You know you’ve heard it. Whether it was at the office, at school, or a social setting (how erudite of you!), you heard someone bemoan the loss of the United States Information Agency. Perhaps that someone was you. In my experience, these laments are really a coded acknowledgment that the U.S. lacks a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to operate in an information-driven world.
My latest at the webzine War on the Rocks — No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency — takes a look at the romantic nostalgia and selective memories of USIA. As it usually the case, things weren’t as they seem today. Here’s the conclusion:
Add to the mix a bureaucratic fight in DC that directly caused the coining, and later adoption, of the term “public diplomacy” to re-label twenty year old programs. Also add Senator Fulbright and his leading role in labeling USIA as propaganda. Both contributed to a loss of awareness and mainstream support for USIA and its unique value to global affairs. It is not surprising that the State Department never accepted the mission in 1999 when USIA was abolished. It had a one hundred year old track record of rejecting public diplomacy, starting long before the term was coined. The culture clash was extreme and foreign policy suffered.
The calls to revitalize USIA are generally based on the impractical proposition that one agency in today’s noisy world can control and manage all communications.
Back to my article at War on the Rocks, their style guide didn’t permit including my endnotes. Below are the endnotes for the article, which you may find useful and, in some cases, informative.
- fabric of democratic governance and society: See, for example, Dr. Leon Aron’s recent testimony on Russian propaganda before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: https://www.aei.org/publication/russian-propaganda-ways-and-means/. Also see Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev’s “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money.”
- ￼struggle for minds and wills dramatically expanded: The plan evolved over months at the request of the President. See memo dated August 17, 1945 from Edward Klauber, Acting Director of the Office of War Information, to President Truman. (Source: Truman Library, Charles Hulten Papers, Box 7, Folder “State Dept takeover of OWI”)
- moved into the State Department: Executive Order 9608, signed by President Truman on August 31, 1945. For the text and his announcement of the EO, see Hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on H.R. 4368 – A Bill to Extend and Broaden the Existing Programs for the Interchange of Persons, Knowledge, and Skills Between the Peoples of the United States and the Peoples of Other Countries, October 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, and 24, 1945.
- an added capability of shortwave radio broadcasting: Ibid. See also H.R. 4982, introduced in December 1945. This bill replaced H.R. 4368 to be a stand-alone bill, 4368 amended pre-war legislation, and incorporated the discussions of the October hearings and other conversations.
- sales of surplus military equipment abroad: See Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs on S. 1440 – A Bill Authorizing Use of Credits Established Through the Sale of Surplus Properties Abroad for the Promotion of International good Will Through the Exchange of Students in the Fields of Education, Culture, and Science, February 25, 1946. (The Senate Committee on Military Affairs is now the Senate Armed Services Committee.)
- Plan No. 8 created the U.S. Information Agency: See the Hearings before the House Committee on Government Operations on H.J Res. 261 and H.J. Res. 262 (to discuss Reorganization Plans Nos. 7 and 8, Foreign Operations Administration and U.S. Information Agency), June 22, 23, and 24, 1953.
- reduced the administrative burden on the department: Ibid., 7. The Administration reported to Congress that the reforms would “have the important advantage of relieving the Secretary of State of time-consuming duties involved in the direct operation of programs employing thousands of people.”
- expanding America’s information warfare toolkit: Osgood, K. A. (2006). Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad: Lawrence, University of Kansas, 46.
- redominate aspect of the new diplomacy is its psychological dimension: Ibid., 182.
- ending its role in policymaking and advising: Cull, N. J. (2008). The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989: Cambridge University Press, 293-294.
- the so-called Second Mandate: To avoid more modern revisions of the history, see “The Public Diplomacy of Other Countries: Implications for the United States”, by the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office, July 23, 1979, 47-50. See also 11 Department of State Bulletin 775, December 17, 1944, 777, to go all the way back to the beginning. To be clear, as of August 31, 1945, the bulk of what we’d call today “public diplomacy” was under the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. William Benton was “verbally” confirmed to the position on the day EO 9608 was signed but officially in on September 17, the second person to hold the position.
- more information concerning their country’s foreign policy: See 11 Department of State Bulletin 775, December 17, 1944, 777. The State Department was under heavy pressure by the media and Congress to be more open about what it was doing abroad and why.
- did not consider communism or the Soviet Union to be a threat to America: See, for example, “Excerpts From Fulbright’s Address Urging United States Foreign Policy Changes,” The New York Times, March 26, 1964, page 12: “It is not Communism as a doctrine, or Communism as it is practiced within the Soviet Union or within any other country, that threatens us.” Also see “Fulbright Attacks Measure Curbing Soviet Credit,” The New York Times, November 22, 1963. For another example among many, also see the following footnote.
- shuttered within 3 years, “maybe 10”: See the statement by Dr. Robert Johnson, Administrator of the International Information Administration, Department of State, referring to conversations he had with Senator Fulbright in Hearings before the House Committee on Government Operations on H.J Res. 261 and H.J. Res. 262 (to discuss Reorganization Plans Nos. 7 and 8, Foreign Operations Administration and U.S. Information Agency), June 22, 23, and 24, 1953, 178.
- Cold War relics: Cull, N. J. (2008). The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press). 314-15.
- exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests: Essential Info., Inc. v. United States Info. Agency, 134 F.3d 1165 (D.C. Cir. 1998), 1169. The court correctly determined that Fulbright wanted to bar his colleagues in the Senate, and those in the House, from disseminating USIA materials. Fulbright tried to block Senator James Buckley (I-NY) from airing a USIA film on Buckley’s monthly show to constituents. The U.S. Attorney General disagreed with Fulbright, stating Smith-Mundt “prohibited USIA from actively disseminating its materials in the United States but required the agency to make materials available upon request by the press or by members of Congress.” See “Kleindeinst Says Buckley Can Show USIA Film“, The New York Times, April 1, 1972, and “Fulbright is not Impressed by the Arguments“, The New York Times, April 2, 1972. Fulbright then succeeded in amending the Smith-Mundt Act, as the court noted: “In direct response to the proposed broadcast, the Congress amended the Act to prohibit dissemination and distribution generally and to restrict its own members’ access to USIA materials to “examination only.” See H.R.Rep. No. 1145, at 16 (1972) (“provision was amended … to clarify … that U.S.I.A. materials are to be made available to Members of Congress for examination only and not for dissemination”)”.
- accounting is an end itself: United States Advisory Commission On Public Diplomacy, Consolidation of USIA Into The State Department: An Assessment After One Year, October 2000, 7.
- State refused to do “public diplomacy” abroad: On the origin of the title “public affairs officer” and the name “U.S. Information Service,” see Richard Arndt’s First Resort of Kings (Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2005), 30. On State’s refusal, see my forthcoming book, or Mock & Larson’s Words that won the war; the story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919 (Princeton,: Princeton University Press, 1939), Chapter 10. Among others, also see Gregg Wolper’s “The origins of public diplomacy Woodrow Wilson, George Creel, and the Committee on Public Information” (Ph. D., University of Chicago, 1991). [Note: the article may not be clear that the name USIS was coined at the same time as PAO. I had been taught that USIS was the ‘foreign’ name of USIA because ‘agency’ had a sour ring to it (think CIA). USIS was established in 1917, abolished in 1919, and resurrected in the 1930s. By the time USIA was created, USIS was a decades old brand in the field.]
There is a lot to unpack in the under 2300 word article. There are intentionally a lot of allusions to topics that deserve paragraphs or pages of background, discussion, and analysis. This article is one small attempt to correct the record. Do make sure you read the whole article at War on the Rocks.
P.S. Yes, I am aware that the picture War on the Rocks used for the article is not appropriate for the story. Radio Free Europe not only predates USIA, but it was merged with USIA after 1991.