If he returned from the grave, broadcast news legend Edward R. Murrow would nod his head at government fumbling in the propaganda wars with the Islamic State group and other bad guys. It might seem all too familiar.
Well, he has returned, sort of, through a previously undisclosed Murrow memo (embedded below [see link]) in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. It makes clear his historically evocative chagrin with how the U.S. pressed its case in the battle for hearts and minds around the globe.
The needed background is as minimal as most Ben Carson campaign declarations: The Obama administration has continued a tradition of modestly financed and seemingly subpar world-wide media efforts that trace themselves to Cold War attempts to confront and rebut communism.
The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and several other government broadcast entities are the best known of those ongoing efforts. They are overseen by a part-time broadcasting board and employ about 3,500 people, reach an estimated 206 million people worldwide each week and cost taxpayers about $750 million a year. By comparison, the Pentagon recently approved a deal with Northrop Grumman for a new Long Range Strike Bomber that will cost $564 million per plane for 100 aircraft, along with about $20 billion in development costs.
Forget planes. Compared to the billions spent by the likes of China and Russia on government media, whose daily tactics are rife with lies about the U.S., what we spend is a pittance.
U.S. operations have also suffered from a general neglect by the White House and State Department in multiple administrations. We're more inclined to use hard power (guns and ammo) than soft power (diplomacy, cultural missions, adept social media). I've previously covered our current efforts with soft power and a dubious status quo is clear, including the very uneven performance of the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees our international broadcasting.
So now I find the handiwork of Murrow, the onetime CBS News fixture who rose to international fame through intrepid and lucid World War II reporting and, later, prime time muckraking documentaries on CBS with collaborator Fred Friendly. He ended his career by crossing the professional street and overseeing what was then known as the United States Information Agency during the John F. Kennedy and (briefly after Kennedy's assassination) Lyndon Johnson administrations.
The agency had been established in 1953, though its roots were in the Office of War Information from World War II. Its primary mandate was to improve our image overseas through overt and covert programs (the latter at times done in tandem with the CIA, including counterinsurgency programs in areas that included Southeast Asia). In 1999 its broadcast functions were placed under the aegis of the then-new Broadcasting Board of Governors and the others were given to a new State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (former Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel now holds that position).
This brings us to the newly declassified memo at the Kennedy library, written by Murrow during his government days. It was penned early in the Kennedy administration, on May 17, 1961, and was sent to David Bell, Kennedy's director of the Office of Management and Budget with a copy sent to Theodore Sorensen, JFK's top adviser.
It was a six-page exhortation to hike the modest allocation for the USIA and offered what the French might tag a tour d'horizon of various propaganda challenges facing the United States.
It touches on problems in Africa and Latin America, including Cuba, but reaches its rhetorical climax on "the deteriorating political and military situation in Southeast Asia." That situation, he believed, "calls for urgent additional steps to communicate the determination of the United States to (1) support our allies and maintain them as allies and (2) prevent neutral countries from falling to Communism."
Then, Murrow waxed dramatic.
He completed his impassioned cry for bureaucratic assistance by writing, "As never before, USIA urgently needs adequate resources to do the job which must be done; not only the funds requested herein but also substantially all of our original request."
Murrow's tenure included many successes: He convinced Kennedy that he, Murrow, should attend cabinet meetings, he oversaw the opening of new posts in Africa, he expanded broadcasting to Latin America and he in diversified the agency with the hiring of women and African-Americans.
But his successes did not include his getting any significant budget increases. That's further reason he might feel right at home today.
He quit in 1964 and died of brain cancer in 1965. The agency he ran (which back then had 12,000 employees) got smaller and smaller over the decades even as its challenges became arguably more formidable.
If he returned from the grave, maybe he'd be gratified to learn that the State Department brings 75 journalists from around the globe to the U.S. each year to study the importance of a free press in a democracy. They call it the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists.