Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

A Brief History of the Smith-Mundt Act and Why Changing It Matters

Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments.

The above quote comes from the State Department report entitled Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States.  The report, completed in July 1945, stemmed from a growing belief in 1943 that the U.S. Government would need a peacetime information service after the war.  The report captured the contemporary communication environment, discussed proposals to make access to news and information protected by international agreements, and the need to provide news services to areas commercial media could not reach.

There was a broad, but not complete, consensus that the suppression of the free flow of information had contributed to the then-current war.  In September 1944, for example, then-Congressman J. William Fulbright (D-AR) introduced a bill calling for international agreements to guarantee freedom of the press and radio as an aid in preventing future wars.  Senator Taft (R-OH) introduced a version in the Senate stating the “complete absence of censorship and the removal of discrimination in the use of facilities of communication will contribute to the knowledge of all peoples, nullify the effect of false propaganda and remove causes of misunderstanding among nations, thereby contributing to the prevention of war in the future.”  The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission recommended the “freedom to listen” and worldwide access to news.

Three months after the Memorandum, in October 1945, the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened a hearing on a bill that would make the Voice of America and other tools of what we now call public diplomacy permanent.  Introduced on the floor of the House in December 1945 as the Bloom Bill, named after the Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  The bill passed the House in July but failed in the Senate, blocked by Senator Taft, on August 2, 1946.  (The day before, with little attention but with the support of the Bloom Bill’s backers, another bill was passed to amend the Surplus Property Act of 1944 to establish the Fulbright programs.)  The Bloom Bill, sponsored largely by Democrats, was reintroduced the next Congress, at the urging of the State Department and with the eager support of many in Congress, as the Smith-Mundt Bill.  This time it was sponsored by Republicans Rep. Mundt and Sen. Smith, and supported by Republican fact-finding trips.  Secretary of State George Marshall pushed the legislation to respond to growing Communist propaganda that was, among other things, drowning out the promise of the Marshall Plan that was announced in June 1947.  The Smith-Mundt Bill was signed into law January 1948 (with Senator Taft’s support this time).

In the first attempt to pass the bill, Congressional opposition was mostly geographic (Members from the relatively isolated interior tended to oppose global engagement), ideological (the U.S. was “self-evident” and did not need promotion), concerned with competition (the big pockets of the Government would squash commercial broadcasters), based on distrust of the State Department (described as a home to “drones”, “loafers”, “incompetents”, “men of strong Soviet leaning”, and the list went on; The FBI did not trust State to adequately monitor exchange program participants), and partisan.  In the second introduction of the bill under Republican stewardship, the partisan element all but disappeared.

This legislation empowered the U.S. to combat intentional disinformation and incidental misinformation to fill the void when information was lacking, is now, ironically, itself victim to all the above.

Today, perceptions on Smith-Mundt are shaped more by the histrionics of the 1970’s and 1980’s than the struggle of minds and wills in the decades prior.  The same year the Act was passed, the Brookings Institute recommended the removal the prohibition on domestic dissemination and expanding the purpose to empower people abroad (a concept put into practice later).

The Twenty-Second Report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information (1967) recommended undoing what had become a de facto prohibition, stating that “The American taxpayer should no longer be prohibited from seeing and studying the product a government agency produces with public funds for overseas audiences.”  The 1967 report invoked the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act which was then only a year old.

While the president of CBS, the editor and publisher of the Denver Post, the past chairman of advertising giant Young & Rubicam, and a legend of public broadcasting (Frank Stanton, Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Sigurd Larmon, and Morris Novik, respectively, all members of the 1967 U.S. Advisory Commission on Information), were arguing to break down the barrier between “here” and “there,” the term “public diplomacy” was coined to differentiate between communication abroad and communication at home.

In the early seventies, Senator J. William Fulbright recognized the shifting winds.  The U.S. was no longer engaged in a struggle for minds and wills, but a competition over tanks, long-range bombers, ICBM’s, and submarines.  Informing and agitating gave way to closed door diplomacy.  Fulbright’s response was to try to shut down the VOA and the other “Radios” (such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty).

In 1972, Fulbright declared “the Radios should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”  As part of his campaign against Government broadcasting, he argued Senator Buckley (I-NY) violated Smith-Mundt by showing a VOA film on a local television station.  The U.S. Attorney General disagreed, stating “the apparent purpose” of the prohibition “was to make USIA materials available to the American public through the press and Members of Congress.”  Fulbright, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded by successfully changing Smith-Mundt to make the de facto prohibition into a de jure prohibition.

In 1985, Senator Zorinsky tried to close “loop holes” left by the Fulbright amendment.  Zorinsky argued that USIA “propaganda” must be kept out of America to distinguish the U.S. “from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.”

In 1994, Congress decided that “political propaganda” by foreign governments and their official news agencies was safe for Americans and thus amended the Foreign Agent Registration Act.  In 1998, the DC Circuit Court decided USIA was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and its materials were not to be available to Americans.

The next year, with the abolishment of the USIA, former USIA officers started invoking Smith-Mundt to “protect” their mission, which was once again a function of the State Department.  This gave rise to the still-enduring myth (more accurately described as disinformation) within the Department that amending Smith-Mundt to allow U.S. public diplomacy to be truly global, instead of external to the United States, would remove the only protection of public diplomacy’s budget and organization.

While it is easy to dismiss Smith-Mundt today as insignificant or irrelevant, continuing misperceptions of its purpose and impact severely hampers U.S. global engagement.  It implicitly labels many news and engagement activities by the Government as “propaganda” by declaring it unfit for consumption within our borders.  The prohibition on allowing the content to be available inside the U.S. creates and encourages opposing views in how we operate and organize.  In the physical world, the split is domestic against foreign.  In the bureaucratic and organizational, it is public affairs versus public diplomacy, and in the conceptual or doctrinal domain we see the difference between inform and listen against engage and empower.

The distinction is not lost on commentators, both in the U.S. and abroad, and leads to the “propaganda” label to our own material.  Congress made it so the U.S. public can freely receive news, sometimes blatant propaganda, from foreign governments but may not legally access news and information by its own government, even as America’s commercial media increasing cite reporting by the VOA, RFE/RL and other broadcasters under the Broadcasting Board of Governors as reliable and often the only credible sources on topics and regions.

Smith-Mundt was passed to provide informational support to good policies.  Twenty-first century diplomacy cannot work when public diplomacy is seen as something else to be “sprinkled” on a problem like magic dust, to change a subject, or to try to make a bad policy appear good.

This brief outline of the history of Smith-Mundt is a hint of what my book on the (true) history of the Smith-Mundt Act.  The book will focus on creation of the Act, 1943-1948, but will also include discussions on the major amendments that followed, those of 1972, 1985, and 1999.  While many describe the Smith-Mundt Act as a relic of the Cold War, the reality is the original law was crafted in and for an environment much like that of today: a dramatic communication revolution that was empowering people at the expense of governments.  The law was modified to reflect the undoing of that trend in the shadow of bipolar politics.  In other words, the amendments are the relics of the Cold War.  However, the law itself need substantial updating to reflect current and future bureaucratic realities more than environmental changes.

For other readings on Smith-Mundt, including those by Emily Metzger, Shawn Powers, see the Smith-Mundt page on this blog

Category: Smith-Mundt
  • B. Brashaw says:

    Great stuff. A more comprehensive view, though, would include the pressure that was mounted after WWII by CBS, Mutual and other US broadcasters against having to compete domestically with a government agency, lest it become another BBC. While a “liberated” USIB operation would not be much competition in the current MEDIA environment (indeed, they already compete on the Internet, which was never anticipated by Smith-Mundt), in the current BUDGET environment the re-imagined USIB being pushed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors — freed of government oversight and still taking in $700 million a year from taxpayers — should stir similar opposition, this time from Tea Party types and budget hawks.

    • Matt Armstrong says:

      B. Brashaw –
      Yes, CBS and Mutual and others concerned about domestic competition, sometimes arguing “on behalf of the mom and pop” stations, will be in the book. As will NBC, CBS, and many major papers actively petitioning Congress to make VOA permanent. There were several proposals and discussions to make the whole affair private, but the stations said that had neither the resources nor the incentive to reach into the areas the Government needed to be in. The very public fight between the AP, which UP joined, and State over “guilt by association” that drove AP to reject “government peacetime broadcasting” and to end its permission to VOA to use AP material. State and many publishers and editors enjoyed pointing out that the AP did not take the same offense when its material was broadcast by foreign government media, including the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and other countries. In addition to a rapid global expansion by the AP, which indicates the root cause of the AP’s hardline, the AP’s Executive Director that led the split argued that information will not beat the threat of communism, only tanks and blankets will.

      One of my favorites discoveries is a Congressman’s proposal, in the spirit of not trusting the State Department to not undermine America, to give the Daughters of the American Revolution oversight over VOA scripts.