Memories of Lou Olom (1917-2019)

By Bruce Gregory

He was one of the most thoughtful, dedicated, and politically savvy public diplomacy professionals of his generation. Louis T. Olom (1917-2019), a career civil servant, will be remembered for his many contributions to public diplomacy during the years in which it was gradually gaining acceptance as a field of professional practice in US diplomacy.

Lou’s interest in what became known as public diplomacy began when he was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. There, as a research assistant to the distinguished political scientist Charles Merriam, he discovered the work of Harold Lasswell, one of the 20th century’s leading scholars of propaganda and communications studies. Deeply impressed, Lou went to New York to meet Lasswell, who hired him to work on his propaganda research team. At the invitation of Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, Lasswell, Olom, and others on the team moved to Washington in 1940 to create the Library’s wartime communications research division.

Thereafter, his career bridged the domains of applied research and professional practice. His research led to collaboration with Princeton’s Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free, Indiana University’s Walter H.C. Laves, SAIS Dean Francis Wilcox, University of Minnesota professor Evron Kirkpatrick, and other leading scholars who combined academic study and government service. During World War II, Lou worked for the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (later known as FBIS), Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), the Office of War Information (OWI), and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). His thinking on the importance of opinion research and deep comprehension of foreign cultures matured during these assignments and became a life-long priority.

A year after USIA was established in 1953, USIA director Ted Streibert asked Henry Loomis (later VOA director and USIA’s deputy director) to create an independent research office in the Agency similar to State’s INR but with a focus on overseas information, broadcasting, and educational and cultural activities. Loomis recruited Lou and Leo Crespi, who had done highly respected surveys of German public opinion, to take leadership positions in USIA’s Office of Research and Intelligence.

For the next two years, he worked closely and enjoyably with Loomis on opinion and media research. But in 1956, as he put it in his oral interview for the Association of Diplomatic Studies & Training, “I had concluded I would never make a very successful bureaucrat . . . just as I never really had the temperament to be a scholar.” It was then that Yale University professor Mark A. May, chair of the presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed, bipartisan US Advisory Commission on Information, invited him to become the Commission’s first professional staff director. It was a perfect fit. For the next 25 years, Lou worked in a position that took full advantage of his intellectual abilities and formidable political skills. It was toward the end of his years with the Commission that I came to know him well as a mentor and friend – learning from memories of his early career and his strong, deeply informed views on the organization and practice of public diplomacy.

The Advisory Commission on Information was one of two advisory panels established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The other was the Advisory Commission on Educational and Cultural Affairs. They merged in 1977 as the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The Commission’s legislation requires members to appraise the government’s public diplomacy activities and recommend policies and programs to the President, Secretary of State, (and previously USIA) and report to Congress and the American people. It submits annual reports and occasional studies on special topics. Its role is to evaluate and advise, to represent the public interest, and to foster support and better understanding of public diplomacy.

The Commission’s now 71-year history can be divided into three eras. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, most Commissioners were well known Americans. They were at the top of their professions. They were not still climbing; they wanted to give something back. Members included the pollster George Gallup, novelist James Michener, the prominent conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., Readers Digest editor Hobart Lewis, media researcher Art Nielson, journalist John Sigenthaler, historian John Hope Franklin, and former CBS President Frank Stanton. It was during these years that Lou worked closely with the Commission’s Democrats and Republicans. He wrote their reports and served as their Washington-based voice with government officials and lawmakers.

During the Commission’s second era, the 1980s and 90s, Commissioners for the most part were not household names, but they were influential in Washington. They included Edwin J. Feulner, President of The Heritage Foundation; Tom Korologos, the powerful lobbyist for Timmons and Company; William J. Hybl head of the El Pomar Foundation and former head of the US Olympic Committee; Lewis Manilow, founder of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and an active member of the National Democratic Institute; Herb Schmertz, Vice President for Public Relations at Mobil Oil; and Harold Pachios, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s law partner. During its third era in the 2000s, fewer Americans of prominence have served on the Commission, but its impressive annual reports have been the work of accomplished and empowered executive directors.

The views of these Americans ranged across the political spectrum. Most were partisans in domestic politics. But they were genuinely bipartisan in their approach to public diplomacy. When appointed, they typically knew very little about the practice of public diplomacy. Invariably they soon became strong supporters. This usually occurred after a few meetings in Washington and visits to US embassies and USIS posts abroad. USIA’s leaders and senior career officers could be very persuasive in making a case for the Agency’s mission and programs. Commissioners usually developed an “aha” reaction. “So this is what it’s all about,” they would say.

Lou Olom was at the heart of the Commission’s agenda and influence during its formative decades. Commission reports addressed a wide variety of operational issues. Several themes, of which Lou was deeply convinced, were enduring. USIA’s mission and overseas activities were important, central to diplomatic practice, and under-valued in and out of government. USIA lacked sufficient resources. USIA should give higher priority to opinion research and program evaluation. USIA should remain independent and its director should be a statutory advisor to the National Security Council in a manner similar to the CIA director and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. USIA must be at the table when policy was being made. How could the Agency be expected to communicate policies effectively if it was not in the room when policies and communication strategies were developed? Public opinion should not determine policies, the Commission argued, but it is an essential consideration in policy formulation and implementation.

Privately, the Commission’s role was perhaps more consequential. In Lou’s day, the Commission met annually with US presidents in the oval office. Powerful Commission chairs opened doors on Capitol Hill, in government departments and agencies, and at American embassies overseas. USIA’s directors valued the Commission as a sounding board. Commission members occasionally solved some of their difficult problems quietly and behind the scenes. An independent advisory Commission of private citizens, unconstrained by official responsibilities, could say things to lawmakers, ambassadors, and government officials that were beyond the reach of USIA’s leaders and career diplomats. Overall, the Commission gave a small independent agency the support of influential and sympathetic Americans who provided an arms length perspective on what was becoming an enduring element in diplomatic practice.

Lou shined in the Commission’s public and private work. He was a fierce defender of the Commission’s independence. His powerful mind translated conceptual ideas into meaningful approaches to diplomacy operations. He wrote clearly and quickly, albeit sometimes at great length. He was bilingual in “USIA speak” and the language of national politics. He easily penetrated rhetorical camouflage and his “take no prisoners” responses were delivered in disarming and effective ways. He had an abundance of what Joseph Nye calls contextual intelligence – an ability to discern complex trends, ask the right questions, understand tensions in play, and leverage windows of opportunity.

He developed strong personal relations with senior lawmakers and Congressional staff, including especially public diplomacy champion Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-FL), Comptroller General Elmer Statts, labor organizations, a variety of NGOs, and, importantly, with every Commissioner. He understood the importance of building productive relations with talented career officers at all levels and with Americans in and out of government who could advance public diplomacy.

One of USIA’s many re-organization debates occurred in the 1970s when former Commission Chair Frank Stanton and retired USIA Foreign Service Officer Walter Roberts collaborated with CSIS Chair David Abshire and Georgetown University to create the Stanton Panel. Its report on “International Information, Education, and Cultural Relations” made a powerful case for public diplomacy, but it also recommended the demise of USIA and the organizational separation of information activities, broadcasting, and cultural diplomacy – a plan supported by the Department of State. Lou, the Commission, USIA directors, most career officers, Rep. Fascell, Elmer Statts, organized labor, and others opposed the plan. Following years of debate and days of Congressional hearings, Fascell, USIA, and the Commission prevaprevailed. Lou and Walter disagreed fundamentally on these issues. It is a mark of the character of both, however, that despite their differences, they remained lifelong friends of Frank Stanton.

USIA and State did not always agree with Lou’s ideas and the Commission’s recommendations. Government agencies seldom welcome outside advice on how they should change. But overall, USIA and most of its career employees viewed the Commission as useful and supportive. Americans then and now know little about public diplomacy. The Commission was a constructive and critical voice of support for USIA’s mission at home and abroad.

Lou also had a “second career.” For years he was regarded as the virtual “mayor” of Falls Church, VA. There he chaired Historic Falls Church, co-sponsored the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society, and co-founded Citizens for a Better City. He was a constant presence at town council meetings where his informed and probing questions were respected if sometimes viewed as “inconvenient.” Lou was a small “d” democrat, a firm believer in vigorous political debate at local, national, and global levels. His intellectual hero was Virginia’s George Mason, the author of the Bill of Rights.

Lou fully understood the power of education. He continues to be recognized for bringing the International Baccalaureate program to Falls Church High School in 1981 – a time when it was new and when many failed to understand its educational importance and what it could mean for real estate values. His wife of 50 years, Susan L. Olom (1916-1995), was a full partner in these efforts – a member of the Falls Church Board of Zoning Appeals and a president of the Falls Church League of Women Voters. Following the early death of their son in 1985, Lou and Susan established the Jonathan Olom Award, still given annually to outstanding criminal defense attorneys in Colorado, and the Jonathan L. Olom Trial Advocacy Scholarship at the University of Denver.

Lou Olom’s outstanding career reflects the inventive spirit and growing professionalism of a new breed of diplomat. He stands tall in the community of builders and reformers who challenged the early skepticism of many traditional diplomats and institutionalized US public diplomacy during the second half of the 20th century.

Bruce Gregory is a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and a non-resident faculty fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. From 1985 to 1998, he was executive director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. You can contact him at BGregory@gwu