Dr. Walter Roberts, a veteran U.S. diplomat and pioneer of U.S. international broadcasting, died the end of June. This obituary is by Charles H. Dolan, Jr., a former vice chairman of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which Dr. Roberts served on.
Dr. Walter Roberts, an American diplomat and scholar who pioneered the practice of public diplomacy through radio broadcasts to Nazi Germany during World War II for the U.S. government died June 29 at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 97.
Dr. Roberts was born in Austria and was educated at the University of Vienna. In 1938, anticipating Hitler’s aggression in Europe, he (and his soon to be wife Gisela) left Austria and went to Great Britain on a scholarship to Cambridge University, from which he earned his Ph.D. In 1940, he emigrated to the U.S. and was working as a research assistant at Harvard Law School when the U.S. entered World War II.
While walking across Harvard Yard he was approached by Professor William Langer, who, with ties to the government said, “Walter you are fluent in both English and German, your country needs people like you to help with the war effort.” Without hesitation, Roberts signed on as one of the first employees of the newly created Office of the Coordinator of Information, which later became the Voice of America, in New York.
Public Diplomacy and the War Years
This early public diplomacy effort included broadcasts into Germany, starting in February 1942, called “Stimmen aus Amerika” (“Voices from America”) and included the pledge: “Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war. The news may be good or bad for us. We will always tell you the truth.” Throughout the war years and during the allied occupation, he was responsible for broadcasting credible news reports of both the successes and failures of allied efforts in Germany.
After eight years of service with Voice of America he was transferred to the Austrian Desk of the Department of State in 1950. While there he devised a way for the U.S. Government to make use of the its holdings of then unconvertible Austrian currency into a useable form while, at the same time, demonstrating the value of what would become “public diplomacy.” He employed the currency to fund the prestigious “Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.” He served on its board for over forty years. It continues to this day as the Salzburg Global Seminar, an innovative public diplomacy project that supports regions, institutions and sectors in transition.
In 1953, he was appointed Deputy Area Director for Europe in the newly created U.S. Information Agency (USIA). In 1955, he was a member of the American Delegation to the Austrian Treaty Talks that culminated in a State Treaty, signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers (U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union) on May 15, 1955 which ended the occupation status of Austria and restored its independence.
In 1960, he was appointed Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Yugoslavia where he frequently interacted with President Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav revolutionary, Communist and leader of the non-aligned movement. Tito was very impressed with Roberts’ diplomatic skills and his scholarly knowledge of the complexity of the cultures and history of the Balkans, and invited Walter and his wife Gisela to many social functions.
With an impeccable memory not just for diplomatic issues but also the finer things in life, Roberts recalled, “Tito impressed me as a gracious host and an informed conversationalist. Witty at times, he seemed to enjoy recalling past events. He was elegantly dressed; his suit appeared tailored on London’s Savile Row.” Roberts’ recall for such details was extraordinary. Only several months before his death, he wrote about a dinner party he attended with Tito in the early 1960s at which the featured wines were “a Croation Cabernet and a Slovenian Riesling.”
Roberts was assigned as Diplomat in Residence at Brown University in 1966, and in 1967 he was transferred to Geneva to serve as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. In 1969, he was appointed Deputy Associate Director of USIA and in 1971 was elevated to the Associate Director position, then the senior career post in USIA.
In 1973, his book Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 was published; it was praised by Foreign Affairs as “the best book on the subject.” It was highly controversial in Yugoslavia and banned as it shed light on Tito’s ambiguous relations with Nazi Germany. As a testament to its longevity, it was reprinted and released in the former Yugoslavia last year. In 1974, he received the Distinguished Honor Award from USIA. He retired from the U.S. Government in 1974 to take the position of Director of Diplomatic Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). His influence on America’s approach to public diplomacy is demonstrated by the fact that while he left the Foreign Service almost thirty years ago, he continued to be a major influence on the practice of public diplomacy until his death.
Back to government
In 1975, he was called back into government to serve as executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting, which oversaw Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In 1985, he retired for the second time from the U.S. Government and was appointed diplomat-in-residence at George Washington University, where he taught a course on “Diplomacy in the Information Age.” He presciently predicted in a 1986 New York Time article, “The communications revolution is going to be a major headache for the Soviet Union.”
A testament to his expertise in the practice of public diplomacy was the fact that two Presidents from different parties appointed him as a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. President George H.W. Bush made the initial appointment in 1991 and President William J. Clinton reappointed him in 1994.
In 2009, he received the Voice of America “Director’s Special Recognition Award”. While officially retired, he continued to write prolifically and speak on public diplomacy. In 2005 Roberts helped establish a Public Diplomacy Institute at The George Washington University, and generously created an endowment in his name for what is now the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communicatin
His work as a great communicator was recognized in a March 22, 1986 New York Times article which opened with, “It is Ronald Reagan who is known as the Great Communicator. But in the capital, the Government communicator with what is probably the longest and most comprehensive tenure is Walter R. Roberts”.
In his final major public appearance, at the Public Diplomacy Council Fall Forum last November, Dr. Roberts told an audience of more than 250 members: “On February 1, 1942, American public diplomacy was born. That was 72 years ago, seven weeks into the war… I have no idea what future communications media will bring to us, but of this, I am sure: that international broadcasting will continue to exist because it is an integral part of public diplomacy, and public diplomacy, of course, is an integral part of diplomacy.” There was resounding applause.
Dr. Roberts (born to the late Ignaz and Elsa Rothenberg) is preceded in death by his beloved wife (Gisela Katherine) and is survived by three sons (William, Charles and Lawrence) and daughters in law (Patricia, Valerie and Shavaun), 7 grandchildren (Sherra (Fritz), Chelsea, Trevor, Matthew, Kevin, Katherine, and Mark, and two great grandchildren.