11. News Release Prepared in the Office of Public Information, United States Information Agency1
Remarks by Carl T. Rowan, Director, U.S. Information Agency at the International Radio and Television Society
Mr. Chairman, I love introductions—of me—but unfortunately they all remind me of the time that Orson Welles2 spoke before a disappointingly small audience. In characteristic modesty, he began by detailing his qualifications as orator and bearer of wisdom.
“I am a playwright as well as a producer of plays,” he said, “and Broadway has thrilled to my acting. I am a screen star and a noted producer of movies. I am an author, a painter, and a renowned magician. I am a virtuoso of the violin and a wizard of the piano. . .”
At this point Welles paused, took another look at his audience, and exclaimed: “Isn’t it a shame that there are so many of me and so few of you.”
Mr. Chairman, your introduction made it sound as though there are several of me here today, but fortunately the audience is such that I remain considerably outnumbered.
And happily, I note that my audience is composed of international broadcasters. This is my first full-fledged speech as Director of the United States Information Agency, and it is fitting that it should be before men and women whose major focus is on the outside world. Our objectives may not be synonymous, but our areas of mutual interest are many—not the least being our desire to learn better ways to transport our messages to distant peoples and places.
Perhaps there is irony in the fact that I, the smudge of inked newsprint barely off my hands, should suddenly be in the broadcasting business. But in it I am, and in a big way. USIA’s Voice of America is broadcasting 112 hours daily in 36 languages—or almost 800 hours a week to almost every point on the globe. In addition, each week some 14,000 hours of our taped radio programs are broadcasted on other stations of the world.[Page 26]
And in the fast growing field of television, we are producing 200 hours of programming annually for telecasting on stations in 80 countries.
In true Orson Wellesian style, I could go on to tell you how, with movies in 52 languages, we reach some 750 million people a year. Or how we influence vast millions through our 85 magazines, 20 newspapers and the 10,000 words that go out daily on our wireless file to 111 posts abroad.
Or, for those of you who believe that a picture is worth 1,000 words, I could mention the 735,000 prints and 220,000 copy negatives that we sent out last year.
But I know, and I am sure you know, that it means little to say that USIA distributes 20 million pamphlets or 10 million books a year, or that it has a comic strip that is the most widely read feature in the world. Each of us knows that none of these statistics means anything until we know also what it is that USIA is saying through these media.
That is what I want to talk about today. I have received many letters of sympathy from people who think that I have moved into an especially difficult job. It is a challenging job, but it is far from impossible; indeed it is difficult only to the extent that we Americans are unsure of what we wish to say to the world. My conversations with my colleagues, with members of the press and of the Congress, with friends from many fields, indicate that there is a glaring lack of consensus as to what USIA is to do—and how.
Part of the confusion arises from the fact that our own society is complex. This great diversity of viewpoint that we not only tolerate but encourage is strongly reflected when someone mentions our informational program. No small number of people have said to me recently that we can win the world quickly if only we expose it to their ideas.
On the other hand, we find that we lack consensus also because of the complex nature of this world to which we speak. We find ourselves attempting to convince, to win the support of, not just young nations inhabited by peoples of different racial or historical background, not just our adversaries whose differences of political outlook pose a threat to our security, but also those long-time friends whose history and culture are part of our very being.
Perhaps it is only natural that where complexity is piled on complexity, men become impatient to simplify everything. So it is that we find so many Americans today who seek to reduce every conflict to the simple cops-and-robbers theme of every week’s television drama.
Whether the scenario be Cambodia, or Cyprus, Zanzibar3 or Brazil, this simplified theory of foreign policy is that there is always an easily [Page 27] distinguishable good guy and an equally obvious villain, each of whom is to be respectively embraced or disowned by all but the obviously disloyal. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—our world is not as simple as that. We in USIA see day after day that ours is a world of subtle and tricky nuances. And I fear that our Number One problem may not be that we face adversaries skilled in their trade and unscrupulous in their tactics, but rather the fact that so many of our countrymen, following the “simplified approach to foreign policy,” prefer to ignore the subtleties and the delicate shadings that are a part of this business of winning friends and influencing people. They would urge upon us a conglomeration of “hard sell” nostrums that have little real relationship to the problems we face.
This burden is exemplified in its most exasperating form in the comments of those who think that USIA has the sole and simple mission of saying to the world again and again what is good and right and great about this country.
There are people who believe, rightly, that USIA should not dwell solely on our unemployment problems, or instances of corruption or incidents of racial conflict, or the carryings-on of our gangster element. They know, as do you and I, that it is so obvious as to preclude discussion that USIA’s function is to give foreigners a closer understanding and a greater appreciation of these United States. This means that USIA is obligated to emphasize some of the positive things that rarely make the commercial media that operate on the old journalistic credo that “good news is no news.”
The trouble is that, cloaked in this basic and honorable purpose, USIA quickly falls victim to the simplifiers who think USIA should go all the way and force the world to look at America through rose-colored glasses.
In recent days I have been badgered by people who ask why our libraries abroad contain magazines like Time, Newsweek, the Saturday Evening Post. One particularly vocal critic pointed out that almost every issue of these magazines contains one or more articles that are critical of the U.S. Government, or are full of information about this country “that can’t do us any good abroad.”
“Our enemies are saying enough critical things about us,” said one individual. “Why does USIA have to say anything about our faults?”
I have pressed hard to explain that the easiest way to destroy USIA, to render it totally ineffective, would be to have it feed the world nothing but superlatives about America and the American way of life. And I have been hard pressed to make the “simplifiers” understand that USIA can and has worked some minor miracles in the propaganda field, but it can never do the undoable or hide the unhideable.[Page 28]
What the advocates of the rose-colored-glasses approach seem not to understand is the fact that while USIA has a Voice of America, it is only a part, indeed a small part, of the real “voice of America.” In our era of miraculously rapid communications, the words of a Congressman engaged in bitter floor debate, a speech by an official of the Chamber of Commerce4 in Chicago, or the public speech of one of our military leaders moves to the farthest corners of the globe as quickly as do the best-planned words of any Voice of America announcer.
The million GI’s and dependents who are overseas, the 30,000 American missionaries abroad, the four million American tourists who scatter about the globe each year, the half million Americans who go abroad for business reasons, or to represent foundations and participate in educational and cultural exchanges, all are our “voices of America.” And not to be ignored are the 50,000 foreign students who come to this country each year to study, and the thousands of foreign tourists and the scores of foreign journalists who develop their own version of the image of America. They, too, speak to that outside world, and generally with the natural credibility for which our official organs can only strive. So you see that in this context, USIA becomes but a small part of the cacophony that is the real voice of America abroad.
But it is for just this reason that USIA’s role is vital. We cannot afford to have the voices of freedom add up to a babble of confusion for foreigners. It is USIA’s role, then, to ensure that out of this dialogue of freedom is extracted a message that is intelligible and credible.
For as long as I can foresee, our country will be involved in an all-out ideological struggle. In this contest of impressions and mis-impressions, of distortions both deliberate and accidental, USIA must be the restorer of focus, the provider of the perspective without which our policies and our purpose can never be understood.
You international broadcasters constitute an invaluable ally to the extent that you help to maintain the perspective, to keep the dialogue of freedom restrained to a point where it does not mislead a suspicious, often ill-informed world.
Yesterday I took a close look at one day’s output of the New China News Agency,5 the propaganda voice of the Chinese Communists. It was a constant harangue about alleged United States colonialism in Panama; about so-called confusion in Washington as our “politicians both in and out of power are bickering” about the situation in South [Page 29] Viet-Nam; about poverty in the United States being so horrible that “President Johnson had to declare official war on it”; about rampant “racial injustice” in America, and on and on.
The significant thing was that almost every item carried by the New China News Agency was based on a statement by some American official or an editorial in some American newspaper. In other words, the merchants of tyranny are trying to turn our freedom of expression into a mighty weapon against us. Their obvious goal is to hang us with our own words.
We cannot silence American politicians or the American press, nor have we any desire to do so. But it must be obvious that USIA cannot fulfill its mission unless it talks about the things that free Americans and the free American press are discussing. We know that our adversaries are talking about these things, and one of our most urgent tasks is to ensure that their distortions are not accepted because we are in timid default.
We must and we shall pursue our mission with vigor. Perhaps we shall make mistakes, but I want all my colleagues to know that if we err, let it be on the side of boldness. Let it be because we are moving with confidence to tell the world what our country is and what it strives to be.
Yes, you too are asking what, in my view, this country is and what it strives to be. I gave my view recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I dare to repeat it today.6
I often find myself apologizing for using material from one of my books, even though I know from the royalty reports that I am not repeating anything that anybody has read. I am equally sure that few, if any, of you here will have read fully my remarks to the Senate Committee, so I repeat:
“America is capitalism with a conscience—a country in which laborers own homes, automobiles, new refrigerators, but, more important, where ordinary men have an extraordinary voice in the affairs of their government.
“America is a rocket pin-pointed on the moon and Polaris submarines cruising as sentinels of the deep—military might never surpassed in history, but might harnessed by a sense of responsibility for man’s destiny and by a national desire for peace within freedom.[Page 30]
“And this nation is social ferment—a society caught up in concern for its aged and its ill, full of compassion for its improverished. . . a people struggling as no society ever struggled to achieve a unity that transcends the incidental boundaries of religion, race, national origin.
“America is leadership—a nation whose destiny it has become to man the far-flung ramparts of freedom, marching with the fearful and the weak, the hungry and the harassed, toward the goal of a peaceful world community of free and independent states.”
Ladies and gentlemen, brevity forbids my saying all that this nation is. But I think that I have said enough to justify my fundamental belief that all we need wish the world to know about us is the truth. Through face-to-face contacts, through television, films and radio, and through the printed word, we shall spread the truth, and I am confident that the truth will keep us free.
As though it were necessary, I call your attention to the fact that this is an election year—meaning that the danger is all the greater that our dialogue of free speech will appear to strangers to be a babble of confusion and conflict. We are going to do our best to keep the record straight, to keep the world remembering that this periodic political ritual, while vastly important to us, generates a lot of heat and a lot of oratory that have nothing to do with the fundamental strength, unity and commitment of this nation.
Indeed, one of the things I should like most to have the world understand is that it is out of the free airing of complaints, the free expression of conflicting viewpoints that a free society makes progress, or goes about erasing social ills.
We shall try to get this message across, even as we flinch from time to time at the evidence that no people ever indulged more in self-criticism than do we Americans.
I am not so sure that USIA can convince the world that we are a lot better than we Americans tell each other we are—although that surely is the truth. This may be a forlorn hope, but I can hope that Americans might remember that there is a world of difference between the constructive self-criticism that produces progress and the irresponsible self-flagellation that confuses others as to both our intentions and our ability to see them through. I solicit your help in helping Americans to remember this distinction.
In any event, ladies and gentlemen, it is going to be an interesting and a trying year for “us broadcasters.” May we be lucky enough always to know the truth and wise enough to deliver it where it most needs to be heard.
- Source: National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Agency History Program, Subject Files, 1926–1975, Entry A1–1072, Box 13, Speeches, Carl T. Rowan, 1964. No classification marking. Rowan delivered these remarks at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on March 11.↩
- Famous American stage, radio, and film director and actor.↩
- The semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa.↩
- Reference is to the local and national networks of businesses in the United States that have the chief goal of promoting American business both domestically and internationally.↩
- Reference is to the Government of People’s Republic of China state-controlled news agency.↩
- Rowan gave this testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 25. A copy of the transcript is in the National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Agency History Program Subject Files, 1926–1975, Entry A1–1072, Box 13, Speeches, Carl T. Rowan, 1964.↩