Every August 28, Americans mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. This is a short Public Diplomacy footnote to the history of the speech, a recollection from early in my career as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Information Agency.
The thumbnail description of USIA’s mission was “telling America’s story to the world.” A standard publication used by the U.S. Information Service all over the world was Living Documents of American History. The original English-language edition was compiled by the celebrated historian Henry Steele Commager, and many posts published the volume in translation. It included important documents and speeches — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, and so on. By the 1970s, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was included in editions of Living Documents around the world.
When I arrived in Hong Kong as Assistant Information Officer in 1981, I supervised the staff that did the Chinese translations used globally. Living Documents had long been made available by USIS in the Chinese “regular” or “traditional” characters (fantizi) used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and by the Chinese diaspora.
After 1949, Chairman Mao’s new regime enacted a series of writing reforms using “simplified” characters, jiantizi in Chinese. The first round of character simplification in the PRC was adopted in 1956, and a second list was promulgated in 1964. As soon as the U.S. Liaison Office was opened in Beijing in 1972, USIS Hong Kong began to publish translations of books and magazines using the simplified characters.
When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1981, the publications officer was cleaning up a failure. A third list of simplified characters had been announced in 1977, and USIS Hong Kong rushed out a new edition of Living Documents using the third simplifications. Tens of thousands of copies were printed, but the PRC withdrew the third simplification before it became required. As I arrived, these copies of Living Documents using the third simplification were being sold as waste paper.
As I looked over the aborted edition, however, I noted something else. Not all of the American documents were translated in full. For instance, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech breaks into two parts. The first part, using the metaphor of a check marked “insufficient funds,” was a protest against laggard programs to overcome inequality. It’s the second part of the speech that is the inspirational call to equality. The USIS editions of Living Documents for China quoted only the last section, as if we were embarrassed by our nation’s shortcomings and decided to hide them from the Chinese.
The Chinese government regularly published “Selected Works” of Chairman Mao, but thoughtful Chinese all knew they were reading heavily edited versions of what Chairman Mao had written or said — heavily edited so that the abridged version of a yesteryear speech conformed to today’s Party line.
I didn’t want the Chinese to criticize us for the same process of “selection,” meaning scrubbing or filtering or happy faces only. So I went back through all the speeches and documents to assure we were publishing full texts. I added a few to the list, like the opinion in Quock Walker v. Jennison that ended slavery in Massachusetts. Then I set in motion a new English-Chinese edition of Living Documents. English learning had recovered enough so that many Chinese wanted to be able to compare texts in the two languages, side by side, so we printed the original English and the Chinese translation on facing pages. I’m rather proud of the 1983 USIS Hong Kong edition. It’s often cited.
Marshall Adair — later President of the American Foreign Service Association — had been my classmate in the Mandarin course at the Foreign Service Institute. One day we met in the Consulate elevator. I asked him what he was working on, and he sighed about trade figures. “How about you?” he asked. I said I was supervising a translation of the complete “I Have a Dream” speech, and I was thinking over Madison’s comments about faction in Federalist Paper 10, and whether to include it in our new edition. As the elevator door opened, he shook his head and said, “I knew I should have joined USIA.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.