on World Today
THE story of the United States Information Agency is a little like the O’Haraesque tale of the small-town man who brings home a fashionable new wife from the big city. At first she is the subject of much gossip, because the word is that she is a swinger — the full story of just who said what to set off that famous Saturday afternoon fight in the men’s locker room at the country club has never really been told. In time, however, she makes a place for herself. It takes hard work and willpower, but slowly she gains friends; she is accepted, even admired.
Then one day she leaves town abruptly. Explanations are followed by excuses, then by embarrassed silence. There is no formal divorce; she has just gone away. At last someone on a shopping trip runs into her on a city street, and there is a hurried, perfunctory conversation. The report brought home is that she’s still attractive enough, but not her old self. What has gone wrong?
Perhaps this is too dramatic, and even a little unfair. After all, USIA is big and busy. In fact, its size and the scope of its activities are startling. The United States Information Agency employs 12,000 people, maintains 218 posts in 104 foreign countries, and operates on a current budget of $190 million. One hundred Voice of America transmitters beam 845 hours of radio broadcasts each week in 38 languages to a worldwide audience estimated to be in the tens of millions daily. Over 1000 USIA motion pictures and television programs are produced annually; in the first 6 months of 1966, 350 million fans saw the movies and 2082 stations in 94 countries used the television material. Each year about 25 million people visit the 223 libraries and reading rooms USIA operates in 84 countries, and they check out about 5 million books. And legions of USIA public affairs officers are on duty in embassies around the world, advising American diplomats on the subtleties of public relations in an electronic age and backgrounding local editors and writers on the American point of view.
No doubt about it—USIA is every bit as active today under Lyndon Johnson as it was when John Kennedy was in the White House. The thing is, you just don’t hear much about it these days. USIA appears to have taken its place alongside the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska, and all those other independent federal agencies which go their own sweet, unnoticed way in Washington.
Murrow to Rowan to Marks
In part, the agency’s present identity problem is the result of a wild and rapid changeover in top-level executive personnel. Lyndon Johnson’s frantic effort to find men he wants to run the agency would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. Edward R. Murrow was dying of cancer and wanted to resign when Johnson took office. But Johnson, caught up in the hectic business of transition and anxious to preserve the appearance of continuity, was unaware of Murrow’s plight until the last minute, and had given little thought to a successor.
His ultimate choice of Carl T. Rowan as new director seemed inspired, however. Rowan, a top Negro journalist who had impressed Johnson when he accompanied him as State Department press adviser on a vice presidential goodwill tour, was serving as U.S. ambassador to Finland. At USIA he quickly displayed a sharp sense of judgment in matters involving foreign public opinion. But he proved to be a disinterested administrator who just as quickly isolated himself from day-by-day agency management. He was a forceful, self-assured man who insisted on having his full say, and within six months Johnson was complaining that he was too aggressive. “Mr. Rowan, I already have a Secretary of State,” the President told him once.
The break came in the summer of 1965 when Rowan wanted to go to Thailand to negotiate an agreement on a new Voice of America transmitter. At that time all senior Administration officials needed Johnson’s personal approval to travel abroad, and previously the President had twice denied Rowan permission to go to Africa. He ruled against the trip to Thailand, too. Rowan persisted, however, saying, in effect, “This time I go or I quit.” Johnson look him up on it.
As his successor, Johnson chose Leonard Marks, a Washington communications lawyer who long had represented the Johnson family’s radio and television interests before the Federal Communications Commission. The appointment surprised a lot of people, including Marks. He was in New York when Johnson called — at 11:40 one morning— to inform him of his intention to name him USIA director at noon.
Shortly thereafter, when Donald Wilson, the agency’s deputy director, resigned to return to Time, Inc., Johnson named sixty-one-year-old Robert Wood Akers, the retired editor of the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise to replace him. Again the appointment surprised a lot of people, including Marks.
Walking on eggs
These days all of Democratic Washington is divided into two parts—the Johnson Administration and the Kennedy “types” — and the Kennedy types are bemoaning the present state of the USIA. They say that Johnson always has been wary of the troublemaking potential of USIA, and especially remembers the political damage done to Richard Nixon in 1960 when someone leaked the fact that polls commissioned by the agency showed an alarming drop in American prestige abroad at a time when Nixon was claiming it had never been higher.
The charge is that Johnson ordered Marks to keep USIA clean, quiet, out of trouble, and on good terms with Congress. Marks, an old, trusted friend, is carrying out the order, and as a result the agency has lost all the excitement and sense of purpose Kennedy and Murrow gave it; it has become tame and dull, and everybody there is walking on eggs. The implication is that the President, frustrated in his efforts to manage the free press, is determined to be editor in chief of the government’s. The truth, as usual, is more complex.
Under Murrow there was new zip, more glamour, increased publicity, and sudden, welcomed respectability in Washington. Murrow worked hard to produce a sharper, more interesting product. His reputation for integrity in American broadcasting stood behind his pledge to “tell it as it is.” He put in long hours running the shop. And most of all he appeared to have some voice in foreign policy. But Murrow superimposed himself on the agency. He did not succeed in changing very many of the bureaucratic facts of life within it. Under his direction, USIA sold John Kennedy just as hard to foreign audiences as it sells Johnson today.
The second misconception is that President Johnson has turned USIA into a huge, worldwide personal publicity machine and propaganda tool to portray him as the lovable old Populist from the Pedernales who desires to hep the po’ folks all over the world while continuing to do only what’s right in Vietnam. It is true that flattering biographies of Johnson have been distributed in heavy volume, and equally true that chances to use less worshipful studies have been passed up. Motion pictures proclaiming the accomplishments of the Administration and the glories of the Great Society have been produced. The agency has purchased some of the recent books criticizing the Warren Report, but only in the smallest of quantities. But is this really so shocking?
There are no hot-line instructions issued from the White House. “The commercial wire services get all over the world today, and the play they give a story largely determines how USIA must play it,” a career officer at the agency says. “No President — unless he is a damn fool—would try to swim against that tide. You’d lose your audience in a minute. What you can do is add a line here and there, explaining our side of it.”
Indeed, one of USIA’s prevailing problems is that policy made in Washington often proves impossible to enforce in the held. Like any bureaucracy, its filter system is clogged — exhibits explaining Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms-for-Peace program are still in circulation in some LatinAmerican countries. Civil service regulations inhibit change — there are Eastern European commentators at the Voice of America who still look forward to the day when the United States will move to free the captive satellite nations. (“The VOA cafeteria reminds you of a Budapest restaurant in 1939,” a critic once said.) And USIA’s career employees, no doubt reflecting the ups and downs of the agency itself, are a mixed lot.
According to Republican Senator Thruston Morton, one activity Marks eliminated was the world opinion poll, and the real reason was that it showed American prestige falling fast under Johnson. Pshaw, it’s not so, says Marks. He claims all he did was save 5200,000 a year by cutting out “useless polls which asked questions like ‘What do you think of our space program?’” The fact is, he said, Murrow stopped the prestige polls back in 1961, and there is a press release available to prove it.
USIA’s most important operating arm is VOA, currently headed by former NBC newscaster John Chancellor. Chancellor overhauled VOA’s program format so that it now resembles NBC’s Monitor. He says he had two motives: to capture more “on the move” listeners, and to provide more psychological identification with “the good things about America even our critics recognize —efficiency, zip, speed.” Chancellor says he judges VOA performance by three criteria: “Are they listening? Do they like it? Do they believe it?”
Arguing that “they” believe VOA, Chancellor claims that Red Chinese leaders jam VOA’s Chinese language broadcasts but let English versions come in loud and clear because the regime wants to hear the news, and he says that since the U.S.S.R. stopped jamming VOA and started listening to it, Soviet broadcasts have become more candid and accurate.
Today VOA faces formidable competition from both Moscow and Peking; there is no spot in the world where one or both do not broadcast as powerfully as the Voice. Chancellor readily admits that the BBC still has more worldwide credibility than VOA but maintains that BBC’s age and familiarity are the reasons.
No Walter Lippmanns
News analysis and commentary are the hammer and saw in the agency’s propaganda tool chest, but until recently little discipline was imposed on their use. Now all commentary must be cleared by the agency’s policy office, which makes daily checks with the State Department to ascertain that yesterday’s gallant knight has not fallen off his horse.
This may seem arbitrary, but it must be remembered that USIA is not an independent agency, and there is no place for a Walter Lippmann within it. VOA news may be a regular fellow, but USIA’s commentators are political evangelists, and the holy text they base their sermons on is Administration pronouncement. Their mission is not to criticize but to convince and convert, and the very policies many Americans hoot at are gospel to them.
De Gaulle? He does not wear a white hat. NATO? It’s still the greatest invention since sliced bread. Red China in the United Nations? Are you kidding? North Vietnam? Well, if they would just leave their neighbors alone . . .
Thus, the agency is like a tenderloin barker who stands shivering in the cold trying to persuade passersby to step inside; he might nab a few tourists, but nobody else, because it’s an old show, well known along the strip.
Selling Lyndon Johnson to the world is not an easy task; better to be a gourmet food salesman in Dogpatch. But Presidents and Administrations come and go. It is this unique nation itself which is the prevailing force, and in the eyes of most of the world the United States is indefensible.
They look at us the way the poor people in the wretched valley gaze up at the laughing family that lives in the big white house on the hill. They know all about us. No matter that their impressions are formed in part by dreams and slander; they are firm. They expect the best and the worst from us, both miracles and destruction, and it is USIA’s huge job to convince them that neither is totally forthcoming.
— Douglas Kiker