Imperial Ad Men

A new history shows American public diplomacy conflicted at the core.

(Page 2 of 2)

Another problem was that the U.S. didn’t entirely eschew old-style imperialism. Despite the hopes (or at least the claims) of FDR and his successors, the empire of ideas has never replaced the empire of empire; it has simply supplemented it. It’s true that we rarely conquer territory anymore, but our troops are still stationed from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, and our stated belief in Pakistani sovereignty doesn’t stop us from sending in drone strikes whenever the president gives the say-so. America is a gigantic, multifarious nation, more than capable of dropping leaflets and bombs at the same time.

One of the more depressing revelations of Hart’s book is the extent to which public diplomacy explicitly and repeatedly enabled domestic propaganda and Cold War escalation. The P.R. resources of the State Department were used not just to convince folks overseas of the beneficence of U.S. foreign policy but to convince Americans themselves. When Harry Truman wanted to send aid to Greece and Turkey and ramp up the Cold War, he used State Department manpower and expertise to (in the words of supportive Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenburg) “scare hell out of the country.” 

A similar public relations blitz sold the Marshall Plan, using not only official channels but also many members of the press, who were won over through the then-innovative, now tried-and-true strategy of trading access for friendly coverage. In the most egregious example, the Office of Public Affairs in 1947 actually pitched a special section in defense of the Marshall Plan to Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham. Graham not only ran the 16-page insert but slanted future Post coverage toward the State Department line. Eat your heart out, Bob Woodward.

In his conclusion, Hart argues that operational problems with the empire of ideas are not due to government incompetence but rather are intrinsic to the project. He’s right, but he doesn’t take that logic far enough. In fact, America’s empire and its ideas are incompatible. 

If American ideology means anything, it means that people should have a voice in their governments’ decisions. Public diplomacy is, in contrast, built precisely on selling American policies and actions to foreigners who don’t get to shape them. This manifest hypocrisy understandably generates as much anger as goodwill. It irritates Americans who have to watch their government acting as if those people over there get a vote. And it irritates those people over there, who keep being told of the wonders of having a vote when in fact they don’t have one. 

The United States at its inception and at its best has stood for the principle of anti-colonialism. No taxation without representation means no empire without representation, which means no empire, period. That’s an idea worth spreading—by example, not by propaganda or the force of arms.  

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  • BlogimiDei||

    You know what the Road To Hell is paved with, right?

  • Almanian!||

    Fire and, that's not it. Aggregate? No...concrete! Wait, no, that's not it either....hmmm....

  • lap83||


  • Almanian!||

    So our modern "foriegn advertising" of going to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and showing how much we love them, and help them build schools and dig wells, that's been pretty effective at capturing hearts and minds.

    Plus drones. Nothing says "love" like drone attacks. Particularly on civilians - right Pakistanis?!

    Man - the US' image is polished up like a fresh apple these days!

  • Agreenweed||

    Well, you see, we gotta have the drones so that we can blow up the schools and wells because we don't want to run out of good deeds to do over there!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Madison Ave is where the ad agencies were in NYC, hence Mad Men. Since the Department of State is on Constitution street in DC, would these guys be Con Men?

  • Raven Nation||

    + inifinity

  • Agreenweed||

    +2 Baked Penguin

  • XandPand||

    I think I like the sound of tht dude. Wow.

  • Russell||

    And what does the author think of that echt exercise in public diplomacy, Washington's Farewell Address?

  • John Galt||

    The best public relations America could ever produce for the world is to keep our noses out of everyone else's damned business. In fact, for the government and it's "do-gooders" to do the same domestically would be mighty fine PR too.

  • Faithful34||

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  • Bill Dalasio||

    America can’t avoid engagement with the rest of the world.

    While this is true, the assumption here seems to be that the U.S. government should play a dominant role in said "engagement". That is far from clear.

  • ||

    Despite colonialism the territorial map of China has remained unchanged for over 5 hundred years, now its land is once again is under the threat of invasion. Opportunists believe that instigating a civil war will tame Chinese patriotism and turn its people into a billion Rickshaw pulling slaves owned by Western Corporations.

  • ||

    Needz moar ALL-CAPS and [BRACKETS]...


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