first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 7 February 2023. It has been modified slightly for clarity. Subscribe to my free substack for new posts through email, the web, or through the substack app. Posts are copied here when I get around to it. However, in the case of this post, it originated here at the MountainRunner blog in September 2018 before going to the substack, so now it has returned in a revised form.
I started to write a different article that opened with this question: Can a term represent both a symptom and cause of a dumpster fire? Yes, unequivocally. The term in question is “public diplomacy,” and it was adopted – it was not “coined,” please stop writing it was “coined”1 – in 1965 as part of a public relations campaign to further segregate and elevate the activities of one bureaucracy to be at least on par with another. The US Information Agency operated for more than a decade without this term, and the State Department had managed to run more than USIA’s relatively small portfolio for nearly a decade prior. Despite this, there is surprisingly little serious inquiry let alone understanding into why “public diplomacy” emerged in 1965 as part of a name at a center established at Tufts University. I don’t want, nor do I really have the time right now, so read my chapter on Google Books that discusses the common use of the term before 1965. For now, it is easy to stipulate the confusion around what is, and is not public diplomacy, and who does, and does not, “do” public diplomacy, derives from its original application to an agency and not to activities, methods, or outcomes. The result has been catastrophic programmatically, conceptually, and organizationally.
Due to other priorities, what followed that opening began to take more time and energy than I have, so that’s on hold.2 In place of that, below is a version of a post published on mountainrunner.us in September 2018. Besides correcting some misinformation – and, arguably, disinformation – around the Smith-Mundt Act, it may provide some relevant forgotten history for those interested in “public diplomacy,” information warfare, etc., today.
On Friday morning, January 18, 1957, Arthur Larson gave a lengthy and wide-ranging presentation on the United States Information Agency to President Eisenhower’s cabinet. After a 22-month stint as undersecretary at the Labor Department, and now one month as USIA Director, Larson used charts, maps, and film clips to describe the agency, then a little more than three years old. The nearly three dozen attendees included the President, Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell.
Larson focused on the agency’s importance to the entire government, emphasizing the agency’s role at the center of a whole of government effort. Larson described “the need for the help of all Cabinet members since the program for telling the United States’ story can succeed only if everyone in public and private life is alert to the impact of our actions on world opinion.”
At the end of his nearly ninety-minute briefing, he made three specific requests to the cabinet. First, every department and agency needed to designate a liaison – a “watchdog,” as he called it – to stay on top of USIA’s activities and maintain conversations between their agency and both the State Department and USIA. Second, these liaisons must regularly meet as a group. And third, the briefing presented to the cabinet be repeated for the “top officials of each agency.”
The meeting minutes reflected the cabinet concurred with each request. The cabinet also “decided to ensure that the foreign opinion factor would be weighed in deciding upon actions and statements and that the Department of State and USIA would be informed in advance when such actions or statements would have an impact abroad.”
Attorney General Brownell inquired about “the foundation for charges by the press that USIA was engaged in undue competition with the regularly established press.” Congress threatened to limit or reduce USIA’s budget as a response to these concerns. In modern academic reviews, the nature of these charges would have different meanings, but that’s for a different time.
Members of Congress were channeling a few wire services, some newspapers, and the National Broadcasting Corporation. Not all of the media leveled these charges. The Associated Press and, to a lesser extent, the United Press pressed the competition argument since the government’s peacetime broadcasting plan started to form in October 1945. Such was the climate when Ike appointed Larson, a former Rhodes scholar and law professor, as Director of the agency.
In 1946, the American Society of Newspaper Editors dismissed the bulk of the AP’s concerns, concluding that “the present uncertainties in international relations justify an effort by the United States Government to make its activities and its policies clear to the people of the world through the agency set up in the State Department.” ASNE agreed with the State Department’s position that the government was intended only to fill in “the gaps where private agencies don’t do the job.”
The AP frequently raised the point that since the Kremlin’s media used the AP wire service, this meant western information got into Russia and a US government news program, first in the form of Voice of America and later more broadly as part of the State Department’s US Information Service, were unnecessary. This argument was countered by other media leaders who noted that Moscow was selective in which stories from the AP and the stories were carefully edited. As for other nations, the AP’s chief, Kent Cooper, would later say that “all countries of any importance actually avail themselves” of news of the American wire services. As the State Department pointed out at the time, many of the countries, the department intended to engage, such as Russia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Iran, “either do not get these reports or [Soviet Union-related services] process them beyond recognition.” An analysis requested by the State Department in 1946 found significant limitations in the ability of private agencies to deliver information abroad as structural problems in critical markets prevented private enterprises, whether American or otherwise, from operating effectively or at all.
As the war of ideologies proceeds, people in Europe are being super-saturated with statized propaganda. This is dramatically shown by the poor response to Russian movies even in countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where the full power of the regime is thrownbehind them. In contrast, there is a refreshing quality of interest and believability in America’s free and uncensored movies, books, magazines, and newspapers — where they can get through. [Emphasis in the original]
But, in too many places they are not getting through. It is naive to say “Let private enterprise carry the ball,” and at the same time ignore the fact that there are widening areas in which private enterprise can no longer operate in a normal manner.3
The structural problems limiting private media from effectively operating in these markets ranged from currency conversation challenges to infrastructure to censorship. The report laid out three categories of countries. In “Free Zone” countries–including Canada, Cuba, and Mexico–commercial media had access and the potential for profits (that could be repatriated). “Iron Curtain” countries – Russia and Yugoslavia – were where a private operation was virtually impossible, commercial opportunities non-existent, and the state threatened potential consumers. The third category, “Mixed,” was “shaky” countries–including France and Italy–where a combined effort by private and government was necessary, partly because a distinguishing feature of these markets was the non-convertibility of currency that limited incentives for U.S. media.
The May 1947 version of a bill known as the Smith-Mundt Act contained language to directly address competition concerns like those of the APs.
[T]he Secretary shall encourage and facilitate by appropriate means the dissemination abroad of information about the United States by private American individuals and agencies, shall supplement such private information dissemination where necessary, and shall reduce such Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate.4
Through various markups, this language evolved until the final Smith-Mundt Act was signed into law by Harry S. Truman on January 27, 1948. The original Section 502 was split into two: Section 502 (“Policies Governing Information Activities”) and Section 1005 (“Utilization of Private Agencies”).
In authorizing international information activities under this Act, it is the sense of the Congress (1) that the Secretary shall reduce such Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate; (2) that nothing in this Act shall be construed to give the Department a monopoly in the production or sponsorship on the air of short-wave broadcasting programs, or a monopoly on any other medium of information.5
In carrying out the provisions of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary to utilize, to the maximum extent practicable, the services and facilities of private agencies, including existing American press, publishing, radio, motion picture, and other agencies, through contractual arrangements or otherwise. It is the intent of Congress that the Secretary shall encourage participation in carrying out the purposes of this Act by the maximum number of different private agencies in each field consistent with the present or potential market for their services in each country.6
Both of these protections remain today. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 specifically called out both in Section 208, the passage addressing concerns of domestic dissemination of information by the agencies covered by the Act, where were the then-Broadcasting Board of Governors and the public diplomacy elements of the State Department. The concern about domestic access to these programs, including radio broadcasting, did not exist for the first two decades of Smith-Mundt. It was not the mid-1960s when Senator J. William Fulbright tried to abolish USIA, VOA, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, which he described in 1972 as “cold war relics.”7 Fulbright’s attack included requiring USIA be reauthorized annually and amending Smith-Mundt in a way that began falsely casting the law as an “anti-propaganda” law, a narrative that would be cemented in 1985 by Senator Edward Zorinsky.
However, when Larson took over USIA near the end of 1956, the repeating cycle of charges of unfair competition with private agencies did have some truth. Foreign papers were using USIA’s news services delivered over the air and in print instead of paying for American wire services or entering into contracts with American newspapers. Congress and State Department intended that the information service use, to the “maximum extent practicable, the services and facilities of private agencies, including existing American press, publishing, radio, motion picture, and other agencies, through contractual arrangements or otherwise. This did happen at first, but it was curtailed quickly in 1946 due to a lack of oversight over programs written and produced by contractors (one of the examples is, separated by time, humorous). Through a separate amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act, the Informational Media Guarantee, passed as part of the European Recovery Program, provided an additional channel to support the distribution of domestic media (often books and films) abroad. But the specter of competition, real or perceived, remained.
The Attorney General’s question sparked discussion beyond the cabinet meeting. An Editorial Note posted on the State Department Historian’s website about the cabinet meeting above first appeared in the 1987 publication of Volume IX (“Foreign Economic Policy; Foreign Information Program”) of the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957. This Editorial Note came to my attention because of what it suggests: that the Eisenhower Administration considered abolishing USIA in 1957, barely four years after creating it.
The Historian’s three-decade-old Editorial Note requires context. The following four points, three of which begin with a passage from the Editorial Note, provide the background I believe is necessary to understand the commentary better.
In an April 26 request to C.D. Jackson, USIA Deputy Director Washburn cited the anti-USIA campaign by Roy Howard [of Scripps-Howard News Service] and criticism by the Information Chief of NBC as contributing to the USIA Congressional problems. In a memorandum of May 14 , USIA Director Larson asked David G. Briggs, IPS, to investigate complaints from the United Press and Associated Press about USIA press file competition. Larson was especially concerned over the charges made by Frank J. Starsel, General Manager of the Associated Press, to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate Democratic leader and Appropriations Committee Chairman, that USIA was carrying on unfair competition against private United States press agencies.8
Opposition to the State Department’s news division focused on, but not limited to, the broadcasting entity inherited from the abolishment of OWI on Aug 31, 1945, and known as the Voice of America, came from a minority of the American news media. As described above, the AP led the opposition, but the UP soon joined them. The AP’s resistance began after Reuters, its partner in a global news cartel, felt attacked by how it was portrayed in two brief footnotes in a report about the postwar information environment commissioned by the State Department in early 1945.
The dust-up between the AP and State was so intense by January 1946 that Congress stopped working on the legislation that would later become the Smith-Mundt Act. This bill gave permanent authorization for information and exchange programs of all kinds. The majority of the US media, including the International News Service (INS), William Randolph Hearst’s service, and later the “I” in UPI when the two merged later, supported the foreign intervention by State. This collective bunch, including those who opposed government radio before the war. Among the supportive journalists and editors was Mark Ethridge, who had been hired by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1938 to oppose Congressional attempts to launch a government radio service aimed at Latin America. But in 1946, Ethridge described the AP and UP as “exceedingly smug in their assumption they are the sole possessors of purity.” He criticized the wire services for imagining they could penetrate countries “where they cannot go” at a time “when we are trying to win the peace—now, while we are in an ideological war.”
The AP, however, argued it had demonstrable reach abroad, citing its contracts abroad, including behind the Iron Curtain, such as TASS, the Russian news agency. Most in the media and government found this unconvincing owing to the Kremlin’s penchant for being highly selective and often re-editing stories. Many in the American press also highlighted the inconsistency of the AP refusing to sell its service to the State Department on the grounds the AP would be tainted by association with a government broadcaster while having no such qualm selling to Moscow. (As an aside, the AP successfully campaigned to keep VOA out of the Senate press gallery for decades until the 1980s, long after Moscow’s news services were allowed in.)
After hearing opposition to the proposal by his staff, Secretary Dulles on May 17 expressed his objections to the President of any absorption by the Department of State of USIA. The President, who initially voiced some support for the measure, authorized Dulles to maintain his stand against a merger of USIA with the Department of State.9
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was against State having a non-traditional role in diplomacy. He supported the creation of USIA in 1953, which was the natural result of State’s rejection of the public diplomacy programs it was charged with beginning in late 1945 by Executive Order and through early 1948 through appropriations, and finally from early 1948 on by legislative authority (the Smith-Mundt Act) onward. About that time, incidentally, Dulles argued for the need for a separate government agency “dedicated to the task of nonmilitary defense” with “adequate personnel and ample funds.”
Creating USIA and removing the information and (some) cultural programs from the State Department reduced the department’s workforce by 40%. In addition to the broadcasting service, there were extensive information programs involving posters, books, movies, libraries, training, and exchanges of all types – technical, governmental, cultural, and educational – that require “front line” staff (i.e., public affairs officers) and “back office.” By reducing the headcount and simplifying the department’s mission, the Secretary could focus on the traditional role of a foreign ministry. Such was the claim at the time. Dulles supported the split and did not want USIA’s operations to return four years later when USIA’s staff numbered around 7,000.
The argument to create USIA in the first place was because State was again rejecting and refusing to acknowledge a role in direct engagement abroad (the department similarly refused to engage in 1916 and 1938, and both times resulted in the creation of agencies designed to bypass the department: the foreign section of the Committee on Public Information and later the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs). The people who were in place in 1945-1947 that brought about the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act that made these programs permanent were gone by 1949. People like C.D. Jackson and Nelson Rockefeller, who previously supported State owning these responsibilities, came to accept creating a separate USIA as long as certain conditions were satisfied. Spoiler: the conditions were not met, and the short-lived International Information Administration was snuffed out by Dulles, who rejected an operational role for the department. In his autobiography, Dean Acheson lamented how the department rejected various operational responsibilities, from information to economic warfare to intelligence. (In his book, Present at the Creation, see chapter 18, called “The Department Muffs Its Intelligence Role,” and a few pages at the end of chapter 17.)
When Eisenhower created USIA, the information piece was the lesser of a two-part government reorganization along the organizationally focused DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economics) model. In 1953, the new Eisenhower Administration consolidated foreign policymaking and execution by streamlining leadership, authorities, and appropriations. While some argued against this separation, those supported it, especially at the State Department. The administration tried to move “separate and self-contained pieces” of the foreign policy process under a single leadership through two plans. A single roof would increase efficiency and efficacy through synchronization, reduce costs, and simplify interaction with Congress. The first, Plan No. 7, established the Foreign Operations Administration (FOA) by consolidating several foreign affairs and aid activities under one roof. FOA was a hybrid agency bringing together Treasury, Defense, and State, with State being the greater of among equals. The second, Plan No. 8, created USIA, which State supported so it could return to what it viewed as its “traditional” role in diplomacy.
Also, it is important to remember Senator Fulbright’s tepid support in 1953 Plan No. 8. He expected USIA would be shuttered within three years, or “maybe 10.” Whether intentional or not, ten years later, he began attacking the agency with vigor, as briefly mentioned above.
On May 29, Congress sent to the President a bill providing $96.2 million for the USIA 1958 budget. Part of the bill included a provision barring USIA from competing with or duplicating the services of private agencies in news or pictures.10
As noted above, the Smith-Mundt Act already has a non-compete clause. This language also doubled as a sunset clause to shutter the activities. In short, the government would defer to private media whenever possible and reduce activities when the private press was deemed adequate. The redundancy of this text highlights reflects the agency’s failure to support the existing law (i.e., the language appears as a stern reminder), a breakdown of the Hill to exercise oversight over the authorities granted in legislation or lip service to the news media.
Fourth and final Point:
Not found in the Historian’s note is the overall opposition and confusion over what USIA was and was not. By the mid-1950s, discussions about the ongoing political warfare of the “cold war” (which would not be a capitalized proper noun for another decade) were happening in Congress, in newspapers and magazines, and on radio news programs. While some in Congress were interested in vigorously defending against and fighting Russian subversion (aka “political warfare,” sometimes today referred to as “hybrid warfare” or “information warfare“) and USIA was simply not a part of that conversation as it was not charged with, resourced, or trained to counter Russian political warfare. There were also concerns about USIA being “un-American” because, in part, of certain books available in USIA’s libraries abroad.
Also, not in the Editorial Note was the cause of the repurposing of the term “public diplomacy.” In the 1950s, public diplomacy was a diplomat leaving a closed-door negotiation and speaking to the press because the other side, often the Americans, did so (if they did). By the 1960s, “public diplomacy” emerged to stake out important turf that was not “diplomacy.” This was part of an effort to intentionally place USIA and its FSIOs (Foreign Service Information Officers) on equal footing with State and FSOs.
After Dulles asked his staff whether USIA should be reincorporated into State, he reversed his apparent willingness to entertain the merger. Congress would continue to pressure USIA, with some seeking to end the agency’s “semi-autonomous” status while eliminating redundancies by merging USIA into State. The House proposed reducing the $144 million budget by nearly 10%, while the Senate discussed cutting more than 30% of the budget. In the end, the budget was cut by 33%. And there was Arthur Larson, who was seen as a “propagandist” for Eisenhower more than the country. Larson would remain at USIA for less than a year, leaving in October 1957 to become a special assistant to the president. Larson was succeeded by Ambassador George V. Allen, a career diplomat who previously served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, 1948-1950. (Allen was one of two career Foreign Service Officers confirmed as Director of USIA. This is in contrast to not a single career Foreign Service Officer being nominated to be the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.) In that role, he managed the international information programs, exchange programs, and radio broadcasting operations than in the State Department before they were removed in 1953 to form USIA. When Allen took over, his “minor” problems were described as “slumping morale, administrative laxness, and a dearth of first-class information experts.” The major problem was three fundamental questions voiced by an increasing number in Congress: why does the agency exist? what job should it do? and what status should it hold in the hierarchy of the Executive?
USIA would continue to be a separate agency until it was abolished in 1999 following an April 1997 agreement. Today, there are calls to recreate USIA, most of which are ill-informed on what USIA was and was not, and none consider substantial organization questions. Today, like in 1997 and 1957, when Allen took over, the three fundamental questions remain unanswered.
Can we learn lessons from Arthur Larson’s briefing and the subsequent discussion? First, we need the president and the cabinet to accept the necessity of coordination and collaboration on policies, particularly regarding the information environment. Second, there is no practical separation of “there” from “here,” as reflected in Eisenhower’s statement, “Everything we say and do, and everything we fail to say and do, will have an impact in other lands.” This is more true than when Ike said it, but it was true nonetheless (this was and remains particularly true in regard to problems in the US with civil rights). Third, there are political risks when the president installs a political actor as the central head of information. Republicans and Democrats alike did not like Larson, which led to a less-than-year-long tenure as director.
To wrap up this really long item, the depth and breadth of discussions stand out for me about this episode. This stuff mattered, and people paid attention and sought solutions. This is in stark contrast to the present, where actions (i.e., spuriously creating new offices, appointments based on certain qualifications, lack of other appointments, lack of accountability, etc.) speak louder than the few words, too many of which are absurdly ill-informed, uttered around these topics.
1 This oft-heard statement that it was coined, such as with this statement at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, accessed today (7 Feb ‘23), is not accurate, a reality revealed by a simple inquiry and Gullion’s own words: “As coined in the mid-1960s by former U.S. diplomat Edmund Gullion, public diplomacy was developed partly to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations.” For a brief discussion on the term, see my chapter Operationalizing Public Diplomacy (2020).
2 Consider the emergence of “global public affairs,” a lovely distortion when considering public affairs had been global until “public diplomacy” came around. For what it’s worth, and our rejection of even knowing our history confirms it’s not worth much, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, originally “for Public and Cultural Relations,” was charged with global informational and engagement activities with a breadth far greater than USIA ever had. And then there’s “domestic public diplomacy,” which… never mind…
3 Memo from William Nichols to Howland Sargeant, “Private Enterprise and the U.S. Information Program — Preliminary Report.” October 18, 1947.
4 Section 502 of HR 3342 “United States Information and Exchange Act of 1947,” as of May 13, 1947.
5 Section 502, Public Law 80-402
6 Section 1005, Public Law 80-402
7 In early 1972, Fulbright declared, “These radios [VOA, RFE, and RL] should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of cold war relics.” Source: Gwertzman, Bernard, “Funding Near End for U.s. Stations Aimed At Red Bloc.” The New York Times, February 21, 1972. This isn’t commonly known, and less commonly known is a retort given by Leopold Labedz. Testifying before a Senate committee commenting on what he described as Fulbright’s “semantic blackmail” around USIA, Labedz questioned the Senator’s dominance in the subject: “Looking at the voting record of the union Senator from Arkansas Negro rights, I wonder why nobody refers to him as a ‘relic of the Second Zulu War.’” Personally, I suggest Fulbright be referred to as a false deity of public diplomacy as he is held out as a great person in this area even though he, by far, did more damage to US public diplomacy efforts and organization than any single person. Source: Negotiation and Statecraft Hearings, Ninety-Third Congress, First Session. Pursuant to Section 4, Senate Resolution 46, 93d Congress [and Section 4, Senate Resolution 49, 94th Congress] (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1973), p66.