UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Selling America, ignoring Vietnam : the United States Information Agency in Vietnam, 1954-1960 Wright, Brendan D'Arcy


Once a neglected institution, the United States Information Agency (USIA) has recently received attention from scholars who wish to study American public relations, propaganda, and cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Here, I present a case study of the USIA’s activities in South Vietnam in 1954-1960 as a way to further investigate these issues. This thesis explores both the overt and covert aspects of the USIA’s operations within Vietnam, and attempts to gauge the Agency’s effectiveness. My study contends that forces internal to early American Cold War culture—racism and class—set the parameters of the USIA’s mission, defined the nature of its propaganda, and ultimately contributed to its ineffectiveness. Saddled to their own set of racist and self-referential belief systems, USIA officials remained remarkably ignorant of Vietnamese culture to the detriment of their mission’s success. As such, the central goals of the USIA’s mission—to inculcate the Vietnamese with American liberal democratic values, to market the Diem regime as the legitimate manifestation of these principles, and to taint Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DVN) as a puppet state of the Soviet Union—never took hold. Following the pioneering work of Kenneth Osgood, this study also sheds light on the USIA’s preference for “gray” propaganda: USIA-produced propaganda which appeared to emit from an independent or indigenous source. Whereas previous studies of the USIA have focused on the more overt forms of its propaganda, my work demonstrates that the bulk of the Agency’s operations were of a more clandestine nature, utilizing private Americans and local Vietnamese agents to carry out its missions.

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