My father’s Foreign Service agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), was established by President Eisenhower in the 1953 to spread the gospel of American democracy. The Voice of America, established during WWII, became one of USIA’s mouthpieces.
Dad’s first assignment (1955) was Press Attaché at the American Embassy in Caracas, where he garnered an active US presence in the Venezuelan newspapers and television programming with pro-American articles and programs. He made many good friends among the local press and radio people in producing the television program he’d created for USIA, Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro, Venezuela Looks to the Future. The Embassy lending-library opened the door to free access to American books. The bi-national Centro Cultural had a rich schedule of cultural programming including performances and talks by American cultural icons: Nat King Cole, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana; Aaron Copeland; Louis Armstrong; Woody Herman.
In 1958, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. Dad got a kick out of watching Lennie work his renowned charm at a press conference, with Dad doing the interpreting. The headlines in the local newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.”
Some of the material in USIA’s programming was specifically developed for international audiences by entities such as the Voice of America, established in 1942 “to broadcast accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience”.
Our families back in the States couldn’t view these materials due to a Cold War-era prohibition on disseminating government information produced for foreign audiences inside the United States. Within the US, it was propaganda; outside, it was information.
It was only in 2013 that President Obama signed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act repeal of such prohibition into law. When the repeal took effect, Americans could access radio and TV programs designed for non-U.S. audiences, such as those produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. They all work under the oversight of the US Agency for Global Media, USIA’s current incarnation. It’s mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Sounds like Dad’s whole career.
Americans can now see the remarkable work that their tax dollars produce. A new bookend to my father’s career is the Voice of America’s new Venezuelan-focused news program. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty won an 2019 Edward R. Murrow award for its work, including reporting on the Armenian revolution; the remains of Stalin’s Gulag; and, Uzbekistan’s forbidden art. Murrow was appointed USIA Director by President Kennedy.
Perhaps it is now a uniquely appropriate time to seek out news that represents “America, not any single segment of American society, …. and … a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” That’s from the Voice of America’s mission statement. And, if that’s propaganda, I’ll take it.