In 1939, at the outbreak of the war, the United States was the only international power lacking an international propaganda service. The development of the world conflict, however, changed the situation. The force of Nazi aggression convinced many Americans that greater efforts were needed to sustain confidence in democratic values in the Old World.
President Roosevelt consequently created a first series of officies entrusted with information tasks: first the Office of Government Report (OGR) and then the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. It was, however, only after the 1940 elections and the confirmation of his mandate that more insistent voices pushed for the creation of an office specifically in charge of propaganda and information activities.
In July 1941, Roosevelt issued a military order creting the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), entrusting it not only with propaganda activities, but also with those of psychological warfare.
With the country's entry into the war, information and propaganda operations took on greater importance. In particular, on June 13, 1942 the Office of War Information (OWI) was established. It brought together all the functions of the previously existing offices. The official task of the OWI was to conduct "formulated and executed information programs to promote, in the United States and abroad, understanding of the status and progress of the war effort and of war policies, activities and aims of the US government."
It was the Overseas Branch of the OWI that gave rise to an extensive network of offices, in all European countries involved in the conflict, called United States Information Services.
In 1945, the first "American libraries" were opened under the aegis of these offices in many European cities, distributing articles, information material, photos and flyers and screening documentaries.
At the end of the conflict, the OWI was officially closed. However, the words used by Truman to announce its closure revealed the will not to close the chapter of the information services together with that of the war: "The nature of the present-day foreign relations makes it essential for the United States to maintain information activities abroad as an integral part of the conduct of our foreign affairs."
This was the first official recognition of the need for a "peacetime propaganda system" with a permanent structure. A first step in this direction had already been taken in 1944, with the creation of the position of Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Public and Cultural Affairs and the appointment of William Benton to this position. It was thanks to Benton's initiative and solicitation that work began on the formation of the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs (OIC), which became operational on January 1, 1946. The OIC was entrusted with the administration of all information activities started during the conflict, as well as with the creation of new programs: the International Broadcasting Division (IBD), the International Press and Publication Division (INP), the International Motion Picture Division (IMP), the International Exchange of Persons Division (IEP) and, finally, the Division of Libraries and Institutes (ILI).
In January 1948, after a visit to USIS offices in Europe, the Smith-Mundt group submitted a report to the US Congress urging the United States "to take positive and aggressive steps to carry the true story of her ideals, motives and objectives to a demoralized and groping Europe." The report served as the final impetus for the enactment, on January 27, 1948, of Public Law 402, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act, more commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act. The explicit purpose was "promoting better understanding of the United States abroad and increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." Thus, the Act authorized the initiation of an information program for the dissemination of news and information about the United States, its people, its political system, its institutions, and its foreign policies.
In 1949, the direction of the information programs was entrusted to Edward W. Barret, who contributed to increasing its role and changing the tone and content of the program. It was, in fact, Barret who coined the slogan "campaign of truth," later used by Truman himself to indicate a turning point in American political strategies, after the outbreak of the Korean War.
It was precisely this latter conflict that made it all the more urgent to increase American denunciations against the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and the ability to offer a positive and reassuring image of American power. The result was an increased role for the information program in the framework of American foreign policy, to the point of transforming it - in the words of Secretary of State Dean Acheson - into a "Marshall Plan of ideas."
In 1952, a semi-autonomous agency was created within the State Department to coordinate and guide the work of the various existing offices, the International Information Administration (IIA). The following year, the new President Eisenhower openly manifested his desire to transform the information programs into an effective and central instrument of national policy. Just one month after taking office, he appointed a committee of private citizens - the President's Committee on International Information Activities, better known as the Jackson Committee - to express their opinion on the possible creation of an independent information agency. In May 1953, the Advisory Committee was the first to officially comment on the matter, proposing the establishment of a new "foreign information agency."
On July 1, Eisenhower submitted to Congress a restructuring plan for the creation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) as an independent organization. The management of the "people exchange program" remained, however, with the State Department.
The State Department was also entrusted with the task of establishing the general lines of foreign policy to which the agency should refer. Finally, it was foreseen that the local USIS offices in the various countries would no longer refer to the embassy, but to the head of the American diplomatic mission, while funding and operational instructions would be transmitted directly from the central agency in Wahington. On August 3, USIA became, therefore, officially operational under the direction of Theodore C. Streibert.
The nature of the new agency, its objectives, the "strategic principles", the approach and the guidelines to be adopted were clarified in a document sent to all USIS posts between 1953 and 1954, which reads: "USIA is an instrument of US foreign policy [...] Its function is to affect the action of governments of other countries by using communication techniques to influence effective public opinion within these countries, in order to further the aims of US foreign policy".
The basic conviction was, therefore, that consensus in the Western bloc should be built around the key words defining the American way of lide - the progress of the free world in the name of peace.
As for the internal organization of the offices, the foreign offices reproduced the structure given to the central agency in America, consisting of a division into six areas: information, culture, research, radio broadcasting, cultural exchanges and film.
In the decades that followed, USIA continued to operate as an independent agency, responsible for coordinating the hundreds of American information offices around the world. From the nineties, however, the American victory in the Cold War and the end of the ideological confrontation against communism made its role progressively less important.
The USIA was then officially closed in 1999.
Network of United States Information Service in Italy
cultural exchange program
Clare Boothe Luce
US ambassador to Italy
USIS Films - Trieste Record
Tobia, Simontte. Advertising America. The United States Information Service in Italy (1945-1956). Milano: Il Filarete, 2008.
Bruti Liberati, Luigi. "Words, words, words." La guerra fredda dell’USIS in Italia (1945-1956). Milano: CUEM, 2004.
Dizard, Wilson P. The strategy of truth. The story of the United States Information Service. Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1961.
Crisanti, Giulia. "Modernizzazione in celluloide. Le politiche d’informazione americane in Italia e il FondoUSIS di Trieste (1941-1966)." MA Diss. University of Pisa, 2015.