Wes Pedersen, a former Foreign Service officer, U.S. Information Agency writer, dies

December 5, 2013

Wes Pedersen, a former Foreign Service officer and U.S. Information Agency writer who prided himself on forecasting world events with an acumen that eluded his higher-ups, died Dec. 4 at the Carriage Hill Bethesda nursing home. He was 91.

The cause was a heart ailment, said his son, Eric Pedersen.

As part of State Department propaganda operations during the Cold War, Mr. Pedersen covered the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, penning pseudonymous columns planted in newspapers around the world. He boasted of beating intelligence analysts in discerning Kremlin developments, for example, just by analyzing Communist statements and Soviet broadcasts.

Mr. Pedersen’s reportage – under such phony bylines as “Benjamin West” and “Paul Ford” — had wide reach. Some CIA competitors in the propaganda game evidently grew envious.

“In the mid-’50s, the CIA in Paris approached Lowell Bennett, the U.S. Embassy’s press attache, requesting that he prevail on the USIA to stop distributing Ford. Why? Because French editors weren’t publishing the CIA’s similar column, but it might have a chance with Ford’s out of the way,” Mr. Pedersen wrote in a letter published in The Washington Post in 2008. “Bennett, of course, said no.”

After 30 years in government, Mr. Pedersen became communications director at the Public Affairs Council, an organization of corporate and trade association public affairs executives. He worked at the council for 26 years.

At heart he was a writer — a witty wordsmith who never lacked for robust opinions. He peppered The Washington Post’s letters pages with missives on political history, martinis and the misuse of words (never write “from whence,” he instructed, just “whence”).

Wesley Niels Munkholm Pedersen was born in South Sioux City, Neb., on July 10, 1922. In the 1940s, he worked as a reporter at the Sioux City Journal in Iowa and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After joining the federal government’s information apparatus in 1950, Mr. Pedersen covered major national and world events. He was on the site of the nuclear test at Yucca Flat, Nev., and filed columns emphasizing “the openness of the test in contrast to the secret explosions conducted by the USSR,” he said in an autobiographical account he later wrote for the Public Affairs Council.

In 1963, he became head of a USIA publications program that churned out magazines and books. He wrote and edited “Legacy of a President,” which was published a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the compilation of speeches and photos became an international bestseller after the government assigned rights to publishing houses abroad.

Mr. Pedersen also oversaw photo-heavy biographies of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, which required yielding to the subjects’ peculiar vanities.

Johnson “favored his left profile and wouldn’t tolerate photos taken of him from the right,” Mr. Pedersen said. The Nixon White House was easier to work with, he said, objecting to just one photo for a particular project.

“It showed then-Congressman Nixon, his wife and two young daughters on bicycles at the reflecting pool in Washington,” Mr. Pedersen said. “Herb Klein, Nixon’s press secretary, asked only that Nixon’s face be airbrushed to eliminate an early 5 o’clock shadow.”

Mr. Pedersen, a Chevy Chase resident, was inducted in 2005 into the Hall of Fame of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Angela Vavra Pedersen of Chevy Chase; a son, Eric Pedersen of Glen Burnie, Md.; and two granddaughters.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.