Berkowitz responds, discussing the Smith-Mundt Act

The following is Part II of a discussion between Jeremy Berkowitz and Matt Armstrong on Jeremy’s paper “Raising the Iron Curtain on Twitter: why the United States must revise the Smith-Mundt Act to improve public diplomacy” (PDF, 415kb). Part I is Matt Armstrong’s initial response to Jeremy’s paper available here. My response to the below, Part III, is here. Jeremy Berkowitz:

I want to thank Matt for his thoughts on my paper. I appreciate his comments and strongly respect his scholarship on the Smith-Mundt Act. I would like to discuss a few of the ideas he raised in his critique. I believe some of his criticism is well-founded and I could have more precisely conveyed my ideas in certain areas. Yet, I also believe that some of his criticism is misguided either due to simple disagreements or misunderstandings of my paper.

Reasons for Domestic Dissemination Ban

I stated in my paper that one reason Congress wrote the domestic dissemination ban in Smith-Mundt was based on a concern that the State Department could impose propaganda on the American people. I said one explanation that contributed to this concern were the recent memories of World War II when Hitler used the radio to indoctrinate his own citizens. Matt criticized this argument as an “unfounded myth” taken from a “journal paper by a friend that drew on conventional wisdom rather than facts.” I did quote Nancy Snow’s paper and cited several other sources (listed below) that make the same argument. Yet, I mentioned the fear of a dictatorial propaganda machine as only one reason for Smith-Mundt. I also noted other concerns including Congress’s distrust of the State Department and the worries about the suppression of private media. Examination of the Congressional Record during this debate shows that members of Congress raised all three concerns in the 1946-48 debates. The distrust of the State Department and the concerns of private media suppression were fed by worries that the public would perceive the government as feeding it propaganda, similar to what happened in totalitarian countries.

Additionally, the concerns about World War II remained in the mindset of government officials several decades after World War II. ended. USIA Director Frank Shakespeare testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1973, regarding his annual budget. Senator J. William Fulbright, then chairman of the committee, engaged Shakespeare in a dialogue about the definition of propaganda. Shakespeare responded by saying that, “what has been the historical definition of propaganda before it was clattered up by Goebbels and others in the 1930s…is what this agency does.”  While not a primary concern, government officials in both the executive and legislative branch always kept the perception issue in mind, when framing these programs.

Relevance of Fulbright/Zorinsky.

Matt also argued that I failed to delve further into Senators Fulbright and Zorinsky’s motivations for strengthening the domestic dissemination ban. I agree that I could have written much more about Fulbright’s intent and his arguments with the Nixon Administration to eliminate USIA. However, the purpose of this section of my paper was primarily to provide background information on Smith-Mundt. I chose to limit my discussion to the domestic dissemination ban debate to keep my paper focused. I focused even less on Zorinsky because his amendment received even less attention in the 1980s. Fulbright’s and Zorinsky’s greater motives are important, but I found them less relevant for my paper.

Public Affairs

Finally, Matt is confused about my discussion regarding recent public affairs scandals. He claims that they “are completely out of the scope of Smith-Mundt.” He is correct in that Smith-Mundt only applies to the State Department. Yet, he fails to understand why I chose to discuss the Pentagon analyst scandals in great detail. The Bush administration successfully managed the Pentagon operation as a way to raise public opinion about the war in Iraq. They provided insider access and briefings insider access to retired generals and encouraged them to spout the administration’s talking points on television as independent military analysts. The Pentagon cut off access to any analyst who diverged from the message. Their actions went well beyond a typical PR strategy and dangerously came close to resembling propaganda. Such actions show that even today, with the many media outlets and information available, the government can successfully manipulate a PR campaign close to what some people would interpret as propaganda. I discussed these scandals in a larger context of revamping the executive branch’s public diplomacy strategy. Some experts argue that a simple tweaking of Smith-Mundt will quickly solve the problems of the domestic dissemination. I argue however that a change in the law represents a rare opportunity to develop a government-wide public diplomacy strategy and have a discussion on what public diplomacy must look like in the 2010s. We need to also recognize that we still live under a government capable of manipulating the public in clever ways. I write about the propaganda scandals to emphasize the danger of certain types of public relations strategy. If Smith-Mundt is repealed and a new public diplomacy strategy designed, Congress must take into account what the executive branch is capable of doing and implement appropriate checks, so we can avoid similar scandals overseas that masquerade as public diplomacy.

I want to thank Matt again. While I disagree with how he interprets certain parts of my paper, he has encouraged me to take another look at my research. He has raised some interesting points which might serve as a catalyst for future work.


1. Alvin Snyder, Is it Time to Permit Americans to Watch U.S. International Broadcasting,

2. Bryan Hill, The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward, Center for Security Policy (No longer available online, but would be happy to provide a copy if requested)

3. Obsolete Restrictions on Public Diplomacy Hurt U.S. Outreach and Strategy,

Jeremy Berkowitz is a third-year law student at the Catholic University Columbus School of law. He previously obtained his bachelors degree from the University of Michigan and worked as a special assistant for two years to former Senator Max Cleland.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.

2 thoughts on “Berkowitz responds, discussing the Smith-Mundt Act

  1. My modest contribution to this important discussion would be to suggest that, to understand Americans’ suspicion of propaganda, we have to go back to pre- and post-WWI US reactions against the “making-the-world-safe-for-democracy” hype/spin/advertising of Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), and not just to the disgust of many in the USA with Nazi/fascist propaganda in the 1930s. See my overview, “The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States” at

  2. John,The issue against CPI and even Nazi propaganda is predominately an issue of overwhelming distribution. To say it is strictly content becomes an issue of free speech an expression of individualism. The success of these models required utter domination of the information channels. For CPI, that means domination across mediums – 4 minute men in movie houses to posters and more. For fascism, it meant owning media and closing or destroying the media that could not be owned.
    So again, I return to my argument that the two forgotten and yet still active sections in the Smith-Mundt Act address CPI and Goebbels: that State should maximize its use of private media and that it shall not have a monopoly.
    All the contemporary evidence I have read is that the dissemination prohibition was explicitly on State, not the US Government, to address Congressional concerns over State loyalty and competence.
    John, with reference to your Anti-Propaganda Tradition” paper – which plainly and erroneously states that Smith-Mundt was intended to be a firewall, quoting MacLeish is (another) selective recall of the past. MacLeish was an internationalist who, while excited about the communications revolution (“the world is wired for sound!” as Frank Ninkovich quotes him), favored cultural engagement over informational. A librarian before becoming the first Assistant Secretary of Cultural and Public Affairs, he believed if people could only know each other better we’d all get along. He served less than a year as Assistant Secretary before being replaced by Benton, who removed the “Cultural” from the A/S title.
    Kim Andrew Elliott captured the issue this week when he wrote this was an issue of domestic distribution not domestic consumption.

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