Cultural Diplomacy

with the Evil

EmpirE

The Reagan adminisTRaTion’s oTheR FRonT in The Cold WaR
By andrew Wulf

When peoples understand each other, the governments cannot be far behind.
And mutual trust can only be generated by a series of interactions that promote understanding, because we all act upon what we think. What we think is a reflection of what we know. And of course, what we know is generated by the information that is available to us.
—USIa director Charles Z. Wick, January 23, 1986

recent decades have witnessed a prodigious flow of books, journals, articles, and blogs devoted to certain aspects of american cultural diplomacy and the media it used to shape public opinion overseas. These government-driven apparatuses include voice of america radio, traveling music tours, the dissemination of films, and personto-person educational exchanges. What is often overlooked by scholars is the United States Information agency’s (USIa) collaboration with the private sector of museums, curators, designers, artists, and the exhibitions they created throughout the Cold War. What also remains to be explored by scholars is a description of the waning years of USIa exhibition programming, which occurred during the reagan era. Even though this programming all but disappeared at the end of the Cold War, it continued to successfully demonstrate american values to international audiences.
Opposite: President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev chat at the Geneva Summit on November 21, 1985.

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AmeriCA’s CulturAl exChAnges Before the ColD WAr It is important to remember that for 150 years before the onset of the Cold War, the United States had sporadically employed cultural exhibitions—the display of a vast range of artifacts, from fine art to consumer goods—to project american values to foreign publics. Early on, President Thomas Jefferson teamed with artist, curator, and lay scientist Charles Willson Peale to display the american Incognitum—an excavated woolly mammoth—to prove to European skeptics that the nascent american nation was in fact a robust actor on the world stage. President millard fillmore’s sponsorship of the american pavilion in London at the great Exhibition of 1851, with enthusiastic help from a fledgling Smithsonian Institution, set the precedent for U.S. involvement in world’s fairs for the following century. at the end of World War II, the U.S. government discovered a more legitimate rationale for “winning hearts and minds” among foreign publics: the advent of the Cold War and the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. With dwight d. Eisenhower’s rise to the presidency in 1953 came a push for america to conceive an official plan for a new information agency. familiar with the perils of modern warfare and the benefits of peaceful propaganda, this new administration created the United States Information agency (USIa), a bureau removed from but sharing in the concerns of the State department. In the next few years, the “atoms for Peace” exhibition traveled the globe from India to Italy, from Brazil to Britain. Its goal, to allay fears of the atomic bomb and to indirectly pressure the Soviets into an agreement concerning the safe sharing of nuclear technology, was realized as a public diplomacy triumph. Its effectiveness to reach audiences around the world was not lost on the United States or the Soviet Union. In 1958, the “agreement

between the United States of america and the Union of Soviet Socialist republics on Exchanges in the Cultural, Technical and Educational fields” was officially enacted.
neeDeD: AverAge AmeriCAns meeting AverAge russiAns one of the much-anticipated key points of this negotiation was the shared cultural programming of the United States and the

Soviet Union, which allowed for direct contact between average americans and average russians. The Soviets tried to excise this unprecedented element of the treaty early on, particularly after the success of the american national Exhibition in moscow in 1959. This exhibit provided alongside Buckminster fuller’s geodesic dome and a barrage of american commercial products, dozens

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entrée into Soviet life would be the series of more than 20 thematic exhibitions, orchestrated by the USIa, that visited the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1991. To the dismay of Soviet leaders, these events would become a cornerstone of all future cultural agreements between the two superpowers. from a Soviet perspective, these exhibitions would emphasize, in the words of Sergei Khrushchev, the son of the late premier who visited the 1959 exhibition as a boy, “You were a consumer society and we were a sacrifice society.” In 1980, roughly a year before ronald reagan would begin his first term as President, he chided President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy record at a dinner celebrating President Lincoln’s birthday. Claiming Carter’s foreign policy was based on “weakness and illusion,” reagan openly advocated a buildup of military strength. This republican ideologue, lampooned in several political cartoons from this period as a “trigger-happy cowboy” who sought to spend and scare the Soviet Union into oblivion, is, unfortunately, an archetype of reagan a number of historians have popularly emphasized in recent scholarship.
CArter AvoiDs ConfrontAtion With the soviet union

Rough draft of President Reagan’s taped remarks for the opening of  the “Information USA” exhibit  in Moscow on June 4, 1987.

of college-age american guides, fluent in russian, who served as cultural ambassadors. These docents were often subjected to a range of hostile questions about the United States on such subjects as racism, violence, and our lack of initiative on space exploration. Curiosity trumped caution, however, as more than 2.7 million russians visited the exhibition during its six-week run, including

general Secretary nikita Khrushchev, who verbally sparred with vice President richard nixon over the virtues of capitalism over communism and vice-versa in the middle of the general Electric Kitchen. an enduring legacy from this exhibition was that it showed russians that americans did enjoy a better quality of life, a life of convenience and leisure unavailable to russians themselves. another result of this cultural

What many scholars have missed in appraising the aims and accomplishments of the 40th President of the United States was reagan’s concern for building up the USIa into a well-oiled public diplomacy apparatus. In 1977, under “reorganization Plan no. 2,” the USIa had been merged with the State department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs. Edmund gullion, who coined the term “public diplomacy,” railed against the impending merger. He felt, as did many of the career professionals within the USIa, that the more subtle practice of cultural exchanges would end up sidelined by the overtly political drive of the State department. What

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emerged in 1978 was the United States International Communication agency (USICa). The Carter administration’s decision to revive the outdated USIa mandate to educate the american public about other nations and their cultures transcended the agency’s motto of “telling america’s story to the world.” This mirrored the President’s concern with shaping an american foreign policy (and public image) that was visibly less abrasive and more attuned to the political agendas of allies and enemies alike. as a result, the Carter administration shied away from outright ideological confrontation with america’s Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. Whereas Carter was perceived as intellectually superior, reagan understood how to influence other people. Known during his presidency as the “great Communicator,” based on his years of experience in radio, film, and television, reagan held the power to persuade others. one of reagan’s first tasks as President was to refocus the american propaganda machine abroad. at that 1980 Lincoln’s Birthday dinner, he declared: It is time to expand dramatically the voice of america, radio free Europe and radio Liberty. We have a message of peace and hope and nothing to be ashamed of in the examples we set for the world. millions upon millions of people look to us as a beacon of freedom in a world that is fast losing freedom. We can convey our deep convictions to the world to combat the hostile and ceaseless communist propaganda that distorts everything we stand for. When reagan assumed the presidency, his goals were clear: reduce the size of the federal government by lowering taxes and taking the deficit seriously; reinvigorate a military that was lagging behind the Soviet military; confront and defeat, if at all possible, communism, not just in the Soviet Union but around the world; and to help the american people believe in themselves and their country again.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon hold an impromptu tête-à-tête (minutes before the fabled Kitchen Debate) in the RCA television studio at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959.

reAgAn restores usiA to its originAl stAtus during reagan’s first term as President, the global political atmosphere was dominated by acrimonious rhetorical exchanges between the reagan administration and a succession of Soviet leaders—Brezhnev, andropov, and Chernenko. The political climate was as bad as it had been since the death of Stalin, and the major international events sidelined a new cultural exchange agreement with the Soviets. These events included the 1979 Soviet invasion of afghanistan, martial law in Poland, tensions over intermediate-range missile deployment in Europe, the harsh Soviet repression of dissidents and human rights activists, and the September 1983 shooting down of a Korean civilian airliner. The Soviets saw themselves faced with the most militantly anti-communist U.S. administration since the early years of the

Cold War, one adamantly determined to restore american political and military superiority. In a White House press conference on January 29, 1981, journalist Sam donaldson asked the President: mr. President, what do you see as the long-range intentions of the Soviet Union? do you think, for instance, the Kremlin is bent on world domination that might lead to a continuation of the cold war, or do you think that under other circumstances détente is possible? To which reagan responded: “Well, so far détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims.” reagan’s appointment of Charles Z. Wick as director of his revamped USIa compounded america’s public image challenges during the first term. Wick was a reagan family friend from California who had made his mark first as bandleader Tommy dorsey’s

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music arranger and then as a shrewd showbusiness impresario. as an ardent nationalist who failed to see the more nuanced, intellectual side of a more traditional approach to public diplomacy, Wick strove to take Soviet anti-american foreign policy rhetoric head-on, expanding his President’s appraisal of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” one degree further, calling the Soviet Union, “the last great predatory empire on earth.” The USIa’s new chief enjoyed what would become unprecedented access to the President, his cabinet, and the national Security Council. Early in his tenure, however, Wick fell under immense scrutiny over a number of unethical practices. These

included the secret recording of telephone conversations between his office and members of the government, including cabinet members, as well as the hiring of the adult children (labeled “Kiddiegate” by the media) of high-ranking republicans into numerous posts within the agency.
WiCk PrePAres usiA for Anti-soviet CrusADe Undaunted by public opinion toward his office, Wick pressed on with what some witnesses would describe as a crusader’s zeal, ordering an aggressive gathering of Soviet propaganda to be distilled in a weekly internal USIa publication that was called “Soviet Propaganda alert.”

Russian visitors look at a display of television sets at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, August 5, 1959.

In Wick’s eyes, it was time for the United States to fight back ideologically against KgB-driven disinformation. Calls for more funding for the agency soon followed, and Wick was so convincing in this regard that by the time reagan left office in 1989, the USIa’s yearly budget reached nearly $1 billion, more than double of that allowed by Congress during the Carter years. The call for human rights in totalitarian countries became a main theme for the USIa under Wick, inspired by reagan’s outspoken concern for the Soviet people to

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understand america’s political stance in the Cold War. and yet, beneath the superpowers’ bitter criticism of each other, there was a push to expand cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. reagan settled into his role as commander-in-chief by immediately calling for the nullification of Carter’s second mandate to educate americans about the world. By 1982, Wick had restored the agency’s original name. Eager to frame the USIa’s drive to counter Soviet propaganda with a noble-sounding diplomacy offensive—perhaps inspired by Harry Truman’s “Campaign of Truth”—the USIa created “Project Truth.” Both to demonstrate the superiority of democracy over communism and to combat Soviet disinformation about the United States, Project Truth highlighted with increased vigor the original mission statement of the USIa: • Strengthen foreign understanding and support for U.S. policies and actions • advise the President, secretary of state, and national Security Council on the implications of foreign opinion for present and future U.S. policies • Promote and administer educational and cultural exchanges to facilitate understanding of the national interest of the United States • Unmask and counter disinformation attempts to distort or frustrate the objectives and policies of the United States

President Reagan reaches for Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze as Mikhail Gorbachev and Secretary of State George Shultz shake hands following the signing of the new cultural exchange treaty at the Geneva Summit on November 21, 1985.

• USIa history, go to www. archives.gov/research/guidefed-records/groups/306.html, and click on 306.5.4, records of the office of Exhibits. • The reagan administration’s attempts to revamp the USIa, go to www.reagan.utexas. edu/archives/textual/whormsub/FG14.html. • The 1985 cultural agreement that renewed cultural programming between the U.S. and the USSr, go to www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/ textual/topics/geneva.htm.

To learn more about

• Cooperate with private american institutions and interests to increase the quality and reach of U.S. public diplomacy • assist in the development of a comprehensive policy on the free flow of information and international communication • Conduct negotiations on information and educational and cultural exchanges with other governments Project Truth hit a dead-end when it came to Soviet-american cultural relations. What was missing was an official cultural exchange treaty. mark Smith, a former reagan-era cultural attaché stationed in moscow during the long-awaited signing of the cultural agreement of 1985, described the tense climate during negotiations:

The negotiations on a new agreement began in September 1984, more than a year in advance of the geneva Summit and about six months before [mikhail] gorbachev came to power. Chernenko was still the general Secretary at the time. and in spite of the harsh rhetoric, reagan was always ready to expand exchanges. also, there is no doubt that along with the radio broadcasts of voice of america and radio free Europe, cultural exchanges—particularly the traveling exhibits—were essential not only in easing tensions, but also to chipping away at the Iron Curtain that isolated Soviets from the rest of the world. Exhibits since the cultural agreements of the 1950s were a sine qua non for the U.S. no exhibits? no agreement.

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Above: President Reagan and USIA Director Charles Wick in the Oval Office on December 22, 1986. Below: A “Soviet Propaganda Alert” produced by the U.S International Communication Agency during the Reagan administration.

The Soviets knew this but they also saw the exhibits as a threat and tried to restrict them as much as they could. They never would have accepted exhibits on overtly political topics. and so we always focused on themes that, while not explicitly political, nevertheless communicated, in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways, the superiority of the american system. americans achievements in technology, presented to a public starved for information, were one such example. The U.S.-USSr Cultural agreement, signed at the geneva Summit in 1985 by Secretary of State george Shultz and Soviet minister of foreign affairs Eduard Shevardnadze, signaled the resumption of a broad range of cultural initiatives suspended in 1979. various areas of the exchange included the performing arts, popular media, academia, public diplomacy, science and technology, sports, tourism, and cultural exhibitions. The signing of the cultural agreement occurred against the backdrop of nuclear arms issues, much like the heated 1955 geneva talks 30 years earlier. The reality is that public diplomacy triumphs—admittedly less visible than the hard power negotiations surrounding nuclear proliferation, economic expansion, and military intervention—persisted between the United States and the Soviet Union both in 1955 and 1985. The reason was that both sides agreed that they were the most expedient route to convey a nation’s values to skeptical foreign publics.
u.s. PrePAres exhiBits for soviet AuDienCes finally, after a six-year break from official exhibition exchanges with the Soviet Union, the USIa, along with private-sector partners, began planning dozens of international exhibitions, from small panel shows in U.S. embassies to pavilions at world’s fairs. These included an american presence at Tsukuba, Japan,

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“Information USA: Linking People and Knowledge” opened on June 4, 1987, in Moscow. Top: Russians wait in line for the exhibit to open. Middle: Guide Kris Easter interacts with young Soviets. Bottom: Guide Melinda Goodrich discusses agriculture with exhibition visitors.

in 1985; vancouver, Canada, in 1986; and Brisbane, australia, in 1988. The agreement also encouraged numerous museum exchanges between, most notably, the metropolitan museum and the national gallery of art on the U.S. side and the State Hermitage and Pushkin museums on the Soviet side. The first fine art exhibition sent to the Soviet Union after the 1985 cultural agreement was a collection of Wyeth family paintings. a third type of show was the cultural exhibition created specifically for a Soviet audience. “Information USa: Linking People and Knowledge” opened on June 4, 1987, in moscow. The $14 million show focused on the developing information age of computers and mass communication. This exhibition went on to tour Kiev, rostov-on-don, Tbilisi, Tashkent, Irkutsk, magnitogorsk, Leningrad, and minsk, reaching all levels of the Soviet citizenry. averaging 200,000 visitors a day, it continued the trend of unique interactions between americans and russians in a setting filled with the materials that made up everyday life in the United States. Exhibit guide Joan agerholm discovered in her interactions with the average visitor, that the truth was an effective technique in these moments. our goal as guides was to initiate a dialogue with people, to honestly and sincerely get to know them better, a rare opportunity for us to interact with each other without our governments involved. Some had never had contact with any american before. The exhibition featured dozens of computers furnished by apple and IBm that were made available for visitor use. movie posters adorned the walls. Shopping carts filled with american processed foods, such as Jell-o, Tang, and Cool Whip, tantalized while a brand-new Plymouth voyager drew the audience’s enthusiasm. a taped recording of President reagan, broadcast to all visitors to the show, reminded all participants of the purpose of these types of person-to-person exchanges:

Summer 2011

from the very first exchange of exhibitions in 1959, this program has been one of the most successful in acquainting each of our peoples with life in the other’s country. . . . The exhibit which you are about to see is primarily concerned with the improvements in daily life brought about by the new technology. I hope that when you have seen the whole exhibit, you will have a much better idea of how this Information revolution has indeed transformed many areas of american life. . . . I hope that those who see this exhibit will take the time to talk to our american guides and specialists, and to share their understanding of the implications of information technology for our future well-being. agerholm remembers what impressed the russian people the most: The Betamax playing michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a big hit and the people were frustrated when it was turned off. . . . [as] a public relations tool, I think these shows were extremely effective. They did contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union. These russian people said things to us because they felt that this was their chance to say something openly. To them, this is what america was about, and they were shocked, for instance, that americans had no internal passports. one could argue that an unstated goal of these thematic exhibitions was to rub the Soviets’ noses in the fact that they still subsisted in a “sacrifice society” and to illustrate, once again, that life in the West was superior. However, the people-to-people contact in what Edward r. murrow, director of the USIa during the Kennedy administration, called the “last three feet” of public diplomacy clearly won out. as was demonstrated repeatedly at these special events from 1959 through 1991, americans and russians, as people, did indeed discover a mutual understanding. P

note on Sources
The reagan years bore witness to the waning years of successful efforts by the United States in using cultural exhibitions as instruments of foreign policy. The more time I spent exploring the rich strata of State department and U.S. presidential library archives, the more I became curious about what a number of scholars have identified as the beginning of the USIa’s decline—the 1980s. as the available archival evidence demonstrates, in addition to the one-on-one interviews with former State department cultural attachés, I make the argument that the United States, particularly under ronald reagan’s leadership, not only championed cultural diplomacy as a policy tool but also elevated its status to an honored position within the President’s cabinet. But this ascendancy, as history proves, would be brief. despite its evident success in reaching out to a Soviet public that was continually starved for contact with the West, the reagan era would mark the end of the heyday of these thematic exhibitions to the Soviet Union. Though there would be one more USIa exhibit (design USa) sent to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the exhibits branch of USIa programming would shut down completely. The reasons for this are complex and beyond the immediate scope of this article, but simplistically, with the demise of Soviet communism, the rationale for funding people-to-people exchanges followed a similar course. Today more and more archival evidence, in particular from the reagan Library’s archives, is opening up to scholarly interpretation. as this presidential library comes into its own with the steady increase of available documentation on the reagan presidency, there is a concurrent broadening of research on 1980s american presidential politics. This research, based also on USIa archives, is augmented by visits to national archives at College Park, maryland, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs in fayetteville, arkansas. Interview testimonies of individuals involved in the creation and execution of these exhibitions serve as additional and vital primary source material. archives that house reactions to the USIa exhibition programs by governments and individuals in the former USSr and Warsaw Pact countries are gradually opening to scholarly interpretation. In the end, studying exhibitions and the objects they contain, whether they are meant to tell some version of “america’s story to the world” or something different altogether, can be a fraught process. In the process of “reading” exhibitions in general, one may find that they flatly do not say what was intended by their curators and designers. or the intentions may be intellectually weak. and yet, the questions as to the why and how remain, which make them ever-deserving of more scholarly attention. nevertheless, from a scholarly standpoint, these exhibitions serve as complex cultural objects that enable the scholar new ways into cultural history. Useful scholarly texts that informed this article, and which give a reader a grounded understanding of the operations of american cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, include nicholas J. Cull’s The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and richard T. arndt’s The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Washington, d.C.: Potomac Books, 2006). Jack masey’s (with Conway Lloyd morgan) Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Baden, Switzerland: Lars müller, 2008), offers significant insights of how designers approached the development of some of these exhibitions. Walter Hixson’s Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961 (new York: St. martin’s Press, 1997), offers a fascinating and in-depth discussion of the United States’ early Cold War cultural approach toward the Soviet Union. a must-read for a better understanding of the cultural agreements that allowed for the proliferation of american exhibits in the Soviet Union is Yale richmond, U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchanges, 1958– 1986: Who Wins? (Boulder, Co and London: Westview Press, 1987). an interesting statement by Sergei Khrushchev on the Cold War in general can be found in Sergei Khrushchev, “ The Cold War Through the Looking glass,” American Heritage 50 (october 1999): 37. Quotes by Charles Wick and ronald reagan came from primary source materials in the reagan Library’s USIa files. reagan’s remarks at the 1980 Lincoln’s Birthday dinner were recorded by Lou Cannon in “reagan’s foreign Policy: Scrap ‘Weakness, Illusion,’ Stress military Strength,” Washington Post, february 16, 1980. Wick’s remark about the “predatory empire” appears in Irvin molotsky, “Wick Has met the Enemy,” New York Times, January 24, 1986. mark Smith’s quotation is recorded in an interview conducted by the author in may 2009. Joan agerholm’s quotation is recorded in an interview conducted in march 2011.

Author
Andrew Wulf is curator of the ronald reagan Presidential Library and museum and a doctoral candidate in museum studies at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. His dissertation studies the genesis of exhibition culture in american foreign policy. Before coming to the reagan Library, he was curator of exhibitions for the University of Southern California’s Special Collections. He received his master’s degree in art history and museum studies from USC in 2005.

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