Ben Bradlee and Public Diplomacy’s ‘Missing Years’

Cover page for a USIS daily news bulletin from September 1945, eight years before USIA was established.

This article was originally published on January 5, 2015. It has been revised and republished to spark new conversations.

There was a time before the United States Information Agency when the State Department held the entire portfolio of what we now call public diplomacy, and then some. A fact often that is forgotten or ignored. There was also a United States Information Service that existed for nearly two decades before USIA was created by the Eisenhower Administration in 1953, as the lesser of a two-part reorganization of government to improve the nation’s management of foreign policy. This is also forgotten, ignored, or, most likely, unknown. The misrepresentation of history not only misstates the trajectory of the government’s struggle with organizing public diplomacy, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy programs and those who carried out these programs before USIA. An example of this was seen in 2014 with the unfortunate passing of Mr. Ben Bradlee.

Ben Bradlee was a noted journalist and highly respected, and loved, long-time editor of The Washington Post. Rememberances written following his death in October 2014 recalled Mr. Bradlee’s tenure, if brief, with the United States Information Service.

One article recalled Mr. Bradlee’s life as “a reserve Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA)” and that Mr. Bradlee “flunked the USIA oral exam but passed after he got a second crack.” These statements were apparently drawn came from Mr. Bradlee’s autobiography. They are wrong, however, as Mr. Bradlee referred to USIS, not USIA.

The confusion may seem minor. In fact, it reflects a misunderstanding of the organizational history of “public diplomacy.” Earlier this century, as a graduate student working toward a Master of Public Diplomacy, I was taught that USIA was known as USIS abroad because “Agency” made the USIA name sound too similar to CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. Thus, the story went, they used “Service” abroad as if the name was purposefully crafted. But this story is misleading if not flat wrong.

USIS was first established in 1917 by the Committee for Public Information as a news service for audiences abroad, largely to bypass censorship by the news services, and government’s, of allied nations but also to reach markets simply out of the loop and unaware of the U.S., its people, and its policies. USIS was shuttered in 1919 when CPI closed. The State Department relaunched USIS in 1935 to deliver relevant news and information to the department’s personnel at US diplomatic posts abroad with a secondary purpose of providing news and information reporting to share with local media, officials, and select members of the public. In other words, by the time USIA was launched in 1953, the USIS brand was well-entrenched with up to two decades of recognition by local press, ministries, and some in the public.

When USIS was reestablished in 1935, it was part of the State Department’s internal communications. The department then had little interest in directly providing news and information to the public, a situation that had changed only a little from 1917 when the department assigned public, and Congressional, relations to the department’s chief of counter-intelligence.

In World War II, the department’s appreciation of public opinion, both domestic and foreign, grew. In December 1944, the department established the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs, officially renamed the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in 1946 due largely because of Congressional attention the “culture” aspects. The Assistant Secretary (“A-B” in the department’s internal department routing code) renamed one of his subordinate units as the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs to support the department’s “steps taken during the year to develop a program designed to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.”

When Mr. Bradlee was hired into the State Department’s USIS in 1951, the service was still an operation under the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs. From February 1950 through February 1952, Edward W. Barrett served as the Assistant Secretary. A journalist before 1941, Barrett joined the Office of War Information, an amalgamation of various pre-war domestic and foreign information offices. Barrett went to the State Department following President Truman’s Executive Order 9608 abolishing OWI and transferring the international information programs of OWI and the Office of Inter-American Affairs, including all the personnel, responsibilities, and facilities, to the State Department. He left the government in 1946 to start a public relations firm but at Truman’s request, Barrett returned as Assistant Secretary. (Barrett, by the way, went on to be the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism where, among other things, he founded the Columbia Journalism Review.)

Mr. Bradlee was likely hired as part of Barrett’s initiative to re-inject journalism and journalists into USIS. Bill Benton, the Assistant Secretary from September 1945 through September 1947, had expanded USIS through a dedicated and robust focus on journalism and emphasis on the value of the content abroad. Barrett recruited journalists and successfully sought out editors and publishers to run, guide, and support the operation, both inside and outside of Foggy Bottom.

Mr. Bradlee’s autobiography provides a glimpse into how the overall program was viewed in the department. For example, the matter of what today is called a security clearance. At one point, he wrote, his clearance was upgraded to “Eyes Only SecState,” which reflected the importance the department, and the Congress, placed on the role of the nation’s information officers. Section 1001 of the Smith-Act of 1948, a section since removed, stated that no “citizen or resident…may be employed or assigned to duties by the Government under this Act until such individual has been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a report thereon made to the Secretary of State.” Exceptions were made for pending reports (up to six months) or presidential appointments confirmed by the Senate.

If someone files — or filed — a Freedom of Information Act request for Mr. Bradlee’s FBI file, they will very likely find a thick background check stamped “Pursuant to PL 80-402.” Public Law 80-402 is the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Section 1001 of PL 80-402 required the background check.

Mr. Bradlee wrote that he spent two years at USIS before moving on. Starting in 1951, he was at USIS when Congress held hearings in June 1953 on the Eisenhower Administration’s Reorganization Plans Nos. 7 & 8. Plan No. 7 was to realign the relationships between the State Department, Defense Department, Treasury Department, and the aptly-named Mutual Security Agency, which was charged with managing the government’s foreign aid. Plan No. 8 removed what would be about one-third of the State Department’s personnel to create the United States Information Agency. (Interestingly, four years later, the Eisenhower Administration would consider remerging USIA into the State Department.)

Mr. Bradlee described a conversation in the fall of 1953 where Mr. Bradlee was asked by the soon-to-be senior editor at Newsweek to become a European correspondent for the magazine. “I would kill for it,” Mr. Bradlee responded. He started on Christmas Eve in 1953. He later recounted how Embassy Paris, his last post, was “secretly pleased” when that they did not have to pay for his transport back to the U.S. and Newsweek was equally pleased they did not have to pay to send him to Paris. In terms of the speed of bureaucracy, particularly when removing one-third of the State Department’s employees into a newly launched agency, it is unlikely Mr. Bradlee received a paycheck from USIA.

As an aside, one can, and should, argue that Mr. Bradlee was not a “public diplomacy officer.” The suggestion is based on a misunderstanding of the position Mr. Bradlee sought. To call Mr. Bradlee a “public diplomacy officer” would make today’s Voice of America reporters public diplomacy officers, and not journalists, which the majority of practitioners and academics would (rightly) reject.

The “missing years” of U.S. public diplomacy — the time before USIA, 1945-1953 — are often forgotten or ignored. A conversation a few years ago around plans to celebrate the history of U.S. public diplomacy assumed the relevant timeline started USIA in 1953. The implication was the government had no organized “public diplomacy” before then.

This may seem merely an academic exercise or a game of semantics. On the contrary, describing Mr. Bradley as a “Reluctant Public Diplomacy,” for example, represents a mythologized past that obscures the foundations of today’s international information programs. The result is modern debates around “global public affairs” that come up short on substance and nearly devoid of lessons — from the conceptual to the organizational — that can be drawn from the past and inform the present. With respect to “public diplomacy” and international information programs, including countering foreign propaganda and political warfare, we are doomed to repeat forgotten missteps while pretending things were what they weren’t.