Public Diplomacy and Psychological Operations (Cold War) — Carnes Lord, Naval War College

PsyOps and Public Diplomacy

Strategic integration of American psychological-political activities during the Cold War—including public diplomacy—fluctuated markedly. The U.S. government’s ad hoc public diplomacy initiatives were too often pursued in isolation from larger national security strategy and poorly coordinated with other agencies. Yet, in the early 1950s and 1980s, presidential initiative sustained a largely effective White House-centered interagency effort; in particular, American psychological-political programs were critical to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, persisting weaknesses in the U.S. approach resulted in missed opportunities and sub-optimal exploitation of this tool

In light of recent events, which highlight the importance of information activities in support of a “long war,” it is important to revisit the historical lessons of American public diplomacy and related activities during the Cold War. Since no single organization can have a bureaucratic monopoly in this area, moreover, establishing a unified public diplomacy message requires interagency collaboration. The U.S. Government struggled with this challenge throughout the Cold War, making this case an excellent issue for analysis by the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR).

The Truman and Eisenhower administrations pursued an aggressive psychological-political strategy against the Soviet bloc. Authoritative documents such as NSC-68 identified ideological struggle with the Soviets as a vital arena in the emerging competition. With a few exceptions, however, future administrations allocated public diplomacy only a small a role in strategy formation. The Reagan administration revived the prominence accorded to public diplomacy during the high Cold War. The strategic framework of the Reagan administration’s public diplomacy effort featured, among other things, direct engagement with Soviet propaganda and disinformation, democracy promotion, and revitalization of U.S. international broadcasting.

With some adjustments, the information organizations established under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—especially Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the United States Information Agency (USIA)—would remain through the end of the Cold War. Yet, Cold War-era public diplomacy coordination bodies were for the most part transient and largely ineffective The disconnect between public diplomacy and broader U.S. Cold War strategy became apparent in 1956, when the RFE’s Hungarian-language broadcasts arguably encouraged violent resistance against the Soviet occupying forces, despite U.S. policy against directly supporting the uprising. In spite of a brief renaissance during the Kennedy administration, public diplomacy thereafter drifted increasingly to the margins of government policy. This trend was reversed under President Reagan, for whom public diplomacy was an integral and valuable tool of national strategy. National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 77 created a new interagency framework for coordinating and managing national security-related information.

The State Department could have facilitated integration of policy and public diplomacy, as the Department exercised de jure authority over USIA for much of the Cold War. However, department officials typically resisted public diplomacy initiatives because they were viewed as complicating rather than complementing diplomacy.

If psychological-political activities are treated as a functionally distinct area of staff or interagency work, they risk becoming increasingly isolated from mainstream national security policymaking. This occurred to some extent even under the Reagan NSDD 77 interagency apparatus. However, the inclusion of an excessive number of actors and organizations in the psychological dimension of national security often results in a diffusion of responsibility and authority, which likewise leads to marginalization of public diplomacy. This seems to have been the case after the mid-1950s

It has long been a contentious issue for public diplomacy practitioners whether U.S. government broadcasting should aim simply to provide objective information, or instead seek to project American influence by proactively shaping information for particular foreign audiences . Due to this fundamental lack of clarity over the public diplomacy mission, U.S. information agencies have never been able to develop a single agreed vision, sense of purpose, body of principles, or set of doctrines. U.S. public diplomacy efforts throughout the Cold War were also consistently hampered by the poor state of education and training in the field.

Public diplomacy did contribute to some historical successes, notably in the role it played in the final collapse of the Soviet system, but the shortcomings of American public diplomacy almost certainly resulted in wasted opportunities to achieve national objectives. Except for two brief periods, public diplomacy has been regarded by policymakers as a marginal component of national security policy and accordingly as a relatively low priority in terms of staffing and funding. Congress has generally evinced a low level of understanding and support of the public diplomacy function.

On the basis of this study, one must conclude that public diplomacy activities were often ad hoc, detached from larger U.S. national security strategies, and ill-coordinated with other agencies. These characterizations can be attributed to several factors including: lack of bureaucratic weight of the dedicated public diplomacy agencies; little understanding of (and not infrequently, disdain for) the public diplomacy function throughout the national security bureaucracy and in the Congress, especially at senior leadership levels; unresolved tension regarding mission objectives; and cultural resistance both within and outside government to a strategic or proactive approach to official communication efforts. At other times, briefly in the early 1950s and again in the early 1980s, strong presidential interest in public diplomacy and related capabilities sustained an impressive, if not wholly effective, White House-centered effort.