One of the most difficult tasks facing all U.S. propaganda agencies has been simply convincing the American people and members of Congress of their right to exist. This was dramatically revealed in the debate over the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act—the first peacetime legislative charter for government propaganda—which was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation ever enacted. By the time it was passed, it had been rewritten twice and had acquired more than one hundred amendments. It also earned more days of debate and filled more pages of the Congressional Record than the controversial Taft-Hartley labor disputes legislation—at that time arguably the most controversial bill in U.S. history.
Controversy surrounding government-sponsored propaganda has also been a recurring theme in modern American political history. U.S. information programs have been subjected to incessant harassment from journalists, American citizens, and from both conservative and liberal members of Congress. These critics often charged that the information programs were ineffective, unnecessary, and wasteful. Critics also held that these programs were infiltrated by spies and saboteurs, or that they were promulgating undesirable and un-American ideas. During World War I and World War II, when the Committee on Public Information and the Office of War Information were openly conducting propaganda in the United States, critics also charged that these agencies were being used for partisan political advantage.
The best-known (and most strident) criticism of the U.S. information program came at the beginning of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a prolonged attack on the Voice of America in concert with his broader assault on suspected communists in the State Department. In 1953, two of McCarthy's aides toured the U.S. Information Service libraries in Europe and announced that they had found 30,000 books by authors with communist sympathies in the stacks. Although these charges were wildly exaggerated, hundreds of books were purged from the libraries and in some cases burned. As a result of the investigations, the U.S. information program lost dozens of employees who resigned or were pushed from their jobs (one prominent official committed suicide), while those that remained were thoroughly demoralized. Perhaps the most serious effects were felt abroad, where the highly publicized investigations devastated American prestige.
Although McCarthy's investigation was the most famous case of domestic political controversy generated by the information program, it was by no means the only one. From the 1917 decision to create the Committee on Public Information to the 1999 decision to dissolve the U.S. Information Agency, American propaganda agencies have been a favorite target of congressional critics. This incessant criticism has in part stemmed from a general American apprehension about any government program that influences, sponsors, or promulgates ideas and values. It has also reflected a powerful belief that democracies have no business engaging in cynical propaganda either at home or abroad. The belief that information activities are wasteful and unnecessary except in times of war or national emergency underlined the decision by Congress to dissolve the U.S. Information Agency.