The current debate on the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is filled with misinformation about the history of Smith-Mundt, some of it verging on blatant propaganda, making the overall discussion rich in irony. In 1947, the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional committee assembled to give its recommendation on the Smith-Mundt Act declared that it was a necessary response to the danger posed “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” Today, it is the Smith-Mundt Act that is victim to “false propaganda” and “misinformation” that are shaping the perceptions of the the Modernization Act as a whole and its parts.
Many of the negative narratives swirling around the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act are based on assumptions and myths that, like true propaganda, have an anchor in reality but stray from the facts to support false conclusions. These fabrications include the false assertion the Act ever applied to the whole of Government, often specifically the Defense Department (there is a separate “no propaganda” law for the Defense Department), as well the more broad and fundamental confusion, and lack of knowledge, of the nature and content of America’s public diplomacy with foreign audiences.
An honest appraisal of the Modernization Act requires an honest representation of the original Smith-Mundt Act, especially it’s so-called “firewall.” Drawing on my forthcoming book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act, below is a brief account on the primary cause behind the Congress legislating that the State Department shall “disseminate abroad information about the U.S., the American people, and the policies promulgated by the Congress, the President, the Secretary of State and other responsible officials of Government having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs.”