on education 

on housing 

on foreign

The Role of 
Public Diplomacy
in the Evolution of
United States–China
1972 through 2002

I.  The Getting-to-
Know-You Years, 
1972 through 1979

II.  1980 through 2000:
The Years of Explosive
Growth in Travel,
 Investment, Commerce, 
and Cross-Cultural
Study and
Language Training

III.  Todays United States
China Interdependence:
Lessons Learned and Their
Application to the Current
United States
Islam Divide


One China or Two?




History Roundtable,
China Policy and the
National Security
November 1999.

A joint project of the 
Center for International
and Security Studies
at Maryland (School
of Public Affairs, 
University of Maryland)
and the Brookings
Institution, Washington,

This roundtable
discussion will give
readers a penetrating
view of the inter-
relationships among
the federal government
departments that
were responsible
for proposing, evaluating,
implementing, and 
monitoring U.S. defense
and diplomatic policy
on our relations with
China.  A must-read. 

U.S. State Department

U.S. State Department Background Note:  China


Maps of China

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, 2002, China notes including map

Maps of

Perspectives on Foreign Policy



The David G. Scanlon Lecture Series:  The Role of Public Diplomacy in the Evolution of United States–China Relations, 1972 through 2002.  The first of three lectures. 



The Early Getting-To-Know-You Years,
 1972 through 1979

by Robert L. Nichols


The Meaning of Public Diplomacy

I would like to explain or to clarify the meaning of the term public diplomacy.  Currently the State Department defines the term within the context of three types of diplomacy:  Public diplomacy is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences”; public affairs refers to “outreach to Americans”; and traditional diplomacy is “to advance U.S. interests and security and to provide the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world” (1).  Actually the term itself is either the invention of the Bush administration or their revival of terminology seldom used in the past.  It has been brought to people’s attention recently by Charlotte Beers, the Madison Avenue executive who until recently headed up the so-called public diplomacy (PD) operation in the State Department.  

        During most of my career, the information and cultural work in foreign affairs was conducted by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was formed in 1953 and headed then by the renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow.  Libraries, book translations, press relations, cultural exchanges (including Fulbright grants), visiting lecturers, and TV and films all existed as tools for doing our work, and the Voice of America (VOA) was also a part of the agency.  We worked closely within the framework of the societies in which our offices were located with invaluable assistance of local employee staffs to help guide us in our cross-cultural communications.  

        Unfortunately, with the winding down of the cold war in the 1990s, the USIA’s budget and operations were cut back drastically, and finally, what was left of it was moved and placed under supervision of the State Department.  All of the libraries were closed, and all the other operations I just mentioned were either abolished or cut back severely and remain so.  This means that our day-to-day personal contact with the leaders and people in other countries, if not eliminated entirely, is now severely limited.


The Beginnings of My Association with China

In 1945, while I was serving in the U.S. Navy, I had a glimpse of China from the Qingdao harbor, and I came out of World War II determined to enter the foreign service and somehow become involved with China.  After completing my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy  (of Tufts University) in 1951, I entered the foreign service.  After a very brief training period, I was assigned to the Philippines as an information officer to Davao, a one-man post managed with the assistance of a large Filipino staff.  There, I learned my lessons, some of them the hard way, in working cross-culturally in a foreign environment. 

        My desire for Chinese language training and China assignments had, of course, been frustrated by the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949 and the expulsion from Beijing of the American mission–including the State Department’s Chinese Language School. We transferred our embassy to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, where the government of the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC) had fled, but the Chinese Language School was not reopened there until 1956.  Even though I was in Holland when the school reopened, I applied immediately to enroll in it.  Finally in 1958 I began my training, after which I was assigned to Hong Kong, which is where this story begins.


Hong Kong, Early 1960s

Of course, the first step in getting to know another culture is to learn to understand and speak their language.  Then the real work begins. My years in Hong Kong were a good introduction to another side of Chinese society because the island was a Cantonese British Crown colony and home to refugees from the mainland.  My experiences during those years served as the source of my early education on mainland China affairs.  Hong Kong was the listening post for the United States regarding mainland China (better known then as “Communist China”).  

        It was during this period (the early 1960s) that a very important development began—the split between China and the Soviet Union. This change unfolding in the relationship between the two communist countries was the spark that started the movement within American high-level thinking toward seeking a formal relationship with Communist China.      (Continue to page 2)


introduction        page 1          page 2          page 3          page 4

     endnotes               biographical notes           bibliography