Sunday, January 25, 2015

Walter Roberts: Evaluating Success -- "Evidence of Effectiveness Has Haunted USIA Since Its Beginning"

When I asked Walter what successes USIA had known in its early years, he pivoted to answer the question more broadly.  The challenge of measuring success of public diplomacy programs remains to this day.  How can one prove that any specific program or initiative "moved the needle," especially in a complex world?

You know, this item called evidence of effectiveness has haunted USIA since its beginning.  It is extremely difficult to correlate a USIA activity with a success.  All you can do with what we called evidence of effectiveness is, again [to come] back to public opinion surveys, for instance, in Austria and in Germany, of which I know a little.  

The atmosphere regarding the United States, and the German and Austrian view of the United States, was very high.  I always felt that our information programs in Germany and Austria were extremely successful.  
Leonard Bernstein conducting in Vienna, early 1970s
You turned a population that was at war with the United States into one that basically loved the United States.  Public opinion figures in Austria and in Germany in the fifties and sixties were extremely high.  Now, you can say of course that when Arthur Rubinstein came and played in Vienna, or Leonard Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and there were rave reviews, you might use that as evidence of effectiveness of our programs…

We opened an information center [in Paris] on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne, and that was full every day, from opening to closing.   Again, you might say, what kind of evidence is that?  But I think it is better to know that it was full, and all seats were taken, than to say, for instance, nobody came. 
American artist Beauford Delaney at Rue du Dragon USIS Cultural Center, 1969
You can also talk about evidence of effectiveness of people who were Fulbright scholars in the United States and later became prime ministers and presidents of countries.  Their view of the United States was certainly more open-minded than if they had not been in the United States.  Sadat, for instance, was an exchange student in the United States.   

We made it our business to have libraries in as many countries as we could.  We called them information centers.  As far as the film program is concerned, we were dealing of course with Hollywood.  We were not responsible for Hollywood launching a film in Paris.  That was Hollywood’s business.  But, if we could in the course of negotiations and so on, create a little enhancing role, we did.  We also made a number of documentaries.  One of the great documentaries that was made was about Kennedy, and his death.  That Kennedy film had an enormous attraction overseas, I remember that.
Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (1965)

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