An example of Smith-Mundt protecting the people from the State Department

In 1947, as Congress weighed the fate of the Voice of America, then described as America’s “fast” engagement with the world, Secretary of State George C. Marshall said it was essential to make known what our motives are. It is, he continued, hard for us to understand how much we are misrepresented and not comprehended. It was well understood that policy was linked to perception and that everything we did reflected on who and what we were. Everything we do and say, and everything we fail to do or say, reflects upon as, as Eisenhower later said.

However, as the matter of institutionalizing America’s voice was being debated, first as the Bloom Bill in the 79th Congress and then as the Smith-Mundt Bill in the 80th Congress, the House and the Senate questioned whether the State Department could honestly and reliably run America’s international engagement, including broadcasting and cultural and educational exchanges. Congressmen, committee and sub-committee chairs were frequently voicing their concerns directly to Secretary of State and to the press that State was “infested with Communists,” socialist New Dealers, and “men of strong Soviet leanings.” The FBI questioned State’s ability to vette and manage persons in the exchange program. Alger Hiss would not come on the scene until six months after Smith-Mundt was signed into law January 1948. The fear was that State would undermine the United States Government.

Several steps were instituted to counter these concerns. These included prohibiting direct domestic dissemination of broadcast material, a restriction that also satisfied the concerns of the private sector of unfair competition, an emphasis on professionalization of the broadcasting corps, and loyalty checks that were, in the words of former isolationist Representative Karl Mundt (R-SD), equal only to those given to people working with the atomic weapons program.

At the time, arming for the War of Ideas was vitally important. It was, in the words of Eisenhower testifying on behalf of the Smith-Mundt Bill, the most cost effective measure of countering the threat. George Kennan and our Russian Ambassador Averell Harriman knew the Russians were incapable and unwilling to fight us with bullets and bombs. Kennan wrote his containment theory based on an ideological containment. Building up our arsenal of persuasion, whose ammunition was the truth and exposing Communist lies, was not a matter to be taken lightly.

Today, we are far removed understanding the importance of information as a tool of national security. We forgot the first decades of the Cold War and have become too reliant on “hard power” as a result of the last forty years of the Cold War.

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter on this subject on an aspect I hadn’t anticipated.

STATE DEPARTMENT, Public Law 402 80th Congress (VOICE OF AMERICA)” was the stamp on an FBI background check of a prominent, recently deceased “Utahn.”  In my research on debates over what we now know as the Smith-Mundt Act, I came across references to the addition of strict background checks, then called “loyalty checks,” but I never came across an example. Last week, I spoke with a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune, Nate Carlisle, about the results of a FOIA request on the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. Included in the package was a background check that seemed odd and excessive to the reporter. The FBI didn’t take this check lightly and apparently interviewed “everybody.” This was surprising to the reporter as apparently it was not previously known that Hinckley applied to work at VOA. No one knows what came of his application, or if he was recruited or applied on his own.

I spoke to Nate about this. Read his article, FBI investigated LDS President Hinckley to see if he was a spy:

Four decades before he became president of the LDS Church, the U.S. government investigated whether Gordon B. Hinckley was a foreign spy.

The answer appears to be no, according to an FBI file released last week. The file shows that in 1951 the FBI conducted a background check on Hinckley in anticipation of him receiving a government job.

Matthew Armstrong, a public diplomacy consultant who has studied American propaganda, said anyone applying for Voice of America was scrutinized in those days. Only people applying to work in the atomic weapons program received a more-thorough background check, Armstrong said.

“There’s just great concern the State Department folks that were going to be involved in [Voice of America] were going to be sympathetic to the Communists,” Armstrong explained.

Today, in the Second War of Ideas, many still misunderstand the importance of information and persuasion. Of working by, with, and through ideological and sociological locals to engage, persuade, and dissuade through information. As it was in First War of Ideas, this is less than “us versus them” and more “them versus them.”

On the subject of the Information Services versus/complimenting the Armed Services, see also: