The Brookings Institute on U.S. International Information… in 1948

“Brookings Report Sees Flaws in U.S. Information Service” was the headline on page 2 in the December 13, 1948, edition of The Washington Post. The report, Overseas Information Service of the United States Government by Charles Thomson, examined the government’s information activities during World War II, the changes immediately after, and made recommendations for the future. Thomson was an insider. From 1941-1946, he served variously in the Office of War Information (including on the Overseas Planning and Intelligence Board), and served as an advisor to State’s Office of Public Affairs when it was established in 1944 through 1946.

This 397-page report was part of a series by Brookings examining U.S. foreign policy. Published shy of eleven months after the Smith-Mundt Act was signed on January 27, 1948, it reflected upon the “unprecedented instruments of world propaganda”, then a generally value-neutral term, created by the U.S. Government for the war. While the “machinery” was not new, as Thomson notes, the peacetime scale was.

“The Declaration of Independence was issued out of a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, as a means of explaining and justifying the historic step then taken. Benjamin Franklin was our first cultural ambassador, and our diplomatic service has traditionally dealt with the problem of representing America fairly to influential persons and groups in other countries.”

The new factor was the realization of the need to engage larger segments of populations instead of just the “influential persons” in and near government. Thus, as he wrote, the information service should be “closely related to foreign policy and foreign relations.” It is also to be an “instrument of national interest and national strategy, although not confined to short-run operations or effects.”

Thomson explored many of the models currently under discussion today by the many groups looking at creating “USIA 2.0.” The range of possibilities start from a wholly government agency to a public corporation. For each, he explores the shift from one to another from capabilities to capital costs.

He also makes several recommendations to be addressed at the time, some of which were remedied by amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act.

“The authority to disseminate information abroad should be broadened to include the distribution of any information, whether about the United States or not, which furthers the purpose of the act.”

Comment: the news and information was effectively broadened, eventually. Thomson was ahead of his time as the contemporary thinking was more bilateral (how are we perceived) than focused on the audience. An audience-first approach is likely to consider what they need to know about their world and then insert into that the true nature and relationship of the U.S. in that world as it effects the audience). 

“The policies governing release of material used in the information service should be broadened to authorize release to the general public at any time after use. What is safe for foreign audiences to get should be safe for our own people.”

Comment: this is an interesting comment. The access to the radio service’s content was limited largely by language. The Congress originally intended to have State immediately transcribe all of the language programming into English transcripts. But State reminded Congress that such an endeavor would cost money, a lot of money, so the material was simply made available on request. It is most likely that Thomson is referring to the other aspects of the information program, including the news bulletin service sent to posts abroad, that are not commonly recalled today when discussing the Smith-Mundt Act’s authorization to ‘disseminate information abroad.’  

“The “two Advisory Commissions [one was for information activities and the other for exchanges of persons] should be abolished and replaced by a larger single commission, able to give the Secretary of State comprehensive advice covering the whole problem of how to run information and cultural relations activities in the interest of the country.”

Comment: the advisory commissions were the result of an amendment from Congressman, later Senator, Everett Dirksen, Republican from Illinois. The division was natural at the time because of the perception of the distinct nature of the two programs. The information commission focused on the (largely) mass media program aimed at select markets. This included the radio broadcasts, photographic displays and other visual materials, personal conversations, books, magazines, libraries, and later motion pictures. The other side was face to face bilateral engagement in every corner of the planet, primarily through the Mundt exchanges and secondarily through Fulbright exchanges. This was the ‘last three feet’ as it was later framed by Edward R. Murrow. Another argument at the time, which was heard more loudly in 1953 when USIA was established, was that the two should be separate because the information program would eventually be turned off while the educational and cultural program would not.   

“Eliminate the emphasis of the U.S. role in the United Nations. “This is the sort of decision which must be left to current considerations. For example, our United States role in Palestine policy is hardly one to be proud of; our information service should not be required to overemphasize vacillation and weaknesses.””

Thomson also recommended a Board of Visitors, a joint subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to be the main liaison point between Congress and an “information program liable to lose domestic perspective in its concentration on foreign objectives.” This Board would analyze on behalf of Congress the reports of the Advisory Commissions and the Secretary of State.

In discussing the U.S. information space, he reminds the reader of the propaganda environment within the U.S. but he is one of the few that reminds us of the Congressional response to these activities: Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. He was fully aware foreign information services (“other propagandas”) were active within our borders. He sought to temper the concerns of many, including those in Congress, that they must “compete with the information activities established in this country, which possesses a press and motion picture industry second to none.”

As it happened, the two advisory commissions were eventually merged in 1977 into the present Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Many of the questions being asked today are similar to those of the past. The only difference today is that over the last several decades we’ve forgotten the importance of engaging people in favor of governments. In the 1940s, the reality of the “war among the people” was acute.

This report, according to the dust jacket’s narrative, presents “a detailed history of the operations of the information services of the U.S. Government, the volume is invaluable to librarians, radio specialists, publicists and to every serious student of the subject.” I agree, especially since it gives a contemporary perspective rather than a modern reinterpretation, which is often based on limited access and the biases and filtering of others.

Originally published Aug 6, 2008 and republished by request January 6, 2009. It has been updated.

One Reply to “The Brookings Institute on U.S. International Information… in 1948”

  1. “Many of the questions being asked today are, as I’ve noted before, are similar to those of the past. The only difference today is that over the last several decades we’ve forgotten the importance of engaging people in favor of governments. In the 1940s, the reality of the “war among the people” was acute.”Matt,
    I think that this is the crux of the issue. For example, the “people” are a bit tired of the battle-of-ideas mentality, especially when it takes on the character of the perpetual “Mideast diplomacy” that seems less interested in problem-solving than in the strike-counterstrike-ceasefire-regroup-strike-counterstrike cycle. For most “people”, the situation in Palestine can be described in a couple of images: rockets, air strikes, and a score of dead civilian kids. Stuck at this level, information becomes a battle of propaganda, rather than of ideas. Not much room for nuance, compromise, or resolution there, much less public engagement. One might as well sit home and watch Survivor; at least someone wins at the end of the season…!
    All joking aside, I think that any information system dedicated to explaining US foreign policy positions (at home or abroad) must be forthright, comprehensive, open to discussion and/or criticism, and accessible. After all, US foreign policy and national interests should represent our Constitutional imprint, as well as, promote our democratic and cultural values. Otherwise, unless you have a special interest, who would bother? Maybe that’s the point.
    On a lighter note, I’ve added this link from the Wall Street Journal online for your amusement.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123051100709638419.html
    Enjoy.
    Chuck M.

Comments are closed.