Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Walter Roberts: The Impact of U.S. Cold War Public Diplomacy -- "The Most Effective Way of Influencing...Was the Voice of America"

At the end of my two 2010 interviews with Walter Roberts, I asked him which U.S. government public diplomacy programs had had the biggest impact during the Cold War.  His response was unequivocal.   As Walter reflected on the question, approaching it from his seventy-some years of professional involvement in the field of international information and cultural programs, his views carried a unique degree of credibility:

You have to divide the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia and the West.  As far as the Soviet bloc is concerned, I have not the slightest doubt that the most effective way of influencing the Hungarian, the Romanian and the Soviet peoples was the Voice of America.   Far above everything else, because everything else was restricted and even though the Voice of America was jammed in the indigenous languages, it was not jammed in English. 

In 1959, when I visited the Sokolniki Park exhibit, I was also instructed to call on the Foreign Office to protest the jamming.  The Deputy Foreign Minister – I forget his name now -- who received me was obviously prepared that I would object to their jamming the Russian programs.  When I walked into his office, I immediately realized that he was going to play a trick here because he had on his desk a large Grundig radio receiver.   When I started talking, he said:  “Well, Mr. Roberts, we don’t jam the Voice of America.”   I said: “Well, of course you do.”   He said, no, and he turns and turns the radio on and there was the Voice of America in English coming in loud and clear.  I said, “Yeah, but that’s in English but you jam the Russian.”  He said:  “Mr. Roberts, is Russian your language?”  I said “No, but we broadcast in Russian in order to converse with the Russian people.”  He said:  “But that is an interference in our internal affairs.”  And so on and so on – a typical conversation.  But they did not jam the Voice of America in English. 

Jazz program host Willis Conover and Louis Armstrong on the VOA
I believe that the Voice of America – and Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe – made an enormous difference.   The Eastern European peoples and the Soviet Union peoples were ready for a change.  In my opinion, the enormous barrage from the West – VOA, Radio Liberty, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale, the Vatican Radio and so on – made an enormous difference.  The cultural exchange programs, yes, of course, they had individual impressions – but that was a very individual, whereas the Voice was a mass appeal.  The libraries in Yugoslavia helped the cause but very frankly, the people who went to the library were people who already were in the American corner.  They were able to strengthen their beliefs, strengthen their arguments in conversations by what they read and what they saw in the libraries.  But the Voice of America and the other broadcasting organizations – they had a mass appeal.  I do not think that the approach to the Cold War of the information and cultural program changed very much except through the broadcasting media.  That’s at least my opinion.


Walter Roberts: George Kennan and Public Diplomacy -- "Basically, George Kennan Was an Old-Line Diplomat"

Walter's friendship with George F. Kennan was forged in Yugoslavia; Kennan was his boss but also became a mentor.  They continued to stay in touch over the years, until shortly before Kennan's death.  This connection grew up despite the fact that Kennan's perspective on U.S. public diplomacy was definitely from the old school -- respectful, perhaps, but aloof.  Both Walter and Milt Iossi, a former Foreign Service officer who also served at Embassy Belgrade under Ambassador Kennan, shared their memories of him in pieces posted on UNC's "American Diplomacy" online journal.

Amb.-Designate Kennan with JFK at the White House, Feb. 1961
…We in the Embassy in Belgrade were fascinated when the telegram came in to request accreditation for George Kennan.  We had known George Kennan – I personally had known him very, very slightly from previous incarnations – and we were very happy because it enhanced our own stature.  The fact that John F. Kennedy would select George Kennan, and that George Kennan would accept an appointment to be ambassador to Yugoslavia, having been Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was in my opinion an indication that the Presidency of John F. Kennedy would take Yugoslavia seriously.

When George Kennan came, he immediately showed an interest in what we were doing.   I might say that he showed an interest particularly because that was the time when the press law was published, so the entire American -Yugoslav relationship was somehow involved.  Because if the Yugoslavs had succeeded in eradicating USIS, that would have been a major setback in Yugoslav-American relations.   So George Kennan took an immediate interest, and talked to Tito about it.  He wanted that law to become a non-law.
Kennan with Tito, Belgrade 1961
But I have to tell you that basically George Kennan was an old-line diplomat.  He did not show a particular interest in the information program.  As far as the cultural program was concerned, he was more interested.  But I think if you had woken him up at 3 o’clock in the morning and asked him whether he’s happy with USIS, he would probably have said “I’m happy with USIS, but I don’t think it ought to be in the Embassy.”  I think he was much more taken with the British approach, whereby the cultural program was a self-standing operation outside the Embassy.  But he was kind enough, and smart enough, not to show this openly.  And in particular, it was his personal relationship with me – he somehow liked me – and I think I was probably the one officer in whom he confided most.  But not because I was a USIS officer, but because I was who I was.  

1973 Note to George Kennan
So my relationship with George Kennan continued to become a friendship.  I continued to visit him in Princeton after he retired or resigned.  I was basically in touch with him until about a year before he died, when he really didn’t want to talk on the telephone anymore.  As you know, he reached 101 I think, and I think the last time I saw him in Princeton was when he was 98 or 99.  He was still mentally completely, at the time I saw him, but I understand when he reached 100, things went wrong a little way.  But he continued to live in his own house, they had a couple working for them, and he was one of the sweetest and kindest and nicest persons I ever encountered in my whole life.

Walter Roberts: USIS Magazines and Exhibits in Yugoslavia -- "I'm Red-Faced. I Apologize."

Walter and his USIS staff faced some of the same petty challenges and obstacles that other U.S. public diplomats wrestled with in closed societies during the Cold War period, even if Yugoslavia featured a less obdurate program environment than the Communist Bloc countries under Moscow's direct sway.  Information that was neither vetted or approved by the authorities, and especially from a foreign capitalist country, was anathema to the security services.  One of Walter's favorite stories about tangling with the Yugoslav apparatchiki was this one:

We had a mailing list for our magazine called Pregled.  One day, at some occasion, one of the Yugoslavs approached me and said:  “Have you discontinued Pregled?” And I said, no, not at all.  “Well, I didn’t get my copy this month.”  Well, I said, give me your name and I’ll see that a copy be sent to you.   In the next two or three or four days, other people on the staff, both local employees and Americans, said they had heard that Pregled was not distributed.  So finally I came to the conclusion that Pregled was not sent out by the post office.  So I took my jacket and went to the Foreign Office.  And I said:  Pregled was not distributed – what happened?”  And Mr. Milan Bulajic, who was the American desk officer said:  “Out of the question.”   I said, “No out of the question, it’s a fact but let’s find out what happened.”
Pregled Cover, December 1963

One Sunday, a week later, the telephone rings and Milan Bulajic calls me at home and he asked me whether he could come over.  I said, well of course.  So Milan came over to my house and he said:  “I’m red-faced.  I apologize.  Pregled was thrown by the Ministry of the Interior into the Danube River.  Lock, stock and barrel.”  We found out. 

But that was the only time.  It was very different from a program in France; but it was very different from a program in Bucharest.  It was a very enjoyable stay for me because I was able to do things that I knew I could not do in Bucharest.  For instance, exhibits.  We had beautiful exhibits coming from the United States, and they were always part of the Belgrade fair.  As a matter of course, and policy, Tito came to these fairs.  I got to know him through these fairs because I took him around the American pavilion.  That was much more widespread – yes, we had the Sokolniki Park exhibit in Moscow but I don’t know when the next exhibit was in Moscow because I was not in the line of command anymore at that time because I had gone to Yugoslavia. Tito was very interested.  I remember the capsule in which Glenn, later Senator Glenn, circled the Earth; we got that capsule to show it.  I remember I showed it to Tito and Tito said “Well, I’d have to lose a lot of weight to get into it.”
John Glenn's Friendship 7 Capsule Arrives at Belgrade Airport

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Walter Roberts: The Fulbright Program in Yugoslavia -- "Tito Thought It Was An Excellent Idea"

It was very interesting period for me, because I began to realize that my Serbo-Croatian, which I had learned – I think I should put the word “learned” in quotation marks – at the Foreign Service Institute, was not adequate for me to conduct these negotiations with the Yugoslavs.  But the main negotiator on the Yugoslav side spoke French, and so we discussed the agreement in French, and that I was able to do.  If you ask me now, what kind of agreement we reached, I’m not quite sure.  But obviously it worked, because in the end our program continued as it was before.

We always had difficulties [with the Fulbright program] but I made it one of my priorities that during my tenure as Public Affairs Officer there, I would reach a Fulbright agreement.   And I didn’t give up.  I used cocktail parties, I used lunches, I used my calls on the Foreign Office or with other people.  We always would say “Well, things will not be the same until we have a Fulbright agreement.” 

Kennedy and Tito at the White House
The story goes, and I have no reason to doubt it, that Tito, who was the last head of state to visit John F. Kennedy alive, he came at the end of October or early November 1963, and apparently established a very good rapport with the President.  He was happy with his trip to the United States.  Allegedly, upon his return, he said to his immediate staff that he wants to show his gratitude for the way Kennedy received him.  And was there anything in American-Yugoslav relations that he could do to further that?  The American desk officer in the Foreign Office, to whom I had told every day of the week that we wanted a Fulbright agreement, told his Foreign Minister to tell Tito that maybe we can sign a Fulbright agreement.  

Tito thought that was an excellent idea.  The Yugoslavs relented on their insistence that all exchangees – and that was the stumbling block, they wanted to choose the people, and they would not want to give that to a commission – they relented that a Fulbright commission be established in Belgrade, of which the cultural officer of the United States would be the chairman.  So we had a Fulbright agreement and Bill Fulbright himself came for the signing in 1964.  It was absolutely the first Fulbright agreement in Eastern Europe; from what I hear it is still thriving.  
Senator Fulbright and LBJ, April 1964

Walter Roberts: U.S. Public Diplomacy in Yugoslavia -- "We Had Quite a Program There"

In 1960, Walter was offered the choice of a promotion to the European area director job at USIA -- or the position of Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.  The latter was one of the most responsible U.S. public diplomacy jobs in the field because of Yugoslavia's unique position as a non-aligned Communist state, and Walter opted to go overseas.  It was not an easy decision, Walter acknowledged (the USIA area director position was viewed as a prestigious one), but he was later grateful he had chosen Belgrade.  As he chronicled in various articles over the years, Walter's tour there turned out to be a rich experience that led to a continuing relationship with Yugoslavia and its successor states long after he retired from the Foreign Service.

Perhaps [the] best [way to] describe the situation in Yugoslavia is by a story that I told a USIA director when he asked me:  “How is it to work in Belgrade?”  And my answer was, at the time,  if you travel from Sofia to Rome, Belgrade looks like Rome.  But if you travel from Rome to Sofia, Belgrade looks like Sofia. 

What I meant is, that in contradistinction to all the USIA programs behind the Iron Curtain, including of course Moscow, we had a large program in Yugoslavia.  At the time I came, I had the distinct feeling that while of course I worked in a Communist country, that in many respects our USIS program in Yugoslavia was more like a USIS program in Austria than in Budapest. 
Belgrade in the 1960s

But I spoke too fast.  Within six or eight months of my arrival in Belgrade, the Yugoslavia government issued a press law.  If you read that press law from A to Z, it meant the end of USIS.  It did not mean the end of the British Council, because as you know the British Council is a non-governmental organization.  They had to register and were there as a Yugoslav incorporated organization.  USIS could never have done that. 

I personally was convinced that my days were numbered.  I had arrived in the summer of 1960, this was in the spring of 1961.   I said this was not the way we could operate, because the press law denied diplomatic status to any foreign information program, or cultural program.  In other words, it denied diplomatic status to the relationship with the Yugoslav people.  It was the view of the Yugoslav government, which adopted this law,  that a diplomat had to deal with the Foreign Office.  Not even with the Minister of Culture.  Not even with the Minister of Information.  You had to go to the Foreign Office, and if the Foreign Office allowed you to speak to the Minister of Information, then you could talk to him.  And of course, we bitterly protested, but in vain.  They told us, “confidentially,” that this was done to rein in the Soviets.  I personally had no doubt they told the Soviets that they did it in order to rein in the Americans. 

Former USIS American Center, Ljubljana
Because we had quite a program there.  We had ten or twelve American officers, we had about one hundred Foreign Service nationals, we published a magazine, we had information centers in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Novi Sad and Sarajevo, to the best of my recollection, and of course in Belgrade.  And a very eager audience.   Literally thousands of people came every day and picked up the news bulletins.  I never quite understood why the Yugoslavs allowed us to do that.  But they did until the press law was published.  We then started negotiations about how to make our program livable.  And in the course of it,  we used certain gimmicks, like putting an American resident in Belgrade in charge of our library.  And as the weeks and the months went by, the Yugoslavs became less interested in enforcing it.  So within a year or so, we were back to where we were before. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "Republics Fill Positions of General Esteem and Power with Carpenters Like Abraham Lincoln"

In diplomatic parlance, it could be called a “courtesy call.”  These are meetings, usually offered out of a sense of obligation, by prominent officials:  ministers, ambassadors and so forth.  They are intended to be short; they almost never have a prearranged agenda.  Usually, the demandeur of the courtesy call wants to shake the prominent person’s hand – at a minimum -- and ideally establish some sort of connection.    Duvergier de Hauranne had requested such a meeting, and it did take place eventually, with the young Frenchman introduced to Lincoln by Charles Sumner, at what amounted to the President’s open office hours.  In fact, throughout his presidency, Lincoln made a practice of receiving visitors and petitioners on this wildly democratic basis,  in what he labeled “public opinion baths.”

In early 1865, Abraham Lincoln held in his hands the future of the country and the American people.  The outcome of a devastating and traumatic Civil War was no longer in doubt, but a vast challenge of reconstruction and reconciliation lay ahead.  Few of Duvergier de Hauranne’s conversations in Washington that winter would have gone at any length without reference to the President and his plans for the postbellum future.  But Lincoln was still in the minds of most of his countrymen a rough and tumble politician, successful for sure but not universally admired, not yet a haloed martyr for a sacred cause. 

Duvergier de Hauranne was inclined even before he met Lincoln to defend the incumbent President.  How can I believe,” he asks, “in the reputation for incompetence that is imputed to him in Europe?  This man who has raised himself by his own unaided efforts from a “log cabin” deep in the Indiana woods to the presidency of the United States cannot possibly be a run-of-the-mill person.  He needed a great deal more than just intelligence – a gift less rare than we commonly realize – which counts for nothing without character.  He also needed the moral force, those virtues of perseverance and resolution which are, indeed, the American virtues par excellence.”

As he awaits his turn to meet the President, Duvergier de Hauranne marvels, again, at the ease of access to the White House:

For a foreigner, the White House possesses a certain prestige…Yet its doors stand open to every American:  like a church, it is everybody’s house.   At all hours of the day, you will find curious or idle people milling about in the great reception room where the President holds his popular audiences.  It is said that some visitors – country bumpkins no doubt – cut pieces from the silk curtains to take home as souvenirs of their pilgrimage.  You may think that a policeman or at least a guard has been posted.  Not at all!  There is only a notice asking visitors to respect the furnishings, which belong to the government.

Ushered into the President’s suite, Duvergier de Hauranne watches Lincoln interact with a pretty young woman in velvet who flirtatiously seeks a favor from him.  He is unmoved, the Frenchman reports, urging her to come to the point and dismissing her after jotting down some notes behinda huge desk piled so high with papers that it seemed to enclose him like the walls of a confessional.”
Lincoln in his office, 1864

While other supplicants sit in a row awaiting their turn, Duvergier de Hauranne is invited over to meet Lincoln:

The President rose to receive us; it was then that his great height was revealed.  I looked up and saw a bony face, framed by a shock of carelessly combed hair, a flat nose and a wide mouth with tightly closed lips.  His face was angular and furrowed by deep wrinkles.  His eyes were strangely penetrating and held a sardonic expression; he seemed sad and preoccupied, bent under the burden of his immense task.  His posture was awkward and like nothing I’ve ever seen before – partly rigid and partly loose-jointed; he doesn’t seem to know how to carry his great height.  We all opened our mouths after the customary handshake, I to pay him a compliment, Mr. Sumner to explain who I was, and he himself to respond to my remark and to pretend that he already knew my name.  His voice is far from musical; his language is not flowery; he speaks more or less like an ordinary person from the West and slang comes easily to his tongue.

It may be that Duvergier de Hauranne is underwhelmed by the Lincoln he meets in the flesh, as opposed to the conceptual Lincoln he reveres as the embodiment of republican virtue.  Or, perhaps, Duvergier de Hauranne is simply being objective when he argues that the desiderata of leadership in a republic is inherently different from that of a monarchy like his native France:

…He is simple, serious and full of good sense.  He made some comments on Mr. Everett and on the unrealistic hopes the Democratic party entertained four years ago that it could impose its policies on the victorious Republicans.  These remarks may have been lacking in sparkle, but the thought behind them was subtle and witty.  There was not a single burst of clownish laughter, not a single remark in doubtful taste, not one of the “jokes” for which he is famous.  We shook hands again and left him to his chores.  I took away from this ten-minute interview an impression of a man who is doubtless not very brilliant, not very polished, but worthy, honest, capable and hardworking.  I think the Europeans who have spoken and written about him have been predisposed to consider it amusing to exaggerate his odd ways – either that or else they went to the White House expecting to see some splendid, decorative figure, wearing a white tie and behaving in a manner both courteous and condescending like some sort of republican monarch.  What a stupid and egregious error to expect that Abraham Lincoln, the former Mississippi boatman, could have the manners of a king or a prince.

…In a republic, people are more practical and down to earth.  The President is chosen to perform his political functions, not to dance royal quadrilles nor to gallop up and down in a plumed hat at military reviews.  It is not necessary that he be a man of letters or a scholar; he need not have written philosophical treatises, nor published a ten-volume set of collected works.  He doesn’t even have to be what Americans call “a fine gentleman.”  Uncalloused, perfumed hands are useless in the rough game of American politics.  Provided he does his job well and honestly, no one troubles to ask whether he writes in a “classical” style or whether he is dressed in the height of fashion.  Despotism holds up little idols for the crowd’s adoration; but republics fill positions of general esteem and power with carpenters like Abraham Lincoln.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "Let Them Talk, and Come With Me to One of Mrs. Lincoln's Receptions"

While Duvergier de Hauranne has only managed to catch sight of President Lincoln at a distance during his first weeks in Washington – a mere glimpse of “a long-legged giant who was leaving the White House lobby wrapped up to his nose in an enormous scarf” – the visitor does manage to enter the Presidential mansion on a different basis.  His account of attending one of Mrs. Lincoln’s receptions leads him to comment on the no-frills lifestyle she and the President maintain, in marked contrast to the luxurious trappings of kings and potentates in other countries.  Duvergier de Hauranne came to the U.S. heavily influenced by de Tocqueville’s accounts of American egalitarianism, and his sympathy for the Lincolns is evident.  Many other European visitors during Lincoln's time in office took the opposite tack; they often lampooned the President and his wife as country rubes, a nineteenth century version of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Mary Todd Lincoln
After relating that Mary Todd Lincoln had been savaged in American newspapers for charging the government for unofficial dinners and for not paying her bills on a timely basis, Duvergier de Hauranne comments that “in spite of all the thievery they are accused of, these American leaders are not very rich.”  He reports, admiringly, that Lincoln refused to take payment of his annual salary of $25,000 in gold rather than in paper money -- at that time an uncertain monetary instrument at best.  When the Frenchman asked Robert Todd Lincoln if he had any plans to visit Europe, the President’s son replied that the trip would cost too much.  “I know of no other country where the Chief of State is too poor to afford a trip abroad for his son,” Duvergier de Hauranne writes.   He continues:

Let them talk, and come with me to one of Mrs. Lincoln’s receptions.   You arrive on foot, you enter the huge, bare vestibule of the White House.  There are no honor guards with golden breastplates, no swarms of glittering lackeys, not even a sentry at the door.  A lone servant in a black coat asks for your card and opens the drawing-room door for you.  It is a simple, plain room, hung with red damask.  The mistress of the house rises and comes forward; her welcome is so open and friendly that you think she is going to offer you her hand like an old acquaintance. 

White House vestibule, 1860s
The heavy stiffness of your formal bow recalls her to the cold conventions of official etiquette.  This former country-woman looks no worse in her velvet gown than any other aging lady who is a little bit plump and middle-class.  Her manner is dignified, kindly, reserved and almost shy; I must admit that her conversation is not phenomenally brilliant, and it seems that she feels an easily understandable diffidence when speaking with strangers from Europe, thought by her to be very severe judges --- especially after all the indecent mockery that has been showered upon her. The joke is on those who scoff at her, for there is nothing to laugh at in this respectable household, and I have a poor opinion of those who jeer at this modest simplicity as though the Lincolns were crude backwoodsmen.