Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Assisting Americans understand the world: the role of USICA

Note: For a brief period (1978-1982), the United States Information Agency (USIA, 1953-1999) was renamed/reorganized as the U.S. International Communication Agency (USICA).

From the newly-published papers newly by the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State:


213. News Release Prepared in the International Communication Agency1
Washington, October 24, 1980


For thirty years and more, the U.S. Government has conducted overseas information and exchange programs. The best known of these are the Voice of America and the Fulbright scholarship program. In the spring of 1978, these programs were brought together under the new International Communication Agency. On the surface, the reorganization simply brought together a little known bureaucracy—USIA—and a single entity of the Department of State—the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs—to perform functions familiar only to small numbers of the American public.

But the creation of the new agency was something more than a redrawing of the organizational charts of the federal bureaucracy. Indeed, the creation of the International Communication Agency marked a turning point in the manner in which we conduct our relations with other countries. ICA is the first agency of the Executive Branch established to deal centrally with what may increasingly be the two most important elements in our relations with other nations—people and ideas.

President Carter gave the Agency three principal tasks:

—the explanation and advocacy of this country’s foreign and domestic policies.

—the explanation of American society and culture and the encouragement of dialogue between the people of the United States and those of other societies.2

We carry out these tasks in a variety of ways: personal contact between our officers overseas and opinion leaders in the countries to which they are assigned; sending abroad American speakers on a variety of topics; bringing to the United States each year some 2,000 foreign [Page 635]leaders to visit with their American counterparts in government, labor, mass media, science, education and other fields; managing the Fulbright program; sending American artists and their work overseas; running libraries of American books; producing films and videotapes; broadcasting in 38 languages and many other programs.

But we also have a third responsibility: to assist Americans in their understanding of other countries. It is that responsibility which has brought us to Kansas City today.

There is ample evidence that the United States today faces a “knowledge gap,” just as we faced a “missile gap” in the 1960s. I refer not to our knowledge of technology or science or economics. The recent Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans indicate that we are doing well in those and other areas. Rather, I am talking about our knowledge of the now shrunken world and our competence to deal with it.

The problem is a serious one. It is nation-wide. And it is probably least recognized in Mid-America. The reasons are not hard to find. If Americans in other regions have believed that the Atlantic and Pacific were wide and deep enough to preserve them from the outside world, mid-Americans had the added buffers of over a thousand miles of continent. The hardships of settling these plains and making them fruitful rightly convinced the early settlers and those who followed that “going it alone” was not only possible, but was the only way. Indeed, “going it alone” has long been part of America’s self-image.

In recent years, however, the world “out there” has intruded into our national life with dizzying regularity. Mid-America is very much a part of this world. Grain sales to the Soviet Union and the oil embargo of the early 1970s had great impact here—one pleasant, one less so.3 Your Free Trade Zone is the largest of its type in the nation. Almost 40,000 Missourians earn their livelihood from exports. One dollar in every five of Missouri’s farm sales comes from exports. Missouri ranks only 29th in population among the states, but 12th in agricultural exports and 15th in exports of manufactures.

Nationally, one out of every eight manufacturing jobs depends on exports. One out of every three dollars of U.S. corporate profits is derived from International activities. We import nearly half of our petroleum. Nearly two thirds of our imports are essential raw materials. Significantly the fastest growing export markets are in the developing world, about which we know least as a people.

Indeed, there is a paradox. At a time when neither we nor any other nation in the world can go it alone even if we wished, understanding [Page 636]of this fact and our preparation to live in such a world are signally inadequate.

I think it only prudent to assume that, for the first time in our national existence, the issue before us is that of survival.

The question of survival has not been part of our discourse since the War of 1812. America emerged from World War II virtually unchallenged. We believed that we could solve most of our national problems by overwhelming them with our resources and wealth. We did not have to confront the unpleasant fact that a civilization’s existence can never be assured. We believed we were exempt from history, that God’s good grace would protect us. Perhaps some sensed that our national good fortune could not last forever, but even they thought that real change would take generations.

It should now be apparent to us all that it has not.

We need to confront the reality that those who survive are those who are prepared, those who are willing to invest and to sacrifice for survival.

In public discussions of recent years it became fashionable to describe the world as “interdependent.” Certainly the world has changed since 1945. Certainly our great national problems cannot be addressed in other than international terms. But this is not the real news. The real shift is that for the first time in our national existence, we have become dependent on others. The fact shocks us. We have not yet adjusted to it. And we have much adjusting to do.

We are dealing with a puzzle of extraordinary magnitude: for all of America’s long years as a world power, for all its engagements in virtually every part of the globe, we now witness an entirely new stage in world development; and yet too many Americans hardly see it at all. We fail dismally to unhook ourselves from outworn perspectives which have lost their relevance to the new motor forces of world events. We cling to easy dichotomies—East-West; Capitalist-Communist; the haves and have-nots. We fail to see a world awash in new political sub-units brought into being by nationalist or religious fervor, and thrusts toward cultural and ethnic self-determination. In such a world the old ideologies are incorrect, risk being at least misleading. Holding onto them may well have serious consequences.

Old habits of mind die slowly in nations, as they do in individuals. And those old ways of thinking about the world function like blinders. They prevent us from recognizing all of the potentially unpleasant aspects of a smaller, interdependent world. Unpleasant because genuine interdependence suggests a situation for which there is no real precedent in our national experience—that we are now, like most other societies throughout history, at the mercy of important events and decisions beyond our collective grasp.

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We live in a world which is increasingly not of our choosing nor of our imagination. This is at variance with what our experience and our education have taught us: that the forces of history were on our side, that we were capable of shaping our own destiny.

What if our circumstances have changed and this should no longer be true?

We are strong as a nation, but far from omnipotent. One of the lessons of our experiences in Indochina, and now in Iran and Afghanistan, concerns the limits of traditional power. We know now that we can no longer live by the application of an overwhelming dominance in political, military or economic power. We face the far more difficult task of living by our wits, by our knowledge of others and by our skill in dealing with them.

By temperament and training, Americans are not well equipped to deal with their new situation. We are thrown into contact and conflict with peoples whose histories and motivations we scarcely understand. Can we comprehend the new forms of political change, quite distinct from Western models, that are evolving before our eyes? How many educated Americans—aside from a few scholars—appreciate in even the vaguest way, the dynamism and values of Islamic cultures? How many of us understand the nature of the conflicts now plaguing the Central American countries?

On another level, few of us speak anyone else’s language. The report last year of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies4 indicates that only 8 percent of our colleges and universities have a foreign language entrance requirement, as against 34 percent in 1966 and an astounding 85 percent in 1915. I would be the last to argue that language per se is a path to automatic understanding of other societies, but its virtual absence in our curricula is symptomatic of our approach to the world.

Other evidence is equally discouraging. Consider:

—During 1968–77, a period when some 2 million jobs became dependent on exports, enrollments in college and university foreign language courses dropped 21 percent.

—Only one in twenty undergraduates enrolls in courses dealing with foreign peoples and cultures.

—A bare 5 percent of all the nation’s teachers have had any exposure to international studies and training.

—Fewer than 2 percent of high school graduates have any foreign language competence.

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A UNESCO study of 30,000 ten- and fourteen-year-olds in nine nations ranked Americans next to last in their comprehension of foreign cultures.

Unhappily, government and private funding support for international studies has declined dramatically in recent years. In real terms, the $41.2 million dollars provided by the United States and other countries for the Fulbright exchange program last year amounted to only 60 percent of the level in 1965. National Defense Education Act Title VI Fellowships for foreign area study are at an all time low. The Ford Foundation, which invested $242 million in international programs in the 1960s, projected less than $4 million for that purpose in 1978.

Our “gross national inadequacy in foreign languages,” as James Perkins has written, has a direct effect on our foreign affairs. In our embassy in the Soviet Union, only one of our top foreign service officers is required to speak Ukrainian; none speak Uzbek or any of the other Turkic languages of the USSR’s increasingly restive Moslem peoples. A total of 12 officers in our foreign service have Chinese at a truly useful level, while only 19 are fully fluent in Japanese. On the legislative side, there is no full-time Soviet and East European specialist on a Congressional committee staff.

This litany of disturbing facts and shortcomings is not a counsel of despair. But it should be a basis for action.

What then is to be done? How can positive change be brought about? That is for you to decide. Communities and groups around the country are beginning to confront the “knowledge gap” and are hard at work.

Seattle, Washington, is making notable efforts to transform the report of the President’s Commission into reality. An energetic coalition of state and local authorities, educators, academics, business and non-profit people, not to say concerned citizens has succeeded in placing the future of languages and international studies high on the public agenda.

The San Francisco Bay area is forming a similar coalition to make the study of languages and other societies an integral part of curricula there.

This fall, Staten Island’s Curtis High School has begun offering a program of language and international business specifically tailored to the skills that employers seek in the New York City area. A public elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland, offers a complete curriculum taught in French.

The Kettering Foundation’s extraordinary “Columbus and the World” project,5 which Chadwick Alger will discuss later, has been a [Page 639]model for working through all the dimensions of a city’s international engagement. A study of international business education by the American Council of Collegiate Schools of Business led General Electric and the Exxon Education Foundation to subsidize a series of workshops to sensitize business school faculties to the international dimension of business education.

These and other examples have something in common: in each instance, it was a cadre of concerned and interested citizens who made the difference and who are bringing about change.

The Federal government can help by acknowledging the problem, placing it on the national agenda, and providing modest financial support. My own agency’s role in this might best be described as that of a “friendly broker,” alert to matching up individuals, institutions, programs and resources abroad with their counterparts in this country. But the Federal government can only do so much.

The important decisions must be made at state and local levels. This is fundamentally a civic problem; it will respond to citizen interests. But there will be no meaningful, continuous support for enhancing international awareness until citizens perceive international affairs as a local responsibility—something that affects each one of them. Changes in the way we teach and learn about the world will not happen because of massive transfusions of moneys, but by massive transfusions of fresh perspective and intellectual vigor.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Kansas City or mid-America. I don’t know which business leaders are most supportive of international education, or which are most involved in international business here. I don’t know the examples of effective business participation in linking domestic development to international markets and foreign trade. I don’t know the business leaders who participate in world affairs citizen education groups, and which ones sit on the boards of trustees of your colleges and universities.

I would suggest, however, that you find out who they are and give them full credit and reception for what they are doing. “Turning it around” requires a great deal of mutual reinforcement.

There is much to be done. We are at a pivotal point in our history. We are late in realizing it. We must begin, now, to think and talk about a world where hard choices must be made, where basic human values must be better understood and more carefully responded to, where our decisions must be shaped by a consistent, knowledgeable commitment to the future.

Building appropriate education systems is a long-range task. Just as imperative is the need to find and support palliative measures in the short-term.

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For me the palliative, and here I quote Robert Chollar of the Kettering Foundation, is “to preserve the involvement and expand the understanding of the minority who are attentive to international relations.”

Our future would be well-rewarded if, acting together, you here and we in the Federal government, and others who share our concerns, could find ways to support and encourage those in this country who are intellectually engaged with international issues. The importance of providing them with adequate, continuing support in the national interest cannot be overstated.

I am talking about a group which can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands rather than in the millions: people such as you who are part of a community of interest in the larger world.

It is to you, I believe, that we must look for that minimum group of informed and critical intellects—and resulting social discourse—to see us through the next generation.

However real the impediments to an effective response, and they exist, we cannot afford to turn away from involvement.

Education that teaches us to celebrate rather than condemn cultural diversity, to understand rather than undermine differing traditions and beliefs, to respect rather than revile mankind’s infinite variations—such education may not be enough to preserve our precarious perch on the favorable side of history, but surely the effort must be made. I am reminded of what a UN official said some time ago. He noted that a child born today into a world of four billion plus people will, if she or he attains age 60, be sharing the earth with three times as many human beings: “A child born today,” he said, “will be both actor and beneficiary, or victim, in a total world fabric, and he may rightly ask: Why was I not warned? Why was I not better educated? Why did my teachers not tell me about these problems?”.

Why, indeed? What greater default than this: that we should fail to warn our children?


1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Office of the Director, Biographic Files Relating to USIA Directors and Other Senior Officials, 1953–2000, Entry A–1 1069, Box 25, John E. Reinhardt, Speeches, 1980. No classification marking. A typed notation in the top right-hand corner of the news release reads: “Embargoed for release Friday, October 24, 1980 9:00 am.”↩

2. See Document 121.↩

3. Presumable references to the July 1972 Soviet purchase of $750 million worth of grain from the United States and the OPEC oil embargo.↩

4. See footnote 2, Document 168.↩

5. Reference is to the research project “Columbus in the World and the World in Columbus” (CITW: TWIC), which surveyed the international connections of citizens living in Columbus, Ohio. Alger developed the project under the auspices of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University.↩

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