In August 1949, George V. Allen wrote an article for the Washington Star newspaper. He was responding to a frequently 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”
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. He was preceded by Archibald MacLeish and William Benton. As the Assistant Secretary, which then was functionally equivalent to today’s Under Secretary, he was in charge of a large 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 collective programs were authorized to disseminate information around the world (i.e. “abroad”). Previously, before the language “disseminate abroad” was passed in legislation, the State Department’s authorities were 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 the Act was passed.
Under Allan was also 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.
The modern reader may be interested in Allen’s answer to “Why can’t we in the United States hear the Voice of America broadcasts?”
This is a 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. The ability to measure impact was difficult, more so then than today. Here is how he answered the question of effectiveness.
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 or 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.