USIA Films and the Smith-Mundt Act

23 Jul

We have a couple of films in our library (Himalayan Awakening and Arts of Japan) produced by the U.S. Information Agency which was the “public diplomacy” (aka, propaganda) arm of the State Department from 1953-1999. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent news about the fresh loosening of the The United States Information and Exchange Act of 1948, which prohibited domestic distribution of propaganda created for international audiences. The USIA made hundreds of films and very, very few were ever seen in the United States before the Act was first revised in 1987. Unfortunately, however, because U.S. distribution was effectively illegal for so long, very few copies of the films have survived, at least as far as I’ve been able to find so far. The National Archives holds the records of the USIA’s Motion Picture and Television Service, but few of the films are available for viewing outside of NARA.

The word “propaganda” gets people all worked up because it seems inherently manipulative and deceitful. Arguably, the USIA’s mission was an ideal non-violent alternative to the Cold War arms race against the perceived Communist threat. Show movies! Of course the movies were infused with an ideological agenda to promote the so-called American way of life; ahem, “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the [U.S.] national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between American and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad.” And thanks to the Hollywood- and auteurist-minded George Stevens, Jr., who ran the the Motion Picture Services unit from 1962-1967, several notable filmmakers got their start working for the USIA, including Carroll Ballard (O how I long to find a copy of his Beyond this Winter’s Wheat, shot in eastern Oregon in 1965!), Charles Guggenheim, Bruce Herschensohn, and University of Oregon alum James Blue (go Ducks!). Like the best (read: most insidious) propaganda, these films are an aesthetic pleasure; the dogma is muted by the skill of the filmmaking. James Blue’s The March walks an especially tricky line as it tells the story of the pivotal 1963 March on Washington for a foreign audience. Amidst the gross injustices and inequality that made the march necessary, Blue had to convey how awesome the United States is for allowing such a peaceful demonstration to occur at all.

Fortunately, there is a growing amount of scholarship on the USIA’s film production. Currently on my shelf:

  • The Cold War and the United States Information Agency, by Nicholas Cull (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008)
  • Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency, by Wilson P. Dizard (Lynne Rienner, 2004)
  • The People’s Films: A Political History of the U.S. Government Motion Pictures, by Richard Dyer MacCann (Hastings House, 1973)
  • Hollywood’s Cold War, by Tony Shaw (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2007)
  • “Auteurs of Ideology: UISA Documentary Film Propaganda in the Kennedy Era…,” also by Cull (Film History, v.10, 1998)
  • “Experiments in Propaganda: Reintroducing James Blue’s Colombia Trilogy,” by Jennifer Horne (The Moving Image, v.9(1), 2009)


2 Responses to “USIA Films and the Smith-Mundt Act”

  1. john brown July 24, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Thank you so much for contributing to the historical record, so sadly forgotten, despite the work of Professor Cull and other scholars.

  2. Phil March 11, 2017 at 10:11 am #

    I’d also like to offer my thanks for your post on this subject. Seems like there’s a treasure trove of great historical films produced by the U.S.I.A., many of which may (sadly) never see the light of day.

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