Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Review of Reasserting America in the 1970s: U.S. Public Diplomacy and the Rebuilding of America’s Image Abroad

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A Review of

Reasserting America in the 1970s:
U.S. Public Diplomacy and the Rebuilding of America’s Image Abroad

Edited by Hallward Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith and David J. Snyder
(Altrincham Street, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016)

By John Brown

(Preliminary version: comments, criticisms, corrections welcome:


The 1970s -- which, in this volume, refer to the 1965-1980 period -- were marked in the U.S. by national dissatisfaction -- what with a disastrous War in Vietnam, racial tensions and riots, the Watergate scandal, an inflationary economy, and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and its staff in Tehran.

In a televised address to the nation (July 15, 1979), President (1977-1981) Jimmy Carter spoke about the country’s dire mood in what became known as his “malaise” speech -- which, although it did not actually include the word “malaise” (see The Washington Post, August 9, 2013), acquired its uninspiring foreign-sounding (to American ears) designation.

Carter image from, with [a controversial?] caption, "The malaise speech worked!"

Overseas, U.S. prestige appeared to be a thing of the past. Policymakers and diplomats, hoping to “fix” this problem, used several ways to do so, including turning to public diplomacy (PD), a little-known, among Americans, foreign policy instrument, openly implemented by the United States Information Agency, established by President Eisenhower (in 1953), at the height of the Cold War, in order to counteract Soviet propaganda.

Despite this renewed 1970’s PD effort -- meant to reassert American policies and values in the world -- the Carter administration’s public diplomacy programs were largely a failure.

Such is, at least as I understand it, the main point of this admirably detailed study, whose arguably "upbeat" title does not quite prepare the reader, no matter her or his political inclinations, for its overwhelmingly negative conclusions about its subject matter.

Produced by eminent scholars and based on both published and unpublished sources, the volume focuses on a wide range of public diplomacy activities -- among them informational, people-to-people, cultural (and, dare I say, also "covertly funded"?) -- in the 1970s (and even before), providing to its readers with illuminating information. 

Not exactly a page-turning potential “best-seller," despite the lucid prose and stimulating thinking of its authors, it should be of greatest interest to academic specialists in the growing field of PD studies. 

Below is a listing of chapters in the volume in the order of their appearance (their titles have been abbreviated due to space limitations). Three other chapters (two published at the beginning of the volume -- #1, #2 -- one at the end -- #17) can be found below, under the heading "Introductory chapter; Afterword."


#3 USIA and American Public Diplomacy (Nicholas J.Cull)

Cull, the author of the magisterial The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (2008) leaves little doubt, at least to this reader, that a major example 

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of PD’s failure during the Carter administration was its decision to expand the mission of USIA from “telling America’s story to the world” (its traditional Cold War motto). Quite unexpectedly to the foreign affairs “community,” the propaganda agency (which it avoided calling itself) was also tasked to serve (in the words of Cull) as a “mutual conduit” between the USA and other countries (the so-called “second mandate”). This ambitious, underfunded project was a near-total flop, not helped by USIA’s new name (International Communication Agency, a designation it acquired in 1978), about which Cull notes that the “Washington Post ran a front page story reporting that people around the world were confusing ICA with CIA.” In 1982, under President Reagan, USIA got its old name back and the “second mandate” was history. So much for a federal agency opening the eyes of average (insular?) Americans to peoples outside the homeland.

#4 The Sister-City Network in the 1970s (Brian C. Etheridge)

The Sister-City International program, meant to bring “ordinary”American city-dwellers in contact with their overseas counterparts, was founded in the late 1960s. Etheridge notes that a decade later the “confused and often contradictory aims of the initiative, combined with the insistence on private, localized means of execution, created conditions that hindered the accomplishment of either the organization’s lofty goals or its prosaic ends.”  
#5 The Exposure of CIA Sponsorship of Radio Free Europe
(Kenneth Osgood)

The Central Intelligence Agency’s secret sponsorship of Radio Free Europe (“the intelligence community’s most important asset for public diplomacy,” Osgood notes) was exposed during the 1960s by the American media. RFE, as members of the public discovered (not to their great concern, as Osgood suggests), was receiving private funding through the Crusade for Freedom, a stridently anti-Communist organization with connections to “captive nations” émigrés. The Crusade had been spearheaded by a CIA front group (the National Committee for a Free Europe) that obtained support from the Advertising Council, “which functioned as an unofficial information agency of the U.S. government during World War II and the early Cold War.” 

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Osgood, using information unearthed from his extensive archival research, concludes that a “cover story" -- that the communist domination of people imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain was a casus belli -- was used to justify “a covert public diplomacy intended for a foreign audience” that “exerted a deep and lasting impact on the sponsoring country’s domestic politics, and, in many ways, set the stage for the revival of the Cold War in the 1980s.”

#6 USIA Responds to the Women’s Movement, 1960-1975
 (Laura A. Belmonte)

Belmonte praises the response of USIA to the Women’s movement, 1960-1975, because “U.S. information experts … came to embrace the women’s movement as another chapter in America’s ongoing narrative of expanding freedom and opportunity.” But she does suggest that this improvement took an exceedingly long time, by noting that "[n]o longer framing women’s achievements in ways that diminished their contributions in some areas of public life, USIA had finally [my emphasis] made narratives about women’s lives and integral part of telling America’s story to the world.”

#7 Race, Civil Rights, and American Public Diplomacy, 1965-1976
(Michael L. Krenn)

Regarding the sensitive question of race relations in the U.S. – which all too often did not show America as its democratic best – Krenn writes that by “the mid-1970s USIA was completely adrift on the issue of civil rights. It was one that a number of Agency officials wished would disappear.” As for “the anger expressed by many civil rights leaders in the early- to mid-1970s,” Krenn notes that “the best the Agency could do  -- and whether it did so particularly effectively is another matter -- was to try and bleach some of the angry blackness out of the [racial] disturbances consistently assert the important work being done by ‘reasonable’ African-Americans with the aid of helpful white Americans and the federal government, and present to the world a ‘low-key, mulatto’ picture of Americans struggling to find -- or, perhaps, define -- the American dream.”

#8 The Collapse of American Arts Diplomacy, 1968-1972
 (Claire Bower)

The opening of American pavilion at the 1970 Venice Biennale, organized the USG-funded International Art Program (IPA) managed to get the project “off the ground,” writes the talented undergraduate Bower.

Image from, with caption: Chocolate Room, American Pavilion, Venice . Originally created for the 35th Venice Biennale in 1970, American artist Edward Ruscha created the ‘wallpaper’ of this room by silk-screen printing 360 sheets with Nestlé chocolate. The oppressive room forces inhabitants to question their preconceptions about the relationship between taste and euphoria.

But she points out that the withdrawal of many American artists opposed to U.S. foreign policy turned the enterprise into “a critical flop” that “proved catastrophic to the United States’ already troubled cultural diplomacy program.”

#9 Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961-1979
(Teasel Muir-Harmony)

U.S. space triumphs, when they finally got off the ground after Sputnik, turned into propaganda victories for the United States. But Teasel Muir-Harmony ends her piece on a pessimistic note: spaceflight, she writes, “had not and could not deliver the bright future for humanity advertised by a decade of public diplomacy programming. 

Image from, with caption: President Richard M. Nixon was in the central Pacific recovery area to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the USS Hornet, prime recovery ship for the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Already confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) are (left to right) Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. Apollo 11 splashed down at 11:49 a.m. (CDT), July 24, 1969, about 812 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii and only 12 nautical miles from the USS Hornet. Image Credit: NASA

Undermined by the end of the space race and its early technocratic rationalist framing, space-theme public diplomacy was bound to a vision of progress and competition that was out of step with the austere realities of the 1970s.”

#10 America’s Public Diplomacy in France and Italy during the Years of Eurocommunism (Alessandro Brogi)

Brogi, in this thought-provoking chapter, sees America’s “uncertainty” in the 1970s as a form of national strength that some overseas found attractive. “In the end,” he writes, “America’s image still sold itself, in all its contradictions and because of its contradictions, which in themselves gave it an emancipatory power, certainly among the European left and its new generation.” 

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The author’s optimism regarding the contributions to humanity of an insecure America is, however, overcome in the final paragraph of his subtle piece, by the pessimism (malaise?) that marks the volume under review as a whole: “[B]y the end of this era of insecurity, an America that was exclusive prevailed over the inclusive one. Chauvinism was the quickest shortcut to national reassertion and confidence.”

#11 The USIA in South Africa, 1960-1976 (John C. Stoner)

Stoner, in this study of U.S. PD in South Africa, minces no words about what he considers its failure: “The high price of American information activities in South Africa resulted in disappointingly few returns  [he notes in footnote 40 that “South Africa was the third largest recipient of funds for its USIA activities in 1974]  …  [M]any white South Africans perceived that the shift from Nixon to Carter signaled deteriorating U.S.-South Africa relations … For Washington, it remained difficult to strike the appropriate balance between anti-apartheid rhetoric (souring white public opinion in South Africa while simultaneously gaining public acclaim from many in the United States) and pragmatic and realizable steps to spur change in South Africa … As we know from growing numbers of studies of the Carter administration, policies ostensibly geared toward human rights were being subverted by domestic and Cold War imperatives.”

#12 The U.S. Army’s German-American Volksfest in West Berlin,
1965-1981 (Benjamin P. Greene)

The American military’s premier public diplomacy event in Berlin, the Volksfest, “sought to ease anxieties about American decline with soothing symbols of the American West embedded with the festival’s annual theme,” according to Greene. He acknowledges that “[t]estimonials from German politicians, flattering local media coverage, and effusive praise from American diplomats and community relations experts combined to solidify the sponsors’ belief that they had achieved their objective.” But Greene 

Image from, under the title:  "1968 Volksfest featured Mississippi Riverboat, Dixieland Jazz"  

introduces an important caveat: “This does not mean, however, that German visitors associated America with the icons of its western frontier in the way the American sponsors intended.” Moreover, he notes, “USIA polls found that a plurality of West Germans believed U.S. policies did more to increase the risk of war than to promote peace.”

#13 The Church Committee, the CIA, and the Intelligence Dimension of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the 1970s (Paul M. McGarr)

McGarr examines the intelligence dimension of U.S. diplomacy by focusing on the review (1975-1976) of the United States Senate Select Committee with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the “Church Committee”), critical of the CIA's covert role in PD. He notes that “one of the consequences of the CIA’s vilification during the 1970s was to weaken long established U.S. public diplomacy initiatives abroad.” “[G]overnments in the developing world,” he points out, “frustrated by limitations imposed upon their economic and political power by a global system tilted in favor of the northern hemisphere increasingly came to view the CIA as symbolic of a new, amorphous, and in many respects, more insidious threat to the post-colonial state.”

#14 America’s Bicentennial and U.S.-Sweden Normalization in 1976
(M. Todd Bennett)

“It is fair to say,” writes Bennett, that “the Bicentennial helped to reestablish a functioning Swedish-American relationship, a notable achievement given the extent of Swedish-American estrangement during the Viet-Nam era.” However, he takes issue with “the dozens of glowing cables that poured into the State Department from its posts around the world in the immediate 

Image from, under the title: Official Bicentennial Visit Medal Honoring H. M. Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden (Franklin Mint, 1976)

aftermath of the Fourth of July 1976,” giving the impression “that the Bicentennial succeeded even beyond the expectations of U.S. diplomats.” “USIA analyst Leo Crespi,” he notes, "concluded that public affairs officers must have gotten swept up in all the flag-waving July Fourth rhetoric, causing them to file cables that viewed 'foreign public opinion through rose-colored glasses.'” 

#15 Western Enthusiasm for Carter’s Human Rights Diplomacy
(Barbara Keys)

Carter’s human rights program, writes Keys, “was among the most ambitious of all American public diplomacy campaigns.” The concluding words in her chapter are that “Carter’s human rights diplomacy … at least for a brief moment … pulled America out of the mire of Vietnam and Watergate, and restored America’s confidence in itself – and the world’s in America.” But take note: Keys’s crucial words here are “for a brief moment" [JB emphasis]. At the conclusion of her piece, Keys contends that “by the end of Carter’s term in office … human rights diplomacy had succumbed to a renewed Cold War. Even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had scuttled détente, human rights diplomacy had come under increasing attack … A State Department official told the Wall Street Journal in 1978: ‘We are engaging in an evangelical phase to advertise our moral concerns to the rest of the world. Yet the inconsistent way we apply our policy means we look hypocritical and moralistic, not moral. Eventually, the rest of the world gets tired of our holier-than-thou approach.’”

#16 The Committee on the Present Danger, Defense Spending, and the Perception of American Power Abroad (John H. Rosenberg)

Rosenberg’s piece is something of an odd bird in this volume for, unlike other contributors (who, granted, do criticize Carter and his public diplomacy), he attacks the one-term president with notable ferocity for his failure to forcefully reassert America militarily (and -- minor note -- Rosenberg isn’t a prof, but “only” a Ph.D. candidate). His main point is that “The Carter administration … proved remarkably inept at selling its foreign policy vision to the American people, especially during the SALT debate.” 

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He argues that the Committee on the Present Danger -- its American members being Eugene Rostow, Paul Nitze, David Packard, and others -- proved, on the other hand, to be “remarkably [‘remarkably’ again - JB] successful, culminating in the return to a more overtly interventionist, anti-communist foreign policy under Ronald Reagan, himself a CPD member.” The CPD “had returned the ‘will,’ and the fear, to the western alliance.” Rostow and company “played on the fear of war with the Soviet Union, but what they truly feared was the loss of ‘respect’ for the United Stated abroad.”

Introductory chapters; Afterword

The first two chapters in the volume – #1 Reasserting America in the 1970s (Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder) and #2 The Age of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (Thomas W. Zeiler) provide an informative overview about the themes and historical background of the study. Perhaps the most memorable passage in Zeiler's piece, a propos of the U.S. national mood in the 1970s, reads as follows: “In an era of setbacks and uncertainty in the United States, in which Americans retreated to owing pet rocks (objects that, unlike world affairs, they could, at least, appear to control) …"

Image from, under the headline: The Pet Rock Captured a Moment and Made Its Creator a Millionaire

Lack of space prevents me from giving these two pieces their due. There is a succinct summary of the above mentioned chapters (by far better than the one I’ve provided) in the afterword to the volume by # 17 Selling America in the Shadow of Vietnam (Robert J. McMahon) (which oddly fails to mention the piece by the Edward Gibbon of the United States Information Agency, Nicholas J. Cull).


The index of the volume is quite thorough, but surprisingly does not cite “malaise,” a key word (mentioned in several chapters) used in characterizing the national mood during the period under study.

The Cover of the Book

Oddly, for a book that focuses on the Carter administration, it has a cover photograph depicting Ford, Nixon and members of their own family -- evidently when Nixon was leaving the Oval Office, with a helicopter (not pictured in the above photo) waiting to take him far away from the White House. The image can also be found at (scroll down link). Here it is, the photo, in "full," with, evidently, some modifications as it appeared on the cover of the book under review:

Table of Contents from the Manchester University Press website 


1. Introduction: Reasserting America in the 1970s - Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, David J. Snyder
2. Historical Setting: The age of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - Thomas W. Zeiler
Part I: A New Public Diplomacy for a New America
3. The Devil at the Crossroads: USIA and American Public Diplomacy in the 1970s - Nicholas J. Cull
4. The Sister City Network in the 1970s: American Municipal Internationalism and Public Diplomacy in a Decade of Change – Brian C. Etheridge
5. The Exposure of CIA Sponsorship of Radio Free Europe: the 'Crusade for Freedom', American Exceptionalism and the Foreign-Domestic Nexus of Public Diplomacy - Kenneth Osgood
6. USIA Responds to the Women's Movement, 1960-1975 - Laura A. Belmonte
7. “The Low Key Mulatto Coverage”: Race, Civil Rights and American Public Diplomacy, 1965-1976 - Michael L. Krenn
8. Paintbrush Politics: The Collapse of American Arts Diplomacy, 1968-1972 - Claire Bower
9. Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961-1979 - Teasel Muir-Harmony
Part II: The World Responds to a Reassertive America
10. America's Public Diplomacy in France and Italy during the Years of Eurocommunism - Alessandro Brogi
11. Selling America between Sharpeville and Soweto: the USIA in South Africa, 1960-1976 - John C. Stoner
12. Selling the American West on the Frontier of the Cold War: the US Army's German-American Volksfest in West Berlin, 1965-1981 - Benjamin P. Greene
13. Unquiet Americans: The Church Committee, the CIA and the Intelligence Dimension of US Public Diplomacy in the 1970s - Paul M. McGarr
14. Time to Heal the Wounds: America's Bicentennial and U.S.-Swedish Normalisation in 1976 - M. Todd Bennett
15. “Something to Boast About”: Western Enthusiasm for Carter's Human Rights Diplomacy - Barbara Keys
16. To Arms for the Western Alliance: the Committee on the Present Danger, Defense Spending and the Perception of American Power Abroad, 1973-1980 - John M. Rosenberg
17. Afterword: Selling America in the Shadow of Vietnam - Robert J. McMahon

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