More than seven decades ago, fascism was in its death throes. Nearly three decades ago, the Berlin Wall fell, setting in motion the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In this century, however, those world-shaking events seem to be “history” as our nation faces an array of grave new challenges.
Those of us who knew Walter Roberts (1916-2014) – broadcaster, diplomat, architect and builder of Public Diplomacy, educator, and co-founder of the Public Diplomacy Council – count him as an admired exemplar and mentor. His work In the Second World War and the Cold War helped shape the future we all inhabit. The institutions of Public Diplomacy that were founded during the struggles of the twentieth century remain, ready for refocus and renewal in a turbulent new era.
Born in Austria, Walter Roberts was studying law at the University of Vienna on March 11, 1938 when “Suddenly, as if by pre-arranged signal, the windows of the apartment houses on the right and on the left of the street opened and hundreds of flags emboldened with swastikas appeared. I knew that something cataclysmic had happened. . . . Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria was just hours away.”
According to Council member Len Baldyga, Walter “narrowly escaped from Austria thanks to the kindness of a German soldier guarding the train heading for Switzerland. Walter did not have the proper documents that would have allowed him to travel on the train. At the very last moment, the German soldier told him to jump on board since the Germans had finished checking the documents of all the passengers. He arrived in Switzerland without a visa. He was held for one month before the Swiss authorities permitted him to travel to Cambridge where he had been granted a fellowship.” Later he crossed the Atlantic and became a research assistant at Harvard.
Walter joined the Second World War only a few months after Pearl Harbor — at the new Voice of America, broadcasting in German to Germany and Austria. “Present at the creation,” to borrow a phrase, he was animated by the Voice’s brave spirit – “The news may be good or bad for us – We will always tell you the truth” – even though that first broadcast came amid the early Allied defeats. His voice could be heard on the short wave as the war continued.
Came the peace, and many colleagues in the Voice and the Office of War Information returned to writing, the universities, stage and screen, and radio. Many would prosper during the television age. Walter knew better than many, however, that the prospect of a democratic transformation in nations like Germany, his native Austria, and Japan depended on free ideas, debate, discussion, a culture of democracy, and dialog. As the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe, their peoples needed encouragement and faith too. He stayed with the Voice for eight years.
He joined the Department of State in 1950, and he moved to the new U.S. Information Agency when it was formed in 1953. In 1955, he was a member of the American delegation at the four-power Treaty Talks that ended the occupation of Austria and launched the country of his birth in a democratic direction.
In the Foreign Service, Walter served as Counselor for Public Affairs in Belgrade and Geneva. In Washington, he advanced through positions of responsibility in the U.S. Information Agency – Deputy Area Director for Europe and later Deputy Associate Director. In 1971, he became Associate Director of the Agency, its highest career officer.
In all these positions during USIA’s first two decades, he was an architect and builder — organizing the network of Foreign Service posts and American Centers; recruiting, training, and assigning the people who were the heart of America’s Public Diplomacy; justifying and spending the budgets; putting U.S. holdings of nonconvertible currencies to use; and shaping the many exchange and information programs that gave Public Diplomacy its reach and impact. He founded the Salzburg Seminar. At his retirement in 1974, he received the Distinguished Honor Award.
After a stint at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he returned to government in 1978 as Executive Director of the Board for International Broadcasting. In 1984 he resumed his academic career, this time at George Washington University, concurrently serving two terms as a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy.
As the twentieth century closed, Public Diplomacy was reconfigured in the Department of State. After 9/11, diplomats, communicators, and scholars placed a new value on Public Diplomacy. At George Washington University, Walter was uniquely placed to build bridges between these different worlds, and in 2001 he was a founder of both The Public Diplomacy Council and the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University. A few years later he generously established the Walter Roberts Endowment that continues to fund Public Diplomacy education and advocacy.
A long and happy marriage, three sons, and seven grandchildren rounded out a full life.
We can take this measure of a great man. In World War II and the long days of the Cold War, Walter Roberts deployed his voice, his mind, and his gifts to organize and to inspire against the dictators, the strongmen, and the base cruelties of their inhumane visions.
Battlefields, deployments, production, weapons, and tactics are not the sum of wars, hot or cold. Like the wind, rain, mist, and sun, ideas move across battlefields and nations. Written in every human heart are yearnings for faith, hope, liberty, and justice, but the clamors of war; rage and revenge; the engineered hate of other races, classes, ideologies, and faiths; and the shouts of propaganda can overwhelm them. Prisons, gulags, and bullets can liquidate those who dare to speak freely.
Before those under the boot could turn toward freedom, they needed to hear the voices of those who defend liberty, those who stand for truth, and those who say any man may speak, worship, travel, work and vote as he chooses. They need encouragement for their yearnings. They need free ideas, true facts, and straight news. By shortwave many heard the news and the ideas of freedom in Walter Roberts’ own voice. As his career in Public Diplomacy unfolded, through news, in magazines, in American Houses and Centers, in motion pictures, at World’s Fairs and traveling exhibitions, and during exchanges and visits, they came to know the same love of liberty that animated this great American.
This is an updated version of a July 13, 2014, Public Diplomacy Council Commentary that is no longer available on the web.
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.