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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. 
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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.”

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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.

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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.” 

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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. 

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The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

This 1953 Journalism Quarterly article by Burton Paulu entitled “Smith-Mundt Act- A legislative history” (3.7mb PDF) is an interesting and short read for anyone wanting to know more about the early discussions around the start of U.S. public diplomacy. The timing of this particular paper is interesting. Continue reading “The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

George Kennan’s Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia

Source: Truman Library, Acheson Papers, Box 27, Correspondence Under Secretary 1945-1947

It is a pity that our press plays up our diplomatic relations like a ball game, stressing victories and defeats. Good diplomacy results in satisfaction for both sides as far as possible; if one side really feels defeated, they try to make up for it later, and thus relations deteriorate. In general the daily press and commentators dramatize short-term conflicts at the expense of long-term prospects for achieving a stable balance.

— Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia by George Kennan, July 22, 1946.

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The Brookings Institute on U.S. International Information… in 1948

“Brookings Report Sees Flaws in U.S. Information Service” was the headline on page 2 in the December 13, 1948, edition of The Washington Post. The report, Overseas Information Service of the United States Government by Charles Thomson, examined the government’s information activities during World War II, the changes immediately after, and made recommendations for the future.  Continue reading “The Brookings Institute on U.S. International Information… in 1948

Willis Conover & Smith-Mundt, a more complete picture

If you missed yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article by Doug Ramsey on Willis Conover, you should read it. The article is part of a campaign to get Mr. Conover on a U.S. postage stamp.

There was one passage from the article that stuck out to me, as anyone who knows me or knows the book I am writing (it’s nearly finished, by the way) would know it would. Here is the sentence: 

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A news hungry Europe

This cartoon appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on October 21, 1947. I found it in the Truman library (Truman Library, President’s Personal File, Box 540, PPF 1971) attached to a letter from Bill Benton to the President dated October 25. Benton had just departed as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and was working as a Special Consultant for State on UNESCO, an effort he had long been involved as, while preparing for a bid for the Senate. In his letter, Benton mentions he meant to give the cartoon to the President when they met the day before and had a suggestion:  Continue reading “A news hungry Europe

Certain Aspects of the European Recovery Problem from the U.S. Standpoint

Here Helps the Marshall Plan, not ‘Courtesy Of’ (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-20671-0014 / CC-BY-SA)

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered a “routine commencement speech” at Harvard University. The only pomp and circumstance was for the graduates and the lone reporter in the crowd was there only because of a friend. It was, however, a speech that changed history as the retired General of the Army proposed a program for Europe based on building local economic strength, governance, and self-confidence.  Continue reading “Certain Aspects of the European Recovery Problem from the U.S. Standpoint