Information agency will disappear inside State Department
The U.S. Information Agency died on Friday, and hardly anyone noticed. In fact, I may be the only person in Carson City who gives a damn about USIA, a small but lively foreign affairs agency I served for nearly 30 years, from Australia to Venezuela.
I first learned about USIA in the early 1960s from the late Bob Mount, who had been a reporter at the old Nevada State Journal in Reno. Bob, who was stationed in Brazil at the time, explained how the Agency conducted overseas information and cultural programs under the inspirational leadership of President Kennedy’s first USIA Director, Edward R. Murrow, a journalistic icon. From my vantage point, a career in the U.S. Foreign Service sounded interesting and exciting. I signed on in August 1967 and didn’t look back until I returned to Carson City 28 years later.
When people learn that I worked for USIA, they usually assume that I was either a State Department bureaucrat or a CIA spy, but I was neither a traditional diplomat nor a “spook.” Instead, I spent my Foreign Service career in non-traditional diplomacy, “telling America’s story to the world,” in the words of the motto over the doorway of USIA headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C. We told our story many different ways, ranging from personal contact with foreign journalists to cultural and educational exchange programs designed to expose future leaders to our country, warts and all.
After an intensive Spanish conversation course in Washington, I was assigned to Caracas, Venezuela in 1968 as U.S. Embassy press attache’ – the Embassy’s spokesman and primary liaison with the mostly anti-American and very unruly Venezuelan media. Remember that this was at the height of the Vietnam War and not long after angry mobs threw rocks at President Nixon in downtown Caracas.
Most Venezuelan newsmen accepted me as more journalist than diplomat, however, and I enjoyed my first overseas assignment. Venezuelans were fascinated with the U.S. space program and we set new media placement records when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969. When I returned to Caracas in 1986 as head of USIA in Venezuela, many of the journalists I had sent to the U.S. on international visitor grants more than 15 years earlier were in positions of authority. A former radio journalist, who had become presidential press secretary, was instrumental in welcoming Vice President Dan Quayle to Venezuela – his first foreign trip as Veep – in early 1989.
And so it went as I practiced non-traditional public diplomacy in Australia, Colombia, Grenada, Mexico, Peru, Spain and Venezuela. Each country was a different challenge but armed with an arsenal of public diplomacy “weapons,” from books to press releases to interactive television to scholarships, we were able to help foreign opinion-makers understand us better. And even when they didn’t agree with our policies, they understood the nature of our constitutional democracy, which many of them sought for their own developing countries.
Thomas Jefferson spoke of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” and, in a way, his idea eventually led to the creation of USIA in 1953 by President Eisenhower, who combined in one agency all of the federal government’s overseas information and cultural activities including the two best-known programs: the Fulbright scholarship program and Voice of America radio. I was proud to supervise active Fulbright programs in three countries – Australia, Peru and Venezuela – and to serve as chief of VOA Spanish-language broadcasting during the period 1977-79.
Because USIA never had a “bombs on target” measure of success, however, it was always difficult to convince Congress that public diplomacy was a cost-effective investment of tax dollars even though the Agency’s $1 billion annual budget was a drop in the bucket compared with what we were spending on spying and warfare.
“No one of USIA’s various information activities, or all of them together, can be expected to bring about sudden and dramatic changes in our international relations,” former USIA Director George V. Allen told the Nevada State Press Association at Las Vegas in 1959. “No cash register rings when a man changes his mind,” said Edward R. Murrow four years later.
They were right, of course, but Congress remained skeptical and in the mid-1990s the inimitable Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threatened to hold the Chemical Weapons Treaty hostage until the Clinton Administration agreed to fold USIA and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the sprawling State Department. Arguing that USIA was a Cold War “propaganda” agency that was no longer needed, Helms essentially blackmailed the Executive Branch. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sided with Helms, USIA “leadership” was nowhere to be seen and the White House caved in.
And so on Oct. 1, 1999, USIA became the State Department Bureau of Public Diplomacy. Since many Department officials don’t have a clue about public diplomacy, they can be expected to cannibalize the Agency’s budget and its programs. I shudder when I think that State bureaucrats will be supervising media relations, educational exchange programs and overseas libraries, or resource centers.
That’s why we’ll have a very different, and less effective, Foreign Service in the 21st century. As for me, I’m glad to be back in Carson City … but it was fun while it lasted.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.