Public Diplomacy’s ‘Missing Years’ & Ben Bradlee

Cover page for USIS daily news bulletin from Sep 1945

There was a time before USIA when the U.S. Government practiced what we now call public diplomacy. This period is often forgotten or ignored.  For too many, the history of U.S. public diplomacy begins with the establishment of the United States Information Agency, or USIA.  However, it did not and pretending it did start with USIA not only misrepresents the past and subsequent trajectories, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy.

A recent example is an article where the subject, Mr. Ben Bradlee, was described as a public diplomacy officer.  Mr. Bradlee worked for the United States Information Service (USIS), but at the time USIS was part of the State Department and not USIA.

From August 31, 1945, the State Department was responsible for coordinating, managing, and executing the whole range of activities that fall under what is generally today labeled ‘public diplomacy.’  The programs included educational, cultural, and technical exchanges between nations.  From that date, the State Department also owned the government’s international broadcasting, which soon after (not before) was given the name Voice of America.

In what may be explained as an unconscious attempt to reconcile the calendar, many appear to believe USIA was established in 1945, or that the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 created USIA.  Neither is true.  Alternatively, I have been in discussions recently that intended to frame a historical discussion of modern, post-war U.S. public diplomacy as beginning in 1953.  That, I pointed out (as I do whenever this comes up, which is disappointingly often), would be a discussion of the history of USIA and ignores eight years of public diplomacy run by the State Department.  Because these ‘missing years’ are generally so unknown, even to those who claim to know the history of U.S. public diplomacy, such as in the recent conversations, instead of covering post-war U.S. public diplomacy, the frame is shifted to focus on the USIA years.  Oh well.

About two months ago, Dr. Michael H. Anderson, wrote about the late Ben Bradlee’s short time as a public diplomacy officer.  The article is interesting and worth reading.

(One can argue that Mr. Bradlee was not a ‘public diplomacy officer’ as the phrase is understood today as it would suggest current Voice of America reporters are also public diplomacy officers.  However, USIS was a comprehensive operation that, along with other offices under the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, was unlike anything we have now.  The integrated nature of USIS at the time supports Dr. Anderson’s label of ‘public diplomacy officer.’)

However, Dr. Anderson erred in writing that Mr. Bradlee was ‘reserve Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency’ and that he ‘flunked the USIA oral exam.’

Mr. Bradlee never worked for USIA; he worked for the State Department.  This is clear both from Mr. Bradlee’s autobiography and the dates of employment.

The confusion probably comes from the organization Mr. Bradlee went to work for.  USIS was first established in 1917, abolished a few years later, and re-established in 1934.  At the end of August 1945, President Truman abolished the Office of War Information with Executive Order 9608 and moved OWI’s information programs and staff to the State Department. USIS became one of the State Department’s prongs of the department’s broad international information and engagement program.  By the time USIA came around in 1953, USIS had many years of brand development and recognition with audiences, media organization, and government institutions abroad. 

Mr. Bradlee was hired into USIS in 1951 while USIS was still in the State Department, as it had been for the previous six years.  USIS was a unit under the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs, who in 1951 was Edward W. Barrett (Feb 1950-Feb 1952).  A journalist before 1941, Barrett joined OWI during the war, transitioned to State because of EO 9608. He left the government in 1946 to start a public relations firm but at Truman’s request, Barrett returned as Assistant Secretary.  Barrett later became the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism where, among other notable achievements, he founded the Columbia Journalism Review.  (George V. Allen, a career Foreign Service Officer, as the third Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, serving before Barrett and after Benton.)

It is very likely that Mr. Bradlee was hired as part of an initiative by Barrett to re-inject journalism and journalists into USIS.  Benton had established the peacetime USIS with a dedicated and robust focus on journalism.  He recruited journalists and successfully sought out editors and publishers to run, guide, and support the operation, both inside and outside of Foggy Bottom.

Mr. Bradlee’s book has some insights on both the challenges and the advantages of working inside State.  Among the latter are the security clearance and the resulting access to information (he wrote that his clearance was upgraded to ‘Eyes Only SecState’).  Among the former was the reticence for action, bold or swift, by his colleagues at the Department.

As a testament to the importance placed on America’s public diplomacy officers, and more than a little of Congress’s distrust of the State Department, a ‘loyalty check’ was required.  In the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, there was a Section 1001 (since removed):

SEC. 1001. No citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not now in the employ of the Government, may be employed or assigned to duties by the Government under this Act until such individual has been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a report thereon has been made to the Secretary of State: Provided, however, That any present employee of the Government, pending the report as to such employee by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, may be employed or assigned to duties under this Act for the period of six months from the date of its enactment. This section shall not apply in the case of any officer appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

If someone — and someone probably already has — FOIA’d Mr. Bradlee’s FBI file, they will very likely find a thick background check stamped ‘Pursuant to PL 80-402’, aka the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.

There was no legislation establishing USIA.  It was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Order No. 8, effective August 1, 1953.  The first Director of USIA, Theodore C. Streibert, was appointed three days later.  It is not clear how long it took to identify and move staff and functions from State to USIA, but, despite growing resistance in State against public diplomacy, it does not appear to have been quick.  This should be expected considering the bureaucracy and number of FSOs and staff in the field.

Mr. Bradlee describes in his book a conversation in the fall of 1953 where Mr. Bradlee was asked by the soon-to-be senior editor at Newsweek to become a European correspondent for the magazine.  Mr. Bradlee worked at USIS through 1954 when he started at Newsweek.  He later recounted how Embassy Paris, his last post, was ‘secretly pleased’ when that they did not have to pay for his transport back to the U.S.  That was barely a year after USIA was formally established and the only mention of the any bureaucracy in his memoir is of the State Department.  The reorganization and reallocation of resources to USIA very likely focused on Washington and may not have reached France by the time Mr. Bradlee moved on.

In the end, it appears that Mr. Bradlee never worked for USIA.

The reader may view this as merely an academic exercise, or perhaps merely semantics.  On the contrary, I see this as a counter to mythologizing of the past that hides the true foundations and even purposes of international information and engagement.  There was public diplomacy before USIA, and we would do well to understand the advantages and disadvantages of that time, including the landscape in which public diplomacy operated, why it was required, and why diverse actors in the Congress supported it, in the media, across corporate America, and in Democrat and Republican Administrations.