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The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989.

The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989. By Nicholas J. Cull. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 533 pp.

Public diplomacy was long the stepchild of the American national security establishment. With the abolition of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999, it became an orphan. In this rich and superbly researched study, Nicholas J. Cull of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication provides an institutional history of this now barely remembered agency of the U.S. government, one that has never before been attempted on this scale and is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. Making full use of archival materials from the relevant presidential libraries and other original sources, buttressed by personal interviews and correspondence with scores of former officials of the agency, Cull has constructed a narrative that is not only comprehensive but also judicious and remarkably unbiased (on a subject that has always been something of a political football).

Cull makes a persuasive case that the role of the USIA and of public diplomacy more generally in American policy during the Cold War has been badly underestimated by historians and, indeed, woefully neglected. Though the book lacks a compelling, overarching thesis, Cull plainly believes in the value of public diplomacy or "soft power" (to use Joseph Nye's widely echoed phrase), more generally, as an instrument of American statecraft. In a brief concluding section, he distills seven "lessons" of his narrative for the future of American public diplomacy. One of the less obvious of these lessons is that American public diplomacy is especially dependent on its leader, which helps explain Cull's focus throughout on the personalities and roles of the past directors of the USIA. He might have expanded this point to include its ultimate leader, the president; but Cull in fact pays thematic attention, also, to the director's relationship to the president as well as to other senior officials.

What exactly is "public diplomacy"? This term, now in general use not only in this country but around the world, dates only from the 1960s (it was coined by a former U.S. ambassador) and covers a variety of disparate and sometimes competing activities, from international radio and television broadcasting to educational exchanges. Cull essentially treats public diplomacy as a euphemism for "propaganda," and eschews any theoretical or semantic analysis of the complex and changing terminology in this field. This is surprising and disappointing. A good case can be made that "propaganda," as classically practiced (e.g., by the Nazis or Soviets), differs in fundamental ways from "public diplomacy" as practiced by the Americans, and, for that matter, the British--who may be said to have invented the genre. As a result, Cull downplays the real evolution of the information function in the United States from its origins in 1945 through the 1950s, away from the psychological warfare orientation of the immediate postwar years.

This points to a larger problem in Cull's approach. His book is an institutional history of the USIA, not a history of American propaganda and public diplomacy, generally. Accordingly, as Cull acknowledges, he has little to say about Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, ostensibly private organizations that were created by the Central Intelligence Agency for broadcasting to the Soviet bloc, often considered more "propagandistic" than Voice of America. And he tends to deal only in passing with the important interagency and White House-centered activities and organizations operating in this arena, particularly in the early formative years (on which, see, in particular, the eye-opening account of Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 [Cornell University Press, 2000]) and during the revival of public diplomacy in the first Reagan administration. These cautionary notes notwithstanding, this book is an outstanding achievement and of particular value for understanding a neglected aspect of presidential decision making during the Cold War.

--Carnes Lord

U.S. Naval War College
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Author:Lord, Carnes
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 3, 2010
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