Willis Conover & Smith-Mundt, a more complete picture

Source: the second semiannual report of USIA (1954)

If you missed yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article by Doug Ramsey on Willis Conover, you should read it. The article is part of a campaign to get Mr. Conover on a U.S. postage stamp.

There was one passage from the article that stuck out to me, as anyone who knows me or knows the book I am writing (it’s nearly finished, by the way) would know it would. Here is the sentence: 

But thanks to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which forbids the VOA from broadcasting within the U.S., only Americans who snagged VOA shortwave signals directed overseas knew Conover’s programs.

Such is the conventional wisdom about the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Mr. Ramsey is mostly accurate, but there is a back story that has been hidden or forgotten for decades.

While VOA was neither configured nor charged with targeting audiences inside the United States, there was still a good number of regular domestic listeners to VOA. However, ‘forbid’ is not accurate (to be clear, Mr. Ramsey is entirely excused here to use the language). First, there was a non-compete (which also served as a sunset) clause in Smith-Mundt: The government was to defer to private media whenever possible and to reduce activities when commercial media was deemed to be doing an adequate job. The U.S. market certainly had sufficient media, so VOA wasn’t needed.

Second, VOA was effectively a scarce resource with limited funds. It employed a lot of people and needed a lot of money to run (and build more) big expensive transmitters aimed at places the commercial media had no intention or incentive to reach. To give you an idea of the size of the information program overall — which included more than the radio broadcasts called VOA, including text books / reading books / pamphlets / maps, libraries, press feeds, motion pictures, and more — when USIA was established and various information programs from State and Defense were moved into USIA, the State Department’s personnel dropped from about 42,000 to about 22,000. So, with such huge expenses, VOA focused on its target markets, and even then remarkably little was possible. According to a report by the Director of USIA in 1954, VOA was broadcasting 32 hours and 5 minutes of original programming across 34 languages (much of which was then rebroadcast). Again, targeting the U.S. was neither in the mandate nor in the interest of VOA.

A partial list of original language broadcasts. The Conover program is not included in these figures.

Third, the phrase ‘disseminate abroad’ in the Smith-Mundt Act was an authority (aka permission) requested by the State Department and not a restriction imposed by the Congress. While I have written otherwise in the past, I now have Senate & House transcripts from the time where this was discussed. The State Department’s authorities, without this language and after the ending of special authorities granted during the war, extended only to the ‘American Republics’ (as the countries in North, Central, and South America were called). Further, at the time the bill was under discussion, State was under intense pressure by the media and the Congress to be more transparent about foreign affairs and its role in foreign policy, and State was indeed actively opening up.

Fourth, and related to the above, Congress originally wanted all VOA programming translated into English, but when State pointed out that such an effort would be massive and require a lot of people, and thus a lot of money, Congress demurred and went with making it available on demand to whoever wanted it.

Fifth, and here’s the best part, the re-interpretation that Smith-Mundt blocked VOA, and other activities of USIA, stems not just from the non-compete with domestic media clause, but from also from some Members of Congress who opposed the whole VOA and similar information programs, most notable of these was Senator Fulbright.

Recall that Mr. Ramsey wrote ‘forbids…from broadcasting’ (and, again, this is the conventional wisdom). Fulbright pushed this different interpretation, which was not the intent of the makers of the Act. In 1967, the Advisory Commission on Information (predecessor to today’s commission on public diplomacy), recommended making the law clear that it did not prohibit domestic access (which is different than the act of broadcasting) to VOA. The Commission, which was then headed by the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, did not need to but chose to anchor the argument in the recently passed Freedom of Information Act: that Americans should know what is being said and done in their name. Fulbright pressed on, even after the U.S. Attorney General opined in 1972 that Smith-Mundt did not, in fact, intend to prohibit domestic access to the material it authorized. However, that same year, Fulbright won the war by changing Smith-Mundt. At the time, in 1972, Fulbright argued the radios — then VOA and Radio Free Europe and the still separate Radio Liberty — were obsolete: it was time for them ‘to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.’ A decade later, Sen Zorinsky ‘closed the loopholes’, as he put it, that remained after Fulbright’s amendment to Smith-Mundt. Zorinsky’s amendment led to a federal court exempting USIA, and thus VOA, from FOIA requests.

In the end, it is a little ironic that the great Willis Conover, the cultural diplomat, is unknown to Americans because of Senator Fulbright, the celebrated champion of exchanges. Let me add an important footnote here. While Fulbright is often considered the ‘father’ of U.S. educational exchanges, Congressman (later Senator) Karl E. Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, was in the game first. In March 1943, Mundt introduced his first bill on ‘student-teacher scholarships’ (this was two months after Fulbright first took office as a Congressman; Mundt was 5yrs in office by then). Mundt did so again in January 1945. This time the bill expanded with State’s input (notably Archibald MacLeish’s), was reintroduced under the name of the Democrat chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and then got a relatively minor addition (in terms of legislative language) in October 1945 of an information component when broadcasting and the United States Information Service moved to State when the Office of War Information was abolished by Executive Order on August 31. Before then, the Mundt – now Bloom, later Mundt again – the bill was only about educational, cultural, and technical exchanges.

In fact, the Mundt exchanges  (as the Smith-Mundt exchanges were commonly called for decades) were far larger and more wide-ranging than those of the Fulbright Act (which was so named by Bill Benton, at the time the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs). The Fulbright Act required the Secretary of State to sign a bilateral arrangement with a country, the Department of the Treasury to confirm the foreign currency, and for local surplus to be sold. It also only supported individual persons for educational activities. The Smith-Mundt Act exchanges were denominated in U.S. Government dollars, engaged in any country and did not require a bilateral agreement, could support an individual, an institution, or a topic, could fund a student, a teacher, or a technical professional, and covered educational, cultural, and technical activities. In June 1948, a Congressional report noted that two years after enactment, the Fulbright Act was only operational in 4 countries due to barriers to starting and run the program: Burma, China, Philippines, and Greece. The Mundt and Fulbright programs were complementary, and there are examples of an individual using money from both to travel to and from the U.S. Somehow, however, the Fulbright biographies miss this detail.

If you made it this far, congratulations. You are now more informed than most. Despite the length of this post, there will be much more to be found in my forthcoming book.