Richard T. Arndt. The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. C.: Potomac Books, 2005. xxi + 602 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57488-587-3; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-59797-004-4.
Reviewed by Drew McKevitt (Department of History, Temple University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2008)
Cultural Diplomacy's True Believer
Richard T. Arndt's relationship with U.S. cultural diplomacy has spanned more than a half-century. He spent the years 1961-85 serving in an official capacity with the Department of State and the United States Information Agency (USIA). But his first experience came years before, in 1949, when he was part of the initial wave of Fulbrighters to benefit from a pioneering program in international cultural exchange. In 1985, he returned from whence he came--the academy--to contemplate his experiences and use them to educate others. This book is the culmination of those decades of observing, practicing, contemplating, and, above all, believing in the "art of cultural diplomacy" (p. 550).
At six hundred pages, The First Resort of Kings is really two interweaving books. The first is a synthetic history of the various institutional attempts at a public diplomacy (a term Arndt uses interchangeably with "cultural diplomacy") in the United States since World War I. The second might be called a memoir, except that Arndt writes about his personal experiences less than those of the many colleagues, friends, and acquaintances he made throughout his long career. The book begins the transition from history to memoir--a transition it never fully realizes--when Arndt made the jump from the academy to the foreign service in 1961.
The synthetic history recounts a story with which many historians of U.S. foreign relations will already be familiar. Arndt borrows liberally from works by Emily S. Rosenberg (Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945  and Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900-1930 ), Frank A. Ninkovich (The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938-1950 ), and others who have written about the public and private cultural diplomacy initiatives of the interwar and immediate postwar years. He discusses in sharp prose the tensions arising during WWI and after between "unidirectional informationists" interested in spreading "truth" about American values and the proponents of reciprocal educational and cultural exchanges to build bridges of international understanding (p. 53). From WWI until 1938, the U.S. government handled the task of information (e.g., George Creel's Committee on Public Information), while the culture-for-culture's-sake idea developed primarily in the world of private philanthropy. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, impressed with Pan-American commitments to cultural exchange at a 1936 Buenos Aires conference, established in 1938 the first State Department division dedicated to globalizing U.S. cultural exchange. Two heroes of Arndt's story--Sumner Welles and Archibald MacLeish--headed the division consecutively from its founding until the end of World War II. For Arndt, MacLeish defined the office's imperatives better than any of his successors: "In a divided world in which the real issue of division is the cultural issue, cultural relations are not irrelevancies. They are everything" (p. 61). In much of the narrative that follows the division's founding, informationists and uncultured bureaucrats continually defile the culturalist purity of the founders' vision.
The first postwar decade witnessed increased attention to the possibilities that public diplomacy presented in the emerging ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (abbreviated CU) struggled for an identity trapped between the informationists and the culturalists. Prominent politicians like Nelson Rockefeller sought to blur the lines between unidirectional information (i.e., propaganda) and open and honest cultural exchange. The creation of the USIA in 1953 aimed at correcting the balance, but the lines between the CU's and USIA's functions were never clearly articulated, generating decades of tensions between the two camps. Established by Dwight D. Eisenhower, "in a spirit of nationalist renewal, as a separate agency for nonmilitary psychological warfare," USIA effectively defeated the hopes of culturalists' intent on conducting a public diplomacy divorced from narrow geopolitical interests (p. 237). Arndt painstakingly details decades of bureaucratic and congressional debate over the ends and means of cultural diplomacy.
The grandest hero on Arndt's stage is Senator J. William Fulbright, progenitor of U.S. public diplomacy's most successful and sustainable program. Reflecting on his achievements at the end of his life, the enigmatic Arkansan intellectual recalled that he "just wanted to educate these goddam ignorant Americans!" (p. 178). By any measure the senator was successful: in its first dozen years the Fulbright Program could already count fifty thousand U.S. and foreign alumni, and it consumed half of CU's annual budget. Arndt sees the program as the one unequivocal triumph of U.S. public diplomacy in the postwar era, because it did what good public diplomacy should do: the U.S. government facilitated and stimulated exchanges and then it got out of the way. As a Fulbright student in France in 1949 and as a State Department officer after 1961 charged with chairing national Fulbright selection committees, Arndt's judgment comes from years of personal experience.
The book's most significant contribution to new understanding of public diplomacy is in its detailing of the daily lives and activities of cultural affairs officers (CAOs). As Arndt writes, "The life of a CAO is a well-kept American secret" (p. 301). Despite his professional training in French literature, Arndt spent time as a CAO in locations as diverse as Beirut, Sri Lanka, and Tehran. (Generally CAOs were not stationed where their experience applied, nor did they stay in any one location for more than a few years; the idea was to prevent the development of affinities that might cloud rational assessments of U.S. national interest.) He matches his personal recollections with published and unpublished memoirs of fellow CAOs, along with his memories of countless conversations over a lifetime. The result is a unique glance into public diplomacy at the "point of contact," where "talented" CAOs were always making remarkable connections with local populations but rarely received credit (p. 281). The enterprising researcher may be frustrated that often pages brimming with detail pass with few or no citations to sources--standard practice for a memoir, but insufficient for a scholarly work.
The exceptionally high quality of CAOs in the first two postwar decades made that period a "golden age" of public diplomacy, in Arndt's judgment (p. 311). He provides biographical sketches of "super-CAOs" from this period, intellectuals like the imperial historian Robin Winks and the political scientist Wayne Wilcox (p. 421). Arndt stresses that CU and USIA once valued placing uniquely talented intellectuals in the official service of cultural diplomacy. This pattern ended in 1974 with USIA's decision to hire only "generalists," whom Arndt sees as cultural "apparatchiks" sufficiently competent at touting the party line but intellectually undistinguished (p. 457). By phasing out the super-CAOs, USIA effectively bureaucratized cultural diplomacy. It eliminated the "one constant of U.S. cultural diplomacy: its occasional and repeated capacity to put marvelous people in the field and let them do amazing things" (p. 458). Arndt's disillusion with the end of the golden age is palpable throughout the book.
USIA's 1974 decision marked the beginning of a decades-long decline in attention to public diplomacy that would ultimately result in Congress' dissolution of the agency in 1999. In an act of misplaced idealism, the Jimmy Carter administration merged the functions of CU and USIA in 1978, granting the new union the title of International Communications Agency (a temporary name change--ICA too closely resembled CIA). The twenty-five-year struggle between the informationists in USIA and the culturalists in CU ended with USIA victory and the death knell for an independent cultural diplomacy. Arndt is skeptical of the "revolution" swept into government by Ronald Reagan's election, seeing instead a pack of ideologues intent on trimming any function of public diplomacy that did not meet their immediate and aggressively nationalistic ends. The narrative is increasingly thin after the mid-1980s, speeding through the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton years to the agency's termination.
The final chapter summarizes the lessons of public diplomacy's history for an era when the U.S. government has shunned it in favor of aggressive unilateralism. Three pages of neatly bulleted historical and contemporary political arguments encapsulate Arndt's claims throughout the dense text. Some of them are diplomatic axioms ("'reservoirs of good will' ... take decades to fill and minutes to empty but can be replenished"), while others tempt historians with new ways of conceptualizing the institutional history of public diplomacy ("Since cultural diplomacy, by definition, relates to idiosyncratic foreign cultures, the rigid field structure [of USIA] seriously impeded its work") (pp. 551, 552). Arndt's prescriptions include rebuilding the sort of CAO corps of talented intellectuals drawn from university life that dominated U.S. cultural diplomacy from WWII until the late 1960s.
The book's primary weakness through all the talk of culture is that it fails to interrogate how culture's meaning changed dramatically in the postwar era. Arndt writes at the outset that "thoughtful cultural diplomats" use the term in the "anthropological" sense to "denote the complex factors of the mind and values which define a country or group, especially those factors transmitted by the processes of intellect" (p. xviii). While anthropologists in the first postwar decades may have defined culture as such, most no longer view it as so deterministic. Even so, culture still unfortunately functions throughout the book not as culture-as-determinant but in the even older sense of culture-as-art; for Arndt's CAOs, culture was the realm of great white men who dedicated themselves to the "life of the mind." To be sure, the overseas libraries (which Arndt discusses in an illuminating half-chapter) and the touring art exhibits brought foreign societies closer to the United States, but often "low" culture, like television and Coca-Cola, had a greater impact, especially at the nonintellectual level.
Not to claim that the author should have added further weight to this six-hundred-page work, but he at least could have acknowledged that CAOs lived in one world of culture while much of the rest of the world (including the United States) lived in another. The sort of culture in which the CAOs were interested was the kind they learned in classrooms at Harvard and Yale in the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, Arndt's description of the CAO profession occasionally reads like nostalgia for Ivy League fraternity life, e.g., when he describes fresh faces in CU as "new boys" (p. 75). As part of a memoir, it is quaint; as a work of history, it smacks of elitism and paternalism. Some readers may cringe at statements like, "Even educated Americans have little understanding of the criteria and the values of intellect, of the life of the mind, of the community of scholars, of lives spent searching for new truth"; or "intellectual relations are best carried on by denizens of the world of intellect" (pp. 419, 520). He even disparages the Clinton administration's attempt to bring the U.S. cultural diversity to cultural diplomacy by hiring women and minorities, "which created a stress on appearance over excellence" (p. 539). The occasional impression in this otherwise highly informative text is that culture should remain the privileged domain of the cultured.
Arndt's writing style, while lively enough to hold the reader's attention through many pages, is frequently peppered with metaphors that obfuscate more than they clarify. Also, readers interested in the intricacies of institutional public diplomacy, especially since the 1960s, might wish for more extensive footnoting. These minor issues and his haphazard use of the word "culture" aside, Arndt's book reveals much to historians of U.S. foreign relations about the intricate details of Washington debates over the means and ends of cultural diplomacy, as well as how State Department and USIA officials carried out those cultural policies on the ground in the postwar era.
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Drew McKevitt. Review of Arndt, Richard T., The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century.
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