Recalling History: the rising importance of people and public opinion

What today know as the Smith-Mundt Act was originally proposed in October 1945 in the House Foreign Affairs Committee as a key part of the State Department’s reorientation to the changing requirements of the time. Below is testimony to the committee by William Benton, the new assistant secretary of state for public affairs – a position created only the year before as the assistant secretary of state for public and cultural affairs. The legislation, HR 4368, known as the Bloom Bill after the committee’s chairman, it would pass the House in July 1946 but blocked by Senator Taft. At the request of the State Department, it was resurrected in the 80th Congress by a Republican Congressman named Mundt.

A part of Benton’s testimony that may be interest:

[T]he United States Government, and specifically the State Department, cannot be indifferent to the ways in which our Nation is portrayed in other countries. It has an obligation – perhaps I should call it an opportunity and a challenge – to help give to the people of other lands what President Truman describes as “a full and fair picture of American life and of the aims and policies of the United States Government.”

H.R. 4368 reflects some profound changes in the conduct of foreign relations in the twentieth century, and particularly in the last 20 years. …

There was a time when foreign affairs were ruler-to-ruler relations, when the rulers dealt privately and secretly with one another through their ambassadors. Even when absolute rulers gave way to representative governments, the relations often continued to be secret and private through ambassadors. These government-to-government relationships prevailed until the First World War.

Since 1918, the relations between nations have constantly been broadened to include not merely governments but also peoples. The peoples of the world are exercising an ever larger influence upon decisions of foreign policy. That is as it should be.

The impact of America is one of the forces behind this trend. America is the leader in the development of the field of communications. …

Short-wave broadcasting has grown up within the last 20 years, and notably in the last 10. Rates for the international transmission of news have been reduced by 50 percent, 75 percent, and in some instanced by 90 percent, resulting in vastly greater flow of information from one country to another. Magazines now have international circulations. Book are being translated and sold internationally in far greater quantities. The motion picture appeals to everybody everywhere and reaches all corners of the world.

The people themselves, as well as their ideas, are moving about the world farther and faster. …

So much that we regard as new today simply is not. What has changed is the speed and the impact. The result of ignoring the movement of ideas – and people – is much more deadlier. Not only has the spread of ideas been democratized in the sense that anyone create capture, modify, and propagate information, but so to has the ability to disrupt and destroy.

We must ask at what point will Congress and the State Department make a serious and concerted effort to step up to the requirements of 1945, let alone 2010? It was a year ago that President Obama - Mr. Public Diplomacy who fully understood the importance of grassroots engagement – was inaugurated with great fanfare, but where are we today?

Source: House Committee on Foreign Affairs report on the Interchange of Knowledge and Skills between People of the U.S. and Peoples of other Countries. Unrevised hearings on H.R. 4368 on Oct. 16-24, 1945.

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