A Brief History of the Smith-Mundt Act and Why Changing It Matters

“Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments.”

Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States by Dr. Arthur MacMahon (July 1945)

The importance of information in international relations was well understood by many before the end of World War II. The traditional levers of power — diplomacy, military, and economic — were known to be inadequate in the new world that was emerging. The role of information was fundamental to the success of foreign affairs and critical to the development of foreign policy.

In early 1945, the State Department commissioned the report entitled Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States to suggest a framework as for the future. Completed in July 1945, it reflected the growing belief, since 1943, that the U.S. Government would need a peacetime information service after the end of hostilities. MacMahon was a highly regarded political scientist (in 1946 he would become the president of the American Political Science Association) and an expert in the bureaucracies of public administration. In 1944-1945, he was serving a kind of roving consultant for the department, so it is not surprising he was tasked to write this.

MacMahon reviewed the contemporary communication environment and anticipated the future for international relations. It discussed proposals to make access to news and information available across borders and protected by international agreements. It also examined the need to provide news services to areas commercial media could or would not reach.

There was a broad consensus that the suppression of the free flow of information contributed to the outbreak of wars. During World War I, the U.S. media was particularly vocal about the role nationalist (vice government) news agencies had — notably Reuters (Great Britain), Havas (France), Wolff (Germany) — in controlling news content and availability across borders. It was the same in World War II. In September 1944, for example, then-Congressman J. William Fulbright, Democrat from Arkansas, introduced a bill calling for international agreements to guarantee freedom of the press and radio as an aid in preventing future wars. Senator Robert A. Taft, Republican from Ohio, introduced a similar bill in the Senate that stated the “complete absence of censorship and the removal of discrimination in the use of facilities of communication will contribute to the knowledge of all peoples, nullify the effect of false propaganda and remove causes of misunderstanding among nations, thereby contributing to the prevention of war in the future.”  In a similar spirit, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission recommended a “freedom to listen” as a necessary companion to FDR’s Four (other) Freedoms and a requirement for global access to news.

In October, three months after the completion of the Memorandum, but before it was publicly available, the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened six days of hearings on a bill that would grant post-war authorization to the Voice of America and other information and exchange programs we now collectively refer to as public diplomacy. The bill under discussion was first introduced by Congressman Karl E. Mundt, Republican of South Dakota, in January 1945. This bill was modified by State, primarily by State’s Archibald MacLeish, and reintroduced in July by Sol Bloom, Democrat of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Party politics were definitely at play in the switch from Mundt to Bloom).

However, on August 31, 1945, Truman abolished the Office of War Information by Executive Order, and most of OWI’s programs moved into the State Department, including the United States Information Service (first established in 1917) and a radio broadcasting operation. The bill discussed in October was the July bill after a quick modification to go beyond educational and technical exchanges and include informational programs, such as radio, motion pictures, news releases and more. An outcome of these hearings was to change the bill from an amendment to a pre-war act to a stand-alone bill. This version, introduced in December 1945, passed the House in July 1946. However, Senator Taft blocked it from being taken up in the Senate. (The day before it died with the end of the legislative calendar, with little attention but with the support of the Bloom Bill’s backers, a companion bill was passed to amend the Surplus Property Act of 1944, which the State Department’s Bill Benton named the “Fulbright Act.”)

The next Congress was the 80th ‘Do Nothing Congress’ — so-called by President Truman — with the Republicans leading both chambers. At the urging of the State Department, the Mundt cum Bloom Bill was reintroduced by Mundt. With Bloom gone, the Mundt Bill stayed the Mundt bill. A Senate co-sponsor was found (the Senate was effectively ignored in the previous attempt to pass the bill), Senator H. Alexander Smith, Republican of New Jersey. Secretary of State George Marshall, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and many others from government, the military, the media, and industry actively supported the legislation as a necessary response to the growing Communist propaganda threat that was rewriting history, turning populations against the West. After June 1947, the call for passage increased as communist propaganda increased in tempo and volume following the announcement of the Marshall Plan. In January, Truman signed into law the Smith-Mundt Act, with Senator Taft’s full support.

In the first attempt to pass the bill, Congressional opposition derived from concerns that were geographic, ideological, commercial, distrust, and partisan. Members from the relatively isolated interior tended to oppose global engagement. U.S. values were “self-evident,” and the promotion or “selling” of values was not just unnecessary but debasing. The Government’s big pockets would overwhelm the private media. And, distrust of the State Department — described by one Member of Congress as a home to “drones,” “loafers,” “incompetents,” “men of strong Soviet leaning” — raised concerns about the actual message State would convey overseas. The FBI, for its part, did not trust State to adequately monitor exchange program participants. The partisan resistance disappeared when the bill was reintroduced under Republican stewardship.

This legislation empowered the U.S. to combat intentional disinformation and misinformation to fill the void when information was lacking, is now, ironically, itself victim to all the above.

Today, perceptions on Smith-Mundt are shaped more by the histrionics of the 1970’s and 1980’s than the struggle of minds and wills in the decades prior.  The same year the Act was passed, a 397-page report by the Brookings Institute recommended that there should be no semblance of any prohibition on domestic dissemination (of which there was none) and an expanded purpose to empower people abroad. (The report’s author, who had previously worked in OWI and State, also recommended a better strategy and integration with foreign policy.)

The Twenty-Second Report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information (1967), chaired by the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, recommended undoing what had become a de facto prohibition. Stanton stated that “The American taxpayer should no longer be prohibited from seeing and studying the product a government agency produces with public funds for overseas audiences.” The 1967 report invoked the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act which was then only a year old.

While the commission — comprised then of the president of CBS, the editor and publisher of the Denver Post, the past chairman of advertising giant Young & Rubicam, and a legend of public broadcasting (Frank Stanton, Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Sigurd Larmon, and Morris Novik, respectively) —  argued to break down the barrier between “here” and “there,” the term “public diplomacy” was coined to defend the collective of activities in the hall of Congress and Foggy Bottom.

Senator Fulbright recognized the shifting winds by the 1960s. By the late 1960s, if not earlier, the U.S. was no longer engaged in a struggle for minds and wills, but a competition over tanks, long-range bombers, ICBM’s, and submarines. Informing and agitating foreign publics to want the principles of freedom and democracy gave way to closed-door diplomacy. Fulbright’s response was to try to shut down the United States Information Agency, VOA, and the other “Radios” (such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty). Nicknamed at the time The Dissenter, he was never a fan of the information programs. When USIA was formed, he successfully argued the exchanges should stay separate because one day in the future — hopefully no more than a few years away, as one Congressman relayed Fulbright’s comments in a hearing on USIA’s creation — the information programs would be shut down, and thus USIA cease to exist.

In 1972, Fulbright declared “the Radios should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”  As part of his campaign against Government broadcasting, he argued Senator James L. Buckley, Independent of New York, violated Smith-Mundt by showing a VOA film on a local television station. The U.S. Attorney General disagreed, stating “the apparent purpose” of the prohibition “was to make USIA materials available to the American public through the press and Members of Congress.” Fulbright, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded by successfully changing Smith-Mundt to make the de facto prohibition into a de jure prohibition.

In 1985, Senator Edward Zorinsky, Democrat of Nebraska, tried to close “loop holes” left by the Fulbright Amendment.  Zorinsky argued that USIA “propaganda” must be kept out of America to distinguish the U.S. “from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.” This led directly to a 1998 decision by the DC Circuit Court that USIA was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and its materials were not to be available to Americans.

In an unrelated move in 1994, Congress decided that “political propaganda” by foreign governments and their official news agencies was safe for Americans and thus amended the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

In 1999 the USIA was abolished and, after returning what had been in State (1945-1953) back to State, former USIA officers started invoking Smith-Mundt to “protect” their mission. This gave rise to the still-enduring myth (better described as disinformation) within the Department that amending Smith-Mundt to allow U.S. public diplomacy to be truly global, instead of pretending there is a magic bubble preventing the flow of people and ideas across our borders, would remove the only protection of public diplomacy’s budget and organization.

While it is easy to dismiss Smith-Mundt today as insignificant or irrelevant, the continuing misperceptions of its purpose and impact restrict U.S. global engagement. It implicitly labels many news and engagement activities by the Government as “propaganda” by declaring it unfit for consumption within our borders. The prohibition on allowing the content to be available inside the U.S. creates and encourages opposing views in how we operate and organize. In the physical world, the split is domestic against foreign  In the bureaucratic and organizational, it is public affairs versus public diplomacy. In the conceptual or doctrinal domain, the separation is inform-listen and engage-empower. Further, the Smith-Mundt Act is the basic authorization that permits a broad range of activities. Further, it is not an appropriation (thus it does not protect funding).

The distinction that the material — from VOA and its sister Radios to other activities of public diplomacy officers — is unfit for Americans is not lost on commentators in the U.S. and abroad. The dissonance permits the immediate application of the “propaganda” label, which discredits the operations among the U.S. public and the Congress, as well as among target audiences abroad. Congress made it so the U.S. public can freely receive news, including blatant propaganda, from foreign governments but may not legally access news and information from their government created for audiences abroad.

Smith-Mundt was passed to provide informational support to sound policies, as well as authorize exchanges on a global scale across all topics.  Twenty-first-century diplomacy cannot work when public diplomacy is seen as something else to be “sprinkled” on a problem like magic dust, to change the subject, or to try to make a bad policy appear good.

While many describe the Smith-Mundt Act as a relic of the Cold War, the reality is the original law was crafted in and for an environment much like that of today: a dramatic communication revolution that was empowering people at the expense of governments. The law was modified to reflect the undoing of that trend in the shadow of bipolar politics.  In other words, the amendments are the relics of the Cold War.  However, the law itself need substantial updating to reflect current and future bureaucratic realities more than environmental changes.

This post originally appeared February 23, 2012. It was updated July 24, 2015.

Image source: http://dca.lib.tufts.edu/features/murrow/exhibit/usia.html The USIA Director was required to submit a semi-annual review of operations. The cover above is for the review of the first half of 1963.  

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Smith-Mundt Act and Why Changing It Matters

  1. Great stuff. A more comprehensive view, though, would include the pressure that was mounted after WWII by CBS, Mutual and other US broadcasters against having to compete domestically with a government agency, lest it become another BBC. While a “liberated” USIB operation would not be much competition in the current MEDIA environment (indeed, they already compete on the Internet, which was never anticipated by Smith-Mundt), in the current BUDGET environment the re-imagined USIB being pushed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors — freed of government oversight and still taking in $700 million a year from taxpayers — should stir similar opposition, this time from Tea Party types and budget hawks.

    1. B. Brashaw -Yes, CBS and Mutual and others concerned about domestic competition, sometimes arguing “on behalf of the mom and pop” stations, will be in the book. As will NBC, CBS, and many major papers actively petitioning Congress to make VOA permanent. There were several proposals and discussions to make the whole affair private, but the stations said that had neither the resources nor the incentive to reach into the areas the Government needed to be in. The very public fight between the AP, which UP joined, and State over “guilt by association” that drove AP to reject “government peacetime broadcasting” and to end its permission to VOA to use AP material. State and many publishers and editors enjoyed pointing out that the AP did not take the same offense when its material was broadcast by foreign government media, including the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and other countries. In addition to a rapid global expansion by the AP, which indicates the root cause of the AP’s hardline, the AP’s Executive Director that led the split argued that information will not beat the threat of communism, only tanks and blankets will.

      One of my favorites discoveries is a Congressman’s proposal, in the spirit of not trusting the State Department to not undermine America, to give the Daughters of the American Revolution oversight over VOA scripts.

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