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

Smith-Mundt Act

Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments. – The Postwar International Information Program of the United States, completed July 1945, published December 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

Europe today has again become a vast battlefield of ideologies which words have to a large extent replaced armaments as the active elements of attack and defense. – The United States Information Service in Europe, a report by a House Foreign Affairs Committee, January 1948

On January 27, 1948 President Truman signed the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 into law.  A few weeks earlier, the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations report on the then-bill that the law was necessary 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.  The same sentiment was found in other reports, public speeches from Government leaders and prominent heads of industry and the media, professors and deans, magazine and newspaper articles, and so on. The Smith-Mundt Commission, a bipartisan comprised of Members from both chambers established by a resolution from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unsurprisingly stated the same sentiment.

The legislation authorized the State Department to act on behalf of the U.S. Government and the American public to actively engage and inform foreign publics through direct means and by facilitating other actors such as the U.S. media and other private organizations, for the “urgent, forthright, and dynamic measures to disseminate the truth.”

The Smith-Mundt Act authorized activities that since September 1945 had continued and expanded appropriations rather than authorizing legislation.  The programs ranged from educational, technical, cultural, and information exchanges and sharing, plus broadcasting and support to local media abroad.  Collectively, we now refer to these as public diplomacy but then was simply known as public affairs.  The Mundt Act, as it was commonly referred to, and the Fulbright Act, were both requested and actively pushed by the State Department, and were complementary programs.

The legislation provided legislative authorities to the State Department’s exchange programs that ranged from educational to cultural to technical exchanges and ‘interchanges’ (largely the sending of educators, students, and technical experts inside and outside of government abroad without reciprocity). It also provided authorization for the State Department to operate on a global scale a news and information service that included, but was not limited to, shortwave broadcasting. It established the State Department as a central coordinating body for exchange and information activities, encouraged the State Department to permit and fund FSO’s involved in these activities to travel as necessary to permit ‘the necessary personal contacts’, and that FSOs have sufficient allowances for ‘entertainment and other such essential purposes’ for maximum success of the overall program. State specifically requested the language ‘shall disseminate abroad’ in the legislation to permit global operations in the area of news and information, included but not restricted to shortwave broadcasting. Authorities for global exchanges were provided for in earlier legislation.

The so-called Fulbright Exchanges, named by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton, were complimentary to the much broader Mundt Exchanges authorized by the Smith-Mundt Act. By June 1948, the Fulbright program was limited to four countries (it only worked in countries where the Secretary of State signed an agreement with the government) while the Mundt Exchanges were global and required no explicit authorization by the Secretary.

However, within five years after Smith-Mundt was passed, many of the proponents that supported empowering the State Department began pushing to move the programs out of the Department and into a purpose built independent agency, the United States Information Agency.

Today, the Smith-Mundt Act is known mostly as a so-called ‘firewall’ as a result of amendments by Senators Fulbright and Zorinsky in 1972 and 1985 respectively. Zorinsky labelled his amendment as ‘closing the loopholes’ of Fulbright’s earlier effort. The combination of these actions established Smith-Mundt to be labeled as the anti-propanganda law designed to “protect” Americans from their government. Zorinsky’s amendment directly led to a Federal court to rule that USIA material was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.

The irony of this interpretation has a real effect on America’s engagement foreign publics:

  • It portrayed U.S. Government activities that inform & empower foreign publics as bad propaganda unfit for Americans;
  • It prevented effective awareness, oversight, and accountability of U.S. Government engagement of foreign publics;
  • It created 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 created 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 prevented public and Congressional awareness of government programs in the State Department and other agencies, including USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

The original legislation did have built in safe guards to prevent low quality work, prevent propaganda (as we use the word today), infiltration and distortion by sympathizers of our adversaries, and manipulation by political leaders.

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.

Two other safeguards were the establishment of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, now known as the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, and holding the Secretary of State accountable for the programs.

More information will appear here, including links to other resources after I publish my book on the origination of U.S. efforts to engage and inform global audiences, specifically looking at 1917-1948.

Originally published June 5, 2012. Updated February 22, 2015.

  • 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.