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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

Smith-Mundt Act

Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments. - MacMahon report, July 1945 

At no time in the history of man has the survival of man depended so much upon the ability of man to understand his fellow man.  - President Truman, October 1945 

The principle of Freedom to Listen must be established for all peoples of the world.  This is as important as Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press.  – David Sarnoff, April 1946

The simple truth about the United States…widely told throughout the world, will do more to reduce the risk of war, and thus to reduce the need for a multibillion dollar military force, than any other single factor. – Philip Reed, July 1947

On January 27, 1948, President Truman signed the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 to combat the “weapons of false propaganda and misinformation” that were preventing knowledge and understanding of America’s policies, blocking the free flow of news and information across borders, and inhibiting mutual understanding betweens the people of the United States and the peoples of other nations.  Such was the purpose of Smith-Mundt as declared in the January 7, 1948 report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommending the bill to the Senate. The same view was echoed in a late 1947 report by the bipartisan Smith-Mundt Commission and other reports, public speeches, interviews, magazine articles, and op-eds from media leaders, the State Department, the Congress, and deans and professors in academia. The Senate committee report asserted that authorizing the State Department to act on behalf of the U.S. Government and the American public to actively engage and inform foreign publics, both directly and by facilitating other actors such as the U.S. media and other private organizations, was required for the “urgent, forthright, and dynamic measures to disseminate the truth.”  The activities authorized under the Smith-Mundt Act, activities we now collectively label as public diplomacy, included shortwave broadcasting of news and information, such as the Voice of America, local distribution of news and information, and many cultural, educational, and technical exchanges and related efforts.

Five years after Smith-Mundt became law, the United States Information Agency was established.  Chief among the reasons for USIA was that the State Department was uninterested and increasingly resistant to fully supporting and implementing the Smith-Mundt Act.  The Department, despite efforts by many of its senior leaders, wanted to focus on governments.  The situation was remarkably similar to that of 1917 when the State Department refused President Wilson’s request to engage audiences abroad, which directly led to the establishment of the Foreign Section of the Committee for Public Information.

Today, the Smith-Mundt Act, as amended primarily by Senators Fulbright and Zorinsky in 1972 and 1985 respectively, is often labeled as the “anti-propanganda” law to protect Americans from the government.  The irony of this interpretation has a real effect on America’s engagement foreign publics:

  • It portrays U.S. Government activities that inform & empower foreign publics as bad propaganda unfit for Americans;
  • It prevents effective awareness, oversight, and accountability of U.S. Government engagement of foreign publics;
  • It creates confusion in the government on what can and cannot be said and to whom as it censors based on bureaucratic function and not content or purpose;
  • It creates confusion in the media as the myth of “anti-propaganda law” is applied haphazardly, seemingly arbitrarily, to information or monitoring programs by the U.S. Government; and,
  • It has prevented public and Congressional awareness of government programs in the State Department and other agencies, including USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

It is common and frequent to label public diplomacy as propaganda. But “propaganda” implies control of the medium and the message – today’s communication environment makes that improbable if not impossible.

The original legislation, it is worth highlighting, had two clauses that, combined, provided the actual “anti-propaganda” prohibition.  These were, and are, in Section 502 of the original legislation (today referred to as 22 U.S.C. 1461).  The first stated that the government “shall reduce such Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate.”  In other words, the Government would defer to private media whenever possible.  The second “anti-propaganda” clause declared “that nothing in this Act shall be construed to give the Department a monopoly in the production or sponsorship on the air of short-wave broadcasting programs, or a monopoly in any other medium of information.”  This first part was the “sunset clause” that supported the Department’s oft-stated intent for the shortwave broadcasting to evolve into something like today’s C-SPAN as commercial media reached areas it otherwise could not.

The phrase “disseminate abroad” was not inserted by the Congress to limit the authorities of the Department.  On the contrary, this language was inserted at the request of the Department to provide the basic authority to do what it otherwise lacked the authority to do once certain wartime powers ended.  The then-current basic authority limited cultural, educational, and technical exchanges and cooperation to the Western Hemisphere.  Informational and news activities were authorized only under an Executive Order which was expiring.

The modern myth of Smith-Mundt was in full motion by the late 1960s.  Historical references supporting the “anti-propaganda” view recollect minority views of the time.  It is a rich irony that a law intended to combat misinformation and to disseminate the truth is itself the target of misinformation and false statements.

The pages below are intended to provide a factual basis for an informed discussion about the Smith-Mundt Act and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012.

  • Smith-Mundt Law Today – links to the current Smith-Mundt Act in the U.S. Code; and a PDF of the original Act as passed in 1948.
  • Smith-Mundt Reading List – links to a variety of informed articles, scholarly and media, on the Smith-Mundt Act.
  • 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium – a public day-long discussion on U.S. public diplomacy and the Smith-Mundt Act.
  • Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 – discussion of what the Modernization Act does and does not do, including what the current Smith-Mundt does and does not do.
  • Smith-Mundt “Firewall” – a brief history on the purpose and evolution of preventing dissemination and later access to U.S. public diplomacy, including ideas on the myth its application to the Defense Department

Additional resources may appear on this page or on the blog, including those below and posts tagged on this site as relating to the Smith-Mundt Act.

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This page is in part based on original research for my book on the origins of modern U.S. public diplomacy through the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948.  The story begins in World War I with the U.S. media’s interest to promote the free flow of news and information across borders.  Peace, it was believed, would come through transparency, shared knowledge, mutual understanding, and the ability to hold governments accountable for their words and actions.  More to come… 

  • Ron says:

    We are of course talking about monkbots in social media surrounding a comment instantly. Why stop at inform? When you can also use the monkbot to ridicule someone’s post. Brave new world, very China like. Yes, it does stink bitterly that we may pay to have our opinions modified.