Propaganda, Public Diplomacy and the Smith-Mundt Act

"I am not particularly concerned whether either gunpowder or propaganda have benefited or harmed mankind. I merely emphasize, at this point, that propaganda on an immense scale is here to stay. We Americans must become informed and adept at its use, defensively and offensively, or we may find ourselves as archaic as the belted knight who refused to take gunpowder seriously 500 years ago."

--State Department official George V. Allen, in "Propaganda: A Conscious Weapon of Diplomacy," The Department of State Bulletin, XXI, no. 546 (December 19, 1949), 941-943; cited at, footnote 11

Propaganda is hard to define. When viewed historically, however, it is an instrument of war used by a government against its enemy. Modern propaganda, targeted at mass audiences and using the latest media, was launched during World War I. In 1917, the U.S. government established its first propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, abolished in 1919. During the other twentieth-century global conflicts  -- World War II and the Cold War -- the USG propaganda agencies were the Office of War Information (1942-1945) and the United States Information Agency (1953-1999). During the War on Terror, the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department (Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs) handled propaganda, but no independent executive agency was created to deal with it, perhaps because our extremist Islamic enemy turned out to be not as global and threatening as many felt right after 9/11.

Propaganda is much cheaper than hard military power. It causes far fewer casualties than battlefield conflicts. Hence its benefits for a government at war. But how propaganda modifies hearts and minds in a state's interest is hard to measure. This is its main drawback from a military perspective, where the number of enemy dead is a "precise" way to quantify success.

There are three types of propaganda: white, grey and black, described thus by the propaganda scholar Kenneth Osgood:  

White propaganda is correctly attributed to the sponsor and the source is truthfully identified. (The U.S. government's international broadcast service Voice of America, for example, broadcasts white propaganda.) Gray propaganda, on the other hand, is unattributed to the sponsor and conceals the real source of the propaganda. The objective of gray propaganda is to advance viewpoints that are in the interest of the originator but that would be more acceptable to target audiences than official statements. The reasoning is that avowedly propagandistic materials from a foreign government or identified propaganda agency might convince few, but the same ideas presented by seemingly neutral outlets would be more persuasive. Unattributed publications, such as articles in newspapers written by a disguised source, are staples of gray propaganda. Other tactics involve wide dissemination of ideas put forth by others--by foreign governments, by national and international media outlets, or by private groups, individuals, and institutions. Gray propaganda also includes material assistance provided to groups that put forth views deemed useful to the propagandist. Like its gray cousin, black propaganda also camouflages the sponsor's participation. But while gray propaganda is unattributed, black propaganda is falsely attributed. Black propaganda is subversive and provocative; it is usually designed to appear to have originated from a hostile source, in order to cause that source embarrassment, to damage its prestige, to undermine its credibility, or to get it to take actions that it might not otherwise. Black propaganda is usually prepared by secret agents or an intelligence service because it would be damaging to the originating government if it were discovered. It routinely employs underground newspapers, forged documents, planted gossip or rumors, jokes, slogans, and visual symbols.

Roughly speaking, public diplomacy (defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences") is white propaganda, with some its programs in educational and cultural exchanges quite non-propagandistic, at least to some.  Psyops (now known as MISO) carries out grey and black propaganda. Strategic communication contains elements of the three types ("colors") of propaganda. Propaganda can be overt or covert, in tone humane or bellicose, depending on circumstances and a government's interest.

Bottom line, however, is that propaganda is an instrument of war used by a government, primarily but not exclusively, against a present or possibly future enemy. It stands to reason, therefore, that, because propaganda is a state weapon directed at an adversary, actual or potential, citizens of a country should not be subjected to the propaganda of their government. If they are, their government is essentially waging war upon them. No wonder that after World War I an anti-propaganda tradition developed in the United States -- a country that prides itself on the right of its citizens to think as they wish.

As part of that anti-propaganda tradition, the Smith-Mundt Act, the 1948 legislation (amended several times) which prohibits the domestic dissemination of some USG-produced propaganda ("information") directed to foreign audiences, is still relevant today. To be sure, the Act could use fine-tuning to deal with the internet age and a globalized world. Americans today can easily find Voice of America news on the Internet. So, some say, forget about  a  60+-year Cold War relic!

Critics of the Act have noted that it was never meant to apply to the Department of Defense, which has its own rules prohibiting domestic psyops.

But this lack of coordinated control over propaganda activities by military and civilian agencies actually underscores a need, without censorship, to reinforce Smith-Mundt's most important point -- that a democratic government should not propagandize its own people, as was the case with totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and as is true of today's mainland China. 

The last thing we need is the USG, using Pentagon psyops, to be in a state of perpetual war with its citizens in the name of "access to information in an information age." This is the stated aim of bipartisan bill modernizing Smith-Mundt (recently passed by Congress), as mentioned by one of its supporters, Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon (Texas).

Rather, an upgraded Smith-Mundt Act, if it in fact should be changed at all (let sleeping dogs lie, some would say) should ensure that Americans, even more than over half-a-century ago, have a government that speaks for, rather than propagandizes, them -- in an age when the new social media, increasingly used by the USG, are making privacy, so important for individual freedom, a greater and greater luxury of the past.