In August 1949, George V. Allen wrote an article for the Washington Star newspaper. He was 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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.