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A “Typical Roberta Cohen Operation”—Establishing USIA Programs in Addis Ababa

Like much of Africa, Ethiopia experienced a watershed moment at the end of World War II, emerging out from under the colonial rule of Italian occupation. Newfound independence flickered out after thirty years, submerging the country into communism after a period of civil unrest in 1974. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia would remain well within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.

Roberta Cohen receiving her USIA Superior Honor Award (1985) | Roberta Cohen Human Rights
Roberta Cohen receiving her USIA Superior Honor Award (1985) | Roberta Cohen Human Rights

It was this communist Ethiopia that greeted Roberta Cohen in 1982. A long-time champion of human rights after leaving the realm of nongovernmental organizations for the State Department, Cohen joined her husband, David Korn, to his posting as chief of mission. Cohen’s record to that point had included upholding visibility of human rights in Africa as a deputy assistant secretary of State, supporting Tex Harris’s reports on violations in Argentina, and a storied working relationship with Patt Derian.

In Addis Ababa, Cohen quickly made use of her time and her expertise, kickstarting a program for public affairs desperately needed amidst the heavy communist influence disseminated from Ethiopian ideologues. Noting the pro-American sentiments within the people of Ethiopia at odds with their leadership, Cohen worked to re-establish a USIA program and find support from the local university, reinvigorating an American presence in the Ethiopian mainstream. In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Cohen recounts her experiences in Addis Ababa and her eventual recognition from policymakers in Washington, D.C. for her important work.

Roberta Cohen’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 26, 2008.

Read Roberta Cohen’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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“. . . it became clear that there was a great reservoir of pro-American feeling in the country, that people were ready to take some risks, and that the regime’s control apparatus wasn’t so absolute.”

Ethiopia on America: Let me start with Revolution Day in Red Square in 1982, not that long after we arrived. David was back in D.C. on consultations, so I went with the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] to hear Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of state, give his three-hour speech. The first part was on domestic issues and Marxist ideology, the second part on foreign policy and it was a blistering attack on the United States. He blamed the U.S. for just about every ill that happened to Ethiopia, and at the end tried to whip up the crowds against the United States. I then had to go down into the crowds from the grandstand, where there were thousands, if not tens of thousands of people in the square. I was scared, I must say, as I headed for the big black American Cadillac flying the American flag, but people all around started yelling, “Viva America,” and waving to me. And as we got into the car and it inched through the crowd, everybody was knocking on the window, smiling, and yelling, “Viva America.” So it became clear that there was a great reservoir of pro-American feeling in the country, that people were ready to take some risks, and that the regime’s control apparatus wasn’t so absolute.

Out of this was born a public affairs program. When David saw that there was no one at the embassy to circulate the wireless file, which carried news stories and articles about the U.S. of interest to Ethiopian government ministries as well as African organizations and embassies, he cabled to Washington and got approval for a part time position for a local American to identify the articles and send out material to the ministries, and to the African embassies (more than 30) and organizations (like the Organization of African Unity, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and so forth). It just happened that I was the only one available for the job.

I was fascinated because as I saw it, the U.S. was essentially in the middle of an information and political war with the Soviet Union and should have every reason to play up its news especially as there were a lot of disenchanted people with communist rule. But it was not an easy road to hoe. At the NSC [National Security Council] and USIA [United States Information Agency], there was a lot of anger against Ethiopia and desire to punish it for “turning” to the Soviet Union. No distinction was made between the Ethiopian people and the ideologues running the place. It didn’t occur to them that Ethiopia should be treated like a bloc country. Well, my experience at Revolution Square told me something different and I began developing distribution lists and expanding the information base in order to gain entry on the Ethiopian side. By the time I left, I developed a full-fledged USIA public affairs program, which Congress approved, and USIA gave me an award, and assigned one of their senior officers to replace me. And I was asked to overlap with him, which really flattered me because I didn’t know anything about USIA.

Addis Ababa University Logo (2015) | Wikimedia Commons
Addis Ababa University Logo (2015) | Wikimedia Commons

Early Days: When I first began, I cabled USIA for books and films, but they would write back and say they didn’t have a program in Ethiopia so they couldn’t send me anything, and I would cable back and explain why it was important to have one and mention that there were Ethiopians, some connected to the government, who in some cases were taking risks by requesting U.S. materials. So little by little they began sending things and some of the USIA people came out, and I began reporting to them, and then they took over my efficiency reports, the State Department paid me and I used leftover USAID local staff. So a small operation developed. I remember a USAID official who knew me in the Carter period dubbed it “a typical Roberta Cohen operation.” David of course had to win the support of the NSC and State for a program in Ethiopia and also for his wife doing it. He had to answer questions about the politics of the situation and also about nepotism, about the chief of mission’s wife working—this was a sensitive issue in 1982.

While everyone agreed to a program at the OAU [Organisation of African Unity] and the UNECA [United Nations Economic Commission for Africa] (the programs here had been shut off inadvertently when USIA left), agreeing to programs with “communists” was another matter. There was also the problem of how to make contacts with Ethiopians in the Information Ministry, at the university, at film institutes. So, for starters, I decided to enroll at the university—Addis Ababa University (AAU), built with U.S. funds. It was a hotbed of Marxist-Leninist thought, although the library remained the John F. Kennedy Library and the bust of Kennedy was still there, next to a big poster of Lenin. Enrolling was not an easy thing to do because they didn’t want me there. I asked to audit a course so that I would learn about Africa, I said I would pay. It all created a political stir.

Q: What was the course?

International Relations in Africa in the political science department. Although I was initially brushed off, I kept coming back and asking why they don’t want to help me learn about Africa? So finally they said, you can audit the course but you cannot be listed as taking the course, and we will accept no money. So I began to audit the class and the professor told me that “even though you are not listed as being here, you will give a talk to the class like all the other students but you don’t have to take the exam.” I went every week to class—it was at night—and the students studiously avoided talking to me. In fact no one acknowledged my being there—everyone averted their eyes as if I weren’t there, which was amusing because I was the only non-Ethiopian person in the room, one of the few women, an American from the embassy to boot and the wife of the chief of mission! On occasion I raised my hand in class and said something. And I was also assigned a topic to present to the class—apartheid and the Bantustans in South Africa. I think the class thought I was going to defend racism in South Africa because of the Reagan administration’s constructive engagement policy. But I didn’t by a long shot and the professor let me speak longer than other students. A few times, he invited me to have coffee and I discovered that he didn’t have a Master’s degree and very badly wanted one, but there were no graduate programs at AAU. I saw he was real smart and managed to deal effectively with the ideologues in the class who would speak up to try to test his loyalty to Marxism. One day when we had coffee I asked him, “Have you ever heard of the Fulbright program in the U.S.?” He was more than interested and to make a long story short, I got him a Fulbright and he went to the United States where he got two M.A.s and then returned to the university in Addis.

Q: Was that program still in operation while you were there?

No. There was no longer any official USIA program in Ethiopia, but the USIA Fulbright officer in Washington didn’t seem to know that. He just thought the embassy hadn’t nominated anyone for a while. So I put forward a candidate. And the office processed it. But getting him out of Ethiopia was a problem because he needed an exit visa and approval by the university, and the Ethiopians in charge (department heads, deans) said, “We should be the ones to select.” They wanted to send one of their ideologues. So I went to see the President of the University, who was a figure head and pro-American and basically supportive of the Fulbright program. But I discovered that the obstacle was the Vice President, the real power behind the throne—who was the ideologue and wanted to do the selecting. Well, I basically told him, “If you turn down my candidate, you won’t get another chance” and because he realized that Fulbrights might be something the university might want in future, he agreed. And I said, “Next year we can consider the candidates you put forward, but the U.S. of course will decide.”

During this time, I began to meet some academics at the university and I learned that some hoped the U.S. would give Fulbrights to the ideologues in order to get rid of them whereas others did not want such people rewarded, which I agreed with. Soon I began to wonder how I could get some of these academics over to the embassy and came upon the idea of movies—U.S. feature films, which everyone liked but were no longer shown in Addis. Why not show a movie at the residence, I thought, which could seat about 150 people or more when you cleared out all the furniture? The residence was a palace the Haile Selassie family had donated to the U.S., and since the U.S. no longer had a cultural center in Addis, it seemed the next best thing. So we began sending out invitations to movies, plus desserts, like chocolate cakes—rare in Addis—and coffee before the movie so people could mill around, and before the film was shown I always said a few words to try to get a social message across. Of course many Ethiopians were afraid to come to the embassy because of the security camera across the street, and spies in the crowd, but coming in groups to a movie seemed like something they could risk. And so they began to come little by little and before we knew it more than 100 people were coming to the American embassy residence for the movies every month. I also went over to the medical school and invited doctors, and further found a lot of interested Ethiopians at the independent Rotary and Lions Clubs where whoever was left of the business community congregated. And there were Ethiopians working at the ECA and OAU.

Reaching government people was more difficult, I don’t mean just for the movies but for education and information programs I was trying to develop. But then I came to realize that the deputy minister of information was somebody I knew. I had met him at graduate school. I remembered him because I had never met ‘a revolutionary’ before and …

Q: At SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies]?

Well, actually he was studying at the University of Chicago but visited SAIS. And he and I had long talks which fascinated me so I remembered him. I soon found out that he was one of the people who supported the revolution that overthrew the Emperor. He was a political scientist and communications person, became director of radio and television for the revolution and when we arrived in Addis was number two at the information ministry. I wasn’t so sure he would remember me because our conversations were twenty years ago but I sent a message to him indirectly through the director of the German cultural center (the Goethe Institute). The director informed me he did remember me, and the Director then invited my husband and me to dinner—we went in an unofficial car—and he arranged for the deputy minister to drop by later in the evening. So we reconnected.

USIA Superior Honor Award | Floyd’s Medals
USIA Superior Honor Award | Floyd’s Medals

When I told him I was now the public affairs officer at the American Embassy and would like to meet with people at the Ministry, he said he would help me. And he did. Let me note that by this time he was disenchanted with the revolution and must have seen the contact as an opportunity to meet with Americans. He invited me over to the Ministry, which for USIA was an event. I asked him for a friendlier media both for me personally and for the U.S. I told him that I had been part of a group of volunteers helping out at the leprosy center and a group picture was taken and put in the Ethiopian Herald [the English language daily]. But that one face in that group had been cut out, and that was mine. That amused him and he said, “You know Henry Kissinger once said, even the paranoid have enemies.” I said, “Well, I would like to be able to have American events and donations in the newspaper.” Not that I had any donations from USIA to give at that time, so I called upon all my friends in the States to send me books. And they did, and I had cartons of books. They were old books. They were books about anything. And I went over to Addis Ababa University library and said, “I have all these books and would like to make a donation.” The librarians who looked at them said, “We are happy to have them, but it is not the kind of donation that gets publicized because they are not new books, or books focused on a particular theme, they are just any old thing.” I said, “Well, let’s do it anyway because if I can show the U.S. that the donation is acknowledged by this country, then maybe I can get you the real books you want.” They went along with it, they wanted connections to Americans, and the Ministry of Information backed it up and said “The donation is going to be covered.” And so it was in the Ethiopian Herald and possibly on the radio. My picture was there, the books were there, everything was there. And that played well in Washington—it had been years since the U.S. was mentioned in the newspapers in a positive way. Then officials from other ministries, the Ministry of Culture, and the film center came to see me and find out whether the U.S. had any films to give them; the mass media education center had come earlier. And the Minister of Information himself went to see my husband and told him he was sick of watching the Soviet Union fight World War II on the eastern front every Saturday night. They wanted American films. So suddenly we had demand, but we didn’t have supply.

I had to press and press and finally got films and books and then I asked for short-term visitor grants for officials in government ministries to visit the U.S. In particular, I wanted the radio director to go to the U.S. and the television director. Neither had been to the U.S. and I believed their veneer of indoctrination was probably thin. But USIA responded that Ethiopia would never let such people out but I argued that I could get them out and so they agreed. Of course, I was walking a tightrope. At the very last minute, the TV Director called me to tell me the Minister said he could not go, although everything had been set up. With the help of the deputy minister I got in to see the Minister. And I told him, “I have to explain to you that if you turn this down we are not going to be able to do more things because Washington was sure you wouldn’t let the director come to begin with and I assured them he could go. Canceling will not be well received and will end everything I am working for.” He said, “You really want him to go?” and I said, “yes,” and he replied, “OK, he can go,” and then he asked for sports films to show on TV that same week. When it came time for the radio director to go, the same charade took place. This time, however, the minister told the director to tell me—after nixing the visit—that I should not come in to try to reverse the decision. So David said no one said he couldn’t go in, so he went and the radio director was then allowed to go.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s Director General began checking into whether David’s wife should be doing this program now that it was becoming more high profile. And USIA wondered about the program being run by someone who knew nothing about the agency or its operations. On one occasion, I showed the film, The Grapes of Wrath at the University and over a thousand people came, which I conveyed to Washington. Well, I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to do that, and got a frantic call from USIA. What they actually said after telling me it was against the rules was, “Keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t tell us about it for heaven’s sake.” Now, if in 1982 and 1983 most of the films on Ethiopian television were East German or Soviet, by 1984 most of the films on television were American. And American donations to the medical school and university and other places began to be reported in the press and over the radio. And at the same time, we were continuing to have the movie shows, got musicians from USIA to come out and they performed at the large Italian cultural center. . . . By the time the U.S. began to give food donations to Ethiopia during the famine, the media was already giving the U.S. some coverage.

Well, Washington liked what I was doing and USIA gave me its Superior Honor Award and offered me a job when I left Ethiopia.


BA in Government, University of Vermont, Barnard College 1956–1960
MA in School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins 1960–1962
Joined the State Department 1978
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of Human Rights, Human Rights Officer 1978–1980
Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Economic & security assistance 1980–1982
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—USIA Public Affairs Program 1982–1985
Washington, D.C.—Refugee Policy Group 1988–1994