15. Memorandum From the Deputy Director for Policy and Plans, United States Information Agency (Sorensen) to the Director (Murrow)1


  • History of USIA Efforts to Employ ‘Themes’

In the various U.S. government information operations since the end of World War II, numerous efforts have been made to focus media output on priority themes.

The most ambitious effort was begun in 1954. Its purpose was to establish a number of “Global Themes” which presumably would dominate output both in Washington and the field. Over a two-year period the following were established as Global Themes:

1. Unite the Free World in order to reduce the Communist threat without war.

2. Expose the Communist Party or movement as a foreign force directed from Moscow or Peiping for expansionist purposes—Red colonialism.

3. The United States champions peace and progress through peaceful change.

4. The United States seeks with other nations and peoples to speed development and use of the Atom for Peace—as a promise of better life and a powerful force for world peace.

In December 1955 the terminology was changed to “Global Objectives.” This was tacit recognition of the lack of clarity in their formulation and their relative uselessness as guides to output. They remained on the books until July 1959 when they were officially cancelled but they had been virtually forgotten by that date.

The present consensus in the Agency is that they largely failed of their purpose for these reasons:

The first three themes were too general and platitudinous to be of much use. Theme No. 2 was merely an awkward restatement of one of the Agency’s primary missions. Numbers 1, 3 and 4 were heavily dependent on Government actions and statements for real effectiveness. The Atoms for Peace theme, which was specific, is cited by some [Page 52] as the only effective theme because there were specific, easily-related deeds to match the words. Here too, however, when the action program petered out, so did the Agency theme, but only after a brief period during which the words ran so far ahead of the deeds as to raise unrealizable expectations. Finally, there was no follow-up or enforcement in the media to see that the themes were being used. (IOP had no power of enforcement.)

In 1956 and 1957, one theme was introduced which did have impact on the media and the field. The “Peoples’ Capitalism” campaign, although not officially promulgated as a theme and despite the widespread objection in many posts to the title, did achieve coordinated output by all the media on the nature of the American economy.

In 1959, two relatively modest efforts were initiated. With the advice of the Areas and the Media, IOP worked out two comprehensive lists of themes to be stressed in Washington media output, one for the general field of American life and culture, and the other for the material issued by the Agency on Communism. Both these lists are still technically in effect but evidence of their use by the media is spotty. There is no central evaluation of media output and neither IOP nor anyone else has enforcement authority for such guidances.

Two years ago, in the absence of any centrally established themes, VOA began to issue a series of quarterly themes to guide their language services and the writers of centrally produced scripts. More recently, IOP, in an effort to ensure a degree of homogeneity in the political content of Agency programs, began to specify sets of themes on a periodic basis. One of the purposes of such lists is to have media staffs relate upcoming developments in the foreign policy field to a set of priority concepts which the Government and the Agency wish to stress.

The Agency’s experience thus far with the central selection of themes would suggest the following conclusions:

(1) A distinction needs to be made between two types of themes: (a) those major themes which the Agency would like to see the Government project (or which the Government has already decided to project) around the world through a program of action and high-level statements over a period of time and which the Agency would help publicize alongside the commercial media which must do the bulk of the job; and (b) those themes which the Agency can usefully choose to emphasize in its own output with less regard to what the rest of the Government may or may not be doing at the moment.

(2) In this connection, distinctions have to be made among the three broad fields of subject matter with which our media generally deal: the field of current U.S. foreign policy and U.S. governmental action which has major impact abroad; the related field of communism and Sino-Soviet Bloc affairs, and the field of American life and culture.

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(3) Generally speaking, in the field of current U.S. foreign policy themes can be effective for the Agency only if they have been adopted as themes for the Government as a whole. On such subjects as military strength, disarmament, negotiations with the USSR, foreign economic assistance, aid to education abroad, international cooperation in science, cultural interchange, support for the UN and rule of law, our attitude to free world alliances and our attitude toward national independence, a decision by the USIA to concentrate output on this or that related theme would be just as ineffective today as it was in 1954 unless it is accompanied by a sustained program of national action and of repeated top-level articulation of the relevant purposes and achievements. USIA can have an important role to play in suggesting such themes and, if they are adopted, advising on the most effective manner and timing of actions and statements useful in projecting the themes. (See Sprague Committee paper2 on Themes.) Selection by USIA of themes which it knows will be supported by Government actions and statements, and on which it wants its own media to place special emphasis, would then have real meaning and effect.

(4) On the other hand, in the other two major spheres with which USIA output deals, the general projection of American life and culture and various aspects of Communism, the Agency has much to gain by independently selecting the priority themes on which its media should concentrate. Hopefully an increasing percentage of our material on American life will report and reflect Government and private action to improve the quality of our society but much of our output will still be concerned with the existing reality of the American scene in which Government action is not necessarily the dominant factor. In the field of Communism, our material is naturally affected by events in the Sino-Soviet Bloc and the Communist movement, but considerable output can still be devoted to fairly permanent characteristics of Communist philosophy and behavior. In both these fields our present output is inclined to wander almost aimlessly over an infinite spectrum of subject matter, sometimes without any clear purpose. Periodic establishment of Agency priority themes in these two fields would result in greater impact abroad. (See Agency Guidances No. 9, June 3, 1959, and No. 10, July 14, 1959.)

(5) There are a number of central concepts which comprise the basic principles, or at least ideals, of American life and which may also be exemplified in our international behavior. These include such concepts as freedom, openness, progress and change, pluralism, service to humanity, respect for intellectual achievement, and respect for indi[Page 54]vidual dignity. In regard to such concepts, there is a choice to be made. USIA can select some of these concepts as themes for the projection of American life by the media regardless of any action we might take in the international sphere. Or the Agency could hold off selecting them as themes until there was a good prospect of Government action to project those themes on a world scale.

(6) Selection of themes for emphasis by the Agency should not imply that all other Agency output would be suspended. Providing the posts abroad with material to meet special country and area objectives should not be affected. Nor should all other output be exclusively concentrated on the chosen themes. The value of selecting themes lies in the establishment of priorities for the ideas on which the media can concentrate and coordinate their world-wide output and which they can treat in depth.

Thomas C. Sorensen 3
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Office of Plans, General Subject Files, 1949–1970, Acc. # 67A222, Entry UD WW 379, Themes—General 1963 & Prior. No classification marking. Drafted by Sirkin. A notation in an unknown hand indicates that a copy was sent to Wilson.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 3.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.