Imperial Ad Men

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


Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy, by Justin Hart, Oxford University Press, 296 pages, $34.95

The art of communicating with the people—public relations—is a notoriously messy business, involving a mixture of persuasion and selective editing, if not outright deception. The art of communicating with foreign publics—sometimes called public diplomacy—is even more fraught. The inherent contradiction in promoting freedom through propaganda is at the heart of Justin Hart's new book, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy

Hart, a Texas Tech historian, chronicles America's mid-century efforts to sell itself to the rest of the world. Empire of Ideas tracks government P.R. successes and failures, from Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America in the 1930s, through the propaganda efforts of World War II, into the early Cold War struggle with Russia for the hearts and minds of the world, leading to the creation of the United States Information Agency in 1953.

Hart's book is a story of good intentions producing bad results. Immediately before and after World War II, America was trying to figure out a way to achieve global pre-eminence without resorting to European-style colonial repression. The hope was that a new kind of public diplomacy, which Hart calls "an empire of ideas," could eliminate the need for projecting American force. Sometimes it did. But in other cases, the policy ended in public relations disasters, or even in an escalation of the very kind of Cold War hostilities it was ostensibly designed to prevent.

Consider the case of the State Department's overseas libraries. These were originally intended to advance the image of the U.S. as a bastion of democracy and free speech. But in 1953 Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) set out on a campaign to cleanse these libraries of books by communist authors. As a result, State Department personnel in a few countries actually ended up disposing of books by lighting them on fire. As Hart dryly remarks, "being linked to book burning, literally or ?guratively, did not advance the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy." Unfortunately, this spectacular example was far from the only public-diplomacy disaster. 

In fact, what we generally think of as America's most successful international outreach campaign, the massive aid program for postwar Europe known as the Marshall Plan, ended up as a P.R. fiasco. The plan was intended to stabilize and cement U.S. relations with the continent. In this it was successful. But one of its many unintended consequences was to link America with Western Europe's colonial interests in the eyes of the rest of the world by propping up countries, such as France and Great Britain, that still maintained vast overseas holdings. People in Vietnam or Iraq couldn't help but notice that, as Hart points out, "there was no Marshall Plan for Africa or the Middle East.…There was simply no good way to spin these facts."

This is ironic because the original goal of modern public diplomacy was to specifically separate America from Europe's history of colonialism. FDR and his administration looked over at one (and later two) hideously destructive world conflagrations and blamed Europe's violent history of territorial colonialism. As the U.S. moved—first in Latin America and then throughout the world—to inherit the mantle of Europe's empire, it was determined to avoid the associated legacy of large-scale and occasionally genocidal violence. That left Washington's diplomats, as Hart puts it, facing "the rather interesting dilemma of how to fashion an imperial strategy different from the European model they hoped to succeed."

So rather than conquering the world through force of arms, the U.S. would convert the world to capitalism, democracy, and the American way of life, all while trying to stop or slow the spread of communism. Thus America would "manage without ruling, or perhaps…rule without managing."

In some sense, America seems perfectly suited for this kind of large-scale salesmanship. The U.S. was, after all, the home of Madison Avenue, where modern advertising techniques were being pioneered. Mad men, such as ad executive and later Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton, were central to the U.S. public diplomacy effort. Although Hart does not make this explicit, the techniques of public diplomacy are in many ways an extension of domestic democratic politics to an international stage. The ideological persuasion needed to convince Americans that FDR's (or Barack Obama's) policies are effective and moral are not so different from the ideological persuasion needed to convince Latin America that the U.S. is a good neighbor, or the Arab world that U.S. policies are beneficent and high-minded. 

This synchronicity did not always work out as well as policy makers might have hoped. For example, when the Office of War Information in 1943 printed up what Hart calls a "fulsome booklet" about "The Life of Franklin Roosevelt" to promote American ideology abroad, the result was a brutal domestic political backlash, as conservatives criticized the president for using taxpayer dollars to print re-election campaign literature. Administration protests that the biography was solely for foreign consumption were undercut by reports that the booklet was available to U.S. troops stationed overseas.

The difficulty in these and other foreign propaganda efforts is that there is no wall separating the public at home from the public abroad. Foreign audiences have access to messages disseminated for domestic consumption —so that Joseph McCarthy's attacks on overseas libraries from the Senate floor ended up presenting America to the rest of the world as rabidly nativist. 

The controversies flow in the opposite direction, too: Hart describes one infuriating but not atypical appropriations committee meeting in 1947, during which Nebraska Rep. Karl Stefan grilled Benton on the State Department's decision to fund an exhibition of American abstract art overseas. The art show had, Hart suggested, been designed to show the world that America was not a cultural backwater. But the fact that the paintings had been produced by "a tight little group in New York" didn't sit well with Stefan. Amid much hullabaloo, the House voted to eliminate public diplomacy funds from the State Department's budget.

America can't avoid engagement with the rest of the world. But if diplomatic conversations are to be fruitful, they require listening as well as speaking. Creating effective propaganda aimed at, say, the Muslim world means figuring out what the Muslim world wants to hear. But saying what foreigners want to hear is not necessarily going to go over well with American voters who—naturally enough—expect their government to pander exclusively to them. 

In its propaganda during World War II and the Cold War, for example, the U.S. government tried repeatedly to downplay the reality of racist Jim Crow laws. As part of that effort, the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1943 released a lavishly illustrated booklet titled Negroes and the War that was meant to showcase African-American contributions to defeating fascism. Although (as many blacks pointed out) this marketing effort was the least the administration could do, it still provoked outraged jeremiads from Southern congressmen, including Rep. Leonard Allen (D-La.), who attacked the OWI for fomenting "racial equality" and using the war to "force upon the South a philosophy that is alien to us."

The "propaganda nightmare" (as Hart calls it) that domestic race politics created for relations with the nonwhite peoples of the world was nicely summed up by the State Department's Dean Rusk. Serving on a committee to discuss the public diplomacy problems of decolonialization, Rusk was asked by one of his colleagues if the U.S. should publicly split the world into democracies and nondemocracies and then side with the good guys. Rusk responded: "I think it would be dif?cult to get a great majority of the rest of the world to concede that we are enough of a democracy to be entitled to draw particular lines on that sort of a concept…I am worried about the fact that these autocracies that you are talking about also exist in my native state of Georgia, and they exist with respect to 50 percent of the population of the people of Mississippi. I think that creates a problem for us."

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.