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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Needs Some Good PR

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However outsiders view the United States -- as the home of jazz, basketball, modern democracy and the American Dream, or less flatteringly as the "Great Satan," for example -- everyone seems convinced that learning more about the U.S. colossus and its peculiar people is either good, advantageous or both.

The U.S. government for a long time agreed, maintaining a sizeable PR apparatus called the U.S. Information Agency, or USIA, from 1953 to 1999.

Maybe it's time to bring USIA back. I've noticed recently that the United States is in rather bad global odor, but that something like sanity may soon be returning to Washington. Carpe diem! This agency did yeoman service in its heyday and might again. For starters, USIA helped end the Cold War. I can confirm this, as much of that particular success was my handiwork.

In 1978, the agency hired me for the key position of "guide-interpreter" for a cultural exhibition set to tour three Soviet cities over seven months. The recruiting poster in the Slavic department where I was then treading postgraduate water read: "Travel around the U.S.S.R. and make money doing it."

This exhibition was part of a series of U.S.-Soviet exchanges dating from 1959, when USIA had staged its "American National Exhibition" in Sokolniki Park. Amid the initial throngs of curious and information-starved Soviet visitors then was Communist Party chieftain Nikita Khrushchev. There to explain the United States (or at least its home appliances) was an equally controversial figure, then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Yes, it was at this first USIA Sokolniki exhibit that the famous "kitchen debate" between these two stalwarts took place.

Nixon led Khrushchev around a demonstration U.S. kitchen, pointing at a dishwashing machine and helpfully noting that "this is our newest model," (in case Khrushchev was in a buying mood?). Khrushchev refused to take anything Nixon said at face value -- bonus points for perspicacity there -- and indulged in a classic Soviet debating tactic: When stumped by your opponent, lie like a rug. Shown everyday, U.S. appliances a Soviet family couldn't dream of owning, Khrushchev counterpunched: "[Newly built] Russian houses have all this equipment right now."

The spontaneous exchange featured both humor (Khrushchev: "I hope I haven't insulted you." Nixon: "I have been insulted by experts.") and a unilateral peace proposal that was blessedly declined (Khrushchev: "Let's kiss."). But the meeting's basic tenor was confrontational. This was the Cold War, after all, playing out on a field of dishwashers and frost-free refrigerators. Happily, both sides ultimately deemed ideas the appropriate weaponry.

Nixon: "You must not be afraid of ideas."

Khrushchev: "We say it's you who must not be afraid of ideas ..."

Nixon: "Well, then, let's have more exchange of them ..."

Khrushchev: "Good. [Turning to interpreter] Now what did I just agree to?"

In effect, what Khrushchev agreed to was more cultural exchanges. Over the next two decades the United States and the Soviet Union sent each other more than a dozen exhibits apiece, with "Plastics U.S.A.," "Architecture U.S.A.," and "Photography U.S.A." going up against the likes of "Soviet Sport" and "The Soviet Woman."

At Sokolniki in early 1979, as a guide for "Agriculture U.S.A.," I was set to resume the great debate left somewhere in the rinse cycle by Nixon and Khrushchev. Joining me on this idea offensive was a congenial bunch of U.S. twentysomethings happy to get paid for practicing their Russian against live opposition: the legions of ever-inquisitive, naturally skeptical and occasionally hostile "Soves" who relentlessly filed through the exhibition six days per week.

Our exhibit wasn't another clash of the titans; it was a chat of the mortals, generally benign on both sides. And in only seven months we settled the Cold War's hash: The conflict barely lasted another decade! More seriously, most guides enjoyed life on the Russian front, deflecting regular barrages of ill-informed "Sove-blather" and pursuing animated discussions with visitors whose misconceptions about the United States urgently needed correcting -- in a positive, upbeat, peace-and-friendship kind of way. And trust me: We learned a lot from our Soviet guests, too. The short version: Everybody won.

Bringing back USIA exhibits, and perhaps jump-starting a new exchange of ideas, might help thaw today's developing Russian-American "Cold War II." Would President Vladimir Putin like to see a new Maytag washer? If Pavilion 12 at Sokolniki is free, sign me up.



Mark H. Teeter teaches Russian-American relations and English in Moscow.