The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

This 1953 Journalism Quarterly article by Burton Paulu entitled “Smith-Mundt Act- A legislative history” (3.7mb PDF) is an interesting and short read for anyone wanting to know more about the early discussions around the start of U.S. public diplomacy. The timing of this particular paper is interesting.

The article was based on Burton Paulu’s PhD thesis that he completed in 1949 and published in 1950. The title of the original work is typical of a PhD thesis: Factors in the attempts to establish a permanent instrumentality for the administration of the international broadcasting services of the United States. A short title could simply be ‘The Challenges of Creating VOA, 1945-1949’.

Paulu likely timed the publication of this article in with the ongoing reviews of U.S. public diplomacy underway in 1952 and 1953. These included efforts by the Advisory Commission on Information and a committee lead by Nelson Rockefeller. Both led to removing the information activities from the State Department and establishing the United States Information Agency.

Support from State for these activities had waned considerably since they were placed under the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs on August 31, 1945, and later given permanent authorization with the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act in January 1948. Contemporary watchers noted that State was overall an unwilling owner of the programs and that the departure of key leadership enabled the bureaucracy to eject what it did not want, regardless of how the conduct of international affairs was evolving. Even former supporters of empowering State reconsidered whether the department was capable of effectively running these programs. Ultimately, they decided against it, hence the creation of USIA. The debates Mr. Paulu describes have a striking resemblance to modern discussions, particularly those between 9/11 and 2010.

The United states Information and Education Exchange Act of 1948 authorized our government for the first time in its history to conduct international information and educational exchange activities on a permanent basis… With only a few exceptions all present United States Government international information and educational exchange activities are carried on under this act. Our information services include the widely publicized Voice of America broadcasts, the news bulletins distributed abroad by the Department of State and a comprehensive motion picture program. The cultural and educational exchange work consists mainly of the operation of American reference libraries abroad, the interchange of teachers. students and specialists and the extension of financial aid to American-sponsored schools in other countries.

Despite Mr. Paulu’s proximity to events, there are errors, some minor, some major, some from the exclusion of information, and some by mischaracterization in this short excerpt. Many, most, or possibly all of these errors may not be in his 246-page dissertation from this was extracted. However, it should be noted that Mr. Paulu’s thesis was on international broadcasting and not on the general information programs. Thus, he does not place the origins of the Act with Congressman Karl E. Mundt’s introduction of a bill in January 1945, a bill quickly picked up by the new Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Paulu starts with the modified version introduced by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Sol Bloom, in October 1945 following the President’s transferring of the international information programs of the Office of War Information, and a massive number of staff, and information programs of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs to the State Department. (Chairman Bloom had previously taken Mundt’s bill and reintroduced it under his own name in July.)

It is impossible to review these events without noticing parallels between them and many current developments. Some of the basic issues are still being debated: the loyalty of State Department advisers and officials; the efficiency of State Department operations; and the question of whether it is safe to expose the American people to uncensored radical opinions, especially those from abroad.

The above excerpt is important. The question of whether ‘it is safe to expose the American people to unsecured radical opinions, especially those from abroad’ was aimed at the exchange of people, not U.S. international broadcasting. A strong resistance to exchanges was the potential to ‘corrupt’ American minds by exposing them to Communism, either in the U.S. or abroad.

This post was originally published December 24, 2008. It has been updated.