Recalling History: Advisory Commission tells Congress to Expand VOA

On March 30, 1949, in its first semi-annual report by the US Advisory Commission on Information, the predecessor to today’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, recommended an “immediate and broad expansion of the world-wide information program being conducted by the State Department, including the activities of the Voice of America.”

A realistic approach requires that we provide a budget better balanced between the three-pronged program of military, economic and information policy. A budget which contemplates $15,000,000,000 for military, $5,000,000,000 for economic and only $36,000,000 for information and educational services, does not provide an effective tool for cleaning out the Augean Stables of international confusion and misunderstanding. …

It is in the information field that we meet the rival forces head on. The Soviet Union places by all odds its heaviest reliance on ‘propaganda’ spending enormous sums, and using its best and most imaginative brains. Other governments are acutely conscious of the importance of information programs and are spending more in proportion to their capacities than is the United States in telling its story abroad. …

There is a great need for additional regional offices and branch libraries to be established outside the capital cities. The dissemination of American private media abroad is primarily and essentially an informational activity and the responsibility and funds for this activity should be placed with the Department of State, and the activities should not be limited to the countries receiving aid under the European Recovery Act.

Remove the dates and update the budgets – radically upward for military and economic, which is no longer viewed as part of the struggle for minds and wills, and moderately upward for information and educational services – and these recommendations fit into the modern discourse over public diplomacy and strategic communication. Some of the recommendations above were recently echoed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Advisory Commission that made these recommendation was created by the Smith-Mundt Act. The Commission’s purpose, which still exists today, is to improve what we now call public diplomacy. The inaugural Commission was headed by Mark Ethridge, publisher of The Louisville Courier-Journal. Members included:

  • Erwin D. Canham, editor of The Christian Science Monitor;
  • Philip D. Reed, chairman of the General Electric Company;
  • Mark A. May, director of the Institute of Human Relations at Yale; and
  • Justin Miller, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The Commission on Information, however, has its roots in the Advisory Committee on Radio Programming, originally established in April 1946 by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton. This body included:

  • Edward R. Murrow as chairman
  • Philip H. Cohen, a director for radio and television programming for an advertising agency and former director of the American radio station for Europe during World War II;
  • Harold Laswell, a leading political scientist and communication theorist
  • Don Francisco, from the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson and the former head of radio operations for the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs,
  • Walter Millis, editorial and staff writer for the New York Herald Tribune,
  • Sterling Fisher, director of the National Broadcasting Corporation’s University on the Air,
  • Malcolm Muir, editor-in-chief and president of Newsweek as well as founder of BusinessWeek,
  • James Linen, publisher of Time magazine.

Part II of this look back will discuss why the Committee and Commission were created.

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