Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The International Communication Agency's mission (1980)

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:

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:


203. Address by the Director of the International Communication Agency (Reinhardt)1

Washington, February 7, 1980

It’s good to be among colleagues; the snatches of conversation and discussion I’ve heard here today are familiar—and heartening—[Page 597]to someone who’s been engaged in this work at home and abroad for over twenty years. Your expertise and professionalism go without saying; it’s your continued enthusiasm that gives me a real lift. I’m grateful and impressed.

As you know, the convention at workshops like this is for the guest speaker to congratulate the participants and tell them that their hard work does not go unappreciated. I certainly don’t intend to break that convention. But I must, at the outset, make a further statement: without your efforts, my agency would simply fall down on the job. Our partnerships—the many partnerships represented here at this workshop—are essential to the U.S. International Communication Agency’s mission and to its institutional life. That’s a plain fact. And it’s as sound a foundation as I can think of for my brief remarks here today.

You’re all familiar with—and you share in carrying out—USICA’s mission, which in its simplest terms, is to encourage the sharing of ideas and experience between the people of the United States and the people of other nations, with the object of increasing mutual understanding. Our charter—drawn up by the President and sanctioned by the Congress—states explicitly that it is in the national interest to do this.2 Later in the month I will ask the Congress to appropriate almost 460 million dollars of the taxpayers’ money to carry out this charter.

Before USICA was created, most of you worked with the State Department on exchange-of-persons programs designed to increase mutual understanding among peoples, and you had at least some knowledge of the part played by U.S. Information Agency officers abroad in administering these same programs. So I won’t go into any organizational history except to make three points, which I believe are especially important today:

First, the importance of exchange programs—genuine two-way communication between Americans and people of other societies and cultures—was recognized from the beginning as too great to be entrusted solely to Government functionaries. Private-sector partnership remains a necessity to USICA;

Second, the old USIA and the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs worked harmoniously and effectively together for many years on exchange matters in spite of enormous, and sometimes absurd, bureaucratic obstacles;

Third, for 30 years exchange programs existed together with other educational, cultural and information activities, often through periods of international stress, division and bloodshed, without external or internal compromise to their integrity.

[Page 598]
We’re looking at a very grim world today, but not an impossible one. I believe that the present international convulsions and confrontations underscore the need for these efforts at mutual understanding that we call public diplomacy, and with which you and I are intimately concerned. I’ve just come back this week from a trip to China and the Philippines. In Manila I met with our Public Affairs Officers from 14 countries in the Far East. Over the past critical weeks, these USICA officers have been engaged in explaining our country’s policies and clarifying America’s intentions and reactions in regard to Iran and Afghanistan, as completely and as thoughtfully as they could. At the same time, scholars, professional people, community leaders from those countries have been here, seeing for themselves the public mood, and the knowledge—or lack of it—of international issues reflected by their American hosts. These visitors have been explaining their own points of view and their judgments as interested members of other societies to whom the present international crises may have other implications.

I might add that what is most important in each of these efforts at communication is not just the assurance or warning of the moment, but the achievement of as accurate an understanding as possible of the social and cultural context in which the conversation takes place.

I have been thinking about my trip to the Far East, and about the tensions emanating from Southwest Asia, in connection with my appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the 20th of this month.3 As Dr. Johnson said, “The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

What have our efforts at cross-cultural communication done for us in Iran or Afghanistan? In other parts of the world, have our exchange-of-persons programs, our radio broadcasts on the Voice of America, our speakers and seminars on economic and social subjects, our exhibits of painting and sculpture, tempered the international climate to any appreciable degree?

After 40 years of official international visitor programs, do we—in government or politics or private institutions of influence—have a better understanding of others’ aspirations or fears or perspectives on the world—an understanding that moderates our national behavior or comprehension?

The answers to these questions are immensely more important than the 460 million dollars they’re associated with this year. And they’re questions which you, more than anybody, know must be [Page 599]answered—at least to a certain extent—on faith. We in America must believe in the possibility of rational discourse. We must believe that mutual understanding between peoples can actually be arrived at. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

But we can buttress our faith with intelligent and worthwhile programs, like the ones you work with every day.

—Influential international visitors from Yemen, Morocco and Oman, programmed by VPS, will take part in a seminar on Islam and the Modern World this weekend, jointly sponsored by American University and the Islamic Center. We can assume that they will make significant contributions to American understanding, and in the process, contribute to an actual lessening of political and social frictions among international opinion-makers.

—Last summer, nine young film-makers from five Arab countries toured the United States from coast to coast by van and station wagon, in a program arranged with the Academy for Educational Development. What they learned about the United States is bound to have an effect on their work and attitudes well beyond the techniques of documentary film-making. An ICA officer accompanying them saw—as you so often do with international visitors—a dramatic lessening of suspicion, an increasing warmth of response, as these intensely political, culturally defensive professional communicators saw that the trip was open, that they were not being guided toward conclusions or shielded from controversy.

—A glance at the arrival lists of international visitors shows economists, labor leaders, orchestra conductors, parliamentarians, university lecturers, business executives, playwrights, being given this same open experience—unique, I believe, to America—through the good offices and sure professional touch of AAI, IIE, VPS, The Labor Department, the Office of Education, Commerce, Defense, AID, our own voluntary visitor office and others represented in this room. And you know, despite the headaches and frustrations, the occasional impossible personality, that the programs work—they do achieve and increase mutual understanding.

If I have one policy point to make today, it is that our mutual endeavors to create understanding through international visitor programs, exchanges of scholars and artists, through discussions and seminars, through reasoned explication and sensitive listening, are most effective and meaningful when they are all actively engaged in multiple and continuous communication.

I have been worried about the tendency of people inside and outside USICA to see it as having a split personality, with one soft, rather slow-moving cultural side, and one brisk, somewhat argumentative information side. It just isn’t so. These facets of communication—some [Page 600]more resonant than others—are all parts of a whole. To characterize them as long-range or short-range, one-way or two-way, as cultural or informational, is to stereotype and diminish them. What characterizes communication is the use to which it’s put, by both sender and receiver, not the means of communication itself. You could, if you chose, manipulate an exchange visit as easily as we could fashion a tendentious message for the Voice of America. None of us can, even if we choose, communicate only one message at a time.

At times of international crisis, people tend to simplify issues, and to split them into “either-or” alternatives, often along “hawk” and “dove” lines. A quick look at the papers these days will bear this out; either we take one of a series of actions in Iran or Afghanistan, or we take another series of actions.

The “either-or” approach to international relations may have its value—in clearing the ambiguities from proposed actions or in sharpening distinctions between policy options, for example—but one institution at least would be very badly served by “either-or” divisions, or ideological cleavages among its components or partners. That, of course, is USICA. This brings me to the policy point about public diplomacy and its future that I want to leave with you. If we are going to strengthen—truly strengthen—mutual understanding between peoples, and if we are truly going to strengthen rationality in international dialogue, we must use wisely all the means of communication at our disposal. Those of us who work in educational and cultural exchanges should see the VOA news and commentary as in a sense extensions of our own activities, with all the critical interest and concern that that implies. And the press officer in a post abroad who enunciates official U.S. policy, should understand that the Fulbright and international visitor programs provide increasing numbers of his audiences with background and experience of our culture which brings that policy into perspective. We must not only recognize the connections among the various channels of communication we use as practitioners of public diplomacy—official and unofficial—we must be aware that their complexities enrich the process, at the same time they defy manipulation.

Two years ago, when USICA was being organized and the international atmosphere was fairly calm, there were fears among people concerned with the State Department’s educational and cultural exchange programs that these activities might be politicized by any institutional links with the government’s overseas information and cultural programs. I think most now agree that these fears have not been realized. Now, with USICA established and the international atmosphere at the boiling point, I hear from some that the Agency’s information function—the clear enunciation and explanation to the world of American policy and opinion—might be dissipated by [Page 601]USICA’s emphasis on educational and cultural-exchange matters. I think this, too, is an unnecessary fear.

“Either-or” just does not apply to our business. We are obligated to listen, to contribute to what is known in the exchanges community as the “American Learning Experience,” and we are bound, in our two-way communication, to reflect the plurality of American culture. But as the official component of this country’s public diplomacy, supported by tax dollars, we cannot cut ourselves loose from policy. Nor, in its day, could the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Public diplomacy, skillfully and responsibly practiced, is necessary and beneficial to the conduct of our international affairs. It is a counter to the surges of irrationality and rage in the world which are activated by ignorance and misapprehension.

And the exchange programs are a primary ingredient of public diplomacy. In my view, they have never been more vital than now. I say this not out of any naive belief that exchanges are a panacea for the world’s problems; yet no foreign policy can be wholly realistic or complete which does not try to bring together, across frontiers, people who honestly want to learn from and about one another.

Many of you have heard what purports to be an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” We are certainly so cursed, and so privileged.

As a remarkable blend of personal convictions and professional goals, this workshop represents an active partnership and a pledge for the future—in interesting times. I am proud to be a part of it.

Thank you.


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. Reinhardt spoke before a meeting of the National Council for International Visitors. His address is entitled “The Future of Public Diplomacy.”↩

2. See Documents 93 and 121.↩

3. See Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, The Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1981 Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations United States Senate Ninety-Sixth Congress Second Session Part 1—(Pages 1-788). (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1980)↩

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