Correcting Misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act Seventy-Seven Years after it was Introduced

On January 24, 1945, Congressman Karl Earl Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, introduced a bill “to transmit knowledge and understanding to the greatest number of people” across the Pan American Union. The method would be exchanging elementary and high school teachers in training. Put another way, the Mundt bill was a scholarship program for student-teachers in their junior year of college, provided they were in good standing with the American Association of Teachers Colleges. Before he was elected to the House in 1938, Mundt had been a schoolteacher, school superintendent, a college instructor, a co-founder of the National Forensic League (since renamed the National Speech and Debate Association), and both he and his wife were active with the South Dakota Poetry Society. Karl Mundt appreciated the value of words and ideas. The bill he introduced seventy-seven years ago today would go through several iterations before being signed into law three years and three days later by President Truman as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Originally intended to create and foster common understanding between peoples, to preemptively as well as reactively counter misinformation and disinformation, today its purpose and evolution are clouded by an ironic combination of misinformation and disinformation.

Unless you have been reading my writings on the Smith-Mundt Act over the past several years, what you think you know about the act is likely wrong. It is really that simple. Much of the academic and professional literature about the legislation’s origination, purpose, and evolution is based on backward projections of intentionally destructive modern narratives and demonstrably false assumptions. The result is a lot of articles, analyses, and recommendations that promulgate misinformation that does more than cloud history to prevent realizing the relevance of the past to the present, they also wrongly shift the focus of any remedy onto a symptom rather than on the underlying problems.

On this anniversary of the bill, I want to briefly address the falsified record of the Smith-Mundt Act’s original purpose and its trajectory. These details are relevant now as conversations happening today continue to open with and promulgate demonstrably false declarations about the legislation to support some talking point.

I will admit that some of my earlier writings on the subject did include some of these assumptions. When I saw inconsistencies and logical fallacies, I continued my research. For example, I previously accepted the logical argument heard repeatedly that “dissemination abroad” in the original legislation was restrictive language imposed onto the department. After all, the thinking went, the Congress was deeply concerned about the trustworthiness of the State Department, so it wanted to prevent it from influencing Americans at home. However, if this was true, where are the conversations and records supporting this remedy? When opposition to the information program was raised, including when that opposition was focused on distrust of the department, the prescription given denying the authorizing as an unnecessary expenditure or was simply absurd (such as having the Daughters of the American Revolution edit VOA scripts). When the “important controls and safeguards” for the information program were listed, never did the list nor any discussion around the list ever assert that a control or safeguard should be making sure Americans could never see what was said and done in their name and with their tax dollars abroad, despite what Zorinsky later claimed. The absence of evidence is not evidence.

Consider that the department at the time was under pressure to be more open with its activities both abroad and at home. Congress, and the press, wanted more transparency and oversight, not less. Knowing that it could not exercise the necessary oversight, Congress established two advisory commissions to provide experienced and focused oversight, one for the exchange programs and the other for the information program (these were later merged as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, now a body whose membership, efficacy, and value bear no semblance to what it had or what is needed). The very position of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, originally established in December 1944 as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Relations, reflected the department’s overdue appreciation for the importance of public opinion at home, in Congress, and abroad to the department and the nation’s foreign policy. The public information function before December 1944 was under the assistant secretary for administration. The new position was charged with the department’s domestic and foreign information portfolios, the department’s information policy, coordinating the department’s information policy with other departments and agencies, and managing the department’s exchange programs, which were also influence operations. How did this square then with the narrative that “dissemination abroad” was a preventative measure? It did not because those words were requested by the State Department to explicitly grant global authority for the informational programs as I found in several transcripts. Those two words rendered moot confusion over the department’s existing authorities, which would be relevant as wartime special authorities expired, which were a mess and the department’s lawyers believed would ultimately severely restrict where the department’s information programs could operate. This is just one point of failure in prior research with the reality that is well-documented in my forthcoming book. There are many, many significant corrections to the history before the Smith-Mundt Act, the evolution of the bills, various intentions during the three years and three days, and the evolution of the Act afterward (my book goes through to 2013). My favorite in the category of misreported intentions is the significant two-year effort to move the Voice of America into a government-funded non-profit overseen by a board of trustees and with a full-time chief executive officer, who would be paid a market and not government rate. This effort that ranked higher on the State Department’s legislative priorities than the authorities it required for its global public affairs in the Mundt bill.

The mythology of the Smith-Mundt Act generally looks something like this: Since 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act prohibited the State Department and USIA from disseminating government-produced programming within the US over fears these agencies would “propagandize” the American people. If you’ve read this far, you probably sense this statement is false. There is more proof this is false beyond the “dissemination abroad” phrase above and beyond the pressure placed on the State Department to be more transparent. Now, I’m not saying limitations did not appear later, but I’ll get to those.

First, there is a big difference between “disseminate” and “make accessible.” The federal court that ruled USIA material was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests due to Zorinsky’s 1985 amendment that failed to account for the distinction. The State Department’s informational programs included books, libraries, speaker tours, posters, various engagements by public affairs officers abroad (forgotten is a key feature of the Smith-Mundt Act was increasing the entertainment expense limit for PAOs), various educational programs (language to work skills, including accounting at one post), and radio programs operating before the Smith-Mundt Act passed, most of which were inherited from the Office of War Information and the Office of Inter-American Affairs in September 1945 pursuant to an executive order of 31 August 1945 and continued under implicit authorities of appropriations. Much of these materials were not in English nor aimed at the US mainland. As the department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs wrote in 1949, the public merely needed to ask for the materials, which would be a request. Indeed the “on request” point is important, but that’s for the next point. Sticking with “disseminate” versus “make accessible,” two of the “important controls and safeguards” come into play. The first was Sec. 502 of the original Act, which I refer to as the “sunset clause.” This section, which is 22 USC 1462 today, has the government standing down “whenever private information dissemination is found to be adequate.” Central to the discussions around the broad information programs, which were broader than most modern view of “information,” was the point the department repeated ad nauseam: the government’s role was to be temporary and facilitative and not to compete with private media. This brings in Sec. 1005 (today 22 USC 1437, it’s not a coincidence that both 22 USC 1437 and 22 USC 1462 are highlighted in the “modernization” amendment of 2013 as I successfully argued to include references to these two sections) which instructs the department to rely on private industry as much as possible. This does not mean the department was silenced domestically. In fact, it was quite vocal and active domestically through several channels, including NBC’s University of the Air and other programs to reach Americans directly, and through private media. As specific programs intended for audiences abroad, they were not seen as relevant to Americans, but they could access them if they wished.

Next up is how some commentators point to the “on request” language in the general authorization section of the Act (Sec. 501) as another barrier to domestic access. They are partly correct in that view but for a substantially different reason than they typically argue. The “on request” was an intentional hurdle to prevent blanket requests for scripts and materials. It would also be interpreted to mean the materials could not be unilaterally be sent to an American or an American audience, a point that later ossified as requiring ultimately formal Congressional requests for materials while forgetting the reason why. The State Department, and Members of Congress, expected some Members, and some in the press, would make broad and timeless requests for “every script from yesterday.” The department thus asked for the “on request” language arguing that if this slight administrative hurdle was not in place, the department would have to ask for a larger appropriation to cover the translators, filing clerks, and filing cabinets to satisfy blanket demands for a constant flow of reams of paper to offices that would never be read. This point of accessibility is what Fulbright targeted with his amendment in 1972 in PL 92-352. Fulbright added “for examination only to Members of Congress” to intentionally restrict who may access the material and how they may use it after another Senator broadcast USIA material on the Senator’s public access channel which the Acting Attorney General of the US argued was allowable under the Act.

For Senator Edward Zorinsky, Democrat from Nebraska, this left open a “loophole” he sought to close. In 1985, Zorinsky compared USIA to a Soviet propaganda agency should its material be available to Americans. Zorinsky’s beef with USIA is never explored by those who invoke his amendment, though authors seemingly love to cite his statement, leaving out the context, of course: “The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her.” I already mentioned above how a federal court interpreted Zorinsky’s amendment, which cemented the view the Smith-Mundt Act was some kind of “anti-propaganda” law, which it wasn’t.

It amazes me how law review articles argue that Smith-Mundt is a blanket anti-propaganda law. Not one of the articles that I have reviewed, and I’ve reviewed a painful number over many years, address the point that multiple government agencies speak to the American public, including those involved in foreign affairs, and yet statutory language in Title 20 (foreign affairs) that specifically calls out the State Department, USIA, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (established in 1994 under USIA, becoming an independent federal agency in 1999, and since renamed the US Agency for Global Media) somehow applies to the whole of government, including those activities specifically under different statutory titles and their limits. Further, the Act did not even apply to the whole of the State Department. None of the law review articles or other academic papers explore the narrative role played by USIA “partisans” to assert Smith-Mundt’s “firewall,” as the Fulbright-Zorinsky barrier came to be known (though without an understanding of the roots with the “Since 1948” and all that), as a way to keep “public diplomacy” isolated within the State Department after 1999 when USIA was finally shuttered. (See The Irony of Misinformation and USIA.) I literally, not figuratively, had more than one USIA alumni yell at me that my work to fix the perceptions and language of the Smith-Mundt Act would “destroy” public diplomacy. Myths are hard to let go, especially after decades of hearing them.

The last point I want to make about correcting the narrative of the Smith-Mundt Act is the legislation was originally and fundamentally about connecting people. Mundt’s bill that he introduced seventy-four years ago today was an exchange bill aimed at teachers. Truth be told, it was not his first such bill. In March 1943, he introduced a bill “to promote solidarity among the republics represented in the Pan American Union” by increasing familiarity and understanding between cultures. Mundt believed in engaging people early and at young ages so he focused on elementary and high school teachers (literally to teach the teachers, an expression some readers may be familiar with). The bill would have authorized scholarships of $1,000 to 1,000 students at US teaching colleges, and equal value and number at equivalent schools across the Pan American Union. The Secretary of State liked the idea, but wrote, “In view of the fact that the majority of students who wish to come to the United States to study do not possess funds to provide for their transportation expenses, tuition and laboratory fees it is apparent that the sum of $1,000 for each scholarship holder is inadequate. Since the cost of living varies from place to place, some students would probably need $125.00 a month, which would amount to $1,500 for a twelve-month period.” The Secretary proposed doubling the scholarship for each student and requiring language proficiency, or language training, “to derive the maximum benefit from their scholarships.” This 1943 bill of Mundt’s failed to move due to the war, as did a similar bill from California Congressman Jerry Voorhis (whose seat was later taken by Richard Nixon) introduced two months earlier. Mundt’s 1945 bill was quickly amended in October 1945 after the President’s executive order moving the information programs of the Office of War Information and the Office of Inter-American Affairs to the State Department pending a plan of action and proposed structure to be delivered to the President by the end of the year. Ultimately, the Mundt bill would support a massive exchange program across all disciplines and not just education. An amendment to the Surplus Property Act in 1946, which the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs named the Fulbright Act, relied on monies from the future Smith-Mundt Act to operate. See my The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox, which could be alternatively titled “Busting the Lie About the Fulbright Act.” This reality was erased by the ego of Fulbright with the Fulbright-Hayes Act of 1961 and our collective view of exchanges has since been reduced to a focus on education and culture, with some elitist elements sprinkled in (aka “they were a Fulbright scholar”).

On this anniversary of the Smith-Mundt Act’s true introduction, and after today, my ask of you is the next time you hear someone claim they cannot do something because of the Smith-Mundt Act or they tell you the Act is an anti-propaganda law or otherwise invoke the legislation, ask them why they think that. Most likely, they’ll have no evidence but the myths they were told in some foreign affairs class, a government schoolhouse (Service War Colleges, National Defense University, Defense Information School, Foreign Service Institute, etc.), or simply at work (notably in some government office). The misinformation around this legislation is truly ironic.

One thought on “Correcting Misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act Seventy-Seven Years after it was Introduced

  1. Between Senator ‘Halfbright’ and his actions against information operations and Senator Proxmire’s vendetta against the space program, these two men did much to wound our nation in those days. Thanks for this Matt.

Comments are closed.