative essence of “modern war” and it was embodied in the ideological components of Containment policy. The USIA’s purpose was to counter Soviet propaganda, what Ayn Rand characterized before the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in “as anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life.” And this the agency did well into the s; under Reagan, in conjunction with the National Security Council, the agency launched the “Project Truth” campaign, parroting Truman’s “Campaign of Truth,” thus book-ending the USIA’s role in the anti-communist crusade. 

However, Dizard leaves unexplored the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union. How were the bureaucrats and professionals going to justify the USIA’s existence with the specter of communism no longer haunting the West? There was, it turns out, a pressing need. Guided by Clinton’s foreign policy team, and led by director Joe Duffy, the agency adopted a new role, best articulated by the NSC’s Anthony Lake, whom in a 1993 speech delivered at the School of Advanced International Studies: “the successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” With this charge, the primary mission of the agency shifted from anti-communist activities to pushing liberalization of trade policy. In short, with the Soviets out of the way, the USIA openly pushed the transnational project of capitalist globalization. 

Of course, in the final analysis, the “Clinton Doctrine” was not inconsistent with or even a departure from the founding mission of the USIA, since its goal had really always been to push the virtues of capitalism abroad and involve the private sector in this effort. Indeed, the aggressive push for liberalization began under Reagan with the creation of the NED and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Changes in the agency reflected greater shifts in the process of globalization and state strategy to shape that process. In the 1990s, the development of the global system demanded reorganization of the US propaganda network. In 1994, Clinton, with Congressional backing, brought all nonmilitary state international propaganda operations—including Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and Worldnet television—under USIA control. The USIA was put to the task of selling international trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and stressing the importance of membership in such transnational organizations as the WTO. It was a prominent preacher of the gospels of deregulation and trade liberalization. The agency also pushed for the expansion of NATO, helping to transform that Cold War military structure into a transnational security apparatus, as well as collaborated with the Drug Enforcement Administration to regulate global narcotics trafficking. All of this history is left out of Inventing Public Diplomacy

Finally, Dizard fails to sufficiently criticize the agency for its failures to articulate its purpose to the US citizenry and to involve non-business interests in shaping a collective vision of the nation’s aims in the world. The Smith-Mundt act sought to exclude non-corporate voices by prohibiting the targeting of US audiences with programming aimed at foreign audiences. The image of America projected abroad was—and continues to be—neither generated nor consumed by Americans. In 1997, in the essay “Foreign Policy in Focus: United States Information Agency,” published in the Interhemispheric Resource Center and Institute for Policy Studies, Nancy Snow contrasts the alternatives: “Millions of private citizens, both here and abroad, are using their collective vision to promote a one-world community—not a one-world market—where diverse cultures are united in efforts to combat poverty, oppression, pollution, and collective violence. In contrast to the USIA’s boardroom-style globalization, many of these citizen activists favor more freedom of movement for people and greater regulation on the movement of capital.”

Clearly, then, the initial design and guiding vision of the USIA was to serve as a propaganda instrument for the imperial project to spread capitalism across the planet, illustrating Marx and Engels’ famous axiom that the executive of the capitalist state is but an organ for pursuing the common interests of the capitalist class. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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