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Empire of Ideas

The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U. S. Foreign Policy

Justin Hart

Publication Date - 15 June 2020

ISBN: 9780197532928

296 pages
6.14 x 9.21 inches

In Stock

A timely look at the moment in US history when image--the perception of the nation in the eyes of the world--first became a key component of foreign policy


Covering the period from 1936 to 1953, Empire of Ideas reveals how and why image first became a component of foreign policy, prompting policymakers to embrace such techniques as propaganda, educational exchanges, cultural exhibits, overseas libraries, and domestic public relations.

Drawing upon exhaustive research in official government records and the private papers of top officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, including newly declassified material, Justin Hart takes the reader back to the dawn of what Time-Life publisher Henry Luce would famously call the "American century," when U.S. policymakers first began to think of the nation's image as a foreign policy issue. Beginning with the Buenos Aires Conference in 1936--which grew out of FDR's Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America--Hart traces the dramatic growth of public diplomacy in the war years and beyond. The book describes how the State Department established the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Affairs in 1944, with Archibald MacLeish--the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress--the first to fill the post. Hart shows that the ideas of MacLeish became central to the evolution of public diplomacy, and his influence would be felt long after his tenure in government service ended. The book examines a wide variety of propaganda programs, including the Voice of America, and concludes with the creation of the United States Information Agency in 1953, bringing an end to the first phase of U. S. public diplomacy.

Empire of Ideas remains highly relevant today, when U. S. officials have launched full-scale propaganda to combat negative perceptions in the Arab world and elsewhere. Hart's study illuminates the similar efforts of a previous generation of policymakers, explaining why our ability to shape our image is, in the end, quite limited.


  • Examines how the FDR administration decided to promote America's image in the world to project the U.S. empire.
  • Traces the emergence of "soft power" in US foreign policy to pre-World War II period, rather than the Cold War era.
  • Addresses continuities between period covered and the full-scale propaganda war to combat negative perceptions of the United States in the Arab and/or Muslim world.
  • Shows how communications technologies (newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, TV) were essential to public diplomacy.
  • Contains fine-grained biographies of key figures, including Henry Luce, Archibald MacLeish, and others.

About the Author(s)

Justin Hart is Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University.


"Hart is one of the new generation of historians beginning to shift scholarly discussion of empire away from polemics and lurid accounts of black operations. Public diplomacy comprised that crucial nexus between image management-so vital to the essential ideological work of all empire-and the private cultural sphere from which this democratic empire sprang."--David J. Snyder, Passport

"This timely and important book fills an important gap in the historical literature of the history of U.S. foreign policy, and it provides a very good overview of the origins of U.S. public diplomacy....This book, a useful summary of the origins of public diplomacy, will probably be the standard one-volume study for years to come."--James Siekmeier, Journal of American History

"Empire of Ideas is a major achievement that fundamentally recasts our understanding of the critical role public diplomacy played in mid-twentieth century American foreign relations. Its vividly written chapters, simultaneously expansive in their concerns yet full of telling narrative detail, will become the new starting point for future historical research on the operation of soft power in U.S. diplomacy."--Mark Philip Bradley, The University of Chicago

"Based on exhaustive research in executive, legislative, and private archival records, Justin Hart's book brings new sophistication to the history of U.S. public diplomacy during the crucial 1936-53 period. Empire of Ideas is key for understanding the struggles entailed in trying to sell the American Century to a global audience."--Frank Costigliola, Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War

"Justin Hart's Empire of Ideas is a fine, timely study of how the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman sought to spread Americanization in an effort to convert the world rather than conquer it. Then, as now, when the United States needed to concern itself with the effectiveness of its public diplomacy, Americans at home engaged in a costly political battle over who defines the American image and how."--Susan A. Brewer, author of Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq

"Empire of Ideas tells a provocative story about the transformation of American foreign relations in the years surrounding World War II. While reexamining the role of public diplomacy and public opinion in shaping U.S. foreign policy, Hart does much more: he challenges fundamental assumptions about U.S. foreign relations writ large. With a brisk and absorbing narrative, Hart offers a compelling analysis that will leave scholars and students alike asking new questions about the connection between power and ideas."--Kenneth Osgood, Colorado School of Mines

"Meticulously researched, well written and with great contemporary relevance, Justin Hart's Empire of Ideas is an essential addition to the growing body of scholarship around U.S. public diplomacy...This book will be of great value to scholars, students, and anyone interested in the evolution of American foreign relations or the international history of propaganda."--Nicholas J. Cull, author of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propa ganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989

"[Hart] enlightens with well-researched information...[A] valuable contribution to the specialized literature."--John Brown, American Diplomacy

Table of Contents

    Introduction: The Origins of U.S. Public Diplomacy
    1. "Down with Imperialism": The Latin American Origins of U.S. Cultural Diplomacy
    2. "The Drift of History": War, Culture, and Hegemony
    3. Propaganda as Foreign Policy: The Office of War Information
    4. "Foreign Relations, Domestic Affairs": The Consolidation of U.S. Public Diplomacy
    5. "The Flat White Light": Revolutionary Nationalism in Asia and Beyond
    6. "An Unfavorable Projection of American Unity": McCarthyism and Public Diplomacy
    Epilogue The Creation of the USIA and the Fate of U.S. Public Diplomacy