The Inspiring History of the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation
by Andrew McDonald
Over sixty years ago, a young 19-year-old had a life-changing experience that would lead to him to impact the lives of tens of thousands and arguably change the world. In 1953, Harry W. Morgan traveled to Holland during one of the most cataclysmic events that the country had ever experienced, a flood that resulted in the evacuation of 70,000 people and almost 2,000 deaths.
In his first interaction in a foreign land, Harry was shocked at the perception that existed about Americans and saw a great need to foster better understanding between people of the world. This led him to create the Ambassadors for Friendship program and ultimately the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation. Below is our story, the result of one man’s dedication and unwavering belief in the power of friendship in fostering greater understanding, communication, and internationalism that has helped shape our world and provide an enduring legacy that we will build upon.
Harry Morgan was born in Oklahoma in 1934, but as a child, moved to Salinas California – home to the author John Steinbeck whose Grapes of Wrath depicted the mass migration of many “Okies” during the dust bowl to the prospect of agricultural prosperity in the “salad bowl” of America. As a young person, Harry recognized his gift of curiosity and desire to see the world. At the suggestion of a teacher, he became interested in journalism and saw it as an ideal career to combine these interests with his love for writing.
Having been drafted into the Air Force, he took the period before reporting to hitchhike across the US, with intent to work on a cargo ship and get to the relief work in Holland. Along the way, telling his story on a Chicago radio show won him the KLM plane ride to Amsterdam. While in the Air Force, he was given permission to bring several Dutch friends to visit the US as the first “Ambassadors” to meet and mix with many Americans. This was the age of Senator J. William Fulbright, during which cultural exchange was a brand-new concept that got lots of media attention.
By the late 1950s, Harry obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Rutgers University in New Jersey, but the media attention of his previous activities caught the eye and interest of the founders of the Reader’s Digest – DeWitt and Lila Wallace. Many lunch trips into New York ultimately landed Harry a job as an Associate Director at the world’s largest magazine. At the time, the US was in the midst of the Cold War. Anti-US rhetoric was prevalent, and Dewitt Wallace was interested in doing what he could to combat these misperceptions. Now 26 years old, Harry Morgan told him about his experience in the Netherlands and his idea of bringing together international students from around the world that would travel the country and experience the real America. Wallace liked the idea and sent Harry to Macalester College in Minnesota where he formally began the Ambassadors for Friendship program. Wallace’s father had been President of Macalester and Wallace himself was a member of the graduating class of 1911. He was, thus, an ardent supporter of the College, and was seeking ways to raise its visibility.
Macalester was a progressive university in terms of internationalism and provided the ideal setting for Harry to develop and implement his idea. His first group of four “Ambassadors for Friendship” traveled over 50,000 miles and saw the US as it truly was – the good and the bad. One of the four participants was Kofi Annan, a young student from Ghana who went on to become the 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations. Recognizing the success and impact that these trips had on those that took part, Harry concluded he could do the same with journalists thus multiplying the impact through their readership. From this idea, Harry founded another organization, the World Press Institute (WPI), which continues to thrive today.
In 1962 in a special issue of Life Magazine, Harry was one of a hundred young movers and shakers cited as being part of “The Take-Over Generation.” By the age of 27, Harry Morgan had begun two world-changing programs that continue to prosper today and had been nationally recognized as part of a new generation poised to take over.
Friendship is the Message
The Cold War continued to provide a motivating purpose to continue his work of bringing people together to make a difference in the world. With both programs successfully up and running, Harry moved back to New York to work directly for DeWitt Wallace at Reader’s Digest. He continued to travel the world (over one hundred countries by the late 1960s) to identify journalists for the WPI and also became a Roving Editor of The Digest charged to look for interesting stories globally, including behind the Iron Curtain. As a result, in early 1968, he found himself in Czechoslovakia just before the Russian invasion, where he found the lack of free press to be a great concern which was even worse after the takeover.
While there he realized the great popularity of music. A comment by a student that, “music isn’t from country to country, it’s from heart to heart,” caused a great epiphany as he saw music as a language that all people understood. Back in the states, he reached out to his alma mater Rutgers University with the idea of sending a choir to Czechoslovakia as an expression of goodwill and a way to build East-West relations. Once again, friendship would be the message, this time using music as the medium. In August of 1971, a group of 120 singers from three schools in New Jersey spent three weeks touring Czechoslovakia. On its front page, The New York Times called the effort a “highly successful experiment in the East-West relations.” However, this was not so for some of the counterparties in Czechoslovakia, who served jail time for fraternizing with “the enemy.”
Word of the tour’s success in the eyes of America reached neighboring Romania where Nicolae Ceausescu was the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. The Romanian Government reached out to Harry to have a similar event in their country. The project quickly grew to a point where over 1000 young performers representing 20 performing groups from five states, “sang their way across Romania.” Two years later, this also resulted in a visit from a Romanian choral group to the White House to meet with President Gerald Ford.
As activity blossomed, Harry Morgan saw a much bigger opportunity to scale up these efforts and formally created the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation in 1973. By 1984, in that year alone, FAF was conducting over 42 ensembles comprising 2000 participants from 23 states touring 12 countries. Once again, “friendship” was at the forefront of change, and played a part in the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, thereby establishing the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation firmly as an agent for change.
The Power of Youth
With the demise of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s and early ’90s, FAF looked for the next frontier where it could use friendship as a catalyst for change. Young people have always been a focus of the organization, exemplified by the founder himself who began the endeavor to change the world as a 19-year-old. In 2004, the organization in conjunction with its partnership with the United Nations held its first session of The Youth Assembly (YA). One of the primary objectives of these assemblies was to expose young leaders to the UN and its work. For the next 13 years, The Youth Assemblies were held at the United Nations and attracted young people from over 160 countries. Today, the assemblies bring together 1,000 young people twice a year and have become the premier event for young leaders and changemakers.
Other work has included significant programs that aim to help heal families of victims of terror, particularly communities where cultural strengthening with the U.S. is critical. These programs focused on regions emerging from natural or man-made disasters, one of which received national recognition for our work with 9/11 families. In 2002, one of our programs, Finding New Hope, received $3.1 million from American Red Cross, Hitachi, and Rotary International, and included signature funding of over $1.6 million from the Lions Clubs International Foundation.
In addition to cultural exchange programs that took place around the globe, we have generated a variety of programs that focus on music and the arts as a tool for peacebuilding and global cooperation, including the Youth Symphony for the United Nations, Youth Band for the United Nations, and the Rhythms of One World International Choral Festival. In 2007, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin dedicated the 28th of June as “a day in honor of the Youth Symphony and Youth Band for bringing New Orleans back through its concert to aid evacuees of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”
From 2012-2015, the Rhythms of One World International Choral Festival brought together adult and children’s choirs from various parts of the world for a weeklong series of choral performances at many prestigious venues in New York City and Geneva, including the UN General Assembly Hall, Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Hall, and Victoria Hall. Furthering our slogan at the time, “music is the medium, friendship is the message”, we have produced two CDs, “Ambassadors Sing For Peace” in 2013 and “Strong UN, Better World” in 2015, both sung and performed by UN ambassadors.
Friendship, Youth and Taking Over Again – The future of FAF
With tens of thousands of individuals who have participated in FAF programs, our hope going forward is to harness the power of friendship to make a change in the world. Over the decades, what has emerged is a powerful Theory of Change whereby we will seek to connect and meaningfully engage young people, provide education and development opportunities, and help facilitate action and measurable impact that will ultimately lead to a world free of war, oppression, poverty, social exclusion, and a sustainable environment.
Like our founder, we have an undaunted hopefulness for humanity and will strive to bring people together with friendship as our primary message and a critical component for true and lasting change. We were founded over 50 years ago to further human understanding through one-to-one personal encounters. It has always been one of our aims to heighten understanding and friendship among individuals. We believe that lasting and substantial change requires thousands of people devoted to a common purpose, therefore our vision is to create a new generation founded on the qualities of friendship. With a deep history of being an organization that has shown an unwavering dedication to our mission, a boldness to try new ideas, and the courage to act, the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation is poised to make a major impact in the world.