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Imperial Ad Men: A New History Shows American Public Diplomacy Conflicted at the Core

By Berlatsky, Noah | Reason, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Imperial Ad Men: A New History Shows American Public Diplomacy Conflicted at the Core


Berlatsky, Noah, Reason


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Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy, by Justin Hart, Oxford University Press, 296 pages, $34.95

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THE ART OF communicating with the people--public relations--is a notoriously messy business, involving a mixture of persuasion and selective editing, if not outright deception. The art of communicating with foreign publics--sometimes called public diplomacy--is even more fraught. The inherent contradiction in promoting freedom through propaganda is at the heart of Justin Hart's new book, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy.

Hart, a Texas Tech historian, chronicles America's mid-century efforts to sell itself to the rest of the world. Empire of Ideas tracks government P.R. successes and failures, from Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America in the 1930s, through the propaganda efforts of World War II, into the early Cold War struggle with Russia for the hearts and minds of the world, leading to the creation of the United States Information Agency in 1953.

Hart's book is a story of good intentions producing bad results. Immediately before and after World War II, America was trying to figure out a way to achieve global pre-eminence without resorting to European-style colonial repression. The hope was that a new kind of public diplomacy, which Hart calls "an empire of ideas," could eliminate the need for projecting American force. Sometimes it did. But in other cases, the policy ended in public relations disasters, or even in an escalation of the very kind of Cold War hostilities it was ostensibly designed to prevent.

Consider the case of the State Department's overseas libraries. These were originally intended to advance the image of the U.S. as a bastion of democracy and free speech. But in 1953 Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) set out on a campaign to cleanse these libraries of books by communist authors. As a result, State Department personnel in a few countries actually ended up disposing of books by lighting them on fire. As Hart dryly remarks, "being linked to book burning, literally or figuratively, did not advance the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy." Unfortunately, this spectacular example was far from the only public-diplomacy disaster.

In fact, what we generally think of as America's most successful international outreach campaign, the massive aid program for postwar Europe known as the Marshall Plan, ended up as a P.R. fiasco. The plan was intended to stabilize and cement U.S. relations with the continent. In this it was successful. But one of its many unintended consequences was to link America with Western Europe's colonial interests in the eyes of the rest of the world by propping up countries, such as France and Great Britain, that still maintained vast overseas holdings. People in Vietnam or Iraq couldn't help but notice that, as Hart points out, "there was no Marshall Plan for Africa or the Middle East.... There was simply no good way to spin these facts."

This is ironic because the original goal of modern public diplomacy was to specifically separate America from Europe's history of colonialism. FDR and his administration looked over at one (and later two) hideously destructive world conflagrations and blamed Europe's violent history of territorial colonialism. As the U.S. moved--first in Latin America and then throughout the world--to inherit the mantle of Europe's empire, it was determined to avoid the associated legacy of large-scale and occasionally genocidal violence. That left Washington's diplomats, as Hart puts it, facing "the rather interesting dilemma of how to fashion an imperial strategy different from the European model they hoped to succeed."

So rather than conquering the world through force of arms, the U.

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