The Magazine

The American Story

How does it get told outside America?

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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In academia, scholars trying to get ahead look for the Next Big Thing. In the field of American foreign relations, that just may be something called “public diplomacy,” a term that conjures a vision of diplomatic efforts aimed not simply at other diplomats but at large populations. Justin Hart, associate professor of history at Texas Tech, does not give us a sharp definition of the term, but believes he knows it when he sees it.  

First consignment of sugar to Britain under the Marshall Plan, 1949

First consignment of sugar to Britain under the Marshall Plan, 1949


He finds its specific origins in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s outreach to Latin America in the 1930s, its enabling methods in the flowering of mass communications during the second and third quarters of the 20th century, and its utilization during and after World War II in the pursuit of “empire.” Based on a dissertation written for the history department at Rutgers—an Eastern outpost of the venerable Wisconsin school of Cold War revisionism—Empire of Ideas has occasional references (enough to make Hart’s advisers happy?) to imperial objectives. Hart, however, seems less concerned with following the money than with chronicling the pursuit of ideas and giving us his own mildly revisionist interpretation of the early Cold War.  

No president was more suited to public diplomacy than Franklin Roosevelt. Hart begins his narrative with the Buenos Aires Pan-American conference of 1936, an enterprise suggested by the United States as a soft means of developing Latin American support in the emerging struggle with European fascism. Roosevelt had already reached out to Latin America by withdrawing troops from Caribbean nations and pledging nonintervention—all while providing military assistance and trade agreements to friendly authoritarian strongmen.  

Hart does not give us a revealing example of FDR’s sensibility in this respect. Before his arrival in Argentina, the president stopped in Brazil, addressed its congress, and received the cheers (“Viva Roosevelt! Viva democracia!”) of the large crowds that lined the streets for his motorcade. He rode alongside Brazil’s president, Getulio Vargas, who, at one point, leaned over to tell him, “They say I’m a dictator.” Vargas was, and Roosevelt knew it, but FDR simply replied, “They also say that about me.” The two men got along famously.  

The Argentines, ruled by a quasi-fascist military leadership, were less tractable. The Buenos Aires meeting nonetheless produced a pact providing for cultural exchanges—something the author sees as the first tangible fruits of American public diplomacy. The cultural exchange program started haltingly, but took off in World War II under the guidance of Nelson Rockefeller, delivering his first impression as a public administrator who thought (and spent) big. Henry Luce cheered him on. Two important public intellectuals—Archibald MacLeish and Robert E. Sherwood—immersed themselves in the effort to tell the American story, and Vice President Henry Wallace took his own interests south of the border as well. Both Wallace and Rockefeller saw cultural exchange as simply the first step in a process that would increasingly be about economic development.  

Pearl Harbor globalized what had been a hemispheric concern. In 1942, with the United States fully and formally at war, the newly established Office of War Information (OWI) took control of all shortwave broadcasting and established the Voice of America as a worldwide megaphone for accurate news and American values. The OWI was headed by Elmer Davis, a distinguished journalist who rejected “propaganda” and promised factually accurate “information.” The policy sounded noble, but was difficult to achieve in the real world. It did not help that OWI was responsible for the dissemination of news to both domestic and foreign audiences. “Public diplomacy” inevitably was aimed at one’s own countrymen as well as foreign populations.  

Largely avoiding blatant falsehood and clumsy advocacy, the OWI succeeded perhaps more than Hart realizes in guiding print and broadcast journalism. Possessing potential influence over export licenses and resource priorities, it also channeled Hollywood films in desired directions. (One OWI directive urged producers to ask themselves, “Will this film help win the war?”) Heavily staffed by liberal idealists prone to vocalize their concerns about American race relations at home and government willingness to deal with pliant dictators abroad, the agency was unpopular with a conservative Congress. At war’s end, it was terminated. The Voice of America was relocated to the State Department.