About Lois Roth
Lois was born in New York City to Louis Wersba, a manufacturer of fine clothing, and Natalie Mann, daughter of a theatrical family; both had a discerning eye for art and theatre. She studied at the Fieldston School, an offshoot of the Ethical Culture movement, where she benefited from noteworthy teachers. Among her classmates were the two daughters of Anne O. Thomson, a Swedish‐American woman to whom Lois became very close and came to consider her “adoptive mother.”
After a short stint at Elmira College, Lois transferred to Barnard College, where the strong liberal arts education encouraged her passion for the social sciences. After a brief and unsuccessful marriage, Lois began graduate studies in sociology at Columbia University, where major scholars such as Robert and Helen Lynd, Paul Lazarsfeld, C. Wright Mills and Nathan Glazer contributed to a great moment in American social thought.
In the early 1950s, Lois won a Fulbright Award to Uppsala, Sweden, that would change her life. She fell in love with the Swedish language and soon became fluent. Able to communicate with peers, Lois discovered her gift for making serious, lasting connections across cultures. Among the many life‐long friends Lois made at Uppsala University were the Swedish diplomat Hans Blix and Anne O. Thomson, whom Lois referred to as her Swedish adoptive mother and whose bequest enabled us to found Project Support programs in Sweden and Finland.
Upon her return to the U.S., Lois joined the American‐Scandinavian Foundation (ASF) as special assistant to the president. At ASF she worked on a vast array of projects, including translations, publications and event planning. She soon got involved in larger and more important projects, however. These included bringing Finland into ASF programming and persuading the Ford Foundation to give extensive familiarization grants to forty prominent Finns, whom she then shepherded around the U.S. Lois’ involvement in this prominent project turned her into a kind of celebrity in Finland: arriving in Helsinki for a visit on the same day as Vice‐President Lyndon B. Johnson, she found her story and picture above the front‐page fold, with LBJ’s below.
In 1961 Lois, like many other Americans, was galvanized by the Kennedy moment and applied to join the US Foreign Service. At the time, however, the US Information Agency (USIA) did not accept women into lateral entry positions. So, after leaving ASF, she spent her evenings translating the novel Roseanna—the first in a series of groundbreaking mysteries by the Swedish crime‐fiction couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö; it was published by Pantheon Books in 1967, and has remained in print for over four decades.
Five full years after first applying, in 1966 Lois was accepted into the USIA’s Foreign Service and assigned to Tehran. There she served first as deputy to the Cultural Affairs Officer, and then as director of the Iran‐America Society (IAS)—a massive bi‐national organization devoted to English language learning, cultural exchanges and the fine and performing arts. In a period during which Iran was in a ferment of cultural activity and experimentation, promoted by Queen Farah Pahlavi, IAS under Lois’s direction became one of the single most significant centers for such activity in the country.
After five years in Tehran, Lois returned to the first of several demanding jobs in Washington and abroad. In Washington, she served as the US State Department desk officer for Scandinavian countries and as a consultant for bi‐national centers worldwide; she was elected Secretary of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) at a time when younger members were pressing for serious reform in the State Department. In April of 1973, she married Richard T. Arndt, a colleague from Tehran, and was then posted as cultural program officer in Rome, then Paris.
In 1980, Lois returned to the U.S. to spend a year in the State Department prestigious Senior Seminar, a year-long inter‐agency program that prepared participants for upper‐echelon leadership roles. For the seminar, she wrote a major article, entitled “Public Diplomacy and the Past: The Search for an American Style of Propaganda 1952‐1977,” which examined the tension between long‐standing ideas of how the U.S. should conduct what is now termed “public diplomacy” and a cultural approach, detailing the problems caused by orienting “informational” functions to short‐term foreign policy aims. First published by the State Department, then by Tufts University, the article found its fullest expression in an updated version anthologized by Ulloth and Brasch in The Press and the State (1986).
In Washington, Lois was then named Deputy Director for Centers, Books, Libraries, and English Teaching, before being appointed to head Arts America—USIA’s global program for fine and performing arts—which she began to seriously re‐imagine, devoting to it her hallmark energy, dedication and brave creativity. An early bout with breast cancer in 1982 failed to slow her down and seemed to have been overcome.
Throughout her career, Lois served as a mentor and inspiration to younger generations of foreign service officers. In particular, she sought to offer them training in the art of cultural and intellectual diplomacy, which was usually missing in orientations. Lois was a feminist, heading the Women’s Action Organization (WAO) and playing a role in reshaping embassy life for women and spouses. She also wrote an article that had a deep impact on USIA’s foreign service; “Nice Girl or Pushy Bitch: Two Roads to Non‐Promotion” reported on her experience serving on two promotion panels, ten years apart; here, Lois analyzed how, for many years, women officers were kept, or kept themselves from promotions by stereotyping.
In January 1986, Lois died of complications from a recurrence of her cancer. Her curiosity and her warmth were boundless and, throughout her life, those she met understood and responded to both. She is dearly missed for her work to promote cross‐cultural understanding, her advocacy for young people and women in USIA and beyond, and her never‐ending willingness to work for what was right. Lois’ memory lives on through the Foundation, which was established in 1987 by her widower, the cultural diplomat Richard T. Arndt.
Lois is featured in the National Museum of American Diplomacy’s #HerDiplomacy feature, which highlights women who have blazed trails in cultural diplomacy in the U.S. and abroad. The Museum’s overview of her life and accomplishments is available here. A conference room at the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs is named in her honor.
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