Monday, February 2, 2015

Walter Roberts: Cold War Cultural Policy and USIA -- "USIA Followed the Policy Directives of the Department of State"

Walter emphasized that, at least until the late sixties, USIA closely followed the State Department's foreign policy lead.  When Khrushchev came to power and shifted Soviet policy towards a less confrontational approach in the mid-fifties, USIA followed State's lead in pursuing openings in the U.S.-Soviet relationship, including the negotiation of the groundbreaking 1958 cultural agreement.

The role of USIA in the Cold War was very much, policy-wise, directed or at least influenced, by the Department of State.  An officer of the policy office of USIA would attend daily the meetings of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the State Department, where the questions as to how to answer at that time mostly American  correspondents, not yet very much foreign correspondents, mind you in the fifties, was discussed.  And the policy officer came back and more or less then sent out a policy note to the field, and particularly to the Voice of America.  So if there was a change in 1956 in State Department thinking about the Cold War, then there was one in USIA.   Not until a few years later, quite a few years in the Nixon administration with Frank Shakespeare as director, was there ever a policy disagreement between the State Department and USIA.   Now the Voice of America may have raised a point “Surely we don’t want to say this, we want to say it this way” or something like that.  I’m not saying that all possible differences between the Department of State and USIA, that there were none – of course, there were.  But, on the whole, the United States Information Agency followed the policy directives of the Department of State. 
Eisenhower, Khrushchev at Geneva Summit, 1955

I might add, that the attitude in the Department was changing in the fifties, including John Foster Dulles’ attitude, because I think the Department regarded Khrushchev’s efforts to distance himself from the Stalin policy, with approbation and I think our Cold War line was not as strong after Khrushchev made his speeches, went to Belgrade for a trip.  Even, I think, the meetings in Geneva sort of made it clear that there was a way to negotiate. 

For me, [the U.S.-Soviet cultural agreement negotiation] was personally a very interesting experience because I had known the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Mr. Zarubin, from previous negotiations involving the Austria Treaty as a man without any sense of humor, as a stubborn, non-simpatico person whom I would never have asked whether he wanted to have a cup of coffee with me. 
New Soviet Ambassador Zarubin Arrives at White House, 1952
But then, when I was invited as the USIA representative to sit in on the Soviet-American negotiations regarding the future of cultural relations, I was absolutely stunned.  Here was a man who was nice, witty, cooperative and those negotiations actually were concluded in a very few weeks.  When I remembered that I had sat through Austrian negotiations for seven years, with Zarubin’s famous “nyet”, as famous as Gromyko’s “nyet” in the Security Council, I was absolutely floored.  

First Issue, Amerika Magazine, 1956
The Russians were quite ready to negotiate a cultural agreement.  It showed its results.  We had not only the Sokolniki Park exhibition in Moscow in 1959, but we started having an easier time distributing Amerika magazine, although it was limited, I think, to 75,000 copies and the kiosks in Moscow held them back, or sold them at higher prices, whatever.   I don’t think 75,000 copies of Amerika were ever distributed, even in the best of times.  But nevertheless we had, at least on the cultural level, a much better atmosphere after the cultural agreement.

I was not there on the day Nixon and Khrushchev had the famous “kitchen debate.”  But I was very impressed, [the 1959 American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park] was a very good exhibit, and I was most impressed of course with the enormous amount of people who wanted to see it.  I mean you had, just from a visual point of view, you had a feeling that there are hundreds of thousands of people, who obviously did not harbor any strong anti-American views who wanted to see the exhibit.  It was a very good exhibit. 
General Mills Demonstration Kitchen at Sokolniki, 1959

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