Monday, December 22, 2014

Walter Roberts: Early Years at VOA -- "You Had the Feeling That You Were in the Battle..."

Walter's observations about the early days of the Voice of America -- which coincided with the beginning, too, of the practice of modern U.S. public diplomacy -- are revealing.  He vividly recalls the frantic atmosphere of the war years, and the role of VOA's founding fathers -- Robert Sherwood and John Houseman -- in creating programming and laying the foundations for VOA's future.  He also describes how the British encouraged their U.S. counterparts -- including FDR himself -- to split genuine public diplomacy activities including VOA from any "gray" or "black" propaganda operations carried out by the Office of Strategic Services -- the OSS.    (Walter wrote at greater length about this same period in his 2009 article entitled The Voice of America:  Origins and Recollections.) 


"The Atmosphere was Warlike, as if You Were in the Middle of a Battle."

As far as both the leadership and the rank and file is concerned, I can best describe [the atmosphere at the VOA] by saying that these were people who were deeply dedicated to their jobs and regarded it as a very, very important adjunct to military operations.  These people worked 12, 16 hours a day.  For them, they lived through the war.  You had the feeling that you were in the battle, they were so excited.   I will tell you…on the day in February of 1943, when Stalingrad was finally rid of all Germans, I was in the news desk, and there were tickers there, the Reuters ticker, AP, UP and INS and I remember when the news came through on the ticker that Stalingrad had finally been liberated, the whole of the news desk got up and applauded.  That was later described by McCarthy, “there you are, those were all Communists. “  Because they applauded the Soviet victory.  That was not the case.  The Soviet Union was an ally of the United States, and when they won a battle, it was reducing pressure on American troops.  So you asked about the atmosphere.  The atmosphere was warlike, as if you were in the middle of a battle.  The only thing that didn’t happen you weren’t shot at.  That was the feeling of people they were excited, they were full of enthusiasm.  That goes from number one – Donovan and Sherwood – whom I did not know.  I mean I was, in 1942, twenty-five years old.  I was a very, very junior person.

"...And Don't Take the Train.  Fly!"

When war broke out, on December 7, 1941, the Coordinator of Information run by Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan, later General Donovan, had a subsection called FIS, the Foreign Information Service, and it was headed by Robert Sherwood, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s speechwriter.  He was in Washington, of course.  He had the idea that whatever information program, external international information program was to be created, should be located in New York.   So one day Bob Sherwood took a train and went to New York and personally looked for quarters, and found four floors, on 270 Madison Ave. in New York.  And he rented it. 
Robert Sherwood

He asked one of his good friends, Joseph Barnes, a very, very intelligent person, had been Moscow correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune, which then still existed.  Went to Harvard at the age of 14.  As I remember him, and I had very little to do with him, a very, very nice person – he was asked to run the New York office.  But he was not a radio man.  It became very clear to Sherwood that what they could do best would be to start a radio operation, because all of other media, books and leaflets and so on was in some respects minor to having a strong radio voice from the United States.   So around Christmas 1941, he sent a telegram to John Houseman, who was a director and producer in Hollywood, who spoke several languages, was born in Romania of a British mother and an Alsatian father, and asked him whether he would like to join.  And to show you the sign of the times, he told him in the telegram: “and don’t take the train.  Fly!”  Because at that time, flying between the two coasts was an exception, very much of an exception.  If you had to go to Los Angeles from New York, or you had to go to San Francisco, you went by train.  Like the Trans-Siberian train.  [Laughs.]

John Houseman
So Houseman accepted, and flew to Washington, and in the early days of January 1942, went to New York and started a radio program.  And the first radio program – and the dates I am still working on, the exact dates.  But the first program in German – I think, and I say so in my article – went out on February the first, 1942.   Followed by French and Italian.  An English program was added on the eighth of March.  That date I think is firm, that is correct. 

…One of the things that came to my mind, and I’m sure to hundreds of other people who were involved in this – the United States we don’t have any transmitters.  Yes, we did have transmitters, but they belonged to private corporations.  NBC, CBS had shortwave transmitters.   Westinghouse, General Electric, Crosley Corporation -- they had broadcasting mostly in Spanish and Portuguese for Latin America.   But in the middle thirties, or I should say perhaps ‘37, they all started already doing some German broadcasts, and some Italian, and some French broadcasts.  And they continued.  But they were not United States governmental broadcasts.  And one thing for the record, and I’m happy to do this interview.  The term Voice of America was invented by Robert Sherwood.  There are lots of people who claim that they had invented it.  But I know it was Bob Sherwood.   And I think the term Voice of America was used in the second week of broadcasting.  Until then, and I have that from a BBC file, the programs are called “America Calling Europe.”  And that in the three languages:  German, Italian and French.


"You Can't Run a Program that Combines Intelligence and Information"

[The relationship with the British was] very close.  As soon as the war broke out, I remember two Britishers – one from the BBC, and the other one from the PWE, Political Warfare Executive.  After all, the British had already been in this business for two years.  War started in Europe on September 1, 1939, and this was December ’41 – so it’s two years and two months.  And they came over ostensibly to help.  And indeed they helped, beautifully.  But I cannot deny that the British at the beginning and throughout the war, tried to claim an advisory role to us, in both intelligence and information.  And I might add here that…the British were very helpful in dividing intelligence from information.  When they came over and found the Coordinator of Information, and Mr. Donovan was more interested in intelligence work, and particularly in black and gray operations in the field of radio, rather than white – what we hand in mind in the Voice of America – the British made it very clear, and even I think got to Roosevelt, saying “You can’t run a program that combines intelligence and information.”  So, in June 1942, Roosevelt divided the Coordinator of Information into the OWI and the OSS.  From then on the Office of War Information was clearly a white operation; and the OSS was clearly a gray and black operation.  And the OWI was later, via the State Department, transformed into the U.S. Information Agency; and OSS was later transformed into the Central Intelligency Agency.



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Walter Roberts: How I Got to the VOA -- "It Wasn't Simple..."

The story of Walter's path to the United States, and to a long career in public diplomacy, is both extraordinary -- a fortuitious daisy chain of small miracles and individual determination -- as well as the reflection of the hard choices millions faced under the shadow of Nazism at the outset of World War II.

"It Is a Little Bit of an Extended Story..." 

It is a little bit of an extended story – it wasn’t simple.  I was 21 years old when the Germans occupied Austria.  I came from a middle class family.   My father was editor-in-chief of an economic weekly and previously a university professor.  What was cataclysmic as far as I was concerned  -- and many of my friends and relatives -- was that the Nuremburg Laws...were extremely broad as far as Jewish origin is concerned.  My father had gone through a rather anti-Semitic era in Austria when he was at the university and one day decided to change religions.  When he married my mother, they were married in a Protestant church.  I was baptized when I was eight days old.  And so I lived my life going to church every Good Friday and assuming that I was not Jewish.  But before Austria was annexed, we all became aware of how these laws were applied in Germany, and for all intents and purposes I was a Jew.  On the day Hitler occupied Austria, I was prohibited from going to the university.  It was a Friday evening and my father didn’t go to work the next Monday. 

...The question was not how to get out of Austria.  The question was how to get into another country.  And all possibilities were basically closed.  My father, when Hitler came to Germany, was a rather prescient man.   So as early as when I entered high school, he sent me to England.  And then I took even two semesters in 1935 -36 in the law school in London and obviously made a good impression on one of the professors, a professor of Roman Law.  So when Hitler came to Austria, I wrote this professor whether he could help me get back into England.  He knew about a rather generous scholarship at Trinity College at Cambridge University.  He thought that I should apply for that and he would give his stamp of approval.  By God, I won the scholarship and was able to get a British visa, and therefore able to go to England.  

"So I Got a Telephone Book of New York, and Wrote Down a Hundred Names"

...The quota number for Austrians [to enter the United States] was very small.   The quota numbers were assigned on the basis of the census in the United States:  how many Austrians lived in the United States, how many Germans, how many Czechs and so on...The United States did not recognize the annexation of Austria, but in one respect it did.  It combined the German and the Austrian quotas, which was of great help to Austrians because the Germans had almost exhausted – I mean this was ’38, five years of Nazi regime, most of the people from Germany who wanted to go to the United States had gone by that time – so it was to the great advantage of Austrians.   The question was how to get into the United States to prove that you have enough means to live in the United States.  So somebody had to sign what was called an affidavit of support.   So I got a telephone book of New York, and I wrote down a hundred names, and wrote letters – about a hundred.  Ninety-seven did not reply.  Three of them replied and said they didn’t have enough means to support me.  But one of them said that he knows a dentist in his house who said he would like to sponsor anybody from overseas, from Germany or Austria.  And so he mentioned my name to him; he said “why not?” 

"It Was an Enormous Decision..."

So I was in England in my first year, going for a Ph.D.  Mind you, I was by that time twenty-three years old and had no degree.  I was denied a degree in Austria but Cambridge University regarded me as a postgraduate student and allowed me to go for my Ph.D.  In the spring of 1939, I got a message from the American Embassy in London that my quota number had been reached, and that my affidavit of support by [the New York dentist] is OK and I should go through a certain medical exam and come down to London and pick up my visa.  It was an enormous decision.  Do I go to the United States or do I sort of hitch my star to a British education and a British future?  I decided to go to the United States. 

...I had a girlfriend in Vienna, who had an uncle in Chicago, and she left for Chicago before I even went to England.  And we stayed in touch.  I arrived in the United States on the fifteenth of August of '39, two weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe.   We got married on the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made it very clear that war would break out any day.  And indeed it did, on September 1, 1939.  So I had to make a decision.  Do I throw all of this away in England, and start anew here in the United States – or should I go back to England?  

There was a very, very unknown clause in the immigration law that allowed an immigrant to leave the country for one year, which could be extended to 18 months.  So I persuaded my new wife to go with me to England.  This was regarded by everybody in the United States whom I knew, American or foreigner who had just come to America, as the most idiotic thing you can do:  you travel in wartime from the United States to England.   But we went on an American ship, spent the next year in England, came back to the United States in June of 1940...John Harvard is a Cambridge graduate, so there is some sort of a relationship between Cambridge and Harvard, and Cambridge wrote to Harvard that they would like me to spend a third year of the PhD program at Harvard.  Which was granted.  But where was the money?  There were British Treasury regulations that did not allow Cambridge University, or rather Trinity College, to transfer my scholarship.  But the Dean of the Harvard Law School told me, one day,  I may have a job for you.  And there was a famous German-Austrian professor, with the name of [Hans] Kelsen, who wrote the Austrian constitution of 1919, who was aprofessor at Berkeley, and who came on a two-year assignment to Harvard.  And his English wasn’t very good.  And he and Harvard Law School obtained a Rockefeller fellowship; and I got that Rockefeller fellowship. 


"I Answered in the Affirmative..."

I finished the third year  -- almost –- but as I said in an article that I recently published, sometime between Pearl Harbor and Christmas, I met a professor at Harvard, a famous man, William Langer, German history, who asked me whether I knew German.  And I answered in the affirmative.  And he said:  Would you like to work for the United States government?  And I said certainly.  He said:  You will hear from us.  As I later learned, Langer immediately after Pearl Harbor signed up with the Coordinator of Information, in the intelligence area.  When I heard about it, I assumed I would be asked to join his department.  But that was not the case.  They wanted me to go to New York, where the foreign information service, which was part of the Coordinator of Information, was located.  And I was asked, in my first interview there, whether I could reconstruct the propaganda directive of the German Propaganda Ministry, Dr. Goebbels and company, as to what was being said every week to the German people, to rally them and to make them more interested in the war, be more pro-war.  I asked for certain documents that I needed, and they were supplied through the American Legation in Bern, Switzerland, like the internal broadcasts in Germany, and the main editorials of Nazi newspapers and so on.   And I reconstructed that.  And that seemed to have been satisfactory.  And I was hired.  This is how I got to the Voice of America.



Monday, December 15, 2014

A Good and Grand Life in Public Diplomacy: Walter R. Roberts

Back in 2010, while I was still at George Washington University, I had the good fortune to conduct a lengthly, on camera interview with Walter Roberts -- a broadcaster, diplomat and scholar who lived a long, extraordinary life in public diplomacy.
Walter first came to the U.S. in 1939 as a graduate student and refugee from his native Austria.  He began his career at the Voice of America, at the very outset of the U.S. government's wartime information effort.  At the end of World War II, Walter transfered to the State Department, then joined the newly organized U.S. Information Agency in 1952.  He served at USIA with distinction, occupying a number of senior posts in Washington before joining Ambassador George Kennan at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia as counselor for public affairs.  After his retirement from federal service, Walter taught public diplomacy at GWU -- in what was certainly one of the first U.S. university courses devoted to the study of international information programs.  He was a prolific writer throughout his life -- on international broadcasting, on diplomacy, on Yugoslavia and on many other topics -- and created a fund that supports the study of public diplomacy, the Walter R. Roberts Endowment.

Walter passed away in June 2014, at 97, remarkably lucid and insightful to the very end.  Last month, at a memorial gathering at GW's Elliot School, Walter's family was joined by many former colleagues, friends and admirers who paid tribute to this remarkable man and shared their memories of his good and grand life.  I propose to do the same here, by sharing excerpts from the 2010 interview that shed light on his life and career.

Monday, December 8, 2014

John McVickar: Remembered Vignettes of Embassy Moscow


U.S. Embassy, Moscow in the 1960s
For any veteran of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow – I served there myself twice, in the mid-eighties and then early nineties – McVickar’s account of his tour from June 1959 to September 1961 will have a familiar ring.  The venues, from Spaso House (the U.S. Ambassador’s residence) to the Bolshoi, are entirely recognizable.  So, too, the professional pressures of living under persistent surveillance and petty bureaucracy – sadly a hallmark today, too, of diplomatic life in Putin’s Russia.

McVickar’s vantage point is from well down the pecking order.  I particularly like his anecdote about sidling up to a conversation between Soviet leader Khrushchev and U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson at the annual July 4th Spaso House reception, only to have Thompson say:  “McVickar, get some more ice.”   Diplomatic life is one part glamour, two parts figuratively getting more ice…
Nikita Khrushchev and Mrs. Thompson at Spaso House, 1961  James Whitmore, Life Magazine

But McVickar also made the most of the opportunity to mingle with Russians whenever possible, around the city and during his travels.  That, in my mind, was what made the work in the Soviet Union exhilarating:  listening to Russians in countless ad hoc conversations open up about their closed society, against the backdrop of the Cold War’s riveting headlines. 

McVickar writes that his service in Moscow “turned out to be an intense daily venture” encompassing “three busy summers and two long, cold but still adventureful [sic] winters.”  It had an enduring effect on him, he says, “for better and worse.”  Somewhat paradoxically, as he notes, it led to him becoming both a conservative Republican and a convinced environmentalist.  His recollections of the life of a U.S. consul in Moscow are here.


John McVickar -- "We Struck a Strong Blow for the Cause"


One document John McVickar shared with me was a carbon copyof a memo he prepared for Embassy Moscow public affairs counselor Lee Brady, dated September 10, 1959.  Although assigned to the U.S. Embassy as a consul rather than in a cultural or press capacity, McVickar spent quite a bit of time at the Sokolniki exhibition that summer, not long after he first arrived at post.  He volunteered to help out, as did other Embassy officers, and ended up being assigned to the art show, one of the most heavily visited – and controversial – parts of the American Exhibition.

While he includes some of his recollections of Sokolniki in his 2001 “Remembered Vignettes” covering his entire tour in Moscow, McVickar’s memo to Brady represents his contemporaneous impressions immediately after the close of the exhibition.   He tells Brady he was present at the art exhibit about a dozen times.  At first, he reports, “the crowds seemed eager and friendly.”  “They were full of questions and often amazement at the abstractions, but were not particularly antagonistic,” McVickar writes.  “The first impression I had was of teeming masses of relatively untutored, friendly, curious people who were ready to listen, but just didn’t know what to make of abstract art,” he goes on, adding “probably not unlike most Americans would be who had never been exposed to it.”
Crowds viewing the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959.  Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

But then the atmosphere changed, McVickar reports:  “things began to get rougher.”  Antagonistic questions and comments became the norm rather than the exception.  “A number of people,” McVickar observed, “seem to have been sent on purpose to poke fun at the show and stir up trouble, others to have come to vent feelings in a place where they felt that antagonistic behavior was socially acceptable.”  After citing examples of the types of comments he had in mind – “It’s useless,” “A child could do that,” and so forth – McVickar mentions that the art show had to be closed down several times during the public hours “to protect the pictures.”  Among the materials he sent me was an August 1959 International Herald Tribune piece describing the cool reaction of the Soviet media and some visitors to works like Gaston Lachaise’s “Standing Nude.” 

Yet as time went on, this wave of antagonism also apparently cooled down.  McVickar lauds the contributions of the guides and especially Richard McLanathan, the art show's curator, who helped foster more balanced discussion with Soviet visitors through his lectures about the abstract art collection.
Courtesy ttolk.ru


McVickar’s bottom line:  “It is my personal feeling that the show was a significant success from a political as much as from an artistic point of view.”  The art show, in his analysis, succeeded in challenging Soviet stereotypes about what constituted “world culture” and whether individuals had the right to freely express themselves, whether in conformity with the Party line or not.  In summing up his impressions for Lee Brady, McVickar concludes that “in this exhibit we struck a strong blow for the cause, helped not a little by the Soviets themselves who chose to make such a fuss about it in the local newspapers.  Yet it will probably take many such blows over a long period of time to start this enormous political dinosaur moving.”  How right he was.

John A. McVickar: A Chance and Consequential Encounter


Since returning from my last Foreign Service assignment in Paris, I have been tackling some of the unfinished business I left behind at the end of my stint as Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University. 

Some of my earlier blog entries chronicled the 2009 “Face-off to Facebook” conference at GWU commemorating the 50th anniversary of the American Exhibition at Sokolniki Park and the Nixon-Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate.”   The exhibition was a landmark event in the history of U.S. public diplomacy.

Sometime after the conference, I received a package from a gentleman I had only met once, years before.  He had heard about the “Face-off to Facebook” conference and wanted to share his own recollections of the Sokolniki exposition.   A former Foreign Service officer, John McVickar had served in India, Hong Kong, Bolivia, Washington -- and in the U.S.S.R., from 1959-61.  

In my mind, McVickar was associated with a completely different historical episode. 
John A. McVickar
It was at a New Years eve party in Stowe, Vermont, that he had described for me what he believed was the most consequential incident of his life.  It was the story of his encounter in Moscow in 1959 with Lee Harvey Oswald, a troubled young man who had come to the U.S. Embassy in order to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

What I recall most vividly from that conversation was the evident discomfort and frustration that McVickar still felt, forty years later, about what his accidental interplay with Oswald had represented for the rest of his Foreign Service career.  He and his boss, U.S. Consul Dick Snyder (who had conducted the meeting with Oswald), were only guilty of having done what they had been trained to do under such circumstances:  namely to play for time so an emotionally distraught American would have the chance to rethink giving up his or her U.S. passport.  All the more so in this case, McVickar explained, since the young man had arrived at the Embassy and announced his plans to become a Soviet citizen on a Saturday when the Consular Section was officially closed.  

 
McVickar (l) and Dick Snyder at Embassy Moscow
As it happened, Oswald only returned to the Embassy two years later.  In the interim, he had been given permission by Soviet authorities to reside in Minsk, where he married a young, pretty pharmacist named Marina Prusakova.  They had a daughter, but by 1962, Oswald had had enough.  Disillusioned by his sojourn in the ostensible workers’ paradise, Oswald was almost contrite in asking Snyder to return his passport so he could return home.  And it was McVickar who issued the visa to Marina Oswald that would enable her accompany her husband to Texas.  The rest, as they say, is history – the dark, tragic and still painful national tragedy of the Kennedy assassination.

By McVickar’s account, he was never able to free himself from the shadow his role in facilitating Oswald’s return to the U.S. cast over his career.  He was interviewed by the Warren Commission, and his name is often cited in JFK assassination histories, sometimes in entirely implausible ways.  In 1968, McVickar was “selected out” of the Foreign Service; only a decade later was he able to secure his pension.  It was not only the Oswald connection that complicated his career.  A lifelong bachelor, McVickar claimed he was repeatedly investigated by diplomatic security agents during an era when homosexuality was viewed as a major vulnerability exploitable by hostile intelligence services.   Although the allegations were false, McVickar told me, he did feel he was guilty of being, in his words, “too friendly with married ladies” even if he never allowed these relationships to develop into “physical affairs.”  It was another era, to put it mildly. 

When I met McVickar, he was practicing law in Vermont, in his own storefront private practice.  He made it clear that he felt things had turned out differently than he had dreamed they would as a young Foreign Service officer – and there was a certain bitterness still in that observation.  And yet, I later learned, it was McVickar who founded and served as the first president of the Stowe Land Trust in the nineteen eighties and nineties – an organization that has grown and prospered, successfully preserving many private farms and woodlands from the developer’s bulldozer.  That alone, it seems to me, is an admirable legacy.

John McVickar passed away in 2011, before I had a chance to tell a little bit of his story in this blog.  I am trying to redress that lacuna today. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Azar Nafisi -- Your Best Weapon is Your Culture


Johns Hopkins University visiting professor and acclaimed author Azar Nafisi gave an extraordinarily moving and insightful keynote speech at the outset of the April 12 GWU conference on "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices." I watched it for a second time this evening, and found that, like any profound film or fine work of theater, there was more to appreciate, and more to learn the second time around.

Nafisi was particularly eloquent in describing how Tehran's rulers have perverted the meaning of Islam to support their totalitarian political agenda, obscuring even the religion's true historical role in Iranian life. To make the point, she recalled how horrified her own grandmother was by the excesses of the Iran revolution. "My grandmother," she related, "who never took off her veil, had the same idea as I did. And she would cry, and tell us this is not the real Islam, because they do not flog people and they do not put young women in jail and give them virginity tests, they do not insult God's children in this way if they are true Muslims." The regime was emblematized, she stressed, by a blind censor in Tehran who had once ruled whether plays that he himself could not see were appropriate for the city's theater audiences.

For all of the present travails of Iranians, Nafisi does take some comfort in the fact that in the wake of the contested June 2009 presidential elections, some important truths about Iran are finally emerging from behind the cardboard images that three decades of the mullah's authoritarian theocracy as well as Western stereotypes have helped erect. "Finally," she said, "those voices and those images that had been forced underground for so many years, have burst and blossomed on the Internet and television screens." She is convinced that the protesters -- or at least the broad societal impulses they represent -- will eventually triumph because their movement is about qualitatively changing Iran, not simply about playing politics. Americans should not be led astray by confusing the image of the ruling mullahs and their conservative supporters with the reality of a far more diverse Iran than Tehran is willing to acknowledge. The broader Iran longs to connect with world civilization, to which Persia has traditionally belonged. Nafisi reminded the audience that "Your best weapon is not the military; your best weapon is your culture."