Cultural Exchange Programs played a vital role in official and unofficial relations between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. Examples of cultural exchange programs include student exchanges, sports exchanges, and scholarly or professional exchanges, among many others. While many exchange programs are funded by the government, many others are private-sector organizations, either non-profit.

History: One of the earliest cultural exchanges to be considered part of U.S. Public Diplomacy occurred when Nelson Rockefeller, named coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Affairs for the American Republics, encouraged journalists from Latin America to visit the United States in 1940 as part of the exchange of programs program with Latin America. Leading musicians from the region were subsequently invited during the decade to CBS's broadcasting studios in New York City in order to perform on the Viva America radio program for the State Department's Office for Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations (OCCCRBAR). Following World War II, Senator J. William Fulbright introduced legislation for what would become the Fulbright Program in 1946. One of the most significant moments in the formalization of exchange programs as tools of American Foreign Policy came under U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1955, Eisenhower met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva. Soon after this meeting, Eisenhower said, "The subject that took most of my attention was the possibility of increased visits overseas by the citizens of one country into the territory of the other nation. In this subject there was the fullest possible agreement between the West and the Soviet Union".

In 1959, the exchange programs aspect of the State Department was separated from the Public Affairs Bureau to form the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Relations. In 1961, Congress passed the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (also known as Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961), mandating an increase in governmental programs to enhance mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries.