The basic right upon which freedom rests

Department of State organizational chart after the ‘basic reorganization’ of 1944. (Source: Department of State Bulletin, December 17, 1944 Supplement, p794-795.)

There is much talk today about Internet Freedom and the Freedom of Expression. While worthy and laudable, they are myopic, misleading, and inadvertently shift supporting conversations away from the core requirements. Internet Freedom encourages ignorance of actual information flows to, from, and within audiences. Freedom of Expression is more about one-way outbound communication than it is about inputs. Both divert attention from the fundamental rights to hear and to speak. At the beginning of the Cold War, we were not focused on sound bites but instead the basic concepts toward clear purposes.

In 1944, the State Department began adjusting to the present and emerging realities of foreign policy through a ‘basic reorganization’. This was done through two departmental orders, one in January and the other in December. The latter established a new office, Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs, to ‘further the steps taken during the year to develop a program designed to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries’.

Archibald MacLeish was nominated to be the inaugural Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs, one of six Assistant Secretaries at a time when there was only one Under Secretary.

MacLeish laid out the importance of the information freedom — not radio freedom, or the ability to express oneself — in his nomination hearing statement:

The right to a free press — the right of the people to read and to hear and therefore to think as they please — is, I deeply believe, the basic right upon which freedom rests. Freedom of exchange of information between the peoples of the world is the extension into international relations of the basic democratic right of freedom of the press. Belief in the freedom of exchange of information rests upon the conviction that if the peoples of the world know the facts about each other, peace will be maintained, since peace is the common hope and the common cause of the people everywhere.  (Source: Department of State, Bulletin, December 10, 1944, p693.)

He was right. Information freedom — the combined freedoms to listen and to speak — is the foundation of freedom, of peace, of rule of law, and of commerce. In other words, of democracy, whatever the style.