Remembering Charles Z. Wick -- A Few More

Compiled By Bill Wanlund

Amb. Christopher Ross joined USIA in 1968 and served in Middle East assignments for 11 years before
moving to the State Department…for more of the same. He served as Ambassador to Algeria (1988-91)
and to Syria (1991-98), and returned briefly to his PD roots in 2003 as State Department Senior Adviser
for Arab World Public Diplomacy. He recalls Director Wick as a fierce guardian of USIA’s interests.

Director Wick was very protective of USIA.  In 1979, after 11 years with USIA in Tripoli, Fez, Beirut, and
Algiers, I went on detail to State – a detail that never ended.  If my memory serves me correctly, Wick
and I never met one-on-one, although I have a vague recollection of having attended a meeting of all of
us on detail outside USIA with Wick in the 1980s.

In 1988, I was named Ambassador to Algeria, and Wick sent a letter to George Shultz stating that my appointment could not be counted against USIA’s (presumed) share of ambassadorial appointments.  This letter came to my attention only years later. 

While I was flattered at the attention Wick had paid to me, I also had to admire his tenacity in defending
USIA’s share of senior appointments.

After retirement Amb. Ross served as the UN envoy to Western Sahara from 2009-17 and later as special adviser
for the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. mission to the UN.

The May 26 PDCA Update’s “Good Reads” included a reminiscence by Joe O’Connell, acting public affairs officer for former USIA Director Charles Wick. O’Connell chronicles the quirks and contributions of USIA’s longest-serving chief – eight years, spanning the entire presidency of Ronald Reagan, 1981-89. The Update invited readers who were with USIA during the Wick years to send in their own recollections of this complex man. Some appeared in last week’s Update; here are three more.
Don Bishop was a career public diplomacy officer.
I only met Director Wick once, during my first assignment in Hong Kong.  He joined a distinguished American delegation that accompanied the first large exhibition of American art in China after the establishment of diplomatic relations.  The artworks came from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and they made quite an impression on Chinese artists.  At USIS (U.S. Information Service) Hong Kong I was involved in the publication of the exhibition catalog in Chinese.  As the post's junior officer, I was in the party that met the delegation at Kai Tak airport, and I saw more of Director Wick at the reception hosted by Consul General Thomas Shoesmith.
Yes, he played the piano, making what might have been the usual staid diplomatic reception more relaxing.  And I was with the delegation the next day on Sir Y.K. Pao's yacht, giving the visitors a day of relaxation and swimming after their packed schedule in China. In that setting, he was very congenial.
Before Director Wick's arrival, PAO Mike Yaki had received an informal "heads up" list, compiled by members of Director Wick's staff at USIA, of do's and don'ts when the Director visited.  The most important was to make sure that high local officials understood that he was not just an Agency head but also a close personal friend of the President. At the time, the list gave the impression that Wick had an ego, but after reading the Miller Center interview, I better understand how this aided our diplomacy.
During my oral history interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, I was asked about Director Wick.  Here's the excerpt:

Q: You briefly mentioned the name of President Reagan's Director of USIA, Charles Wick. He was quite controversial, as I recall.
BISHOP: Yes, there was a lot of critical buzz in USIA about Director Wick. Some of it was shallow stuff. One of his forays into moviemaking had been to make “Snow White and the Three Stooges”, which invited derisive comments in the same way that it was easy to take a cheap shot at President Reagan by mentioning “Bedtime for Bonzo.” There was more dismissive talk about his personal style. When he traveled, he expected to be welcomed as not only the Director of an independent federal agency, but as the President's close personal friend.
Since then, however, the memories of Director Wick have changed. Old USIA hands now say “we need a Director like Charlie Wick.” Or, “Charlie Wick would never have let us be consolidated into the State Department.” He was closer to the President than any subsequent Director, or subsequent Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and this secured funding and standing.
Part of the initial negative reaction to Director Wick came, I think, because he had a more negative view of the Soviet Union, a view shared by the President, and a more robust and active concept of what Public Diplomacy could achieve in the Cold War. USIA in the 1970s had been comfortable with President Carter's view of the Soviet Union and detente, and it lost some of the ideological edge that had characterized USIA in the 1950s. The thinking seems to have been that the ideas side of the Cold War would play out with exchanges, world's fairs, more jazz, and clog dancers. When Director Wick came in, he was far more assertive, ready to do battle in the war of ideas.
Not every one of his initiatives had the impact he hoped for. I'm thinking of the “Let Poland be Poland” documentary in1982, and the videotape of Kirk Douglas with the Afghan resistance. (See Editor’s Note below.)  PAO Mike Yaki called in chips with Hong Kong broadcasters so that these programs were broadcast, and the broadcasters obliged him, but only in English and not in prime time.
Without Director Wick's personal focus on the war of ideas, though, much of the Agency and the Department would have been inert in the final decade of the Soviet Union, comfortably doing comfortable things. Director Wick was a vital part of the Agency's full court press on the shootdown of KAL flight 007 and our convincing European governments and people to accept IRBM deployments. These were important victories.

Since retirement in 2010, Don Bishop has worked for a China commission on Capitol Hill, served as President of the Public Diplomacy Council, and joined Army brigade exercises in Louisiana as a role player, and taught Marines at Quantico. His essays on Public Diplomacy are here.
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Phil Brown was already a seasoned PD officer when Wick assumed the Directorship of USIA…

I spent all of Director Wick’s years overseas and very much on the front lines of his interest. From 1981 to 1986, I was IO/Press Attaché Paris and from 1987 to 1990, I was CPAO (Country Public Affairs Officer) Soviet Union. I have no idea how many times Mr. Wick visited those two posts (double digit for Paris) during my years; herewith a few recollections:

1.  In the early 1980’s, Mr. Wick forced on us something called WorldNet (or Euronet where I served). He had this crazy idea that somehow, people could communicate across continents and oceans using satellites.  Journalists could interview American officials even if they were not together in the same room. Many of us resisted the idea and thought it well beyond the technological capacities of mere mortals.  Enough said.
2.  One of Mr. Wick’s less-than-welcome ideas during my Paris years was that a super West European press attaché would be created, presumably some non-career, retired journalist who would have special access and gravitas that the rest of us lacked. Pierre Salinger [former press secretary to President Kennedy; later an ABC News correspondent] came to our rescue on this, assuring Mr. Wick over a conversation at his apartment that the current incumbents were doing quite well.
3.  Mr. Wick pushed for “information talks” with the Soviets, talks designed to call out and counter Soviet disinformation. I have a 1987 picture of myself and Mr. Wick’s counterpart, Valentin Falin, meeting in Washington on the sidelines of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit, just one of several occasions when he confronted Soviet disinformation.  In the picture, we were all smiles. But Mr. Wick vigorously led an effort to expose what the Soviets were doing then and what the Russians are doing now.
4.  When President Reagan came to Moscow in 1988, Mr. Wick (along with scores of other Washington bigwigs) accompanied him. I met Mr. Wick one morning at his hotel and as we waited for a vehicle, he noticed Senator Bob Dole. He greeted the senator and then said something to the effect of, “Bob, this is Phil Brown. He’s our man in Moscow. Doing a great job.” At that moment, I felt as if Mr. Wick had truly grown to appreciate his troops in the field.

Since retiring in 1996, Phil has worn many hats but none, he says, has given him more satisfaction than serving as a State Department Liaison working with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
Between 2002 and 2019, Phil was assigned to nearly 50 different projects involving some 600 IVs [State Dept.-sponsored international visitors]. Having worked on both the sending and receiving ends of the IV pipeline, Phil has been part of one of America’s most effective forms of cultural diplomacy for half a century. 

Phil and his wife Bobbi divide their year between Ingleside at King Farm in Rockville, MD, and summers at their lakeside cabin in Maine. 
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Judith Baroody is pictured after being sworn into service with USIA by Director Charles Wick on June 11, 1984. What followed was a 33-year FS career that took her to Damascus, Tel Aviv, Casablanca, Nicosia, Santiago, Baghdad, and Paris.

After retirement, Judith started working as a State Department REA (Re-employed Annuitant) and has continued as a Foreign Affairs Officer. She’s written three works of fiction and enjoys her ongoing affiliation with PDCA and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
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In case you missed it, here is the Joe O’Donnell interview that recalled Director Wick’s tenure. Many thanks to those who have provided their reminiscences.

Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. His column, Worth Noting, appears occasionally in the PDCA Weekly Update; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.

Editors’ note: “Let Poland be Poland” is a documentary film/Hollywood extravaganza first shown in January 1983 and co-produced by the then-U.S. International Communication Agency and the Defense Department. It was created to show American solidarity with Poland, then under Soviet domination. A link to a Washington Post article is here. Actor Kirk Douglas featured in a 1982 USIA-produced documentary intended to call global attention to the plight of Afghan refugees after the Soviet invasion of 1979. A UPI article including a link to the film is here.