57. Address by the Director of the United States Information Agency (Reinhardt)1
Today’s commencement is a celebration of what you have achieved and the possibilities of your future in America and in the world. I am not flattering you when I say that this day at Knoxville College represents the best of what our country means to me and to many others.
What our view is of ourselves as Americans and the meaning of America to the world is what I should like to address today. I will do so in Socratic fashion, through questions. I have three:
—What does America mean to itself and to the world?
—Why is the world mindful of us?
—And, finally, how do we best communicate what we know of ourselves and our hopes for the world?
To the first question—what does America mean to itself and to the world?[Page 150]
At its best—at its very heart—America is an idea, or a collection of ideas. You may at times have heard the criticism that our reverence of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is metaphysically centered on the documents themselves. That is, I suggest, a misreading of history and fact.
It is the idea and the ideals of America that command our loyalties and infuse our image of ourselves and our practices. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the amply recorded history of our early days attest to the fact that what had been brought to this continent was not a new idea of representative government. The concept of self-government had deep roots in much of Europe, and Britain was the mother of parliaments.
What was new and central was the proclamation of the American Constitution, not on behalf of a divinity or a divinely appointed king but rather, and for the first time, in the name of “We, the People.” It is in these words that the American concept found its uniqueness. It is these words that are at the core of an American vision. It is from these words that flow our legal, social, and political principles and practices. It is from these words that we derive our extraordinary cultural vitality, the lifting force of our ideas, the progressive yeast of our society.
I would impose on you in an important way should I suggest that we have never violated our idea of ourselves. We can point to fixed times and fixed circumstances in our history when we faltered. In our most recent past, there was Watergate and there was Vietnam.
But none of these aberrations, I assert, could finally stand up to the force of “We, the People.” That force could be warped temporarily; it would not, in the longer run, yield.
We have, in fact, brought ourselves through these aberrations to today. We are able again to state that the American historical experience remains relevant to our lives. Once again we can attest to the validity of our view that man is individual, clothed in dignity and at the very center of the purposes of government. And once again, our institutions were tested and have proved to be resilient and responsive. We are, many of us, dreaming again.
I have commented briefly on the times we have faltered. But I should like to comment, again briefly, on what I regard as an extraordinarily revealing phenomenon. Perhaps you have noted it: However shrill the world’s accusations against us, however anguished the foreign note-taking of our failings, the standards used by others—in other lands—to judge us are our own. I know of no other country of which this is true. That fact, I suggest, affirms the power of our view of man.[Page 151]
Opportunities of Communications Technology
To my second question then—why is the world mindful of us?
Our ties to the world are unique. We are not, in the traditional sense, one people; we are many. We are not one culture; we are several. The mystique of the melting pot does not define the American experience.
Perhaps you recall what President Carter said at Notre Dame on May 22:
This, it seems to me, explains—at least in part—why what we have tried to do at home has had such profound meaning for so many other nations and people—people to whom our common past continues to bind us—in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America.
We are they. Many of them would be us. More of them would hope to hear the reverberations of our view of man in their societies. But something more must be said.
We cannot escape the fact that our great vitality—political and economic, cultural and military, intellectual and attitudinal—in and of itself commands international attention. Whether we will it or not, it is as much a fact as the attraction of the American ideal.
We cannot act without being seen; we cannot speak without being heard. We are seen; we are heard. Certainly the palpable international response to our view of human dignity—of human rights—is evidence of both the power and attraction of our aspirations.
In all of this, I suggest, one discerns the trails which have led us all to this moment, a special condition in the world which gives rise to a unique, perhaps historic, opportunity.
It is in part the fact that we have come through that recent domestic testing intact, even revitalized. It is in part the fact that the world is a quieter place these days. The decibel count is down. Stridency has subsided. The general climate—marred, it is true, by local thunderstorms—has undergone a subtle change.[Page 152]
There is a disposition to listen—an expectancy, a hope for rational discourse, a recognition of the international character of many of our problems.
There is an acknowledgment of the need for dialogue. There is hope in the fact that the United States is once again ready to join in efforts, as President Carter said last week, “to inspire, to persuade, and to lead.”
There is, in short, a new opportunity at home and abroad. If we harness to that opportunity the wisest use of what is a communications revolution, then more of the promise can be fulfilled. That revolution in communications technology has, as never before in history, tied the world together. We interrelate more rapidly, more comprehensively, than ever before. And none of us will escape the consequences of that revolution.
You, for example, will know of events that affect your lives and your security almost instantaneously. You will have access to knowledge and background to enable you to understand and interpret those events. Each one of you will be increasingly a citizen of the world called upon to speak and act just as, in your role as citizen of community or State, you must speak and act or there can be no such thing as democracy, no such heroic figure as a free man.
There is a requirement to communicate, one which engages me professionally just as it engages you personally.
But the technology of communications carries with it a danger and a problem. The danger is that like all technologies, it is neutral—awaiting its utilization for better or worse. The problem, it seems to me, is inherent in the extraordinary volume and speed of communications which can now be generated.
In a very real sense, we live in a world of instant images. We are flooded by them. We see, but too often what we see is out of context. We read about or instantaneously view events, but they are often without perspective. They are instead the “happenings,” not what preceded them nor what is likely to follow.
In Knoxville, I would assume, you are accustomed to seeing Belgians and Japanese and Nigerians. There will be an occasional foreign movie; a newspaper headline about the Middle East; the story on the evening news about Brazil. There may be a Kabuki play from Japan; there is certainly access in your libraries to every foreign culture.
And yet how much time, how much thought can we give to any single event; how much can we immerse ourselves individually in any given international issue? Our schools, our families, our daily commitments and responsibilities, our jobs, our own personal enthusiasms all have claim to the larger part of our day and the larger part of our lives. [Page 153] We cannot pretend that most of the images from around the world are more than images of the moment, no matter how they may come together over longer periods of time.
We are not alone. We share this overload of “instant image” with the entire world. If we are baffled by what we see or unclear about the meaning of what we see or simply staggered by the quantity of what we see, we are not alone.
You see the paradox. There is this moment when the world more than ever seeks dialogue. There is a technology which permits it on a scale as vast as the technology is dramatic. And yet we are, for the most part, drowning in the bits and pieces that are the instant images.
America’s Public Diplomacy
To recall my third question—how then do we best communicate what we know of ourselves and our hopes for the world? What can your society do to organize on your behalf a rational process of international communications?
There is a basis in our history and institutions for a process of international communications. The libertarian theory of the press, for example, was written into the Bill of Rights to guarantee a free marketplace of ideas and information. We have spoken since 1776 of “facts to a candid world” and of “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.” Clearly, our society today must be in the international marketplace with the same vigor and candor and a decent respect.
Since I turn now to how our society can organize this effort, I shall speak again of “public diplomacy,” meaning those efforts through which your government enters the international market of ideas. I should like to put before you a series of principles and purposes which I think should govern such efforts.
First, we must undertake these efforts in a manner consistent with the ethics, ideals, and principles to which we ourselves aspire. We cannot be—we must not be—manipulative. To be so would, as it sometimes has in our past, prove corrosive of ourselves.
Second, in all that we project to the world we must reflect the fact that our words and actions are shaped by our view of ourselves—that is to say, shaped by the American ideal. It is the best way to bring clarity and coherence to the many and bewildering images others have of us. The American ideal forms a recognizable basis for the context of our actions.
Third, a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, today as in 1776, requires that we present our views and policies and aspirations forthrightly to the world. Not combatively, but forthrightly. Our interests require that others know where we stand. And our great presence [Page 154] in the world leads others, quite spontaneously and in their own interests, to want to know.
Fourth, we should do what we can to encourage those individuals and institutions, those coalitions and “networks”—here and abroad—which are also engaged in the free flow and exchange of ideas and experiences. It is not the function of public diplomacy to compete; rather, to enhance and supplement existing efforts. They should be allowed the dignity of independence. But we can clearly help forge the institutional links—and the exchanges between them—that will contribute not only to the civility and the breadth of our mutual perceptions but to the common solutions of common problems.
Fifth, we must reach beyond ruling elites and seek out those who are the future contributors to thought and culture and leadership in their countries. Power is always transitory; sometimes it is oppressive. In any event, inherent in the nature of the communications process I am describing is the future as well as the present.
Finally, we must insist upon, we must insure, a dialogue. In so doing we strike a balance between our own most fundamental beliefs and needs and recognition of the needs, perceptions, and circumstances of others. We have been so greatly enriched by the gathering in of others—of European and Asian, African and Hispanic, Einstein and Dorati, apprentice and artist—that we are in fact ourselves a dialogue. We know it works. We know the power of listening. We should extend its realm.
From all of this, it should be eminently clear that propaganda has no place in our scheme of things, that there is nothing within us that enables us to be propagandists.
There is nothing in our history, nothing in our view of ourselves, no tradition, no value system that will permit it. To be propagandists, we would necessarily violate that which we most believe about ourselves.
If, instead, all our efforts are permeated by absolute fidelity to the American idea, then we will have joined the power of communication with the historic possibilities of the world as it is. We will have undertaken as well as we can, what must be done—to enter the open marketplace of ideas with the truth as best we can perceive it.
As Milton wrote in the Areopagitica: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter.”
Your experiences here, which culminate in this moment of commencing, will have touched you with the power of ideas and reconfirmed the value of truth. I hope you share with me an attachment to the idea of America, a commitment to Libertarian principles, an affection for our cultural vitality. I hope some of you will join in the noble [Page 155] effort to communicate to others, at home and abroad, a sense of what could be, if enough care to make it so.
- Source: Department of State Bulletin, July 4, 1977, pp. 5–8. Reinhardt delivered the commencement address at Knoxville College. His address is entitled “A Guiding Philosophy for American Informational and Cultural Programs Abroad.” A copy of Reinhardt’s speech is in the National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Office of the Director, Biographic Files Relating to USIA Directors and Other Senior Officials, 1953–2000, Entry A–1 1069, Box 24, John E. Reinhardt, Speeches, 1977.↩
- For the full text, see BULLETIN of June 13, 1977, p. 621. [Footnote is in the original. Carter’s speech is also printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 40.]↩