Rethinking Smith-Mundt
by Matt Armstrong, Small Wars Journal

The question asked repeatedly since 9/11 is how can a guy in cave out propagandize the country that created public relations and the Internet? An obscure group in 1998, Al-Qaeda increased their influence and reach with words, images, and actions. The United States responded with showcases of Americana that, not surprisingly, failed to resonate with the target audiences: our enemies’ base, moderates, “swing voters”, and even our friends and allies. Ignoring the importance of linking policy with the psychology of information to persuade and dissuade, American public diplomacy and strategic communication increasingly became an irrelevant whisper and beauty contest in stark contrast to the adversary’s propaganda of words and deeds. In the war of ideas, the United States is largely unarmed and has accordingly fallen in global influence and stature, increasing vulnerabilities not only in the military domain, but in economic, financial, and diplomatic realms too.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics – were retooled with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The former has received significant attention over the years and is currently the subject of an intense project to recommend updates. In contrast, the latter, a direct response to the global ideological threat posed by Communist propaganda, has been variously ignored, glossed over, or been subject to revisionism. Smith-Mundt was a largely successful bipartisan effort, establishing the foundation for the informational and cultural and educational engagement that became known as “public diplomacy.”

While today is unlike yesterday, it is worthwhile to look back on the purpose of Smith-Mundt and the debates surrounding the dissemination prohibition that has taken on mythical proportions. The modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt has given rise to an imaginary information environment bifurcated by a uniquely American “iron fence” separating the American media environment from the rest of the world. In 1948, the prohibition was a minor hurdle as the requirements for information and cultural and educational exchanges were debated.

However, modern analysis of Smith-Mundt tends to be informed by modern perceptions in disregard of the historical record. The prohibition was not intended to be prophylactic for sensitive American eyes and ears, but to be a non-compete agreement to protect private media. It was also to protect the Government from itself in the form of censoring the State Department, whose loyalties were suspect to many Congressmen...