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John M. Begg Oral History Interview

 

Oral History Interview with
John M. Begg

U.S. Department of State, 1941-53: Assistant Chief, Cultural Relations, 1941; Acting Chief, Motion Picture and Radio Division, 1944; Chief, International Information Division, 1944-46; Chief, International Motion Pictures Division, 1946; Assistant Director, Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs, 1947; and Director, Private Enterprise Cooperative Staff, International Information Administration, 1948-53. Also served as consultant, U.S. Delegation, London Preparatory Commission, UNESCO, 1946; Vice-Chairman, U.S. Delegation to International High Frequency Broadcasting Conference, 1947; Special Assistant to U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, 1949; and Deputy Examiner for Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service, 1952-53.

Washington, D.C.
July 11, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened October, 1982
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

 

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
John M. Begg

 

Washington, D.C.
July 11, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie

[1]

MCKINZIE: Mr. Begg, scholars are interested in why people go into Government service. Could you explain something about your education, your background, and why you decided to go into Government service in 1941?

BEGG: Well, my education happened to be rather diversified. I was educated in Central America, France, England, Spain, Switzerland, and other places because my family happened to be there. In the future, my education was going to help me in the State Department, but at that time it was just a matter of where I was.

[2]

I decided to go into Government in January, 1941. The war had already broken out in England and the situation was pretty desperate. I felt very strongly that we, in the United States, would get into the war. Therefore, I thought I might as well go down to Washington and get into Government or the Army or Navy before we got into the war.

When I went to Washington I wanted to get into the Navy. I applied to the Navy, and they said that they would take me and then asked me why I wanted to get into the Navy. I said, "Because we're going to get in the war sooner or later."

They said, "Mr. Begg, you've been misinformed or you don't read the papers. Haven't you seen about the destroyers that we've given to England? We're not going to get into this war. This is one we're going to stay out of."

I said, "Well, that may be true, but I would still like to get into the Navy because I have a different idea of the subject."

They asked me, "What do you want to do?"

I said, "I want to be an officer."

[3]

They said, "Well, all right. You're going to have to go to officer's training school."

They asked me where I had been educated and I told them I was an honor graduate of Oxford and Harvard. They said, "Well, that seems pretty good. Now, Mr. Begg, where were you born?"

I told them that I happened to be born in Central America. My father was a doctor there, and I was born in Costa Rica.

They said, "Well, we're sorry but you can't become an officer of the U.S. Navy."

This is something that I hadn't known and most people don't know. Naval officers, just as the President, have to be born in the United States. I was very disappointed, but I left and didn't think anything more about it.

Somebody told me later that that law was abolished in 1942 so that people who had been born outside the United States could become naval officers.

I then went over to the State Department. I had a good letter of introduction from an Acting Secretary of State, Norman [Jezekiah] Davis, and I

[4]

was asked what I wanted to do in the State Department. I told them, again, that I thought we would be getting into the war and I'd like to see what I could do in the fields of radio and motion pictures. I was told that the fields of motion pictures and radio was not part of the State Department's work. I left rather disappointedly, but I came back the following day. I was told that if I really was interested in radio I should go and see the man who was in charge of radio. I went to the radio division man and he asked me what I wanted to do and why. I said, "Mussolini and Hitler are sponsoring broadcasts to the world giving false impressions of our country, doing a great deal of damage to us while we have no means of counteracting that false information. I would like to see whether we could do something about it."

I was told, "Don't you realize that we broadcast radio messages to every Embassy in the world?" I was surprised at that but then I realized that we weren't talking on the same beam. He said, "Well, maybe we can find a job for you. How many words can

[5]

you transmit in Morse code?"

When I told him that I couldn't transmit any, I didn't get the job.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Begg, please insert something about your work prior to coming to Washington in January, 1941.

BEGG: I had been working in private business, in the radio and motion picture fields. Most pertinent to what I was trying to do in the State Department probably was this work. In motion pictures I had been with Fox Movietone News and subsequently with Pathe News. I ended up editing the newsreels before they went out to the theaters.

In the radio field I had developed a program called "Pathe News of the Air," a recorded program of interviews throughout the world done by our cameramen but without benefit of photography; simply as a recording. That type of program was very simple to do some years later after the new techniques were developed in radio and recordings. In those days recordings had to be done on film.

MCKINZIE: How did you finally get the job in the State

[6]

Department?

BEGG: I decided, as I watched developments in Europe and the war, that I better try again. I remembered that I was, I suppose, pretty well acquainted with Latin America and I heard that there was a Division of Cultural Relations that had been just recently formed in the State Department. This time I was given an interview by the Chief of the Cultural Relations Division, Mr. [Charles A.] Thompson. I told him that I would be glad to do anything I could to develop cultural relations, particularly in the fields of radio and motion pictures, with Latin America. Just about that time, I was also offered a job in private industry to direct international radio programs, which is what I really had wanted to do in Government. I had to take it more slowly in Government, as one has to.

I was in the Cultural Relations Division and I stayed for several years. Our work eventually became important enough that the administration decided that the work, as far as radio and motion pictures were concerned, should be extended to other

[7]

countries. There would be cooperation between the Office of War Information and the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which had then been set up outside of the State Department to carry on informational activities and cultural activities. The Cultural Relations Office of Radio and Motion Pictures was made into a division on its own. I was made Chief of the Division of Radio and Motion Pictures. Some eight months later, because we had got involved in various press and publications activities, the name of the division was changed to the International Information Division. It was from these last three divisions that I used to attend joint meetings once or twice a week with the Office of Inter-American Affairs and the Office of War Information. I represented the State Department in terms of policy and content insofar as it was necessary.

MCKINZIE: Was there generally agreement among those people about the content of programs leaving the country?

BEGG: There was general agreement on content but the

[8]

great difficulty was in following up. You could give directives to the various producers, starting off with the group that we met with, who relayed them to the actual technicians and producers. What they actually did and said in their languages (after all they were broadcasting in 46 languages or more) was very difficult to follow up on. Whether the policies were always followed up or not was quite a question at that time. I found out later on, when I became Assistant Director in charge of media for the State Department's operations in radio, that some of the programs were not carrying out the instructions being given. It's very possible at that time, when the State Department was not directly concerned with production of programs, that it was also happening.

MCKINZIE: Did you, while you were in those three divisions that you have just mentioned, have direct contact with radio programs, radio stations, program directors, and motion picture producers?

BEGG: We didn't have direct contact except when they

[9]

came to us and asked for guidance which they occasionally did. We didn't have any direct contact with the programs that were being produced by the Office of Inter-American Affairs and the Office of War Information. That was their responsibility. We did have, however, a rather special committee in the Cultural Relations Division which was continued during most of the war and after called the attestation for content committee for slide films, motion pictures and subsequently radio programs. That attestation was given as a help to private industry because private industry, if they got an official attestation clearance of the State Department through our Cultural Relations Attestation Committee, did not have to pay any customs duties. Industry was very pleased to send their stuff into us for attestation.

MCKINZIE: Had there been a controversy over the export of a film like The Grapes of Wrath, which presented an aspect of American life about which many people weren't terribly proud? I believe that you did favor the export of that particular film.

[10]

BEGG: It's not that I personally favored the export of that kind of film. It is a film which did show certain aspects of the American life, of course: the Okies, leaving their problems and crossing over to California. We did not think we wanted to use it in our program by sending it overseas, or taking parts of it and sending it overseas with our documentaries. We raised no objection to the industry sending it overseas, because we had no right to raise an objection. It was their product and we were not in the censorship business. As a matter of fact, they did send it to Chile. They may have sent it to other countries, but I remember a report from our Embassy in Chile saying that they had been quite upset that that kind of a film was to be shown in Chile, but they'd gone to the theaters and listened to the reaction to it and wanted to report that the reaction was very good. The people of the theaters pointed to the Okies as having sneakers and broken-down cars. It was obvious that these were the poor of the United States at that time, but it was also obvious to these Chileans who had never seen a car,

[11]

broken down or not, and were barefooted, that they were very well off. They figured that the United States must be all right if the poor there had as much goods to use as the Okies had. You can never tell what the reactions are going to be, really, when you come right down to it. That was an example of not being able to tell. Of course, we thought we could tell other things, and did.

Since we're on the question of censorship -- we had another rather interesting case. The reason we got in on it was not because we wanted to censor; we always wanted industry to censor their own. Reader's Digest came to us because they could not get their Swedish edition into Sweden without the Government's help. It was published in Sweden but the original copy had to be flown in first. The only way it could be flown in was above the Nazi occupation of Norway, so it had to be flown in a very high-flying airplane. We had to arrange for that because we approved of the Swedish edition of Reader's Digest getting into Sweden. Because we were helping in it, we were in the position of having to more or

[12]

less attest to its value, and the editors of Reader's Digest would send down their copy for us to look at. I found that by circulating this copy to various political area divisions, there was always comment on some phrase, or paragraph, of almost every article. It was impossible, therefore, to set ourselves up as censors. I changed the approach to it and said we do not wish comments on the individual articles, except a statement on whether or not any individual article is detrimental to the United States; not whether a paragraph or sentence is detrimental. That was the way it was carried out. Whenever we felt strongly that an article would be detrimental we asked the Reader's Digest to eliminate that particular article. It was very seldom done, and I only remember one case: an article about Russia. At that time our negotiations with Russia were at such a point that it was better not to have that coming out in an American magazine in Sweden. That’s about the only time that I can remember that we actually said "no" to something.

MCKINZIE: During and after the war you preferred, if

[13]

censorship were necessary, that it be industry censorship rather than Governmental censorship?

BEGG: I have always preferred that industry be its own censor. I think it's fair to say that it probably came from my own background. I had worked on motion pictures, and in press, publications, and radio. I, at that time, felt rather strongly that the Government should not interfere with what we felt was all right.

MCKINZIE: Did you feel that industry before the war had done a good job in self-censorship?

BEGG: Cens