THE United States Information Agency has just invited me to a wingding celebrating the 50th anniversary of its International Visitor Program, and along with it came a list of all the then up-and-coming leaders selected under the program to come to the United States who went on to become heads of their governments. In these troubled times, I did what any curious journalist would do; thumbed down the list of countries till I came to Iraq to see whether Saddam Hussein had ever been on the program. Alas, he had not. And perhaps if he had been brought to the United States and exposed for a while to its people, and all the country's strengths and weaknesses, and kindnesses and contradictions, it would not have made any difference. He might still be confronting the United States with implacable hostility.
Yet one never knows how far-reaching an impact on personalities and policies there can be from this modest little program that is one of the gems of the information agency's program to strengthen foreign understanding of the US and its policies.
If USIA missed Saddam Hussein, it had the smarts in 1957 to pick Valery Giscard D'Estaing, who went on to be president of France. In 1962 it hosted Toshiki Kaifu, who went on to be prime minister of Japan. In 1967 came Margaret Thatcher of Britain, and in 1976 a little-known South African politician named Frederik W. de Klerk who has taken extraordinary measures to break the stranglehold of apartheid.
Did spending a month apiece in the United States win them over to support every American international initiative? Of course not. But it did give them a better understanding and appreciation of the United States and how it works.
In a letter marking the 50th anniversary of the program, Prime Minister Thatcher said her 1967 tour enabled her to see the vitality and generosity of the American way of life. In a hand-penned note she added: ``Forever I shall be a true friend of the United States.''
Prime Minister Kaifu said that his American tour came when he was just starting his political career. He decided that ``Japan should be developed using the free and vigorous society of the United States as a model.''
Over the years, hundreds of these former USIA International Visitors have risen to important positions in their countries. Some 120 became chiefs of state. More than 600 became cabinet-level ministers.
Not bad dividends for a program that currently brings a couple of thousand visitors a year to the US, and relies heavily on volunteer organizations around the country to coordinate their programs in different American cities. But it is a dramatic example of what a relatively small amount of money can achieve in building goodwill for the US. It is a program that should be emulated in such fields as journalism, and law, and technology, by non-governmental organizations.
The visitor program is not as headline-catching as some of USIA's other operations, like the Voice of America worldwide broadcasting service, or Radio Mart'i which broadcasts to Cuba. But then few of USIA's activities are very well understood within the US. That is by design of Congress, which early on barred USIA from disseminating at home the materials it produces to influence opinion overseas.
This lack of public awareness is a handicap for the information agency as it seeks to redefine its role in a changing world. No longer is USIA's principal mission to penetrate a hostile Soviet Union with the message of truth. But the crisis we currently face with Iraq underlines the need for the US to project accurately its image and policies to various parts of the world where regional clashes are likely to erupt. Ironically, Saddam Hussein has taken to a new peak the manipulation of television and the channels of information in his confrontation with the US.
USIA's budget for all its activities, including the visitor program, is currently about $882 million a year, and that is chicken-feed over at the Pentagon when they start adding up the cost of aircraft carriers and supersonic bombers. But as 50 years of the International Visitor Program indicates, consistent investment in public diplomacy pays substantial dividends for peace.