The USIA was established by President Dwight Eisenhower in August 1953. Theodore Striebert served as its first director. The agency operated under the name USIA until April 1978, when its functions were consolidated with those of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State and the agency was renamed the International Communication Agency (USICA). The agency's name was restored to USIA in August 1982.

The USIA's mission was "to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics in promotion of the U.S. national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad."

Overseas the USIA was known as the United States Information Service (USIS). Until the USIA's closure in 1999, Foreign Service Officers were assigned to USIS posts in almost all U.S. embassies and missions abroad. These USIA officers served as spokespersons for all agencies represented in U.S. diplomatic missions, articulated U.S. foreign policy concerns to journalists and other opinion leaders, and conducted press conferences for resident and visiting U.S. officials.

The USIA was also responsible for U.S. government International Broadcasting Programs such as VOA and Worldnet and for all educational and cultural exchange programs, the best known of which is the Fulbright Program.

The Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 integrated the USIA into the Department of State on October 1, 1999. Following September 11, 2001 and subsequent rapid declines in foreign public opinion about the United States, there have been frequent calls for the agency's reconstitution.

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