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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

May 2011

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Public Diplomacy existed long before the common use of the term and a case can be made that the modern form of Public Diplomacy was “perfected” in post-war Germany.–Ed.


Public Diplomacy Began in Germany
OMGUS newspaper
President Harry S Truman, U. S. High Commissioner in Germany John McCloy and Secretary of State Dean Acheson at the White House, 1950

The United States is currently debating whether Public Diplomacy – talking directly to the people of another country – should be conducted by the State Department, with its more qualified personnel, or by the Department of Defense, with its much greater financial resources.

However, it is not well known that Public Diplomacy began in the late 1940s in occupied Germany under the Office of Military Government, US (OMGUS), and long before the term Public Diplomacy was coined.

The “Reorientation Program,” as it was called, was the first Public Diplomacy effort of the US government, and its objective was to reorient the Germans to democracy by communicating directly with the people. “Reorientation” was chosen over “democratization” because the Russians, in their zone of Germany, had so abused the word democracy; and “reeducation” was rejected because it sounded too patronizing. The Program was carried out by U.S. Military Government Officers (MGOs), most of whom were civilians, as was I, and were stationed in each county of the US Zone.

At war’s end, German newspapers and radio stations had been established, directed, and staffed first by US military personnel, and then by Germans appointed by OMGUS. In major cities of the US Zone, American cultural centers, “America Houses, as they were called,” were opened with a variety of cultural and information programs for the German people. They proved so popular that, years later, when some of them had to be closed for budgetary reasons, some German cities offered to pay all of the costs required to keep them open.

OMGUS newspaper
Offices of an OMGUS newspaper in occupied Germany

At the local level, the Reorientation Program consisted mainly of encouraging the Germans to hold Bürgerversammlungen (town meetings), an innovation that was revolutionary for Germany. The objective was to encourage Germans to question their elected officials on local issues and make the officials more responsive to the citizenry. The meetings also had the support of owners of the inns where they were held, and where barrels of the good German beer were rolled out to be quaffed by the thirsty Bürgers and Bauern (townspeople and peasants) as they voiced their many complaints to their elected officials, and also to the MGOs, as representatives of the occupying power.

Documentary film showings were another Reorientation activity on the local level. Each MGO had a film projectionist on his staff that toured the county in a jeep with a 16 mm Bell & Howell projector, showing U.S. documentary films dubbed with German sound tracks. The films, mostly on American and European themes, were intended to inform Germans about the United States, encourage democracy, and publicize the U.S. role in European recovery through the Marshall Plan. Among the titles that I recall were A Tuesday in November, which described the US election process, and Border Without Bayonets, on how the United States and Canada lived peacefully side by side with a largely open border. The Marshall Plan films served to disseminate information about the European Recovery Program, provide technical assistance, and encourage economic cooperation among European nations. Because the Germans had been cut off from foreign media since 1939, the film showings proved very popular, and since they were shown in local Gasthäuser (inns), beer could be purchased during the showings.

MGOs, many of whom became Resident Officers when State took over from the War Department, in 1949, were urged not to be desk bound. As Charles W. Thayer, US Consul General in Munich, advised us, “Get out to towns and villages, buy Burgermeisters a beer and talk with them about the United States and what we are trying to do here.” We called it “Beers for Burgermeisters,” but it was Public Diplomacy at the grassroots level as we talked with mayors about U.S. Policy, promoted reforms in Germany, attended the town meetings we encouraged the Germans to hold, and showed the flag in a Germany we had been at war with only five years earlier.

Those duties of the MGOs sound remarkably similar to the US policy announced by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, on 18 January 2006. Its purpose, said Rice is “To work with our many partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people – and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system” and “to take America’s story directly to the people.”[1]blue star

[1] Department of State Fact Sheet, Office of the Spokesman, Jan. 18, 2006.


imageYale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia, 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.

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