Center for Strategic Communication

Cover page for USIS daily news bulletin from Sep 1945There was a time before USIA when the U.S. Government practiced what we now call public diplomacy. This period is often forgotten or ignored.  For too many, the history of U.S. public diplomacy begins with the establishment of United States Information Agency, or USIA.  However, it did not and pretending it did only misrepresents the past and subsequent trajectories, but is a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy.

A recent example is an article where the subject, Mr. Ben Bradlee, was described as a public diplomacy officer.  Mr. Bradlee worked for the United States Information Service, or USIS, but USIS was part of the State Department at the time, not USIA.  

From August 31, 1945, the State Department was responsible for coordinating, managing, and executing the whole range of activities that fall under what is generally today labelled ‘public diplomacy’.  This included educational, cultural, and technical exchanges between nations.  As of August 31, 1945, the State Department was also in charge of the government’s international broadcasting, which soon after (not before) was given the name Voice of America.

In what may be explained as an unconscious attempt to reconcile the calendar, many appear to believe USIA was established in 1945, or that the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 established USIA.  Neither are true.  Alternatively, I have been in discussions that sought to establish the beginning year of a historical discussion of modern, post-war public diplomacy at 1953.  That, I invariably point out, would be a discussion of the history of USIA and ignores eight years of public diplomacy run by the State Department.  Probably because these ‘missing years’ tend to be so unknown, instead of shifting the start date the discussion is either dropped or relabelled to focus on USIA.  Oh well.

About two months ago, Dr. Michael H. Anderson, wrote about the late Ben Bradlee’s short time as a public diplomacy officer.  The article by Dr. Anderson, a retired Foreign Service Officer, is interesting and worth reading.

(One can argue that Mr. Bradlee was not a ‘public diplomacy officer’ as the role and term is used today as it would suggest current Voice of America reporters are also public diplomacy officers.  However, USIS was a cohesive operation that, along with other offices under the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, was unlike anything we have today.  The integrated nature of USIS at the time supports Dr. Anderson’s label of ‘public diplomacy officer’.)

However, Dr. Anderson erred in writing that Mr. Bradlee was ‘reserve Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency’ and that he ‘flunked the USIA oral exam’.

Mr. Bradlee never worked for USIA, he worked for the State Department.  This is clear from Mr. Bradlee’s own biography and the dates of employment.

The confusion probably comes from the organization Mr. Bradlee went to work for.  USIS was first established in 1917, abolished a few years later, and re-established before World War II.  USIS was one part of the State Department’s bureaucracy supporting international information and engagement.  The reason many outside the U.S. know the acronym USIS more than USIA is the former predated the latter.

USIS moved under State Department’s Office of Public Affairs with Truman’s Executive Order 9608 that abolished the Office of War Information, or OWI, and moved functions to various places, including moving & establishing peacetime broadcasting and global information activities in the State Department.  On the same day EO 9608 went into effect, August 31, 1945, the William Benton began as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, a position established the prior year and previously held by Archibald MacLeish.

When Mr. Bradlee was hired into USIS in 1951, he employer was the State Department.  USIS was a unit under the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs, who was then Edward W. Barrett (Feb 1950-Feb 1952).  Barrett was a journalist before the war.  He joined OWI during the war, transitioned to State after the war, and left the government in 1946 to start his own public relations firm.  He returned to be Assistant Secretary at Truman’s request.  Later, he was Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism where, among other things, he founded the Columbia Journalism Review.  (Between Barrett and Benton was George V. Allen, a career Foreign Service Officer)

It is very likely that Mr. Bradlee was part of an initiative by Barrett to re-inject journalism and journalists into USIS.  Benton had established the peacetime USIS with a strong and dedicated focus on journalism.  He recruited journalists, he successfully sought out editors and publishers to run and support the operation.

Mr. Bradlee’s book has some insights on both the challenges working inside of State and the advantages.  Among the latter is the security clearance and the resulting access to information (he wrote that his clearance was upgraded to ‘Eyes Only SecState’).  Among the former was the reticence for action, bold or swift, by his colleagues at the Department.

As a testament to the importance placed on America’s public diplomacy officers, and more than a little of Congress’s distrust of the State Department, a ‘loyalty check’ was required.  In the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, there was a Section 1001 (since removed):

SEC. 1001. No citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not now in the employ of the Government, may be employed or assigned to duties by the Government under this Act until such individual has been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a report thereon has been made to the Secretary of State: Provided, however, That any present employee of the Government, pending the report as to such employee by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, may be employed or assigned to duties under this Act for the period of six months from the date of its enactment. This section shall not apply in the case of any officer appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

If someone — and someone probably already has — FOIA’d Mr. Bradlee’s FBI file, they will very likely find a thick background check stamped ‘Pursuant to PL 80-402’, aka the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.

There was no legislation establishing USIA.  It was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Order No. 8, effective August 1, 1953.  The first Director of USIA, Theodore C. Streibert, was appointed three days later.  It is not clear how long it took to identify and move staff and functions from State to USIA, but, despite growing resistance in State against public diplomacy, it does not appear to have been quick.  This should be expected considering the bureaucracy and number of FSOs and staff in the field.

Mr. Bradlee describes in his book a conversation in the fall of 1953 where Mr. Bradlee was asked by the soon-to-be senior editor at Newsweek to become a European correspondent for the magazine.  Despite Mr. Bradlee working at USIS through 1954, he started at Newsweek on Christmas Eve 1954, when Mr. Bradlee left for Newsweek, he recounts how Embassy Paris, where he was stationed, was ‘secretly pleased’ they did not have to pay for his transport back to the U.S.  That is over one year after USIA was established and the only mentions of bureaucracy in his memoir is of State.  The reorganization and reallocation of resources very likely focused on Washington before eventually reaching the field.

In the end, it appears clear that Mr. Bradlee never worked for USIA.

The reader may view this as simply an academic exercise, or perhaps simply semantics.  On the contrary, I see it as countering the mythologizing of the past to expose the true foundations and even purposes of international information and engagement.  There was public diplomacy before USIA and we would do well to understand the advantages and disadvantages of that time, including the landscape in which public diplomacy operated, and why it was required and supported by diverse actors in the Congress, in the media, across corporate America, and in Democrat and Republican Administrations.