It’s an honor to be one of the regular contributors to Take Five, the IPDGC’s new blog. While our goal is to generate discussion on the most contemporary issues in public diplomacy and global communication…it never hurts to start off with a bit of history.
Last October the New York Times published a delightful article about the early days of U.S. public diplomacy – in 1861, to be exact. The article, “Vive l’Union” describes the fruitful partnership between John Bigelow, an American journalist sent abroad by President Lincoln to help sway European opinion in favor of the Union cause, and Professor Édouard-René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a French scholar whose admiration and respect for the American republic grew into an effective campaign for hearts and minds.
As the article notes, Laboulaye had begun his career lecturing and writing on America and its model Constitution, but soon Napoleon III came to power and began “a dark new era of political repression and intellectual censorship,” prompting Laboulaye to retreat to the safer academic field of ancient Roman history. However, the crisis of the American Civil War rekindled Laboulaye’s determination, as it “threatened to prove the entire experiment in self-government a failure.” He began lecturing on the U.S. conflict, and quickly found that “the American question” created an arena within which liberals could safely talk about France’s central political issues of the day — by talking about America. His audience of students, scholars, and political commentators grew rapidly.
Bigelow, having met Laboulaye and discovered an immediate philosophical rapport, persuaded the scholar to revise, expand, and publish one of his earlier essays on the American war and the Union cause. Bigelow then ensured that Laboulaye’s pamphlet was delivered to political figures, journalists, and scholars throughout France, and even elsewhere in Europe. This essay had a major impact on French public opinion, which up until that point had been largely pro-Confederacy. Laboulaye continued to write and lecture, and Bigelow made sure his essays were published widely and even translated into English. French support for the Union cause solidified.
In other words, their collaboration became the very definition of a win-win public diplomacy partnership.
A closer look at the article yields some nuances, such as the fact that Bigelow had been equipped with financial resources to pay writers and editors for pro-Union viewpoints (although Laboulaye refused any payment, accepting only the gift of some books), and that the American journalist’s real purpose at the U.S. Embassy in Paris was kept sub rosa, under a more traditional diplomatic cover.
In other words, the original U.S. plan envisioned the sort of behind-the-scenes propaganda approach that all nations have used at one time or another, especially when at war. Nicholas Cull also mentions this “propaganda war” in the prologue to his book The Cold War and the United States Information Agency, noting that during the Civil War “the U.S. minister to Belgium … bribed journalists and even subsidized the European newspapers that supported his cause [while] Britain became a key theater for the Union’s propaganda war with the American South.”
However, I see Bigelow and Laboulaye’s partnership as demonstrating the strength, depth, and long-term impact of true public diplomacy – that is, open and mutually beneficial collaboration between two like-minded partners sharing the same goals. Certainly in the partnership with Laboulaye, the effect was more than Bigelow, or the U.S. officials who sent him to Paris, could ever initially have hoped for.
In any case, please do read the New York Times’ fascinating and richly detailed article!