“One of the great American fallacies is the notion, prevalent among people in all walks of life, that all we need to do is to explain ourselves, our policies, and our way of life to foreign peoples and they will love us — or at least will understand and sympathize with our point of view.”
This was the view of George Allen, Director of the U.S. Information Agency from 1957 to 1963. I’m confident that even the newest generations of Public Diplomacy practitioners have heard the same uninformed opinion.
Allen elaborated on the basic point, recalling conversations with members of Congress about the Voice of America, then part of USIA. Why did VOA seem “to have difficulty in getting the American story across to the people of foreign countries. ‘It should be very simple,’ I was told. ‘All you have to do is to explain that our American way of life, including our democratic principles, our respect for human rights, and our private enterprise has developed in America the highest standard of living in the world. Everybody admits that not only the upper strata but the common man in the United States has more of the good things of life–more shoes and clothes and leisure time and music and vacations and opportunity for advancement than the people of other countries.”
In my experience, it’s easy enough to enlarge the view of such an interlocutor, to point out:
– that methods of “explaining” need to be informed by knowledge of other states, societies, faiths, ideologies, historical legacies and burdens, and languages which embed other modes of logic and thinking.
– that changing opinions in other nations is as difficult as swaying the views of Americans with all their diverse interests and habits of mind.
– that now as in the Cold War some nations actively block (via broadcast jamming then, by internet blocking now, and by police methods) any “explaining” we attempt.
— that not every American policy (or sometimes, policy du jour) is self-evidently wise – nor does every American proposal offer mutual benefits.
Allen – previously U.S. Ambassador to Iran, Yugoslavia, India, and Greece and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs — had more to say about the simplistic view of “explaining.” “. . . this point of view is not realistic, and those in the academic world and other professionals in communications should be tough-minded enough to face certain facts squarely and realistically.” Here are more of his insights:
- “The heavy responsibilities of the United States in the world today require us to take positions which frequently please nobody. Communications techniques are important, but there is danger in expecting too much of them.”
- “There is a tendency for college professors to claim too much in their courses in the growing field of communications, or psychological warfare as it is sometimes improperly called. Many universities are rapidly developing studies, and even faculties, in this specialized field. Its importance is undoubted, but if those in the academic world and we in government overstate our case for communications, we are likely to make trouble for ourselves.”
- “Propaganda itself can do little to remove the basic problems of the have-nots, or the national rivalries of Pakistan and India, or the racial animosities of Africa. Whatever it can do is a long process, like education, and is not likely to avoid a takeover by a Castro in Cuba.”
- “What we can do is to put forward as honest, objective, and truthful an information program as God gives us to see the truth, make it available to as many people as possible in comprehensible terms and by the most effective media, and rest our case with the common sense of mankind.”
- “I suppose one must have a mystic faith, as Jefferson did, in the ability of the common man to make a right decision if given adequate information and freedom of choice. If one does not have this faith, I doubt that he should be in the communications field.”
- “Let me repeat once more, however, that we must be realists. Berlin will be saved from Soviet aggression by a combination of forces, including political, economic, psychological, and military–the latter being possibly the most significant in our present sad state of international chaos.”
Source: George V. Allen, “What the U.S. Information Program Cannot Do,” in John Boardman Whitton, editor, Propaganda and the Cold War (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1963).
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.