The current debate on the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is filled with misinformation about the history of Smith-Mundt, some of it verging on blatant propaganda, making the overall discussion rich in irony. In 1947, the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional committee assembled to give its recommendation on the Smith-Mundt Act declared that it was a necessary response to the danger posed “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” Today, it is the Smith-Mundt Act that is victim to “false propaganda” and “misinformation” that are shaping the perceptions of the the Modernization Act as a whole and its parts.
Many of the negative narratives swirling around the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act are based on assumptions and myths that, like true propaganda, have an anchor in reality but stray from the facts to support false conclusions. These fabrications include the false assertion the Act ever applied to the whole of Government, often specifically the Defense Department (there is a separate “no propaganda” law for the Defense Department), as well the more broad and fundamental confusion, and lack of knowledge, of the nature and content of America’s public diplomacy with foreign audiences.
An honest appraisal of the Modernization Act requires an honest representation of the original Smith-Mundt Act, especially it’s so-called “firewall.” Drawing on my forthcoming book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act, below is a brief account on the primary cause behind the Congress legislating that the State Department shall “disseminate abroad information about the U.S., the American people, and the policies promulgated by the Congress, the President, the Secretary of State and other responsible officials of Government having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs.”
It is true that Nazi propaganda and President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee for Public Information, also known as the Creel Commission, were fresh on the minds of the Congress. As with so much about Smith-Mundt, ironically, these memories had a very substantial in role in creating the demand for the Voice of America. Too often ignored, however, was the effort to protect the Government from a State Department that enjoyed little trust and confidence from the Congress. From the information activities to the programs for the “interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills,” the Congress made its clear its concerns that the State Department may intentionally, or inadvertently, undermine the American way of life for reasons ranging from the “New Dealers” to the liberal culture of the Department itself.
The concern over Government “propaganda,” the lessons from the Nazis, Fascists, Communists, Creel, and an interest to protect domestic media, were codified in the Smith-Mundt Act. The Modernization Act specifically highlights, in the peculiar way laws are written, these “safeguards”: “Such material may be made available within the United States and disseminated, when appropriate, pursuant to sections 502 and 1005 of the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (22 U.S.C. 1462 and 1437)…” In other words, to use private media whenever possible and to not have a monopoly in any medium. (The former is also a sunset clause, as highlighted by Members of Congress, the media, and the State Department, which is described in my forthcoming book.)
Perhaps it should not be surprising that most people – from pundits to practitioners to lawmakers – do not know about these protections as law makers, the media, and the scholarly community in the 1970s and 1980s focused on preventing U.S. domestic access to and awareness of what the United States Information Agency was doing abroad.
In 1945, the Department released a report it commissioned on the future of the international information environment. This report, emphasizing the rise of public opinion in the conduct of foreign affairs, opened with “Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments.”
What we know today as the Smith-Mundt Act had a hearing on the Hill in the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the 79th Congress in October 1945, two months after President Truman abolished the Office of War Information and transferred the foreign information service to the State Department. It was known as the Bloom Bill after the Democrat chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was actually the second attempt by the chairman to enable the State Department to engage and inform foreign publics. The first try, in February 1944, failed to leave the committee because of too great a focus on arts.
Testifying on behalf of the need to make the Voice of America permanent, as well as other information and exchange activities, was the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. This Assistant Secretary position, barely a year old, reflected the Department’s growing appreciation of the changing world.
The Bloom Bill was referred to the Rules Committee in December 1945 where it stalled. In February, the Rules Committee chairman, Eugene Cox (D-GA), informed the State Department the bill would not move forward because, according to Cox, ten of the twelve committee members were against anything the State Department favored because of the “Communist infiltration and pro-Russian policy” of the Department. Later, when Cox and the Rules Committee did finally allow the bill to move on, the ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Committe, John Taber (R-NY), called for a “house-cleaning” of the State Department to “keep only those people whose first loyalty is to the United States” before any funds would be appropriated for the Bloom Bill.
In June, the bill was amended by Rep. John M. Vorys (R-OH) “to remove the stigma of propaganda” and address the principle objections to the information activities it was authorizing. Inserted were the true “anti-propaganda” elements of the law, referred to in today’s Modernization Act as sections 1437 and 1462. The international information dissemination should only be conducted if it was needed to supplement the activities of private agencies, or lack of activities or lack of private agencies. Further, the State Department was prohibited from acquiring a monopoly in “broadcasting or any other information medium.” Lastly, the private sector leaders were to be invited to review and advise the State Department in its work. (The following year, when the Bloom Bill was reintroduced as the Smith-Mundt Bill, Rep. Everett Dirksen (R-IL) refined the outside advisement amendment with an amendment that established the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, later renamed as the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.)
On July 20, 1946, the Bloom Bill passed the House by a two-thirds vote. It was blocked in the Senate by Sen. Robert Taft (R-OH). Taft said later at the Ohio state Republican convention that the Bloom Bill and VOA suppressed “independence of thought and speech and of the press” as VOA and State “attacked all prominent opponents of left-wing philosophy” and aided in “building up a left-wing and even Communist philosophy in the news papers and on the radio.”
The bill was resurrected in the 80th “Do Nothing” Republican Congress as a Republican bill under the stewardship of Rep. Karl Mundt (R-ND) and Sen. Alexander Smith (R-NJ). There were more hearings on privatizing VOA, this time by the Senate Appropriations Committee. While the Associated Press and the United Press opposed Bloom and Smith-Mundt, many major media organizations actively backed the Bloom and Smith-Mundt, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, the Washington Star, and the Chicago Times. CBS and NBC produced a combined 42% of VOA’s output. David Sarnoff, president of RCA, and Philip D. Reed, chairman of GE, wrote favorable editorials supporting Smith-Mundt. CBS, NBC and other media industry leaders read a joint statement at an appropriations committee hearing, stating “We regard the maintenance and development of international broadcasting as a matter of vital importance to the United States. Private industry cannot finance international broadcasting on the scale required.” Signing the statement were Sarnoff; Reed; Niles Trammell, president of the National Broadcasting Company; Walter Evans, president of Westinghouse Electric Corporation; Wesley I. Dumm, president of the Associated Broadcasting System; Walter S. Lemmon, president of the World Wide Broadcasting Foundation; and E.J. Boos, vice president of the Crosley Radio Corporation.
But the distrust of State remained. Rep. Fred Busbey (R-IL) sought to delay the bill until the State Department was cleaned up: “I believe there should be in the State Department an Office of Information and Cultural Affairs, but it should be free of communistic, fascistic, and other alien influences.” Congressman Clare Hoffman (R-MI) believed the exchange program was for the State Department to establish an espionage net directed against the United States.
Eugene Cox, now an advocate for Smith-Mundt, termed the international information programs an “activity which is essential to the security and welfare of the country.” Cox asked, “Are we to deny ourselves the right to tell our own story?”
The House approved the Smith-Mundt Bill in June 1947 before the summer recess. It was approved by the Senate in December and signed into law January 27, 1948.
It was the intent of the 79th and 80th Congresses that the U.S. media and the Congress would provide vigilance and safeguards to protect the American people, and the Government, from State Department information created for and disseminate to foreign audiences. In 1972 and 1985, however, the Congress decided that neither the media nor the Congress could be trusted to filter USIA material to the American public resulting in a FOIA exemption for USIA material. In other words, a FOIA request for USIA material would be denied. Adding to the irony surrounding the Smith-Mundt Act, the 1967 Advisory Commission on Information recommended, a year after passage of the Freedom of Information Act, that the “de facto rather than de jure” prohibition on domestic dissemination should be eliminated to reflect the “open-door” policy implemented through FOIA on the government.
The result is what the Government says and does in the name of the American taxpayer is hidden from view. The transparency, oversight, awareness and accountability, contrary to the intent of the Congress sixty-four years ago, are gone. The so-called Second Mandate of the USIA to inform Americans about the world is gone.
As the prohibition is on availability and not consumption, the prohibition many assert should remain in place, if not strengthened, means the websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds for VOA, RFE/RL, and other BBG websites, as well as the websites and Facebook pages of the U.S. Embassies, should not be available to computers inside America. This was clearly not the intent of the 79th and 80th Congress. Indeed, the oversight was of such importance to the Congress that it established an advisory commission to supervise worldwide programming and activities of the State Department. That commission was not renewed by the Senate last year.
When discussing the Smith-Mundt Act, let’s keep the debate on the facts and personal views and concerns and not make assertions and attributions based on myths of the past. Likewise, it is important to remember that access is not the same as dissemination.
- 1948 Brookings Institute report recommending Americans be able to see VOA and other State Department material for foreign audiences: “what is safe for foreign audiences to get should be safe for our own people.”
- 1967 report of the Advisory Commission on Information
- Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 introduced in the House
- Public Law 80-402 – the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, as signed into law on January 27, 1948. (H.R. 3342)
- Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans by Matt Armstrong at World Politics Review
- ACLU statement supporting the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012: “This is therefore more a question of government transparency and accountability than government propaganda, and the ban should be dispensed with.”