United States Information Agency
Seal of the U.S. Information Agency
Logo of the U.S. Information Agency
Agency overview
FormedAugust 1953
DissolvedOctober 1, 1999
Superseding agency
JurisdictionFederal government of the United States
HeadquartersWashington, D.C.

The United States Information Agency (USIA) was a United States government agency devoted to the practice of public diplomacy which operated from 1953 to 1999.

Previously existing United States Information Service (USIS) posts operating out of U.S. embassies worldwide since World War II became the field operations offices of the USIA.[1] In 1978, USIA was merged with the Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs of the Department of State into a new agency called the United States International Communications Agency (USICA).[1][2] Use of the name United States Information Agency (USIA) was restored in 1982.[1][2]

In 1999, prior to the reorganization of intelligence agencies by President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton assigned USIA's cultural exchange and non-broadcasting intelligence functions to the newly created under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. Department of State[citation needed] and the now independent agency, the International Broadcasting Bureau.[1] USIA's broadcasting functions were moved to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which had been created in 1994.[1]

Since the merger of USIA with the Department of State, public diplomacy and public affairs sections at U.S. missions have carried on this work. When USIA was abolished in 1999, USIS posts once again were operated by the Department of State.[1]

Former USIA director of TV and film service Alvin Snyder recalled in his 1995 memoir that "the U.S. government ran a full-service public relations organization, the largest in the world, about the size of the twenty biggest U.S. commercial PR firms combined. Its full-time professional staff of more than 10,000, spread out among some 150 countries, burnished America‘s image and trashed the Soviet Union 2,500 hours a week with a 'tower of babble' comprised of more than 70 languages, to the tune of over $2 billion per year". The USIA was "the biggest branch of this propaganda machine."[3]

Stated mission

A propaganda poster produced by USIA, exhorting Northern Vietnamese residents to move South, in 1954.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the United States Information Agency on August 1, 1953,[1] during the postwar tensions with the communist world known as the Cold War.[4][5] The USIA's mission was "to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad".[6] The USIA was established "to streamline the U.S. government's overseas information programs, and make them more effective".[6] It operated all of the foreign information activities formerly carried out by the Department of State's International Information Administration and Technical Cooperation Administration, as well as the Mutual Security Agency.[1] USIA was also responsible for the overseas administration of the exchange of persons program formerly conducted by IIA.[1] The USIA was the largest full-service public relations organization in the world, spending over $2 billion per year to highlight the views of the U.S. while diminishing those of the Soviet Union, through about 150 different countries.[4]

Its stated goals were to explain and advocate U.S. policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures; to provide information about the official policies of the United States, and about the people, values and institutions which influence those policies; to bring the benefits of international engagement to American citizens and institutions by helping them build strong long-term relationships with their counterparts overseas; and to advise the President and U.S. government policy-makers on the ways in which foreign attitudes would have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of U.S. policies.[6] The Department of State provided foreign policy guidance.[1]

During the Cold War, some American officials believed that a propaganda program was essential to convey the United States and its culture and politics to the world, and to offset negative Soviet propaganda against the US. With heightened fears about the influence of communism, some Americans believed that the films produced by the Hollywood movie industry, when critical of American society, damaged its image in other countries.[7] The USIA "exist[ed] as much to provide a view of the world to the United States as it [did] to give the world a view of America".[8] Films produced by the USIA could by law not be screened publicly within the United States due to the Smith–Mundt Act. This restriction also meant that Americans could not view the material even for study at the National Archives.[9]

Within the US, the USIA was intended to assure Americans that "[t]he United States was working for a better world".[10] Abroad, the USIA tried to preserve a positive image of the U.S. regardless of negative depictions from communist propaganda. One notable example was Project Pedro. This secretly funded project created newsreels in Mexico during the 1950s that portrayed Communism unfavorably and the United States positively.[11] Articles reflecting the views promoted by the USIA were frequently published under fictitious bylines, such as "Guy Sims Fitch".[12][13]

The agency regularly conducted research on foreign public opinion about the United States and its policies, in order to inform the president and other key policymakers.[14] It conducted public opinion surveys throughout the world. It issued a variety of reports to government officials, including a twice-daily report on foreign media commentary around the world.[14]

Media and divisions

USIA library in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1965, during the apartheid era.

From the beginning, President Dwight Eisenhower said that "audiences would be more receptive to the American message if they were kept from identifying it as propaganda. Avowedly propagandistic materials from the United States might convince few, but the same viewpoints presented by the seemingly independent voices would be more persuasive."[10] The USIA used various forms of media, including "personal contact, radio broadcasting, libraries, book publication and distribution, press motion pictures, television, exhibits, English-language instruction, and others". Through these different forms, the United States government distributed its materials more easily and engaged a greater concentration of people.[8]

Four main divisions were established when the USIA began its programs.[7]

The first division dealt with broadcasting information, both in the United States and around the world. The radio was one of the most widely used forms of media at the onset of the Cold War, as television was not widely available. The Smith–Mundt Act authorized information programs, including Voice of America.[15] Voice of America was intended as an unbiased and balanced "Voice from America", as originally broadcast during World War II. The VOA was used to "tell America's stories ... to information deprived listeners behind the Iron Curtain".[4] By 1967, the VOA was broadcasting in 38 languages to up to 26 million listeners.[8] In 1976 VOA gained its "Charter", requiring its news to be balanced.

The second division of the USIA consisted of libraries and exhibits. The Smith–Mundt Act and the Fulbright–Hays Act of 1961 both authorized international cultural and educational exchanges (including the Fulbright Scholarship Program). USIA would mount exhibitions in its libraries overseas to reach people in other countries. "Fulbrighters" were grant recipients under the USIA educational and cultural exchange program. To ensure that those grant programs would be fair and unbiased, persons of educational and cultural expertise in the grant subject areas selected the grantee recipients.

The USIA's third division included press services. Within its first two decades, the "USIA publishe[d] sixty-six magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals, totaling almost 30 million copies annually, in twenty-eight languages".[8]

The fourth division dealt with the motion picture service. After the USIA failed in its effort to collaborate with Hollywood filmmakers to portray America in a positive light, the agency began producing their own documentaries.[4]

Non-broadcast educational and information efforts

By the time the agency was reorganized in 1999, the educational and informational efforts encompassed a wide range of activities, outside of broadcasting. These were focused in four areas, the agency produced extensive electronic and printed materials.

Its The Washington File information service, was intended to provide, in the words of the agency "both time-sensitive and in-depth information in five languages", incorporating full transcripts of speeches, Congressional testimony, articles by Administration officials, and materials providing analysis of key issues. The Agency also ran a number of websites to transmit information.[14]

Second, the agency ran a "Speakers and Specialists Program", sending Americans abroad for various public speaking and technical assistance roles.[14] These speakers were referred to as "American Participants" or "AmParts".

Third, the agency operated more than 100 "Information Resource Centers" abroad. These included some public-access libraries in developing countries.[14]

Finally, the USIA-operated foreign press centers in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles to "assist resident and visiting foreign journalists". In other major American cities, such as Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and Seattle, the USIA worked cooperatively with other international press centers.[14]

Beginning with the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the USIA directed the design, construction, and operation of the U.S. pavilions representing the United States at major world Expos.[16]

Abolition and restructuring

The Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, Division G of the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 1999, Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 105–277 (text) (PDF), 112 Stat. 2681-761, enacted October 21, 1998, abolished the U.S. Information Agency effective October 1, 1999. Its information and cultural exchange functions were folded into the Department of State under the newly created Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

When dismantled, the agency budget was $1.109 billion. After reductions of staff in 1997, the agency had 6,352 employees, of which almost half were civil service employees in the United States (2,521). About 1,800 of these employees worked in international broadcasting, while approximately 1,100 worked on the agency's educational and informational programs, such as the Fulbright program.[14] Foreign service officers consisting of about 1,000 members of the work force. Broadcasting functions, including Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe (in Eastern Europe), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty (in Russia and other areas of the former Soviet Union), were consolidated as an independent entity under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). This continues to operate independently from the State Department. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some commentators characterized United States international broadcasters, such as Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America as United States propaganda.[17][18][19]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Records of the United States Information Agency (RG 306) page at The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration website. Page reviewed 25 November 2022. Retrieved 15 June 2023.
  2. ^ a b United States Information Agency page at Federal Register website. Retrieved 15 June 2023.
  3. ^ Snyder, Alvin (1995). Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War: An Insider's Account. New York: Arcade Pub. p. xi. ISBN 1-55970-321-0. OCLC 32430655.
  4. ^ a b c d Snyder, Alvin, Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War 1995. Arcade Publishing, Inc. New York.
  5. ^ Reorganization Plan No. 8 of 1953, 67 Stat. 642
  6. ^ a b c "USIA: an overview". USIA. August 1998. Retrieved November 24, 2008.
  7. ^ a b Lefever, Ernest. Ethics and United States Foreign Policy (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1957).
  8. ^ a b c d Robert E. Elder. The Information Machine: The United States Information Agency and American Foreign Policy (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968).
  9. ^ "The Wall (1962) - Film Notes ", National Film Preservation Foundation.
  10. ^ a b Osgood, Kenneth. Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad. 2006. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence, KS.
  11. ^ Fein, Seth. "New Empire into Old: Making Mexican Newsreels the Cold War Way." Diplomatic History, Vol. 28, No. 5, November 2004, pp. 703-748. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.2004.00447.x. JSTOR 24914821.
  12. ^ Novak, Matt (September 27, 2016). "Meet Guy Sims Fitch, a Fake Writer Invented by the US Government". Gizmodo. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  13. ^ Wilson P., Jr, Dizard (2004). Inventing public diplomacy: the story of the U.S. Information Agency. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers. p. 159. ISBN 9781588262882. Retrieved September 27, 2016. These commentaries were prepared by a group of USIA editors (...) A long-running commentary on economic developments was attributed for many years to a fictional Guy Sims Fitch, whose views were often cited authoritatively in overseas publications.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g "USIA Factsheet". USIA. Retrieved April 18, 2011.
  15. ^ Friedman, Norman, The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
  16. ^ The United States Information Agency: A Commemoration (PDF). USIA. 1999. p. 38. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 7, 2011. Retrieved April 18, 2011.
  17. ^ Snow, Nancy (1998). "The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948". Peace Review. 10 (4): 619–624. doi:10.1080/10402659808426214. ISSN 1040-2659.
  18. ^ Hopkins, Mark (1999). "A Babel of Broadcasts". Columbia Journalism Review. 38 (2): 44. ISSN 0010-194X. The U.S. is propagandizing the world with a jumble of wasteful, redundant radio and TV programs – Voice of America, Radio Free This-and-That.
  19. ^ Smyth, Rosaleen (2001). "Mapping US Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century". Australian Journal of International Affairs. 55 (3): 421–444. doi:10.1080/10357710120095252. ISSN 1035-7718. S2CID 153524399. '... in a separate category, the 'non-profit, grantee corporations' Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). Although it is claimed that this arm's-length structure acts as 'a firewall, protecting editors and reporters from government and congressional censorship' this is something of a fiction as the broadcasters are funded by Congress and expected to serve clear foreign policy purposes-which they do, in the case of the surrogates in particular, with missionary zeal.'
  20. ^ "The Charles Guggenheim Collection". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 10, 2012.

Further reading