'I was a damn good propagandist'

Shortly after moving to Washington from Sioux City, Iowa, in 1950 to work at the State Department, Wes Pedersen found himself leading a secret life as a world-famous newspaper columnist.

Long before the U.S. military was to take heat for planting pro-American articles in Iraqi newspapers, Pedersen wrote stories about the Cold War under pseudonyms such as Paul L. Ford and Benjamin West, from foreign-minister summits to inner Soviet power struggles. His words spread over teletype to all corners of the globe, except the United States, where federal law prohibited their distribution.

In India, Ford’s “The World Today” column ran on the front pages of the newspapers alongside Walter Lippman’s. In Germany, 67 newspapers reprinted his words under West’s name.

“For a while there I was really cooking in Paris,” Pedersen said. Or, rather, Ford was.

“I was a damn good propagandist,” Pedersen, now 83, says unabashedly. “I think I was probably the best of that era.”

The Bush administration’s use of public-relations firms to boost America’s image in the Middle East has brought new attention to the proper role, if any, that propaganda should play in supporting U.S. efforts overseas.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), where Pedersen worked, used magazines, newspaper columns, special publications and radio to introduce America to the world.

Support for the USIA fell with the Berlin Wall, and in 1999 the agency was disbanded. The remnants of its mission were transferred to the State Department.

Terrorism has rekindled support for so-called “public diplomacy,” but some question whether the United States goes too far by planting news articles in foreign newspapers.

Nancy Snow worked at the USIA for two years during the Clinton administration and is the author of Propaganda, Inc., a history of the agency.

She said America risks undermining its democracy message by using spin. The risk is greater, she said, now that technology has made the distribution of information so much more widespread: It’s just more difficult to keep information secret.

“There is an automatic negative reaction” to revelations the government is behind news reports, Snow said.

But in the early years of the Cold War the United States had little choice but to wage a public-relations counteroffensive against questionable information from behind the Iron Curtain, she said.

“Back then it was sort of no holds barred. The Soviets were beating us on this, and we had to get out there,” Snow said.

Pedersen, who was later to become a well-known spokesman for the Public Affairs Council — a job from which he is retiring in May — leapt at the chance to get into the game.

He spent much of his time overseas and often wrote two columns a day. Although he never criticized the administration, he says his work was always on the level — “There was always substance to it.”

Foreign editors knew his columns were distributed by the USIA, then an upstart competitor to the Soviet spin machine, but readers probably did not.

A 1955 dispatch from Lisbon after an aborted peace conference was typical: “The reputation for which the Soviet premier had strived for years — that of the one communist leader with whom key questions could really be discussed on a common-sense basis — has disappeared in a sea of criticism, sunk by the very torpedo he himself fired at the Paris conference.”

Other columns focused the power struggle between Nikita Khrushchev and Georgi Malenkov to become Soviet premier. But he refused to comply with a directive from his superiors to say that Khrushchev won power through a military coup. “They were both party guys,” he says.

Like most of his peers, Pedersen had little foreign-policy experience when he arrived at State. He had worked the previous decade as a reporter and editor at a newspaper in Sioux City. Flat feet kept him stateside during his entire Army service in World War II.

Some of his USIA colleagues didn’t know how to spell or pronounce the names of Soviet leaders. Other columnists sometimes just pinched information from other newspaper columns.

“You wondered, ‘Where the hell did they get these people?’” Pedersen says.

“The agency’s officer corps was, by and large, a pick-up crew that got its training as propagandists on the job,” Wilson Dizard, a longtime USIA officer, wrote in an June 2003 article in Foreign Service Journal to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the agency.

The USIA chose names like Paul L. Ford, which was occasionally but not often used by writers besides Pedersen, and Benjamin West “because they sounded English,” Pedersen says. He later added other names — Lee Peters, a take on Wesley Pedersen, and Andrei Kormendi.

“I got tired of all the English names that we had inherited and decided that we ought to have one that sounded halfway foreign, so I created that one on my own,” says Pedersen.

Pedersen first realized his words were having an impact during a dinner in a small West Germany city. A group of German reporters, tipped off he was West, approached his table to ask if their information was correct. He confessed that it was but asked them not to report his presence because he was on assignment.

Everyone complied, except one reporter. “He had this announcement, ‘The great Benjamin West was getting ready to cross into Czechoslovakia on one of his secret missions!’” (Pedersen, bespectacled and stooped in photographs, doesn’t immediately conjure up an image of James Bond.)

American reporters, meanwhile, began to ask uncomfortable questions. A Chicago Tribune reporter pressed a State Department official into confessing that Ford was a fake name. Pedersen had scooped him and others on the size of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, using public information from the State Department that he recognized as important because of his intimate knowledge of the subject.

Increasing suspicion and a desire to spend more time with his young family in Washington led Pedersen to give up the life of a world-traveling columnist. But he didn’t give up peddling U.S. propaganda. 

He became special-publications editor and a ghostwriter for books and booklets put out by the USIA, which had shaken off its haphazard start. A Foreign Service officer in Congo sent word to Washington that a 1966 publication on the Apollo moon mission, a 48-page glossy with color photographs and graphics, would lead to “new admiration and respect for the U.S. among Congolese leaders here.”

He didn’t always have free rein. A late change by Lyndon Johnson aide Bill Moyers kept a photograph of the president dancing with Imelda Marcos out of a similar booklet on Johnson’s 1966 trip to Asia. Ferdinand Marcos, Pedersen said, had been angry that the two were dancing so closely.

Pedersen’s lone regret, though, is that people in his own country didn’t get to read his work.

“Here I am world famous under another name,” he says, “and nobody in the United States knows who the hell I am.”