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Ambassador George Venable Allen, Smith-Mundt, and the Voice of America

George Allen served as the State Department’s third Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, following William Benton and Archibald MacLeish.  MacLeish, the former Librarian of Congress, was the first office holder, when it was known as the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Public and Cultural Relations.  Benton changed the title to simply “Public Affairs.”  Throughout, however, the role was fundamentally the modern equivalent to the combined responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) and the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.  The Assistant Secretary’s job would change several years later with the establishment of the United States Information Agency.  Allen’s comments on the purpose, and temporary nature, of the Voice of America are enlightening, especially in the modern context of the Smith-Mundt Act.

In an article published in the Department of State’s Bulletin on November 7, 1948, entitled simply “The Voice of America,” Allen stated the purpose of the Department’s information activities, including VOA, the Congress had authorized earlier in the year with the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act, signed by President Truman on January 20, 1948.  Allen made clear the purpose of the international information programming, echoing the non-partisan take of both the requirement and the response.

 At the time of the debates in Congress a year ago as to whether there should be a Government program of foreign information, many people felt that America was being vilified abroad from every angle and that we should make some answer on the short-wave radio. We could not send out vast quantities of American newspapers and magazines, and American visitors could not go in and talk with people of many foreign lands. Any possibility of penetrating certain areas would have to be by radio through the Voice of America.

The real Voice of America is the voice of the thousands of newspapers, periodicals, public speakers, public officials, private groups, or individuals - anyone and everything which, if fused together by some magic process, would make up the articulate and composite voice of the 147 million people of the United States. If our shortwave program is to be the true Voice of America, it will reflect their views, not so much as expressed in quadrennial elections but in their day-to-day lives.

Allen repeated what the State Department, including Secretary of State Marshall to Assistant Secretary Benton and others, had repeatedly stated: that the expansive (and relatively expensive) information program just authorized was to be temporary.  It would end, or become a whisper, as the barriers to transmitting and receiving information (in print or broadcast form) across borders fell allowing private media to take on the Government’s mission of informing people around the globe.

The purpose of the information program of the Department of State, of which the Voice of America is a part, is to assist in achieving the aims of American foreign policy. The chief aim of this policy today is the preservation of the democratic way of life, including notably the preservation of the freedom of the press and the American system of private enterprise and initiative. …

During the evolution of the legislation it was thought that private industry would not undertake an extensive short-wave information program because it was not commercially feasible. Government money, therefore, had to be voted for it to be done. Congress stated clearly that private industry could do a better job than Government and could do it more efficiently and more effectively. The State Department, therefore, was put under strict instructions to use private industry for short-wave broadcasting to the maximum extent feasible.

The issue of the number of listeners was one that came up.  Could the VOA get more listeners if it included entertainment in its broadcasts?  Allen addressed this and emphasized the mission of the State Department’s information programs.

It has been pointed out that the Department of State could get ten times more listeners to the Voice of Ameria broadcasts if entertainment were featured. The Congress of the United States, however, did not appropriate money for the purpose of entertainment. The Department would have an endless job if it undertook the task of entertaining the two billion peoples of the world. The Voice of America, therefore, does not include programs of dance records and other forms of  entertainments. Its principal job  is one of information.

In a speech the next year at his alma mater, Duke University, Allen said:

Propaganda on an immense scale is here to stay.  Technological advance may have made this as important to diplomacy as the invention of gunpowder to the military. … We still write diplomatic notes, but we try to reach directly into as many foreign homes as we can.  Every other major power is doing the same. … I am convinced that unless the United States continues to utilize this new method we shall be left at the post by other countries which are becoming skilled in the use of mass media.

Allen had a remarkable history with the Department and was instrumental in U.S. foreign policy for decades.  His senior postings:

  1. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Iran)
    Appointed: April 23, 1946
    Presentation of Credentials: May 11, 1946
    Termination of Mission: Left post February 17, 1948
  2. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs
    Appointed: February 26, 1948
    Entry on Duty: March 31, 1948
    Termination of Appointment: November 28, 1949
  3. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Yugoslavia)
    Appointed: October 27, 1949
    Presentation of Credentials: January 25, 1950
    Termination of Mission: Left post March 11, 1953

    • Commissioned during a recess of the Senate; recommissioned after confirmation on Feb 2, 1950. Commissioned to Yugoslavia.
  4. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (India)
    Appointed: March 11, 1953
    Presentation of Credentials: May 4, 1953
    Termination of Mission: Left post November 30, 1954

    • Also accredited to Nepal; resident at new Delhi.
  5. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Nepal)
    Appointed: March 11, 1953
    Presentation of Credentials: July 5, 1953
    Termination of Mission: Left New Delhi November 30, 1954

    • Also accredited to India; resident at New Delhi.
  6. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
    Appointed: January 24, 1955
    Entry on Duty: January 26, 1955
    Termination of Appointment: August 27, 1956
  7. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Greece)
    Appointed: July 26, 1956
    Presentation of Credentials: October 12, 1956
    Termination of Mission: Left post November 13, 1957
  8. Director of the U.S. Information Agency
    Appointed: November 15, 1957
    Entry on Duty: November 15, 1957
    Termination of Appointment: December 1, 1960

    • Commissioned during a recess of the Senate; recommissioned after confirmation on Jan 27, 1958.
  9. Career Ambassador
    Appointed: June 24, 1960
  10. Director of the Foreign Service Institute
    Appointed: March 1, 1966
    Termination of Appointment: November 30, 1968