The U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 80-402), known as the Smith–Mundt Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on January 27, 1948.
The law was designed primarily to authorize and pay for informational programs and educational and cultural exchanges with foreign countries conducted by the State Department, where the Voice of America (VOA) was placed after President Truman abolished in 1945 its former parent agency, the Office of War Information (OWI). The Smith-Mundt Act effectively limited the distribution of Voice of America broadcasts in the United States. Since the creation of the Office of War Information and the start of overseas radio broadcasts in 1942, which only later acquired the Voice of America name, members of Congress of both parties were concerned about the possible ideological and propaganda impact of VOA on the American public and the threat of foreign influence over the VOA broadcasts, especially from Soviet Russia and other communist sources. The Smith-Mundt Act significantly strengthened provisions for security background checks and hiring of Voice of America personnel. Section 1001 of the Smith-Mundt Act said that:
Sec. 1001. No citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not now in the employ of the Government, 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 has been made to the Secretary of State: Provided, however, that any present employee of the Government, pending the report as to such employee by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, may be employed or assigned to duties under this Act for the period of six months from the date of its enactment. This section shall not apply in the case of any officer appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
The Smith-Mundt Act provided for only overseas distribution of Voice of America and State Department programs:
Sec. 501.The Secretary is authorized, when he finds it appropriate, to provide for the preparation, and dissemination abroad, of information about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, and other information media, and through information centers and instructors abroad. Any such press release or radio script, on request, shall be available in the English language at the Department of State, at all reasonable times following its release as information abroad, for examination by representatives of United States press associations, newspapers, magazines, radio systems, and stations, and, on request, shall be made available to Members of Congress.
Sec. 502.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 m any other medium of information.
In 1985, the Act was amended to read: “no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States” (P.L. 99-93).
Rep. Howard H. Buffett, father of American investor Warren Buffett, was concerned in 1947 about domestic propaganda activities by the Voice of America.
As the U.S. Congress was debating in June 1947 the eventual passage of the Smith-Mundt Act, which implicitly placed restrictions on domestic dissemination of government news through the Voice of America (VOA) while funding expansion of State Department’s cultural and academic exchange programs, Congressman Howard Buffett (R-NE) expressed concerns that officials in charge of VOA may have been secretly planning domestic propaganda activities. As it turned out, State Department officials had no plans to distribute U.S. government radio broadcasts domestically. Such a move would kill the funding not only for VOA but also for the public diplomacy programs favored by the State Department. Congressman Buffett was right, however, that U.S. diplomats were using the need for the Voice of America overseas broadcasting during the Cold War to influence U.S. public opinion to drum up support for their larger public diplomacy and information outreach budget.
When Rep. Buffett told the House of Representatives that “the American people should have a free press and full information about the domestic-propaganda activities of their own Government, he was objecting to closed meetings, to which the State Department invited propaganda experts and representatives of private organizations. U.S. media outlets were deliberately barred from covering the meetings. He told the House on June 9, 1947, a few days after members debated some of the provisions of the future Smith-Mundt Act, that Congress should investigate such “home-front secret Voice of America activity” before it passes any more appropriations. He was expressing longlasting congressional concern over possible misuse of VOA by the Executive Branch to propagandize to Americans.[ref]Howard H. Buffett, “State Department Meetings,” 93 Cong. Rec. (Bound) – Volume 93, Part 5 (May 21, 1947 to June 11, 1947), June 9, 1947, 6621, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1947-pt5/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1947-pt5-13-2.pdf[/ref]
I would venture to suggest that Congress, before it passes any more appropriations for the State Department, or before it authorizes the so-called Voice of America, find out about this home-front secret Voice of America activity at the State Department. It may be that this iron curtain is small, unimportant, and justified but it is a bad sign.[ref]Howard H. Buffett, “State Department Meetings,” 93 Cong. Rec. (Bound) – Volume 93, Part 5 (May 21, 1947 to June 11, 1947), June 9, 1947, 6621, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1947-pt5/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1947-pt5-13-2.pdf[/ref]
By limiting U.S. government’s public diplomacy and broadcasting activities only to foreign countries, the Smith-Mundt Act when it was eventually passed by Congress and signed by President Truman in 1948 effectively prevented direct distribution of Voice of America news in the United States while allowing U.S. media and members of Congress research access to evaluate VOA programs. A ban on domestic distribution was not explicitly included in the law, but lawmakers made sure that VOA broadcasts would only be directed abroad and, on top of that, would not compete with U.S. domestic media either abroad or in the United States. An explicit ban on domestic distribution of Voice of America broadcasts was added later, but it was commonly understood since 1948 that VOA would have no domestic media role of any kind.
In debating the Smith-Mundt Act in 1947, members of Congress were generally supportive of expanding Voice of America foreign broadcasting and State Department public diplomacy and academic exchange programs as necessary to counter the growing threat of Soviet influence. Many, however, were also mindful of earlier pro-Soviet domestic U.S. government propaganda by the Roosevelt administration through the wartime Office of War Information (OWI), where VOA radio broadcasts were first launched in 1942 under various early names before it became known as the Voice of America. OWI’s domestic and foreign propaganda was essentially the same, coordinated by the same top officials, and repeated many of the same Soviet false claims and lies, deceiving both Americans and audiences abroad.
John Houseman, the man who was later known as the first VOA director, was denied a U.S. passport by the State Department in 1943 because he was suspected of pro-Soviet sympathies and of hiring Communists.[ref]Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” Cold War Radio Museum, May 5, 2018, https://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/first-voa-director-was-a-pro-soviet-communist-sympathizer-state-dept-warned-fdr-white-house/.[/ref] One of the first chief writers of VOA news was Howard Fast, a future Communist Party USA member and the 1953 winner of the Stalin Peace Prize worth approximately $235,000 in today’s dollars but probably split among several recipients of the 1953 Stalin Prizes.[ref]Ted Lipien, “Stalin Prize-winning Chief Writer of Voice of America News, Cold War Radio Museum, March 12, 2019, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/stalin-prize-winning-former-chief-writer-of-voice-of-america-news/.[/ref]
As the Second World War continued, more and more members of Congress of both parties became convinced that OWI and VOA staff had been infiltrated by Soviet and communist sympathizers. There were many warnings in Congress that OWI information programs in the United States and VOA broadcasts abroad reflected Soviet propaganda. In 1943, U.S. lawmakers nearly defunded OWI over such concerns in the middle of the war with two deadly enemies. That is how unpopular domestic U.S. government propaganda was perceived at the time. Ultimately, Congress allowed OWI overseas radio broadcasts to continue but greatly reduced funding for its domestic information activities. From time to time, members of Congress would expose foreign Communists working on Voice of America programs. Some of these early VOA broadcasters later ended up working for Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain.[ref]Ted Lipien, Stefan Arski: Agent of Communist Collusion at VOA, Cold War Radio Museum, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/stefan-arski-agent-of-communist-collusion-at-wwii-voice-of-america/.[/ref]
While many journalists managers and other staffers did not transfer from OWI to the State Department in 1945, some of the early OWI pro-Soviet fellow travelers were still working at VOA in 1947. It was still before such outstanding anti-communist journalists as the Polish anti-Nazi fighter Zofia Korbońska were hired upon the recommendation of a strong critic of VOA radio broadcasts overseen by the State Department, former Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane. The contributions of journalism who had a first hand experience with Communism did not make a significant difference until about 1952. Disappointed with a slow pace of reform at the State Department and VOA, Ambassador Lane and other prominent Americans turned their attention to creating Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty) in the early 1950s.
Some of the concerns over Soviet propaganda influence within the U.S. information agency were later addressed in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. The legislation required a much higher level of security clearances for VOA personnel in addition to making it clear, although not in the most direct way, that Voice of America programs would only be distributed outside of the United States.
Congress would not have approved funding for VOA in 1948 if its programs were to be broadcast domestically. This was due to both fears of domestic propaganda tainted with Soviet influence as well as a desire to prevent any government competition with private media in the United States. Domestic broadcasting by VOA was not even seriously contemplated as it would have been a non-starter. As long as VOA was within the State Department, its academic exchange programs and other public diplomacy activities would also not get any funding if there were even a suspicion of domestic propaganda activity by VOA or any sign of domestic partisanship. The Voice of America was saved from many potential scandals when the foreign target area designation was put in the Smith-Mundt Act, but as late as 1952, the VOA was still being criticized for being timid and less then fully effective against Soviet propaganda. A bipartisan congressional committee also strongly condemned World War II OWI propaganda activities, both domestic and foreign.[ref]The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee, said in its final report issued in December 1952: “In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee added: “For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.” The Madden Committee also said in its final report in 1952: “This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence, it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.” A major change in VOA programs occurred, with much more reporting being done on the investigation into the Katyń massacre and other Soviet atrocities, but later some of the censorship returned. Radio Free Europe (RFE), also funded and indirectly managed by the U.S., never resorted to such censorship, and provided full coverage of all communist human rights abuses. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.[/ref]
In later years of the Cold War there was a push from officials in charge of VOA to get Congress to eliminate restrictions on domestic program content distribution. During the Obama administration, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act and subsequent legislation were modified and original restrictions weakened but not completely eliminated. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which was contained within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (section 1078 (a)), amended the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Smith-Mundt Act) and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1987, allowing for materials produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to be made available to anybody on request within the United States. The Voice of America is still prohibited from targeting Americans with its programs, but they can be easily seen by Americans on the web, including social media. In 2018, VOA was caught illegally targeting Americans with Facebook ads and has been accused of engaging in partisan propaganda since at least the 2016 presidential election campaign.