Sometimes the commonly accepted fact is not a fact

Picture of the book Words that Won the War by Mock and Larson

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 12 January 2022. It appears here with some edits for clarity. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

Have you ever read a statement of fact by a historian and wondered, “huh, that’s interesting”? Hopefully, you have and will continue to do so often. History is great. However, I get frustrated when I see historians or writers reciting history who roll with the accepted or received facts and fail to dig deeper. Narratives around the Smith-Mundt Act’s origin, and to a lesser degree its evolution, are packed with many unfounded facts contradicted by the historical record, for example. Some are minor, but some are significant. I’ve discussed some of these elsewhere, and eventually, a comprehensive discussion will be available with significant details (and receipts). 

Continue reading “Sometimes the commonly accepted fact is not a fact

Who said it, when, and why? Part II (of II)

(This was originally posted at mountainrunner.substack.com yesterday on 28 November 2022. Subscribe there to keep up to date with my writing via email, the substack app, or the substack website. Cross-posting here is a low priority for me, but eventually, all I post on substack should make its way here.)

Happy Monday. I hope you enjoyed last week’s quiz. More important, however, is that you learned something from the answers provided in the post on Friday, “Who said it, when, and why? Part I.” The time spent sharing these quotes, and their context, seems justified when I receive feedback on the posts. One from a retired Foreign Service Officer included this observation: “Every organizational, conceptual, and doctrinal U.S. deficit in the information space was anticipated in the first postwar decade, it seems, and every time the insights were ignored.” Today is not like yesterday in many respects, but the most important difference is not the technology, despite the conventional wisdom, but the breadth and depth of discussions around the issues. The lack of commitment, leadership, depth of analysis, and consistency shown by both the legislative and executive branches is stunning compared to the depth, frequency, attention, and profile of the executive discussions, planning, and legislative actions in 1945-1952, for example. 

Continue reading “Who said it, when, and why? Part II (of II)

Who said it, when, and why? Part I

(This was originally posted at mountainrunner.substack.com last week on 25 November 2022. Subscribe there to keep up to date with my writing via email, the substack app, or the substack website. Cross-posting here is a low priority for me, but eventually, all that I post on substack should make its way here.)

Happy Thanksgiving from an American in Switzerland. Yesterday was merely Thursday here, and with my wife and daughter in the US, I BBQ’d ribs for my son. (Though it was about 39F/4C at the time, it wasn’t a problem with my Big Green Egg.) Though Thanksgiving isn’t really an “export,” Black Friday has a real presence here. Explaining why the sales day is called that and why it’s today is always an interesting experience in cultural exchange. 

I did get out for a short and easy ride on the trails with the gravel bike yesterday morning at 5:15a (see picture). This morning’s planned 5a forest run was replaced with walking the dog while I talked to my dad in California while it was still Thanksgiving there. Priorities.

Now on to some of the answers to the quiz earlier this week I called “It’s been said…” Below are answers to the first six questions since this write-up was getting a bit long as I felt some context was necessary to properly situate the quote to at least infer relevance to the present rather than allow any semblance with the present a mere coincidence. 

Ok, on to the answers… 

Continue reading “Who said it, when, and why? Part I

It’s been said…

Time for some words from the past. Whether history rhymes, repeats, or we find patterns regardless, I often share quotes from the past that seem highly relevant to the present. I do this to show that we’ve often been in a situation we think is unique to the present. It is not infrequent that past statements have the potential to reveal deficiencies in modern analysis, framing, and recommendations, but your perceptions may differ.

Below are ten quotes that I previously shared on Twitter and likely elsewhere (email correspondence, articles, presentations, etc.). The quotes are intentionally devoid of attribution below. At my other publishing (and, to be honest, where I primarily publish now) site — https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/its-been-said — each quote is followed by a poll for the reader to select which of three possible years the statement was made. Those polls are time-limited, so pop over quickly as they will close soon. Feel free to leave comments below with your guesses. We’re on the honor system here, so no cheating by Googling or searching this blog.

Continue reading “It’s been said…

Organizing for information: leadership is the cornerstone and not a by-product of structure

This post originally appeared on my substack 17 hours ago, do consider subscribing (it’s free, like this site) if you haven’t already.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reached out to see if I was interested in co-authoring an article. Dr. Chris Paul, a defense policy researcher at RAND Corporation, had attended a Defense Department-focused conference “intended to inform and coalesce departmental efforts supporting Information Advantage and Cognitive Security” where he heard declarations that our problems with international information operations would be fixed if only the US Information Agency was resurrected. From someone else who was there, I heard at least one such pronouncement received a big applause. 

I’ve known Chris for more than a decade. We have been in the same “information operations” circles for a very long time, and we have worked together before – including when I was supposed to be a co-author on his 2009 report “Whither Strategic Communication,” but after the initial research was done, I had to switch gears. He reached out to see if we could collab again, and I was quick to say yes. 

Continue reading “Organizing for information: leadership is the cornerstone and not a by-product of structure

Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

International Information Administration logo

In the saga of institutional misinformation, we have a new entry. The following article is set up as satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which is fine, but the author’s invocation of history, specifically organizational history combined with implied current organizational portfolios is horribly wrong. The failure to understand our history is irrelevant to the article “Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security” but it is relevant as yet another sad revelation of how poorly we understand our organizations, past and present. That the author of this piece is a Navy Commander, a graduate of the Naval War College, and presently at TRADOC reveals an unfortunate reality about what our institutions “know” about the past and present. (Incidentally, I am a casual collector of books by “Dean Swift,” my oldest is only from 1911 though. There was an older edition I had my eye on in an antique bookstore in London, but I never pulled the trigger.)

Continue reading “Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

A clear absence of research, making arguments incongruent with history and facts, and unsubstantiated if-then statements are the kind of malpractice that at some point is more than mere accidental misinformation. With the rare exception, modern calls to reincarnate the United States Information Agency skirt beyond malpractice and misinformation and into the realm of disinformation. Calls to “bring back USIA” are prevalent enough to be a genre of its own. And this genre, while well-intentioned, is a Pavlovian reaction based almost entirely on demonstrably false mythologies.

Continue reading “The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

How Important is Public Diplomacy? A brief look at the Fulbright Board

President Truman, with Sen Fulbright and Assistant Secretary Benton, signs the Surplus Property Act into law

This is the first of an occasional, and limited, run of posts comparing the present with the past to suggest – though perhaps reveal is a better word – how far into the margins “public diplomacy” is today. The subject of this post is the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, formerly known as the Board of Foreign Scholarships.

Continue reading “How Important is Public Diplomacy? A brief look at the Fulbright Board

The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.

Continue reading “The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.

Continue reading “Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

Quote: There was a time…

There was a time we could afford—or thought we could afford —to be unconcerned about what other people thought of us… That time is past. We shall be making decisions, within the U.N. and independently, that will have repercussions affecting the lives of ordinary people all over the globe. Our attitude and our actions—and rumors thereof—will be matters of concern everywhere.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in April 14, 1947

This is a quote from the past on the need to directly reach people abroad in the interest of US foreign policy. Today, we may call this public diplomacy, but then it was simply “public affairs.” The term “public diplomacy” would not be adopted for another two decades for the purpose of defending the independence of a bureaucracy.

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.

Continue reading “Ben Bradlee and Public Diplomacy’s ‘Missing Years’

1957: Eisenhower, Dulles and merging USIA back into State, or Not

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Foster_Dulles

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 22 months as under secretary at the Labor Department, and now one month as USIA Director, Larson used charts, maps, and film clips to describe the barely four-year-old agency. The nearly three dozen attendees included the President, Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Larson’s objective was positioning the agency at the center of a whole of government engagement program. Larson stressed “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.”

Continue reading “1957: Eisenhower, Dulles and merging USIA back into State, or Not

Loy Henderson: supporter of public diplomacy, but perhaps not jazz

Loy Henderson
Source: Wikipedia

In the world of U.S. public diplomacy, jazz is often portrayed as an “instrument” of “soft power”, and presumably of “public diplomacy”. The music is democratic by nature. It communicates, as does all music, but it has a particular way of “freeing” the listener to transport and convey messages. It is an art form that inspires. The Public Diplomacy Council recently co-hosted an event on this.
Continue reading “Loy Henderson: supporter of public diplomacy, but perhaps not jazz

1949: “You’ve told us why the Voice, but you haven’t told us what it is”

"INP Kept Busy 'Untwisting' News of U.S."

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

Continue reading “1949: “You’ve told us why the Voice, but you haven’t told us what it is”

VOA in 1967

Source: http://www.ontheshortwaves.com/VOA_Stamp.html

In May 1967, The New York Times reported that the Voice of America was:

  • Broadcasting using 35 transmitters inside the United States;
  • Broadcasting using 57 transmitters outside the United States;
  • Broadcasting in 38 languages, although one-quarter of the total output was in English; and,
  • Rebroadcast by 3,000 radio stations using taped programs, adding 15,000 transmitter hours each week.

Continue reading “VOA in 1967

From the past: FBIS and World War II

In late 1940, many in the U.S. Government harbored concerns about foreign governments using radio to send propaganda and instructions to covert operatives. The State Department was concerned about “anti-American propaganda being short-waved hourly to Latin America.” The Department of Justice wanted to know whether “Axis agents in the United States received direction and guidance from Nazi short-wave programs” and wanted to stay on top of “the growing aggressiveness of Japan as reflected in her radio broadcasts.” 

Continue reading “From the past: FBIS and World War II

Quoting History: Information as an essential component of foreign policy

Events in the past year have made a United States Government information program more important than ever. Information is one of the three essential components in carrying out United States foreign policy — the other two, of course, being military and economic. Each has its function to perform in this great struggle for the minds of men, and each has, or should have, an equally high place in the strategic plan.

First Semiannual Report of the Advisory Commission on Information, March 1949.

In 1949, the Cold War was in full swing. Barely four years earlier, the White House and the Congress set about to make various programs permanent in the post-war world. These efforts included various information programs — radio, libraries, press feeds, motion pictures, books, and other publications — and various exchange programs — educational, cultural, and technical. There was one primary authority for these — the eventually named Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 — and several supplementary programs — the Fulbright Act and Defense Department information programs run in Japan and Germany/Austria. 

Continue reading “Quoting History: Information as an essential component of foreign policy