Ideas matter. America's ability to promote its beliefs and
ideals to citizens of other nations and societies, known as public
diplomacy (PD), can enormously advance the national interest.
America's leaders should draw on the country's informational
activities during the Cold War to lay the foundation for the next
generation of public diplomacy.
America's informational campaigns were instrumental in
hastening the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the
Communist world. Locked in an epic ideological struggle for over
four decades, organizations such as Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty (RFE/RL), the Voice of America (VOA), and the United
States Information Agency (USIA) communicated the ideals of
democracy, individual rights, and the free market. In the end, the
promotion of these values contributed mightily to the nearly
bloodless dissolution of the Soviet Empire.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, American leaders in both the
legislative and executive branches essentially discarded PD as a
Cold War relic. Since 9/11, the situation has improved only
marginally if at all. Congressional funding for public diplomacy
programs has increased only slightly, interagency coordination
remains unsatisfactory, the State Department's foreign
communications machinery is underpowered, and U.S. broadcasting
capabilities, although expanded, have not been engaging
effectively with the global ideological environment. As a
result, U.S. policies are often misunderstood in various parts of
the world, and poll after poll highlights an increasingly
negative view of the United States abroad.
Yet overstating the achievements of Cold War public diplomacy
would be a mistake. Many of the problems in public diplomacy today
were present to some degree in earlier years. Throughout much of
the Cold War, public diplomacy lacked a clear presidential
mandate, established doctrine, or central coordination, and its
relationship to the American diplomatic establishment has
always been problematic. Congress has generally been
ambivalent toward public diplomacy, which has typically been
underfunded as a result. Nevertheless, much can be learned from
this experience, and Congress and the Administration should draw on
it in the necessary task of revitalizing the nation's PD
Public Diplomacy Starts at the Top
Presidential leadership is vital to the conduct of public
diplomacy. The President must establish a clearly defined role for
the nation's PD agencies and help to ensure that their message is
coherent and focused. However, presidential interest in public
diplomacy fluctuated significantly over the course of the Cold War,
depending on how successive Presidents viewed and valued the
A Promising Beginning. Along with much of its
military establishment, America's information agencies were
largely demobilized following World War II. However, the Soviets'
test of an atomic bomb in 1949 and the outbreak of war in Korea in
1950 made evident the clear and present danger of
international Communism, and American officials
recognized the need for an ambitious and aggressive approach
to battling the Communist threat. George Kennan's "long telegram"
and the State Department's National Security Council Paper 68
(NSC-68) outlined the policy of containment, which included an
important role for the psychological or ideological component of
Schooled in psychological warfare at the highest level of
command in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered
office in 1953 believing in the value of information and
ideological warfare and proved an avid supporter of going on the
offensive against the Soviets and international Communism. While
"rollback" was never formally accepted as American policy, it did
reflect the spirit of American psychological warfare at the outset
of Eisenhower's first term. In 1953, the Eisenhower-commissioned
Jackson Committee concluded that "international information
activities" should be the leading edge in a comprehensive and
aggressive strategy for confronting the Soviet challenge.
From 1949-1953, the federal government created the
information organizations that would form the backbone of America's
PD efforts until the fall of the Berlin Wall-specifically, Radio
Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and the United States Information
Agency. From the beginning, U.S. officials distinguished
America's truthful approach from the lies and deceptions of classic
Nazi and Soviet propaganda; the term "public diplomacy" came
into general use by the 1970s to reflect this critical
difference. With a mandate for action, these
organizations were primed to battle Communist ideology and
However, several events in the early Cold War caused Eisenhower
and other American policymakers to scale back their original
ambitious expectations. First, Joseph Stalin's death in March
1953 opened a thaw in American-Soviet relations. At the same time,
the growth of Soviet military capabilities, particularly in
atomic weapons, raised second thoughts about the wisdom of
undertaking propaganda and political warfare operations
intended to stimulate popular uprisings in Eastern Europe.
Additionally, the Soviet Union and its satellites began to appear
less vulnerable to Western subversion than previously thought.
Provocative measures also risked savage internal repression that
could prompt military action against Western Europe.
A critical turning point in the history of American public
diplomacy was the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. While the
United States did virtually nothing in response to the Soviet
military intervention that crushed the uprising, Radio Free
Europe's Hungarian-language broadcasts allegedly encouraged
violent resistance against Soviet occupying forces. U.S. inaction
severely discredited U.S. propaganda that talked of "rolling
back" Soviet power in Eastern Europe, while the radio broadcasts
were generally thought to be dangerously provocative.
Losing Focus. Acknowledging that Communist
domination of Russia and Eastern Europe would not be shaken off
easily, American policymakers shifted toward a lower-key,
longer-range strategy with greater emphasis on the "cultural"
aspect as distinct from the political or informational
dimension of the war of ideas. Information programs would
emphasize the positive character of the American way of life. This
shift, already evident in Eisenhower's second term, had the
secondary effect of pushing public diplomacy increasingly to the
margins of Administration policy.
Partly in reaction to this perceived neglect, President
John F. Kennedy placed renewed emphasis on public diplomacy
programs. Kennedy appointed well-known journalist Edward R. Murrow
as USIA director, inaugurating what some have considered a brief
"golden age." With direct access to the President and a seat
at meetings of the National Security Council, it appeared that
Murrow would enable PD to have a significant role in shaping
national policy in light of the requirements of projecting American
In reality, however, little changed. If anything, the Kennedy
and Johnson Administrations oversaw a growing estrangement between
public diplomacy and policy. Government radio programs like the
Voice of America came to see their central mission increasingly as
providing "objective" or "balanced" reporting of news on the model
of American and other Western commercial broadcasters. Public
information programs developed strong institutional cultures
committed to the autonomy of their organizations and resistant
to any taint of association with intelligence or military
requirements. By the early 1970s, these organizations increasingly
tended not to consider themselves instruments of U.S. policy at all
and viewed any true operational oversight of their activities by
policy officials as illegitimate.
Other factors contributed to diminishing the importance and
eroding the legitimacy of overseas communications programs. The
policy of détente toward the Soviet Union inaugurated by
President Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry
Kissinger, with its emphasis on the centrality of arms control and
the imperative of reducing the risk of superpower nuclear war,
seemed to call for an end to classic confrontational Cold War
propaganda. American government spokesmen no longer openly
opposed Communism as such, nor did the United States challenge the
legitimacy of the Soviet Empire. Kissinger in particular had little
use for the information agencies.
The Carter Administration gave public diplomacy a new lease
on life. The Administration's human rights agenda offered a more
politically palatable approach to ideological conflict with
the Soviets. President Jimmy Carter wanted American foreign policy
to emphasize human rights and individual liberties across the
globe, paying attention to diverse issues from apartheid in South
Africa to dictatorships in Latin America. The Carter
Administration also oversaw a reorganization of the USIA,
including renaming it the U.S. International Communications
At the same time, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski
pushed public diplomacy to take a more distinctly anti-Soviet line.
In the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam, Soviet
geopolitical adventurism around the world expanded into Africa
and Latin America, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan
in 1979. Brzezinski sought to contrast Soviet military aggression
with America's defense of human rights.
In the end, the Carter Administration's message was mixed at
best. The President famously congratulated the American people
for having gotten over their "inordinate fear of communism."
Meanwhile, as the Soviets continued an arms buildup in Eastern
Europe, modernized their nuclear arsenal, and funded insurgencies
and terrorism around the world, the United States criticized
regimes pushing back against Soviet expansion for their less than
fully democratic character. As a result, American public
information programs frequently found themselves working at
A New Mandate. When Ronald Reagan entered the
White House in 1981, he held a very different view of the PD
instruments of national power. More attuned to the importance of
words and ideas in politics than any other American leader since
Eisenhower and Kennedy, Reagan placed renewed emphasis on
psychological operations and public diplomacy.
Reagan laid out a specific mission for the government's
informational instruments: to help to win the Cold War once and for
all. He intended to end a decade of détente-oriented
policies toward the Soviet bloc and embark on a major military
buildup. He provided America's public diplomacy organizations with
an infusion of resources and a new mandate to reengage in
ideological struggle with the Soviets as part of a comprehensive
strategy designed-like that of the Jackson Report almost 30 years
earlier-to challenge the very basis of Soviet power.
Few expected this strategy to have an impact within the short
span of Reagan's tenure. They were wrong. There is every reason to
conclude that American public diplomacy and psychological
operations at the end of the Cold War measurably hastened the fall
of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist
world. In the end, ideas made a difference.
However, as noted earlier, it is important also to pay attention
to the limitations and persistent problems that have made
American public diplomacy less effective than it might have
One issue that plagued America's PD efforts throughout the Cold
War was the absence of specific or operational guidelines that
defined public diplomacy. Government officials comprised two
general schools of thought. Advocates of an "informational"
approach rejected the idea that government public diplomacy
programs should serve as a strategic tool of American foreign
policy or national security policy. The only sources of legitimate
information were the commercial media and the nation's
cultural and academic authorities. In contrast, others viewed
PD as an important instrument of national power and regarded the
informational approach as intellectually incoherent.
This fundamental lack of clarity over the PD mission
frustrated efforts by agencies to develop a unified vision,
sense of purpose, body of principles, and set of doctrines. As one
early study observed, USIA suffered from an "inability to clarify
its basic operating assumptions," including "whether it is to
function as an information or propaganda instrument."
The lack of defining doctrine has had a particularly
significant impact on the operations of the Voice of America.
Formally part of the USIA after 1953, the VOA has nevertheless
always maintained considerable autonomy within the larger
organization and early on developed its own institutional
culture and outlook.
The key doctrinal expression of this outlook is the so-called
VOA Charter, drawn up in 1959 and enshrined in legislation in
1976. This short document has three
- "VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative
source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and
- "VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American
society, and will therefore present a balanced and
comprehensive projection of significant American thought and
- "VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and
effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and
opinion on those policies."
These guidelines were fundamentally inadequate as operational
doctrine and did nothing to clarify the VOA mission and objectives.
In fact, from the beginning, they served more as a bureaucratic
device to protect the agency from unwanted outside interference in
what were claimed to be professional journalistic decisions.
Another area rife with doctrinal confusion related to defining
the audience for information programs. Whether elites or masses
should constitute the primary audience for these programs is
the key issue here, involving complex issues of priorities and
trade-offs that have never been fully resolved, particularly within
the USIA. As a result, information efforts during the Cold War
tended to occupy a middle ground (for example, between the
elite-oriented British model and the mass-oriented Soviet model)
that compromised effectiveness with both audiences.
Finally, there remained the perennial issue of whether the USIA
should merely implement foreign policy or have a direct role in
making policy. The most authoritative statement appeared in a
memorandum drafted during the Kennedy Administration. The
USIA director described his mission as twofold: "influencing public
attitudes in other nations" and "advising the President, his
representatives abroad, and the various Departments and
Agencies on the implications of foreign opinion for present and
contemplated U.S. policies, programs and official statements."
The USIA did have opinion polling and media analysis
capabilities that could support such a mission, and they were
routinely made available to the State Department and other
policy agencies. However, little evidence indicates that a
USIA director served in a senior policy advisory role. Indeed, with
a few exceptions, including Murrow in the Kennedy Administration,
Carl Rowan under President Johnson, and Charles Wick under Reagan,
the USIA director typically had little direct relationship with the
Lack of an overarching conceptual framework exacerbated the
conflicting bureaucratic cultures of the agencies involved in
public diplomacy. Instead of taking an interagency approach, the
various information organizations often ignored or even undermined
one another. Although Washington attempted to promote interagency
cooperation by reorganizing federal entities, these institutional
conflicts proved intractable and remain an issue today.
USIA vs. State. The USIA and the State
Department always had a troubled relationship. The State
Department tended to resist public diplomacy missions,
disparage their importance, and question the competence of their
practitioners. When Congress created the USIA, the State
Department was generally content to leave the agency largely
to its own devices.
In the mid-1970s, the Stanton Commission undertook a review of
international information programs. The commissioners identified
the core missions of public diplomacy as education and
cultural affairs, general information, policy
information, and policy advice. The report concluded that for
these activities to be well integrated with foreign policy, they
needed to be merged with the State Department. The commissioners
recommended abolishing the USIA and establishing a new agency
combining the USIA's information and cultural functions with the
State Department's Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau. The
report also proposed creating a new office within the
department to administer all programs articulating and
defending foreign policy. It recommended that VOA be made an
independent federal agency.
Although not implemented at the time, the Stanton
Commission study laid the intellectual groundwork for the
merger of the USIA with the State Department and the creation of an
autonomous broadcasting entity under a Broadcasting Board of
Governors in the late 1990s. Some predicted that
relationships would change once the State Department became
the lead agency for public diplomacy, but that has proved not to be
the case. Instead, the USIA's various functions
were carved up and buried within the State Department's geographic
bureaus and functional divisions. Although this saved money, it
also led to a disregard for outcomes, which created disarray.
Career State Department officers consider it a good day when no one
makes the news-the opposite of public diplomacy practice.
Dysfunctional Oversight. Relations between the
State Department and the White House were perennially troubled as
well. The National Security Act of 1947 created the National
Security Council to draft interagency policies to guide the
integration of the elements of national power. However, the White
House tended to keep the informational agencies at arms length
because of the political sensitivity of public diplomacy
activities, beginning with Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist
crusade in the early 1950s targeting the information bureaucracy in
the State Department.
The Jackson Committee attempted to reestablish the executive
branch's oversight and guidance capabilities by proposing the
creation of an Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) that would
function as the implementing arm of the National Security
Council. In retrospect, the decision did not
improve operations. The OCB lacked strong and consistent leadership
in public diplomacy operations. The Kennedy Administration
eventually discarded the OCB, leaving essentially no staff
support or mechanism for coordinating public diplomacy and policy
at the White House level until the first Reagan term.
Upon entering office, the Reagan Administration actively
attempted to enhance interagency cooperation. National
Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 77, "Management of Public
Diplomacy Relative to National Security," established an
interagency Special Planning Group chaired by the National
Security Adviser and four subordinate groups chaired by senior
agency or White House officials.
The Special Planning Group established numerous working
planning committees. The Public Affairs Committee handled
operational coordination between the White House and public
diplomacy agency officials on a daily basis. The International
Broadcasting Committee also played a quasi-operational role at
times in coordinating diplomatic initiatives concerning new
broadcasting facilities abroad, as well as in a major interagency
effort to devise ways to counter Soviet jamming of U.S.
international radio broadcasts.
The NSDD 77 interagency structure also brought in the State
Department as a full partner in the national security process for
the first time. A key strategic direction of the State Department's
activities centered on Project Democracy, first launched by
Reagan's Westminster speech to the British Parliament on June
8, 1982. This led to the creation of the National Endowment for
Democracy, a new agency to serve as a catalyst and source of
assistance to democratic development abroad.
Staff officers from the State Department and National Security
Council worked together to review the strategic issue of
language priorities for international broadcasting and initiated
substantial changes in this area at both RFE/RL and the VOA. At the
same time, they reviewed the technical needs of radio broadcasting,
which led to a major reorientation and modernization of the
long-neglected and underfunded transmitter and relay sites in
Europe and elsewhere and to an initiative to counter Soviet
Toward a Coherent Strategy
To restore America's voice, government leaders should draw on the
nation's Cold War legacy to lay the foundation for the next
generation of public diplomacy. They need to understand that
America's ability to promote dialogue with foreign audiences,
nurture institutional relationships, help to educate young
democrats and prospective friends, and share ideas is an important
aspect of national security.
Without this foundation, advocacy for current policies will have
little resonance. A model strategy should therefore:
Provide leadership. The President should
provide an explicit mandate on how public diplomacy will
promote U.S. interests and security. The global war on terrorism
should be a priority within this broad mandate.
- Establish doctrinal principles. Informational
agencies should develop a unified vision, sense of purpose, body of
principles, and set of doctrines. Specifically, these should
make clear that the fundamental purpose of international
information programs is to affect foreign audiences in ways
that are favorable to U.S. national interests.
- Specify lines of authority and interagency
cooperation. Instead of shunning the nation's PD
organizations, the executive branch should establish oversight and
push interagency cooperation. RFE/RL, the State Department,
and the VOA each have unique skill sets that could greatly
complement one another to advance the national interest.
- Target desired audiences. Priority audiences
vary by country and region. A national strategy should identify
classes of opinion leaders and populations that are vulnerable to
anti-American messages around the globe, not just in the
Middle East. The strategy should task U.S. embassy teams with
further segmenting their audiences and specifying the best
approaches to dialogue, as USIA diplomats once did.
American public diplomacy was an important contributor to U.S.
success in the Cold War, yet it was less than optimal for much of
that period. A key turning point came when President Reagan placed
renewed emphasis on public diplomacy as a central component of
national strategy. For the first time since the mid-1950s, public
diplomacy was again seen as a weapon of political warfare designed
to subvert the Soviet system-to effect political change within the
Soviet bloc by an aggressive information strategy designed to
encourage democratic and liberal forces and to constrain the Soviet
leadership's ability to project power or influence beyond its
Few expected this strategy to have an impact within the short
span of Reagan's tenure. They were wrong. There is every reason to
conclude that American public diplomacy and psychological
operations at the end of the Cold War measurably hastened the fall
of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist world. In
the end, ideas made a difference.
Today, America's leaders need to draw on these lessons to
rebuild the nation's public diplomacy capabilities.
Carnes Lord, Ph.D., is Professor of Military and Naval
Strategy in the Strategic Research Department of the Center for
Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. Helle C. Dale is Director of
the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a
division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Research
Assistant Oliver Horn contributed to the preparation of this
Several private and government groups
have made recommendations to strengthen U.S. public diplomacy,
including the Center for the Study of the Presidency, the Council
on Foreign Relations, The Heritage Foundation, the Advisory Group
on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World chaired by U.S.
Ambassador Edward Djerejian, the U.S. Defense Science Board Task
Force on Strategic Communication, the U.S. Advisory Commission on
Public Diplomacy, and the U.S. Government Accountability
 For an overview of the period, see
Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy
to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 2000).
 Wilson P. Dizard, Jr., Inventing
Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency
(Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2004). See also Thomas C. Sorensen,
The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda (New York:
Harper and Row, 1968); John W. Henderson, The United States
Information Agency (New York: Praeger, 1969); Alvin A. Snyder,
Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies,
and the Winning of the Cold War (New York: Arcade, 1995);
Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural
Diplomacy in the 20th Century (Washington, D.C.: Potomac
Books, 2005); Alan L. Heil, Jr., Voice of America: A
History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); and Arch
Puddington, Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio
Free Europe and Radio Liberty (Lexington, Ky.: University
Press of Kentucky, 2000).
 Hearings, Winning the Cold War: The
U.S. Ideological Offensive, Subcommittee on International
Organizations and Movements, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S.
House of Representatives, 88th Cong., 1st and 2nd Sess., March
1963- January 1964.
 In one revealing incident, Kissinger aide
Helmut Sonnenfeldt told a group of American diplomats in 1975 that
fostering a more "organic" relationship between the Soviet Union
and its East European satellites was in the American national
interest as a way to remove dangerous irritants in the U.S.-Soviet
relationship. Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New
York: Touchstone Books, 1992), pp. 664-665.
 Jimmy Carter, commencement speech,
University of Notre Dame, May 22, 1977, at (August
 Carnes Lord, "The Past and Future of
Public Diplomacy," Orbis, Vol. 42, No. 1(Winter 1998), pp.
 Ronald I. Rubin, The Objectives of
the U.S. Information Agency: Controversies and Analysis (New
York: Praeger, 1966), p. 10. See also Robert F. Delaney,
"Psychological Operations in the 1970's: A Program in Search of a
Doctrine," in Ronald De McLaurin et al., eds., The Art
and Science of Psychological Operations: Case Studies of Military
Application (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Army,
1976), pp. 1-15.
 See Heil, Voice of America, pp.
64-65 and 152-177.
 22 U.S. Code Sec. 6202(c).
 The confusion is effectively captured
in Rubin, The Objectives of the U.S. Information Agency,
 Excerpts in Henderson, The United
States Information Agency, pp. 66-68.
 Panel on International Information,
Education, and Cultural Relations, International Information,
Education, and Cultural Relations: Recommendations for the
Future (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and
International Studies, 1975). For the history of this and similar
such studies, see Lois W. Roth, "Public Diplomacy and the Past: The
Search for an American Style of Propaganda (1952-1977)," The
Fletcher Forum, Vol. 8, No. 21 (Summer 1984), pp. 353-396.
 Carnes Lord, Losing Hearts and
Minds? Public Diplomacy and Strategic Influence in the Age of
Terror (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006), pp. 73-82.
 "Report of the President's Committee on
International Information Activities, June 30, 1953," in U.S.
Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States,
1952-1954, Vol. 2, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1984), p. 1796. For the Psychological Strategy
Board and the OCB, see pp. 1853-1857. The OCB retained a six-person
staff for "information and education projects" (out of a total of
about 40). John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: The National
Security Council from Truman to Bush (New York: William
Morrow, 1991), pp. 73-75.
 Christopher Simpson, National
Security Directives of the Reagan and Bush Administrations: The
Declassified History of U.S. Political and Military Policy,
1981-1991 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995), pp.
 Lord, "The Past and Future of Public