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Empire of Ideas: A Review

Hart, Justin. Empire of Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 279 pages.
Reviewed by Steven Harkness

For general audiences, Empire of Ideas might seem like a tough sell. On the surface, it is the story of some boring old politicians creating dozens of obscure government offices whose mission statements were as vague as they were verbose. During the period examined, certainly more exciting stories were being written of young boys, ages 16 to 22, strapping into wooden gliders without props or lights, being hitched to English planes in the dark of night, to be towed across the English channel and released against large walls Hitler had constructed against just such wild impossibilities. For stories like this, the casual reader may be better suited with Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. For “chutzpah”, Empire of Ideas might seem wanting. But for the passionate students of history, and for Cold War connoisseurs especially, Justin Hart's definitive exploration of US Public Diplomacy during the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations offers a clean, well polished, and razor sharp thrill-ride through the most mysterious and poorly understood annals of American History.

Hart demonstrates a mastery of his subject matter. This is the first great thing about the book. During the period examined, political speeches, executive actions (to some lesser degree), and congressional decisions were widely publicized and avidly examined by a reasonably literate and attentive public. But the bulk of the efforts that led to those events, however, were not. Much of this remained (and more remains) hidden beneath infinite layers of redaction and de-class codes extended for generations. More still is buried beneath the sheer mountain of elapsed time, the informal (and thus unrecorded) nature of personal interaction, and the thin veneer of myth and rumor that coats the whole pie with an obvious and immediately visible concession that, in fact, very few people really understood what really went on in those dark, smoky rooms, full of wealthy, often well-intentioned, often silver-haired, representatives, generals, ambassadors, rulers, lawyers, writers, dissidents, and demagogues. Hart has, very literally, cleared away the dust from very old archives, special collections, letters, diaries, and news reports, and has applied a thoughtful, well researched, and timely examination of a very tough subject: America's Image. Capital “I.”

The author traces the history of US “Public Diplomacy” to the creation of the Office of the Coordinator of International Affairs. Officially, this office came into being as the result of a fleeting, 'New-Deal-esque' effort to exchange foreign and domestic students and teachers on a meager budget that wouldn't have accommodated more than a few “exchanges” per year. It's very conception, as budgeted, could be presented as a case study in the tendency toward wasteful spending that follows government expansion. What the office became, however, was Roosevelt's answer to the State Department in secret dealings with foreign militants, investors, farmers, and news organizations, but most importantly, as Hart is keenly aware, with the actual people of the United States. As the rise of Joseph Stalin informed the American consciousness that Hitler wasn't by any natural necessity a one-time-deal, the realization came swiftly that simply feeding young Americans to the industrial war machines was no longer a viable, long-term, method of confronting ideological threats. These inspired a hyper-evolution of initiatives like the OCIAA and the OPA and so on, resulting in a vast expansion of the role, if not always the authority, of the executive.

Here, however, Hart focuses very carefully on another, very crucial, aspect of this paradigm shift in approach, outlook, and methodology. Thematically speaking, the book is an examination of the underwriting premises and contradictions of these efforts and establishments. The diplomat serves many masters: first and always, himself, then his country. But is his or her country the people or the government? If the purposes of the one conflict with the will of the other, who was right? The author often asks “Who spoke for the the country?” When the rulers or reps of other nations were told or treated differently, what was to be believed?

Profiling the contributions of scores of players in international intrigue, the author includes no maps. The reason becomes evident as the reader explores a world where those lines are ignored, and rendered arbitrary by the consequence of imperialism and globalism alike. The question of who speaks for the nation quickly becomes a question of authority, and is then sublimated by the more important philosophical question: What is the Message? Hart delivers a brilliant choreography of people, ideas, and organizations which set out to confront that very question in remarkably different ways, against the backdrop of the world's worst human trials, yet also, on the shoulders of a nation's most optimistic generation. He is objective, thorough, and intelligent. But for this work to be fully appreciated, the reader must arrive at the table with more than a cursory understanding of history. Such readers are those who won't make it to breakfast without contemplating ISIS, Israel, the war in Ukraine, or the Gross National Public Debt, or the future their children will inherit. For those whose job it is to teach, or for those aspiring to the call of national defense, and for those who desperately want to understand what it all means, how it came to this, and why, this book is a page-turner of the highest magnitude. Empire of Ideas is provocative, compelling, and sincere. Well-done!

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