If you’ve looked into the Smith-Mundt Act you have likely come across this quote by Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE):
The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her.
Whenever I have seen this quote it was devoid of context and the only implication to be drawn was the Government should not propagandize its people, then or today. Nowhere, however, have I ever found a citation for the quote, its date, or anything beyond another sentence or two that preceded it.
The Senator made his comment on the floor of the Senate as he successfully amended the Smith-Mundt Act to close a “loophole” of domestic dissemination by USIA. Because context is important, below is the full quote, including the proposed (and subsequently accepted) amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act as copied out of the Congressional Record of the 99th Congress, 1st Session, June 7, 1985 (legislative day of June 3, 1985):
Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that further reading of the amendment be dispensed with.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
The amendment is as follows:
On page 19, after line 9 add the following new section:
SEC. 206. BAN ON DOMESTIC ACTIVITIES BY THE USIA.
No funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States. No program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States. This section shall not apply to programs carried out pursuant to the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, as amended (Public Law 87-256).
Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I offer this amendment to prohibit USIA from engaging in domestic propaganda and to restate the existing prohibitions on domestic dissemination of USIA products.
By law, the USIA cannot engage in domestic propaganda. This distinguishes us, as a free society, from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.
There is considerable discussion within USIA about using the Agency’s so-called second mandate to engage in domestic propaganda. The second mandate — “telling America about the world” — has never been implemented. It should not now be implemented as part of a USIA strategy to propagandize the American people on foreign policy issues.
The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her. My amendment ensures that this will not occur.
Mr. President, I have checked with the majority floor manager and the minority floor manager and they have indicated this may be acceptable to them.
Mr. LUGAR. Mr. President, the amendment of the distinguished Senator from Nebraska essentially restates law with regard to the USIA. The Senator feels that it is important that this law be not only restated but perhaps reenforced by the emphasis of this amendment. We accept the amendment and commend it to the Senate.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there further debate? If not, the question is on agreeing to the amendment.
The amendment (No. 296) was agreed to.
Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I move to reconsider the vote by which the amendment was agreed to.
Mr. LUGAR. I move to lay that motion on the table.
The motion to lay on the table was agreed to.
Anything leap out at you? Perhaps it was Senator Zorinsky’s comparison of USIA to an instrument of Soviet propaganda or the acknowledgement that USIA was to help educate the American people to foreign affairs. Most of those who know about USIA know about the Second Mandate, but how many people knew about the first?
Investigating USIA for nepotism and opposing Radio MARTI, Zorinsky did not approve of President Reagan’s highly tactical use of public diplomacy. It is also important that the Senator was following the lead of Senator J. William Fulbright who, thirteen years earlier, fought the Nixon Administration to have America’s international broadcasting “take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” For many, 1972 was not a time to use the phrase “Cold War relics”.
Looking back from our modern perch, it is essential to put the comments of Zorinsky and Fulbright in their contemporary context. The perceived utility of direct engagement with publics was not what it had been at the end of World War II and through the first two decades of the Cold War. In the world of the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was bipolar power politics, with its tanks, bombers, and missiles, that mattered more than minds and wills.
Today is not like yesterday. In fact, it is more like yesterday’s yesterday than yesterday.