Cultural Diplomacy’s Finest Hour
Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey
Yale Richmond, Berghahn Books, 2008, $29.95, hardback, 175 pages.
Reviewed by Gerald Loftus, "Avuncular American"
Yale Richmond’s latest book, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey - part of the ongoing “Diplomats and Diplomacy” series jointly published by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired - is a lively and important study in memoir form.
Richmond skillfully provides both the background and “flash forward” context to his career in Eastern Europe during the decades following World War II. There he took part in early cultural exchange efforts with the Soviet bloc, which he updates throughout his lifelong study of the region.
Readers will see parallels with today’s transformational diplomacy in Richmond’s years as a civilian “Resident Officer” in American-occupied Germany, from which he segued into the Foreign Service. As ROs, precursors to today’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams, he and his military colleagues administered, with imagination and initiative, the post-Nazi “Reorientation Program.” Richmond recalls asking himself, “How would Germans react to me as a Jew?” His answer shows the strength of character and magnanimity toward his “hosts” that he displayed throughout his seven years in Germany.
The heart of this memoir is the time Richmond spends in Warsaw, Vienna and Moscow as a cultural and press officer. (His “out-of-area” assignment in Laos provides a rare look at Indochina between the French and American wars there.) Warsaw, the “best post of my career,” gives Richmond free rein to build cultural programs, including the first Polish-U.S. Fulbright academic exchanges — precedent-setting given Cold War tensions.
The author generously credits his success there to a colleague’s counsel: “If you can show officials that you really like Poland, you can do almost everything you want here.” And so he did for the next three years.
Serving diplomats might envy Richmond’s freedom of action during the heyday of showcasing American culture, before security and media placement priorities trumped libraries, and “strategic communication” and “information operations” came to vie with civilian public diplomacy. Entry-level officers, in particular, should see his story as confirmation of the importance of the “basics”: learning languages (in his case, at least four), and developing regional and functional expertise. And for PD officers, the book will affirm their profession’s key role in opening Iron Curtain countries to Western influence, a vital step on the way to winning the Cold War.
The chapter “Shafted by Shakespeare” should be excerpted for AFSA’s dissent collection.* Richmond’s finest hour, as a professional defending longterm American interests, was his run-in with Nixon political appointee Frank Shakespeare. The new head of the U.S. Information Agency visited Moscow in 1969, bent on regime change. After years of carefully implementing the bilateral cultural agreement, Richmond was floored when Shakespeare blurted out, to American staff in a (presumably) bugged room, that USIA’s mission was to overthrow the Soviet government.
Richmond’s response took some boldness: “Mr. Shakespeare, that has never been the policy of the State Department ... our aim is to live with these people in peace.” Though Shakespeare subsequently blocked Richmond’s promotion, the McCarthy era was over. The Nixon administration’s embrace of detente vindicated Richmond, and he became a respected Washington expert in the burgeoning exchange program with the Soviet Union.
After leaving the Foreign Service, Richmond’s skills continued to be in demand in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Richmond contributed to the Helsinki process and later joined the National Endowment for Democracy.
I entered the Foreign Service as Yale Richmond was retiring, but while reading Practicing Public Diplomacy I felt I’d gotten to know him. His straightforward writing makes his humanity, humility and sense of humor almost tangible. If I ever write a memoir, I would like it to be as instructive and enjoyable as Yale Richmond’s.
*This was first published in the July-August issue of the Foreign Service Journal, published by the American Foreign Service Association.