1949: “You’ve told us why the Voice, but you haven’t told us what it is”

"INP Kept Busy 'Untwisting' News of U.S."

In August 1949, George V. Allen wrote an article for the Washington Star newspaper responding to a frequent question of the time: why were Voice of America programs not conveniently heard inside the United States. Allen was the best person to answer the question as the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, and thus the “owner” of VOA and the rest of what we today would call “public diplomacy.”

The Voice of America, quite understandably, seems to have captured the greatest American interest among the many activities of our international information and educational program.

A newspaper reporter from my home State of North Carolina said to me the other day, “I’ve heard a lot about the Voice of America, but I’ve never really understood it. Please explain who or what is the Voice? Do you do the broadcasting yourself? If so, the Voice of America sure has a good North Carolina accent.”

Some time ago, I made a speech in Detroit on the subject of the Voice of America, and at the end the chairman of the meeting said: “You’ve told us why the Voice, but you haven’t told us what it is.”

Allen’s title was still new, barely five years old at this point, and he was the first Foreign Service Officer to serve in the position, perhaps the only FSO to be formally in charge of all of U.S. public diplomacy. Archibald MacLeish and William Benton preceded Allen in the post as the inaugural and second office holders. As the Assistant Secretary, which then was functionally equivalent to today’s Under Secretary, he was in charge of an extensive international information service that included “documentary motion picture films, posters, pamphlets, photographs, and various other means to give foreigners correct information about the United States.” The broadcasting component was a relatively small add-on and not a core function.

In addition to the information side, there were the broad technical, educational, and cultural “interchanges.” At the time, international educational affairs, such as exchanges, were considered cultural affairs. Allen’s office managed and coordinated exchanges with “students, technicians, and other persons between the United States and foreign countries.” Allen continued his explanation: “we give a small but significant support to American schools in Latin America, and we maintain most of the American libraries established abroad [by the Office of War Information] during the war.”

Through the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, these programs were authorized to disseminate information around the world (i.e., “abroad”). Without “disseminate abroad” wording in legislation, the State Department’s authorities were, and would have continued to be, limited to the Western Hemisphere, once the temporary expanded authorization of global engagement ended with the expiration of the War Powers Act. The information programs of the “disseminate abroad” language in the Act were the libraries, films, books, and speakers programs as the radio operation was to be privatized before or soon after the Act was signed into law.

In the State Department, now under Allen, was a relatively small radio broadcast operation. Known as the Voice of America, it was only one-fourth of the total budget, and much of this was the enormous cost of running a network of domestic and foreign transmitters. This effort was of interest to Americans. While some could hear VOA on their radio sets, many could not. 

“Why can’t we in the United States hear the Voice of America broadcasts?” was a common question for the State Department and Allen. There were, as Allen wrote in 1949, two principal reasons.

There are two principal reasons. First, the broadcasts are beamed on short-wave directional antennae toward particular areas overseas from transmitters near New York, Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco. While it is difficult, it is not impossible to pick up the program on a short-wave receiver in the United States. [The second reason is] 85 percent of our programs are in foreign languages, by announcers speaking Polish, Russian, Czech, Chinese, Persian, etc., so if you happen to get the program, the chances are that you would not recognize it. The Department is glad to furnish full schedules and wave lengths on request. As noted [at the start of the article], scripts of all our programs, in English translation, are publicly available.

This is in stark contrast to the common modern interpretation of the limits of the law, an interpretation based almost entirely on Senator J. William Fulbright’s efforts to censor and eliminate USIA. These interpretations are largely based on reappraisals made in the 1960s which twist the non-compete element into something else.

Allen was pragmatic about the role of the information programs, including the radio broadcast operation, and estimating their effectiveness. Measuring impact was challenging then, more so than today. Here is how he answered the question of effectiveness.

As to the companion inquiry of how effective this activity is behind the so-called iron curtain, my best answer at the moment is that the Soviet Government is now devoting approximately four times the capital equipment in transmitters, monitoring stations and so forth, and 10 times the manpower to jam our programs in their effort to block them off from reception in critical areas. They would hardly go to this trouble if the programs were not effective.

… Another frequent inquiry is: “Do you think you will succeed?” For those who ask the question in the sense of, “Will you solve the world crisis?” or even, “Can the Voice alone bring about a lasting peace?” the answer is, “Very probably not” The Voice and our other overseas information and educational activities are merely a part, and by no means the major part, of the total effort of the United States to achieve a stable and lasting world order. But they are an important part of this effort, and they may be a decisive one.

The role of VOA was clear and its mission of broadcasting, while distinct, was complementary to the other information programs that disseminated information abroad. And there was no domestic prohibition on accessing any of the information broadcast disseminated abroad as authorized by the Smith-Mundt Act. 

Edward R. Murrow would later describe broadcasting to reach target audiences abroad as relatively easy. The hard part was, Murrow said, was the other information programs that operated in the “last three feet,” the in-person, face-to-face with foreign audiences.

Source: “INP Kept Busy ‘Untwisting’ News of U.S.” by Emily Towe in the December 18, 1949 edition of The Washington Post. [INP – International Press and News Division. USIS was the distribution side, while INP and other divisions in Public Affairs were the production side.]

3 thoughts on “1949: “You’ve told us why the Voice, but you haven’t told us what it is”

  1. The main reasons for the passage of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act were fears of U.S. government interference with domestic media and a desire to protect it from both government propaganda and competition from any government-funded or government-sponsored media and public relations campaigns. These fears were not unfounded. During World War II, the government’s mega propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), which included the Voice of America (VOA), engaged in propaganda activities in the United States. Some of the OWI and VOA propaganda was designed to cover up Stalin’s aggressive grab of territory in Eastern Europe and numerous Soviet crimes and human rights abuses. The OWI also engaged in censorship of U.S. domestic media. The wartime censorship by the OWI was designed to suppress criticism of the Soviet Union — at the time a U.S. military ally. These propaganda and censorship activities of the OWI and the Voice of America were directed by the White House. They became so blatant and mismanagement and other abuses within the Office of War Information so politically controversial that that the Congress nearly defunded the OWI while the war was still going on. The agency was promptly disbanded by the Truman administration after the war ended and the Voice of America was put in the State Department. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act was passed to prevent similar abuses and interference with U.S. media by the Executive Branch.

    1. Ted,
      Simply put, you’re incorrect in your characterization of the Smith-Mundt Act, you inflate the post-war concerns about domestic propaganda, and you incorrectly characterize the shut down of OWI. Your misconceptions are well-founded, however. They are the popular history and I have previously published similar conclusions.

      It sounds like a cliche, but wait for the book on this. My book. However, I’ll give you some data points now.

      Smith-Mundt was originally, and remained at its core, about exchanges and information programs other than broadcasting. It began life as a bill sponsored by Mundt in January 1945. It was amended with input from State, reintroduced in July 1945 before the summer recess as the Bloom Bill. It was reintroduced in barely six weeks after the planned shutdown of OWI, which closely followed a decommissioning plan developed by OWI that moved various assets and programs to State and War (not yet named Defense). When the Bloom was reintroduced and heard before the committee, it had a quick amendment to it: broadcasting. Now, here’s the fun part, the spoiler alert for you: from that point on to the middle of 1947, Congress, State, the White House, and the private sector worked to prepare the broadcasting service (aka Voice of America) to be spun out as a grantee. The plan died for two reasons: the bureau of the budget, now known as the OMB, didn’t think it would pass the appropriate committee and a key Senator, Smith, refused to take on the bill unless the broadcasting remained close to foreign affairs. Here’s the other part fun part: "shall disseminate abroad" was an authority requested by State, not a restriction imposed by the Congress. In fact, that phrase was aimed at the libraries, motion pictures, posters, speaker engagements, etc that are the ‘last three feet’ and not intended for the broadcasting operation. (You will find all the detail in my book.)

      While there was distrust of State, it was not manifested in the bill. It is worth noting, though it is ignored by all, that the bill passed with Republican leadership (Mundt and Smith) in the Republican dominated 80th Congress (the so-called ‘Do Nothing’ Congress, according to Truman). There’s much made that it failed to pass in the 79th. However, it passed by a 2/3 vote in the House in the 79th, but there was zero effort made in engaging Senators. One Senator, a Republican, held up the then-Bloom Bill, but he became an ardent supporter of the whole program in the 80th Congress.

      The Smith-Mundt Act does contain a sunset clause and a non-compete clause, but neither were for domestic media reasons. They were because the government, including State, wanted to be operational for the least amount of time and wanted to utilize private broadcasters for content and transmission and expertise as much as possible. There was no interest in State to use these capabilities domestically and the Congress never brought it up. There were a few comments by Members that this might become a new version of Wilson’s CPI, but other concerns more prevalent. Heard more often, gaining more attention in Congressional hearings and in public comments in newspapers and radio programs was the overall package of programs of exchanges, libraries, radio, etc were unnecessary or would provoke others. On the former, this included beliefs that the U.S. was widely known and its beliefs were self-evident or that the U.S. didn’t need to reach abroad for whatever reason. These generally came from Members of Congress without international experience (i.e. views were based on geography rather than partisanship). On the latter, we should unilaterally not engage, but this was quickly dismissed as the much smaller Netherlands was outspending the U.S. as was the bankrupt England.

      The bigger lesson from World War I, from the point of view of the domestic media at the time and through the decades that followed, was the failure to make media freedom a core tenet of the peace treaties.

      Your point about OWI and VOA is why I place the starting date of VOA as August 31, 1945, when OWI was abolished and VOA began operating under a different mandate. In the modern sense, it was a propaganda agency during the war. After, it had a different mission.

    2. …and I failed to point out in my response the obvious: look at Allen’s comments again. You don’t think a year and a half after the passage of Smith-Mundt he would have it so wrong? The Congress wanted the additional oversight over all of the activities. And a concern over the exchanges, which required greater mitigation than the nearly absent fears of domestic propaganda, was that bringing foreign students and professors into the U.S. would led to a spread of communism in America.

Comments are closed.