“Brookings Report Sees Flaws in U.S. Information Service” was the page 2 headline in the Washington Post on December 13, 1948. The report, Overseas Information Service of the United States Government by Charles Thomson, looked at the information activities during World War II and more importantly, immediately after. It was published shy of eleven months after the Smith-Mundt Act was passed. In reflecting on the “unprecedented instruments of world propaganda” created by the U.S. Government for the war, Thomson notes the “machinery” was not new, but the scale of peacetime engagement was new.
The Declaration of Independence was issued out of a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, as a means of explaining and justifying the historic step then taken. Benjamin Franklin was our first cultural ambassador, and our diplomatic service has traditionally dealt with the problem of representing America fairly to influential persons and groups in other countries.
A change, he notes, is the increased importance of engaging a larger segment of the population instead of the “influential persons” in and near government. In line with this, he suggests the information service should be “closely related to foreign policy and foreign relations.” It is also to be an “instrument of national interest and national strategy, although not confined to short-run operations or effects.”
Thomson explored many of the models currently under discussion today by the many groups looking at creating “USIA 2.0.” The range of possibilities start from a wholly government agency to a public corporation. For each, he explores the shift from one to another from capabilities to capital costs.
He also makes several recommendations to be addressed at the time. These included some of the following amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act:
- “The authority to disseminate information abroad should be broadened to include the distribution of any information, whether about the United States or not, which furthers the purpose of the act.”
- “The policies governing release of material used in the information service should be broadened to authorize release to the general public at any time after use. What is safe for foreign audiences to get should be safe for our own people.”
- The “two Advisory Commissions [one was for information activities and the other for exchanges of persons] should be abolished and replaced by a larger single commission, able to give the Secretary of State comprehensive advice covering the whole problem of how to run information and cultural relations activities in the interest of the country.”
- Eliminate the emphasis of the U.S. role in the United Nations. “This is the sort of decision which must be left to current considerations. For example, our United States role in Palestine policy is hardly one to be proud of; our information service should not be required to overemphasize vacillation and weaknesses.”
Thomson also recommended a Board of Visitors, a joint subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to be the main liaison point between Congress and an “information program liable to lose domestic perspective in its concentration on foreign objectives.” This Board would analyze on behalf of Congress the reports of the Advisory Commissions and the Secretary of State.
In discussing the U.S. information space, he reminds the reader of the propaganda environment within the U.S. but he is one of the few that reminds us of the Congressional response to these activities: Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. He was fully aware foreign information services (“other propagandas”) were active within our borders. He sought to temper the concerns of many, including those in Congress, that they must “compete with the information activities established in this country, which possesses a press and motion picture industry second to none.”
Many of the questions being asked today are, as I’ve noted before, are similar to those of the past. The only difference today is that over the last several decades we’ve forgotten the importance of engaging people in favor of governments. In the 1940s, the reality of the “war among the people” was acute.
Merging the two Commissions did happen in 1977. The result was the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
This report, according to the dust jacket’s narrative, presents “a detailed history of the operations of the information services of the U.S. Government, the volume is invaluable to librarians, radio specialists, publicists and to every serious student of the subject.” I agree.
- More from the Brookings report: Congressional Intent on Privatization of International Broadcasting
- Media and Public Diplomacy: a look back at the relationship sixty years ago
- The Report of the 1967 United States Advisory Commission on Information
- From 1953: The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history
This post originally appeared Aug 6, 2008, and appears again by request.