The Magazine

The American Story

How does it get told outside America?

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified the liberal-conservative clashes. The fall of China to Mao Zedong’s Communists, in Hart’s estimation, symbolized the failure of American foreign policy to come to grips with the realities of revolutionary nationalism in Asia. Conservatives in Congress were more likely to blame mushy-minded liberalism, and perceive Reds hiding in the wings. The Korean War further inflamed these feelings.

With the return of the Republicans to power in 1953, the new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had little interest in defending foreign information programs. But Senator Joseph McCarthy saw them as a happy hunting ground and unleashed his minions, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, on their overseas libraries. Dulles was happy enough, after that, to cut Voice of America and its associated programs loose from the Department of State in the form of a temporarily independent United States Information Agency—bringing to an end, as Hart sees it, the first phase of U.S. public diplomacy.

Whether deliberately or not, Hart invites us to believe that, until well into the last century, diplomacy was conducted by elites calculating balances of power and undertaking negotiations with little attention to mass opinion. But the mobilization of power throughout human history has usually involved appeals to a larger population. Wars of religion, whatever ulterior motives we might attribute to them, have invoked the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Imperial ventures have declared a civilizing mission. The American Revolution is unrecognizable without the Declaration of Independence; the French Revolution without liberty, equality, and fraternity; the Mexican War without Manifest Destiny; the American Civil War without the Emancipation Proclamation; the diplomacy of Woodrow Wilson without the Fourteen Points; the alliance building of Franklin Roosevelt without the Atlantic Charter.  

All such motivating rationales amount to public diplomacy, as often as not aimed at the undecided both in the camp of the enemy and in one’s own population. The mid-20th century simply presented new methods. Public diplomacy, this useful account reminds us, is ultimately a polite term for propaganda—a loaded word with a neutral core meaning: the propagation of ideas and doctrines.

Alonzo L. Hamby, professor of history at Ohio University, is the author, most recently, of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.