The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy

May 8, 2013

In working on the book I’ve been trying very hard not to allow the formulation of the problem to be too influenced by the American experience as a result I’ve been putting off reading a stack of books on American Cold War PD.

Anyway I’m now coming to the end of them…and what can I say: American Cold War Public Diplomacy = warring tribes

This isn’t exactly a surprise but it does reinforce the four paradigms argument.  You’ve got the culturalists (represented by Coombs (1964) and Frankel (1965) and the informationalists (represented particularly by Sorensen (1968 – who is really advocating a proto-strategic communications line) – I was interested to see that he was explicitly dismissive of Coombs and Frankel and their pursuit of an autonomous cultural relations programme – of course Sorensen is one of the main villains in Arndt’s  First Resort of Kings (2005).

Then you’ve got the broadcasters but they are really three different tribal federations; however much they tone it down RFE/RL are cold warriors but the Eastern Europeans aren’t too keen on the Soviets but then within the two stations the different language services don’t necessarily get along too well.  VoA is  fighting a much deadlier set of foes than the communists: The State Department and The USIA.  It took me a while to realize that the struggle that  Alan Heil (2003) keeps talking about isn’t against communism or for democracy but for the independence of the VoA. (Even in 1988 Gifford Malone referred to this as the ‘eternal struggle’)

Then of course up to the late 1960s there’s the ‘hidden’ clan with its subsidies to anyone who might look useful the:  CIA (Laville and Wilford 2006, Wilford 2008, Saunders 1999)

Then there are dark overlords who threaten this little ecology of struggling tribes  First, there’s State (who when they notice them) would like to use the tools of PD to directly support their activities.  Particularly in discussion of the radios (eg Puddington 2000) there are many examples of embassies who really wish that they could dial the volume of PD up and down at will in order to influence US relations.  Second, particularly in the 1950s and the 1980s there are the political warriors (many from the White House) who want to coordinate and subordinate the whole machinery against the Communist foe.

And of course there are the gods of Congress who must be appeased.  It’s pretty clear that Congress is like Olympus where the deities are conspiring against each other and somewhat randomly intervening in human affairs.

Is this degree of tribalism normal?  I think a degree of conflict is normal.  Strategy is an art so some conflict will emerge from routine disagreements. In a national public diplomacy system where you have a foreign ministry, a cultural relations organization, an international broadcaster, trade, investment and tourism organizations conflict will be rooted in the need to engage different publics in different ways.  However, the American case does seem particularly prone to argument.  One aspect of this that recurs in the literature is that different bits of the system (culture, information, broadcasting), particularly at the beginning, were staffed by people from different professional backgrounds. I would also point to an argument from social movement theory, that is people mobilize when they see an opportunity, what’s called political opportunity structure.  The involvement of Congress plus changes in Administration offered opportunities to reengineer the institutional structure which in turn encourage the expression of identities and interests.  If you look at other countries you do find strong expressions of differing perspectives during periods of organizational change.  Almost continuously across the Cold War period there was some project for the reorganization of US PD floating around Congress.  In comparison with UK, France, Germany the US carried out more reorganizations of its PD.  The USSR can probably be placed between the Europeans and the US but I’ll save that for another post.



Arndt, R.T. (2005) The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. Washington  D.C.: Potomac Books.

Coombs, P. (1964) The Fourth Dimension of Foreign Policy: Educational and Cultural Affairs. Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper & Row.

Frankel, C. (1965) The Neglected Aspect of Foreign Affairs: American Educational and Cultural Policy Abroad. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution.

Heil, A.L. (2003) Voice of America: a history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2006) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Malone, G. (1988) Political advocacy and cultural communication : organizing the nation’s public diplomacy. Lanham: University Press of America.

Puddington, A. (2000) Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. University Press of Kentucky.

Saunders, F.S. (1999) Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Sorensen, T.C. (1968) The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilford, H. (2008) The Mighty Wurlitzer : how the CIA played America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.



  1. Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

  2. Robin — I would say a reason for the constant PD reorganization (when in doubt, reorganize) is that Americans, who pride themselves on telling the truth even when they don’t, are prone to feeling “guilty” about using propaganda, what the “bad guys” do. Best, John. My piece on this subject: http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/19.htm

  3. Nice post Robin. Your assessment of the ‘Voices’ echoes my research on the modern incarnation of Radio Free Asia, where different exile or diasporic communities did not get along with each other or with management and the station’s stated agenda/vision. The exiles wanted to be more strident; the management wanted a more sober style of broadcasting – problems that beset RFE in its Cold War heyday.

  4. […] Thoughts,” April 12, 2013; “Why I’m a Network Realist,” April 16, 2013; “The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy,” May 8, 2013; “Can Non State Actors Do Public Diplomacy,” May 10, 2013; “The […]

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