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Kenneth A. Osgood

The United States has utilized propaganda techniques repeatedly through its history, particularly during periods of war and international crisis. As early as the revolutionary period, Americans evinced a shrewd grasp of the utility of propaganda as an instrument of foreign policy. The total wars of the early twentieth century led the U.S. government to employ propaganda on a massive scale as an accessory to military operations, but the Cold War institutionalized propaganda as a central component of American foreign policy. The governmental use of propaganda continued to expand in the twenty-first century, largely due to the harnessing of the revolution in communications. But for most Americans, propaganda has a negative connotation as a treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative practice. Americans have generally thought of propaganda as something "other" people and nations do, while they themselves merely persuade, inform, or educate. Americans have employed numerous euphemisms for their propaganda in order to distinguish it from its totalitarian applications and wicked connotations. The most common of these has been "information," a designation that has adorned all of the official propaganda agencies of the governmentfrom the Committee on Public Information (19171919) and the Office of War Information (19421945) to the U.S. Information Agency (19531999) and its successor, the Office of International Information Programs in the Department of State.

For a brief period during the 1940s and early 1950s, the terms "psychological warfare" and "political warfare" were openly espoused by propaganda specialists and politicians alike. Increasingly, they turned to euphemisms like "international communication" and "public communication" to make the idea of propaganda more palatable to domestic audiences. During the Cold War, common phrases also included "the war of ideas," "battle for hearts and minds," "struggle for the minds and wills of men," "thought war," "ideological warfare," "nerve warfare," "campaign of truth," "war of words," and others. Even the term "Cold War" was used to refer to propaganda techniques and strategy (as in "Cold War tactics"). Later, the terms "communication," "public diplomacy," "psychological operations" (or "psyops"), "special operations," and "information warfare" became fashionable. Political propaganda and measures to influence media coverage were likewise labeled "spin," and political propagandists were "spin doctors" or, more imaginatively, "media consultants" and "image advisers."

The term "propaganda" has spawned as many definitions as it has euphemisms. Harold Lass well, a pioneer of propaganda studies in the United States, defined it as "the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols." Like other social scientists in the 1930s, he emphasized its psychological elements: propaganda was a subconscious manipulation of psychological symbols to accomplish secret objectives. Subsequent analysts stressed that propaganda was a planned and deliberate act of opinion management. A 1958 study prepared for the U.S. Army, for example, defined propaganda as "the planned dissemination of news, information, special arguments, and appeals designed to influence the beliefs, thoughts, and actions of a specific group." In the 1990s the historian Oliver Thomson defined propaganda broadly to include both deliberate and unintentional means of behavior modification, describing it as "the use of communication skills of all kinds to achieve attitudinal or behavioural changes among one group by another." Numerous communication specialists have stressed that propaganda is a neutral activity concerned only with persuasion, in order to free propagandists (and their profession) from pejorative associations. Some social scientists have abandoned the term altogether because it cannot be defined with any degree of precision; and others, like the influential French philosopher Jacques Ellul, have used the term but refused to define it because any definition would inevitably leave something out.

As these examples indicate, propaganda is notoriously difficult to define. Does one identify propaganda by the intentions of the sponsor, by the effect on the recipients, or by the techniques used? Is something propaganda because it is deliberate and planned? How does propaganda differ from advertising, public relations, education, information, or, for that matter, politics? At its core, propaganda refers to any technique or action that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, or behavior of a group, in order to benefit the sponsor. Propaganda is usually, but not exclusively, concerned with public opinion and mass attitudes. The purpose of propaganda is to persuadeeither to change or reinforce existing attitudes and opinions. Yet propaganda is also a manipulative activity. It often disguises the secret intentions and goals of the sponsor; it seeks to inculcate ideas rather than to explain them; and it aspires to modify or control opinions and actions primarily to benefit the sponsor rather than the recipient.

Although manipulative, propaganda is not necessarily untruthful, as is commonly believed. In fact, many specialists believe that the most effective propaganda operates with different layers of truthfrom half-truths and the truth torn out of context to the just plain truth. Propagandists have on many occasions employed lies, misrepresentations, or deceptions, but propaganda that is based on fact and that rings true to the intended audience is bound to be more persuasive than bald-faced lies.

Another common misconception identifies propaganda narrowly by its most obvious manifestationsradio broadcasts, posters, leaflets, and so on. But propaganda experts employ a range of symbols, ideas, and activities to influence the thoughts, attitudes, opinions, and actions of various audiencesincluding such disparate modes of communication and human interaction as educational and cultural exchanges, books and scholarly publications, the adoption of slogans and buzzwords, monuments and museums, spectacles and media events, press releases, speeches, policy initiatives, and person-to-person contacts. Diplomacy, too, has been connected to the practice of propaganda. Communication techniques have been employed by government agents to cultivate public opinion so as to put pressure on governments to pursue certain policies, while traditional diplomatic activitiesnegotiations, treatieshave been planned, implemented, and presented in whole or in part for the effects they would have on public opinion, both international and domestic.


Modern practitioners of propaganda utilize various schema to classify different types of propaganda activities. One such categorization classifies propaganda as white, gray, or black according to the degree to which the sponsor conceals or acknowledges its involvement. White propaganda is correctly attributed to the sponsor and the source is truthfully identified. (The U.S. government's international broadcast service Voice of America, for example, broadcasts white propaganda.) Gray propaganda, on the other hand, is unattributed to the sponsor and conceals the real source of the propaganda. The objective of gray propaganda is to advance viewpoints that are in the interest of the originator but that would be more acceptable to target audiences than official statements. The reasoning is that avowedly propagandistic materials from a foreign government or identified propaganda agency might convince few, but the same ideas presented by seemingly neutral outlets would be more persuasive. Unattributed publications, such as articles in newspapers written by a disguised source, are staples of gray propaganda. Other tactics involve wide dissemination of ideas put forth by othersby foreign governments, by national and international media outlets, or by private groups, individuals, and institutions. Gray propaganda also includes material assistance provided to groups that put forth views deemed useful to the propagandist.

Like its gray cousin, black propaganda also camouflages the sponsor's participation. But while gray propaganda is unattributed, black propaganda is falsely attributed. Black propaganda is subversive and provocative; it is usually designed to appear to have originated from a hostile source, in order to cause that source embarrassment, to damage its prestige, to undermine its credibility, or to get it to take actions that it might not otherwise. Black propaganda is usually prepared by secret agents or an intelligence service because it would be damaging to the originating government if it were discovered. It routinely employs underground newspapers, forged documents, planted gossip or rumors, jokes, slogans, and visual symbols.

Another categorization distinguishes between "fast" and "slow" propaganda operations, based on the type of media employed and the immediacy of the effect desired. Fast media are designed to exert a short-term impact on public opinion, while the use of slow media cultivates public opinion over the long haul. Fast media typically include radio, newspapers, speeches, television, moving pictures, and, since the 1990s, e-mail and the Internet. These forms of communication are able to exert an almost instantaneous effect on select audiences. Books, cultural exhibitions, and educational exchanges and activities, on the other hand, are slow media that seek to inculcate ideas and attitudes over time.

An additional category of propaganda might be termed "propaganda of the deed," or actions taken for the psychological effects they would have on various publics. The famous Doolittle Raid of April 1942 is a classic example. After months of negative news from the Pacific during World War II, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Corps led a force of sixteen planes on a bombing raid of Japan. The mission was pointless from a military point of view, but psychologically it was significant. For Americans, it provided a morale boost and evidence that the United States was "doing something" to strike at the enemy directly; for the Japanese, it was a warning that the United States possessed the capability to reach their homeland with strategic bombers and a reminder that the attack at Pearl Harbor had not completely destroyed the U.S. fleet. "Propaganda of the deed" can also include such disparate actions as educational or cultural exchanges, economic aid, disaster relief, disarmament initiatives, international agreements, the appointment of investigating commissions, legislation, and other policy initiatives when employed primarily for the effects they would have on public opinion.


By whatever name we call it, propaganda has a long history. War propaganda is as ancient as war itself. Anthropologists have unearthed evidence that primitive peoples used pictures and symbols to impress others with their hunting and fighting capabilities. The Assyrian, Greek, and Roman empires employed storytelling, poems, religious symbols, monuments, speeches, documents, and other means of communication to mobilize their armed forces or demoralize those of their enemies. As early as the fifth century b.c., the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu advocated various techniques to maintain fighting morale and to destroy the enemy's will to fight. The nineteenth-century German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz identified psychological forces as decisive elements of modern war.

Thus, propaganda is not, as it is sometimes believed, a twentieth-century phenomenon born of the electronic communications revolution. Throughout history the governors have attempted to influence the ways the governed see the world, just as critics and revolutionaries have aspired to change that view. The word itself originated during the Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church created a commission of cardinals to "propagate" the faith in non-Catholic lands. The principle differences between modern and ancient propaganda are the use of new techniques and technologies, greater awareness of the utility of propaganda, and perhaps also the sheer pervasiveness and volume of modern propaganda.

Although the concept is often associated with dictatorship, propaganda has figured prominently in American life and history. Political propaganda has been an essential ingredient of the democratic process, as politicians and political parties have employed a range of communication techniques to win public support for their ideas and policies. Similarly, countless private groupsfrom early antislavery societies to modern political action committeeshave turned to propaganda techniques to push their agendas. Advertising and public relations, fields that came into fruition during the early twentieth century, have made commercial propaganda a permanent feature of the cultural landscape. War propaganda has been utilized by both government agencies and private groups to win the support of neutrals, demoralize enemies, and energize domestic populations. The pluralistic nature of American life and the existence of a free press has prevented the emergence of a monolithic propaganda apparatus, but it could be argued that these factors have in fact made American democracy better equipped than totalitarian societies for effective propaganda, if only because the free marketplace of ideas has required would-be propagandists to develop ever more sophisticated means of persuasion.

As far back as the colonial period, influential Americans exhibited a remarkable grasp of propaganda techniques. Propaganda and agitation were essential components of the American Revolution. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, propaganda played a pivotal role in creating the intellectual and psychological climate of the Revolution itself.

Philip Davidson, in his history of the propaganda of the American Revolution, documented a remarkably sophisticated grasp of propaganda techniques among the leading organizers of the Revolution. Although the Founders are rarely recognized as propagandistsprobably because of propaganda's pejorative associationsthe evidence of a conscious, systematic effort by colonial leaders to gain public support for their ideas is unmistakable. Benjamin Franklin admitted to exposing "in as striking a light as I could, to the nation, the absurdity of the [British] measures towards America"; Thomas Jefferson spoke of "arousing our people fromlethargy"; and George Washington advocated the release of information "in a manner calculated to attract the attention and impress the minds of the people." Thomas Paine was the Revolution's most famous (and radical) propagandist. He wrote numerous pamphlets articulating with rhetorical flourish the ideological justification for the Revolution, including the influential Common Sense and the poetic Crisis, which began with the memorable words, "These are the times that try men's souls."

These men were keenly sensitive to the importance of public opinion, and they employed a wide variety of techniques to arouse public sentiment against the British. Through town meetings, assemblies, churches, legal documents, resolutions, demonstrations, songs, plays, oratory, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and letters they agitated relentlessly against the policies of the British government. Newspapers such as the Providence Gazette and the Boston Gazette were crucial in organizing opposition to the Stamp Act and in exploiting such incidents as the Boston Massacre. Powerful slogans such as "No Taxation Without Representation" and "Liberty or Death" were utilized to mobilize colonists for revolution, as were such rituals as effigy burning and the planting of "liberty trees."

Several revolutionaries employed the tactics that would later be known as gray propaganda. They wrote articles, letters, and pamphlets under pseudonyms to disguise their identities and to create the impression that opposition to British policies was much greater than it was. Samuel Adams, for example, wrote under twenty-five different pseudonyms in numerous publications. Benjamin Franklin articulated a shrewd understanding of the techniques of propaganda, including the use of gray and black materials. He remarked: "The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapersgives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking." The tactics Franklin was referring toincessant repetition of propaganda themes and the transmitting of ideas through local media outlets in the form of newsdescribed core techniques of modern propaganda and are an indication of the sophistication of revolutionary war propaganda.

The Revolution also saw the utilization of these and other propaganda techniques as instruments of diplomacy. Franklin worked assiduously to mold European views of the conflict and he especially cultivated French opinion to secure France's assistance in the war. To isolate the British diplomatically and to encourage domestic opposition to the war in Britain, Franklin widely publicized British war atrocities, even resorting to black propaganda to exaggerate and fabricate crimes. In 1777 he distributed a phony letter, purportedly written by a German commander of Hessian mercenaries, indicating that the British government advised him to let wounded soldiers die. The letter caused a sensation in France and also induced numerous desertions by the Hessian mercenaries. Franklin also forged an entire issue of the Boston Independent, which contained a fabricated account of British scalp hunting. The story touched off a public uproar in Britain and was used by opposition politicians to attack the conduct of the war. The historian Oliver Thomson described these efforts as "one of the most thorough campaigns of diplomatic isolation by propaganda ever mounted."

The revolutionary war itself promoted themes common to most war propaganda: the righteousness of the cause, the savageness of the enemy, and the necessity and certainty of victory. Although no theme received greater treatment than the depravity of the enemy, it was the Revolution's appeal to high moral purpose that had the most lasting impact on American life. The Declaration of Independence was a brilliant document on the rights of man, but, at the same time, it was a brilliant document that employed emotive rhetoric to justify the Revolution and to rally public opinion to the cause. The war itself was portrayed as a struggle for liberty against tyranny, freedom against slavery. In this, the Revolution provided the model for the themes and ideas that would animate many subsequent propaganda campaigns (and much of the political rhetoric) of the United States. From the planting of liberty trees during the Revolution, to the cultivation of liberty gardens during World War II, symbolic appeals to freedom and liberty were staples of wartime mobilization efforts.

During the American Civil War both the Union and Confederate governments utilized propaganda abroad to influence foreign sentiment. The Union sent propaganda commissions to Europe to influence the governments and people of England and France. President Abraham Lincoln personally appealed to British opinion by writing directly to labor unions and textile industrialists to press the Union case. Lincoln, who had a strong appreciation of public relations techniques, was perhaps the Union's best propagandist. His "house divided" metaphor was one of the most powerful images of the 1860s, and his public addressesmost notably the Gettysburg Addresswere calculated to unite Northerners behind the cause. The Emancipation Proclamation was deliberately timed to encourage defections from the Confederacy by border states and was skillfully exploited by Union representatives abroad to win European sentiment.

The Confederate government sponsored a meagerly funded, but relatively sophisticated, propaganda operation in Britain under the direction of Henry Hotze. Hotze successfully placed numerous articles in British newspapers by giving them gratis to journalists, who in turn sold them to newspapers in their own names for personal profit. In this manner he both courted the goodwill of a select company of journalists and concealed his own sponsorship of the articlesa classic tactic of gray propaganda. He also developed a scheme whereby he paid several journalists to work for a weekly paper he produced, The Index. While earning their salaries as Hotze's editors, they also continued writing for influential London dailies. The Index thus provided Hotze with a mechanism for articulating pro-Confederate viewpoints and for subtle bribery of the press.

The Confederacy also sent a representative to France, Edwin De Leon, who openly bribed French newspapers to print favorable editorials on the Confederate cause. De Leon also penned a fervid defense of slavery that probably did more harm than good; few hated the "peculiar institution" as much as the French, and his arguments merely reinforced French hostility to Southern slavery. Despite some successful operations, Confederate propagandists in Europe failed in their ultimate objective of securing recognition by foreign governments. Above all else, this was due to the existence of slavery in the South, which isolated the Confederacy from British and French public opinion.

Propaganda accompanied other pretwentieth century conflicts in which the United States participated, but it was conducted primarily by private groups and news organizations. Propaganda during the War of 1812 reiterated many of the themes of the revolutionary period by portraying the British as tyrannical opponents of American liberty. American westward expansion in the nineteenth century was justified by appealing to the "manifest destiny" of the United States to colonize North America, while the Indian wars and the Mexican-American War were bolstered by racist and bigoted portrayals of Native Americans and Mexicans. At the end of the nineteenth century, the infamous "yellow press" incited U.S. participation in the Spanish-American War by portraying the Spaniards as monsters, by sensationally reporting and fabricating Spanish atrocities, and by emphasizing the noble and enlightened intentions of the United States. Similarly, during the American-Filipino Wars, U.S. advocates of imperialism portrayed the Filipinos as uncivilized monkeys and as children in need of American tutelage. Much of this propaganda was private, but it reflected popular sentiment and official attitudes, if not direct policy.

TOTAL WAR, 19171945

Notwithstanding this early experience with propaganda, it was primarily the age of total war that inducted the U.S. government into the business of propaganda. During World War I, national governments employed propaganda on an unprecedented scale. The arrival of the modern mass media together with the requirements of total war made propaganda an indispensable element of wartime mobilization. All of the major belligerents turned to propaganda to woo neutrals, demoralize enemies, boost the morale of their troops, and mobilize the support of civilians.

One of the most vital of all World War I propaganda battles was the struggle between Germany and Britain for the sympathy of the American people. The German government organized a program of propaganda in the United States that was so heavy-handed it did more to alienate American public opinion than to win it. The British government, on the other hand, conducted most of its propaganda in the United States covertly, through a secret propaganda bureau directed by the Foreign Office. The British adopted a low-key approach that selectively released news and information to win American sympathies. The publication of the Zimmerman telegram in 1917 (in which Germany sought to enlist Mexico in a war with the United States) was undoubtedly the most important propaganda achievement of the British, and it helped to bring the Americans into the war on the Allied side.

A week after declaring war, President Woodrow Wilson established the first official propaganda agency of the U.S. government to manage public opinion at home and abroadthe Committee on Public Information. Headed by the muckraking journalist George Creel, the committee was responsible for censorship, propaganda, and general information about the war effort. The Creel committee focused on mobilizing support on the home front, but it also conducted an extensive campaign of propaganda abroad, overseeing operations in more than thirty overseas countries.

The committee bombarded foreign media outlets with news, official statements, and features on the war effort and on American life, using leaflets, motion pictures, photographs, cartoons, posters, and signboards to promote its messages. The committee established reading rooms abroad, brought foreign journalists to the United States, crafted special appeals for teachers and labor groups, and sponsored lectures and seminars. In its international propaganda, the committee advertised American strength and commitment to victory in order to curb defeatism among Allied troops and to demoralize enemy soldiers. Stressing the unselfish, anti-imperialistic war aims of the United States, it put forth an idealistic message that reflected the idealism of the Progressive Era, the tone of the Wilson presidency, and long-standing traditions in American ideology. Creel himself spoke excitedly about using the committee to spread the "gospel of democracy" around the world, and staff members pursued that objective with religious fervor. Taking its cue from the president (and British propaganda), the Creel committee stressed that the war was fought for freedom, self-determination, and democracy.

Despite the many successes Creel attributed to the Committee on Public Information, Congress swiftly abolished it in June 1919a decision that reflected both the natural American distrust of propaganda and Congress's fear that the president would utilize the committee for domestic political purposes. The Creel committee had a short life but a lasting impact. It established the principle that government-sponsored propaganda was a necessity in times of war or national emergency. It also demonstrated the utility of propaganda as a tool of national policy and became the basic model for subsequent U.S. propaganda agencies.

The years that followed nurtured a popular fascination with, and revulsion toward, the practice of propaganda. A series of investigations in the 1920s exposed the nature and scope of Britain's propaganda campaign in the United States, including revelations that the British had fabricated numerous stories about German atrocities. Many Americans came to blame British propaganda for bringing the United States into a wasteful and ruinous war, and the practice of propaganda became associated with deceit and trickery. It was thus in the aftermath of World War I that propaganda acquired its negative connotationsa development that stemmed from the employment of propaganda by a democracy, not, as is generally supposed, from that of a dictatorship. Although British propaganda was probably more effective than Germany's because of military and political blunders by the Germanssuch as unrestricted submarine warfaremany observers took from the war a legendary belief in the power of propaganda.

These propaganda campaigns affected the United States in other ways as well. The belief that Americans had been tricked into participating in the first world war delayed U.S. intervention in the second. Moreover, news of Nazi atrocities connected to the Holocaust were greeted incredulously by the American public in part because of the exaggerated and fabricated atrocity propaganda released by the British two decades earlier.

At the same time, the social science revolution and Freudian psychology brought about a public fascination with ideas about subconscious psychological manipulation and mind control. The science of persuasion, in the form of advertising and public relations, came into vogue in the 1920s, and advertising became a large-scale national industry. These developments created a skilled group of professionals with expertise in the employment of symbols, images, and techniques to interpret and to manipulate perceptions.

The development of radio revolutionized the practice of propaganda by making it possible to reach audiences of unprecedented size instantaneously. A short-wave propaganda battle began in the mid-1920s as the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, and Britain developed international broadcasting capabilities. American suspicion of foreign propaganda was sufficiently aroused that in 1938 Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which required foreign propagandists to register with the U.S. government. The same year, Nazi propaganda in Central and South America led the Roosevelt administration to create the first peacetime propaganda agency of the U.S. government, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller.

Initially, the CIAA focused on cultural and educational activities designed to improve relations between the United States and Latin America. The CIAA inaugurated a new tradition in U.S. foreign policy: government sponsorship of educational and cultural exchanges. It sponsored tours by ballet, theater, and music groups, archaeological expeditions, art exhibits, comic books, and academic conferences. Publicly, the CIAA's cultural programs were defended for their reciprocal benefits in promoting "international understanding." Behind closed doors, however, the agency frankly emphasized propaganda motives. It attached far greater importance to interpreting the United States to Latin America than vice versa. The principle theme promoted by the coordinator's office was "Pan-Americanism," stressing that the key to defense of the region lay in hemispheric solidarity. After the United States entered World War II, Rockefeller's CIAA became a full-blown propaganda agency, utilizing film, publications, and radio to "combat the Nazi lie." By 1943, the CIAA had become a large federal agency with a generous budget and nearly 1,500 employees.

In the early part of 1941, as war appeared imminent, Roosevelt created several additional agencies to disseminate propaganda at home and abroad. In 1942 these various information programs were combined into the Office of War Information (OWI) under the direction of the well-known journalist and broadcaster Elmer Davis. Roosevelt also established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and authorized it to engage in black and gray propaganda abroad, mostly in connection with military operations.

The OWI was a sprawling organization that conducted domestic and international propaganda on a truly massive scale. In addition to millions of leaflets, it produced entire newspapers, which were dropped by airplane to France, Norway, Spain, Ireland, and Germany. One newspaper distributed by the OWI in France achieved a circulation of 7 million per week, compared to a grand total of 3 million leaflets distributed in Europe through all of World War I. The OWI established posts attached to U.S. diplomatic missions overseas, known as the U.S. Information Service, and it operated reading rooms and libraries in more than twenty countries. Radio was the most crucial medium in the overseas propaganda war, and in 1942 the Voice of America was established under OWI jurisdiction. By the end of the war, the Voice of America was broadcasting around the world in forty different languages.

Combat propaganda, or what began to be called "psychological warfare," was utilized by all the belligerents, including the United States. These operations focused on breaking enemy morale, encouraging enemy troops to surrender, publicizing U.S. military victories, positively projecting U.S. war aims, providing aid and encouragement to partisans in occupied territories, and stiffening the resolve of American and Allied troops. Initially, these operations were conducted by OWI personnel, but the idealistic outlook of many of the agency's propagandists clashed with the more conservative mindset of many U.S. military officers who believed it was more interested in advertising Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal than in promoting military objectives. In December 1942, General Dwight D. Eisenhower created a separate psychological warfare branch of the army to participate in the Allied invasion of North Africa. In 1944 he created an even larger organization, the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, to prepare propaganda for the DDay invasion. Psychological warfare was especially important in the Pacific theater, where U.S. propaganda sought to convince Japanese soldierswho had been taught by their army that to surrender meant relinquishing their place as members of Japanese societyto cease resistance.


Despite the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare to the war effort, the United States moved quickly to dismantle the propaganda apparatus it had constructed during World War II. Within weeks of Japan's surrender, President Harry Truman liquidated the Office of War Information, transferring only the bare bones of an information service to the Department of State. Although the OWI was abolished and the budget of its successor was slashed, Truman insisted that the United States maintain at least a modest information program to support U.S. foreign policy. This was a remarkable step, since prior to the 1940s no one seriously considered an organized, government-sponsored effort to influence foreign peoples except during a national emergency.

While Truman acknowledged the importance of propaganda as a peacetime instrument of foreign policy, it was primarily the Cold War that institutionalized propaganda as a permanent instrument of U.S. foreign policy. A widespread belief developed that the United States was losing the "war of ideas" to the Soviet Union's supposedly superior propaganda apparatus. As Cold War tensions intensified, the United States gradually expanded its propaganda capabilities.

In 1948, the information program received permanent legislative sanction with the passage of the Smith-Mundt Actthe first legislative charter for a peacetime propaganda program. The act gave the State Department jurisdiction over both international information operations and cultural and educational exchange programs. Additional propaganda activities were conducted by the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, the economic assistance agencies (forerunners to the Agency for International Development), and the armed forces, especially the army.

In 1950, Truman called for an intensified program of propaganda known as the Campaign of Truth. In a speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Truman articulated the perennial domestic justification for official U.S. propaganda: in order to combat enemy lies, the U.S. needed to promote the truth. Under the Campaign of Truth, the State Department's budget for information activities jumped from around $20 million in 1948 to $115 million in 1952a development aided by the outbreak of the Korean War a few weeks after Truman's speech. The Campaign of Truth also brought a change in the style and content of U.S. propaganda output, which shifted from objective-sounding news and information to hard-hitting propaganda in its most obvious formcartoons depicting bloodthirsty communists, vituperative anticommunist polemics, and sensational commentary.

In April 1951, Truman created the Psychological Strategy Board to coordinate the American psychological warfare effort. The board acted as a coordinating body for all nonmilitary Cold War activities, including covert operations. It supervised programs for aggressive clandestine warfare and propaganda measures against the Soviet bloc and it developed "psychological strategy" plans for dozens of countries in western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. By the time Truman left office, the U.S. government had established a far-reaching apparatus for influencing public opinion in both friendly and hostile countries.

During these years, the practice of propaganda became inextricably tied to the practices of psychological warfare and covert action. During World War II, psychological warfare was largely seen as an accessory to military operations, but with the onset of the Cold War, psychological warfare specialists defined the concept broadly to include any nonmilitary actions taken to influence public opinion or to advance foreign policy interests. Psychological warfare was transformed into a catchall formula that went beyond mere propaganda to embrace covert operations, trade and economic aid, diplomacy, the threat of force, cultural and educational exchange programs, and a wide range of clandestine activities. Psychological warfare became, in essence, a synonym for Cold War. It reflected the belief of many politicians and foreign policy analysts that the Cold War was an ideological, psychological, and cultural contest for hearts and minds that would be won or lost on the plain of public opinion rather than by blood shed on the battlefield.

Psychological warfare in the Cold War context was also associated with the policy of "rollback," or the employment of nonmilitary means to force the retraction of Soviet power and the "liberation" of Eastern Europe. Rollback was openly espoused by the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which campaigned in 1952 against the "immoral" and "futile" policy of containment. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the policies of liberation and rollback did not originate with the Eisenhower administration. Scholarship in the late 1990s by Gregory Mitrovich, Scott Lucas, and others reveals that Truman's Democratic administration inaugurated a muscular form of rollback years earlier. To these scholars, U.S. efforts to liberate areas under Moscow's control indicate that American foreign policy in the early Cold War was not as defensive and fundamentally nonaggressive as the term "containment" implies or as earlier historiography suggested.

Indeed, the "father of containment," George F. Kennan, was also the driving force behind an aggressive program of psychological warfare and covert action against the Soviet bloc. In early 1948, Kennan, who was then serving as head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, developed a plan for "organized political warfare" against communism. The plan was set forth in National Security Council Document 10/2. The document, approved by President Truman in June 1948, authorized a comprehensive program of clandestine warfare, including black propaganda, psychological warfare, subversion, assistance to underground resistance movements, paramilitary operations, and economic warfare. NSC 10/2, although not generally recognized as a landmark policy paper like the future NSC 68, was especially significant in that it established psychological warfare and covert action as vital instruments of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War.

Under the authorization provided by NSC 10/2, the Central Intelligence Agency made a botched attempt to detach Albania from the Kremlin's grip, launched leaflet-dropping operations via enormous unmanned hot-air balloons, encouraged defections from behind the Iron Curtain, and sponsored provocative (and generally unsuccessful) paramilitary operations involving U.S.-trained émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe. The agency's most famous form of anti-Soviet propaganda came in the form of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast to Eastern Europe and Russia, respectively. The radios were staffed by émigrés and exiled political leaders from the Soviet bloc, but the CIA maintained a fairly loose control over their broadcasts through the National Committee for a Free Europe (also known as the Free Europe Committee), an ostensibly private organization created to camouflage U.S. government involvement.

The CIA also conducted clandestine propaganda operations in allied and neutral areas. The agency subsidized noncommunist labor unions, journalists, political parties, politicians, and student groups. In western Europe the CIA conducted a secret program of cultural and ideological propaganda through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a purportedly private, but CIA-funded, organization that supported the work of anticommunist liberals. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the agency published more than twenty prestigious magazines, held art exhibitions, operated a news and feature service, organized high-profile international conferences, published numerous books, and sponsored public performances by musicians and artists.

For much of the Cold War, the CIA also organized both successful and unsuccessful "political action" programs to influence democratic elections, sponsor revolutions or counterrevolutions, and, on a few occasions, topple governments. It conducted numerous operations to influence political developments around the world, most notably in Italy, the Philippines, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Vietnam, Thailand, Chile, Iraq, and Angola. Although details surrounding these operations are murky, the available evidence indicates that propaganda and psychological warfare were the principle instruments of the agency's political action programs. These activities became a means for the United States to influence and manipulate developments in foreign countries so that they served the perceived interests of American national security policies. The extensive employment of covert action signaled an unacknowledged revolution in the way the government conducted its foreign policy: it was now actively intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations to encourage the development of ideas, actions, and policies to benefit the United States.

During the Korean War, sensationalized charges that the United States had been waging bacteriological warfare, accounts of Soviet brainwashing techniques, and communist-inspired "peace" campaigns, focused American attention on psychological warfare as a mysterious Cold War weapon. During the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower repeatedly called for an expansive and coordinated psychological warfare effort on a national scale. In San Francisco he delivered a major speech on the subject, arguing that every significant act of government should reflect psychological warfare calculations. He emphasized that the Cold War was a struggle of ideas and argued that the United States must develop every psychological weapon available to win the hearts and minds of the world's peoples. Defining psychological warfare in truly expansive terms, Eisenhower included among the means of psychological warfare diplomacy, mutual economic assistance, trade, friendly contacts, and even sporting events.

These campaign speeches were not mere rhetoric; they reflected Eisenhower's unparalleled faith in psychological warfare. This faith grew in part from his experience with it during World War II and in part from his strong conviction that the Cold War was a long-haul struggle that would be won by nonmilitary means. Whereas Truman was relatively uninvolved in the information activities of his administration, Eisenhower was personally involved in several major propaganda campaigns and played an active role in establishing propaganda themes and tactics.

One of his very first acts as president was to appoint a personal adviser to serve as special assistant for psychological warfare planning, a position filled first by Time-Life executive C. D. Jackson and later by Nelson Rockefeller. He also established a high-level committee, chaired by William H. Jackson, to make recommendations on how to strengthen the U.S. psychological warfare effort. The Jackson committee investigation was arguably the most influential study of U.S. information policy ever conducted. The investigation led to numerous innovations including the establishment of a high-level coordinating body attached to the National Security Council devoted to psychological warfare and strategy. Euphemistically designated the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB), it replaced the Psychological Strategy Board in the fall of 1953.

Under Eisenhower, the United States abandoned the aggressive anti-Soviet psychological warfare tactics initiated by his predecessor. The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty continued to broadcast propaganda to the Soviet bloc, but gradually they abandoned the strident, polemical tone that characterized the Campaign of Truth. This trend was accelerated by controversy surrounding the involvement of Radio Free Europe in provoking the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The brutal suppression of the revolt by Soviet armed forces demonstrated that Moscow would fight to maintain its influence over Eastern Europe and revealed that the policy of liberation carried with it unacceptable psychological, political, and human costs. By the end of 1956, as the historian Walter Hixson has shown, "liberation" had been replaced by an evolutionary strategy that stressed cultural infiltration and straight news and information over aggressive psychological warfare.

Eisenhower also oversaw the creation of an independent propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA). (Information posts abroad were called the U.S. Information Service, or USIS, because "information agency" had an intelligence connotation in many languages, but both names referred to the same organization.) The agency was modeled after the Office of War Information and Creel's Committee on Public Information, but, unlike its predecessors, the USIA was authorized to conduct only foreign propaganda; domestic operations were explicitly forbidden. The USIA assembled under one roof all the various information programs scattered throughout the government, except those administered by the CIA and the military. It operated a press and publication service and a motion picture and television service. The USIA also assumed responsibility for the Voice of America and for U.S. libraries and information centers abroad.

Despite the many attempts by the United States to "pierce the Iron Curtain" with American propaganda, most of the USIA's resources were directed on the other side of that curtain, in the so-called free world. The agency was primarily concerned with winning the support of neutrals and strengthening the resolve of allies. As a USIA policy document stated: "We are in competition with Soviet Communism primarily for the opinion of the free world. We are (especially) concerned with the uncommitted, the wavering, the confused, the apathetic, or the doubtful within the free world." The agency oversaw more than 208 USIS posts in ninety-one countries, all of them in allied or neutral countries. For much of the Cold War, the USIA's largest programs were in Germany, Austria, Japan, India, Indochina (Vietnam), Thailand, France, and Italy. The USIS also maintained sizable operations in Spain, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, and Pakistan. Beginning in the mid-1950s, an increasing amount of attention was spent "targeting" countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with U.S. propagandaa development that reflected the growing importance of the developing world to the Cold War competition.

When the USIA was created in 1953, Congress insisted that the Department of State retain jurisdiction over cultural programs in order to distinguish cultural relations from propaganda. In practice, the distinction proved mostly symbolic, since public affairs officers abroad, under orders from the USIA, managed both cultural and information policy and pursued both with an eye to improving the "climate of opinion." Increasingly, foreign policy experts recognized that such activities could be more effective in promoting pro-American attitudes than conventional types of propaganda. During the Cold War, such activities as the Fulbright exchange program, the People-to-People program, and the Peace Corps were utilized to promote goodwill between the United States and other countries through person-to-person contacts. Although many Americans who participated in these programs did not see themselves as propagandists, government administrators saw them as positive, long-range programs to create a favorable atmosphere abroad for U.S. political, economic, and military policies.

In broad form, the USIA's principal propaganda themes remained fairly constant throughout the Cold War. The obvious theme was anticommunism, and the agency exploited the ideological contradictions, forced labor camps, restrictions on freedom, and absence of consumer goods in communist countries. The agency devoted a greater percentage of its programming, however, to positive themes about the United States. The USIA publicized U.S. economic and technical assistance programs, scientific and technological advances, and other policies, programs, and developments that reflected positively on the United States. It promoted free trade unionism, explained the workings of American democracy, and extolled the benefits of consumer capitalism. The agency also developed cultural propaganda depicting the lives of ordinary Americans in a favorable light and celebrating American achievements in the arts. Many USIA films, radio broadcasts, publications, and other programs were devoted to educational purposes, covering topics ranging from agriculture to English-language instruction. Most of these activities were slow media operations that aspired to cultivate favorable attitudes over the long haul. They also reflected the belief that, in addition to military defense and economic prosperity, U.S. security required the active promulgation of American ideas, values, and beliefs.

One of the most important activities of the USIA was simply to present U.S. policies favorably to international audiences on a daily basis. The USIA explained and promoted policy decisions through all its media, transmitted complete texts of important speeches to news organizations around the world, and distributed, authored, and secretly subsidized books and publications that defended controversial aspects of U.S. policies.

The USIA professed to adhere to a "strategy of truth" in its operations, in the belief that to be effective its propaganda had to be credible, and to be credible, it had to be truthful. The agency thus repudiated the sensationally propagandistic tone that had characterized the Campaign of Truth, instead adopting as its model the neutral tone and style of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). That does not mean, however, that the USIA merely dished out objective information; there was undoubtedly an element of protesting too much in the agency's claim to truth. While the agency generally avoided deliberate distortions, wild exaggerations, and broad generalizations, it remained in the business of shaping, influencing, and manipulating popular opinion. As the first director of the USIA, Theodore C. Streibert, noted: "We are no less engaged in propaganda because we are to minimize the propagandistic."

The USIA operated on the assumption that it could best influence international opinion in the free world by influencing opinion makers. Its most important target was the world press. The bulk of USIA operations fell under the category of "media control projects" designed to influence the news and information that reached the public through indigenous media outlets. Rather than address audiences directlythrough radio and overtly propagandistic materialsthe USIA preferred to plant news, place programs on local television, and utilize personal contacts to influence the views of foreign journalists and other influential persons.

U.S. propagandists also worked to enhance the potential persuasiveness of American propaganda by obscuring the source. A large percentage of USIA propaganda was of the unattributed gray variety, even though the agency was not explicitly authorized to engage in covert propaganda. USIA operatives maintained a network of contacts with journalists and media outlets in countries around the world, many of whom knowingly cooperated with the agency in placing unattributed materials prepared by the U.S. government. Another strategy involved the participation of private groups and nongovernmental organizations, or what the USIA termed "private cooperation." The agency maintained an Office of Private Cooperation, which worked to involve nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and ordinary Americans in campaigns to promote a positive image of the United States abroad.

When John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he attached a high priority to the USIA. Kennedy was acutely sensitive to the importance of images and ideas to international relations, and he made the apparent decline in American prestige abroad a major theme of his campaign. Upon his election, Kennedy appointed the respected journalist Edward R. Murrow as the agency's new director. Murrow's appointment raised the stature and visibility of the agency both at home and abroad. Murrow's prominence also helped the USIA in Congress: agency funding increased dramatically from around $100 million in 1960 to more than $160 million in 1963. Despite Murrow's journalistic background, the USIA under his tenure became more, rather than less, focused on hard-hitting propaganda. It also became increasingly focused on propaganda in the developing world. In just under three years, it opened more than two dozen new posts in newly independent countries in Africa.

Kennedy also assigned the USIA a new advisory function. The agency was now explicitly charged with contributing to the formulation of U.S. foreign policies by advising the president on issues pertaining to international opinion. Nevertheless, it was primarily an operational agency rather than a policymaking one. (In fact, on several notable occasions, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the agency was not informed of what the U.S. government was doing.) Its most important advisory function began in the 1950s, when it administered international public opinion surveys to collect "psychological" intelligence. This information was used in part to gauge and improve the effectiveness of USIA propaganda, but it was also sent to the president and the National Security Council for consideration in the policymaking process. Successive U.S. presidents, especially Eisenhower and Kennedy, monitored these public opinion surveys very closely, an indication of the seriousness with which they took international public opinion.

As the United States became involved in Vietnam, the information program, like the rest of the country, became focused on the war. Both overt and covert propaganda programs had been going on in Southeast Asia since the 1940s and continued through the Vietnam War. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Carl T. Rowan as director of the USIAat the time the highest post held by any African American in the U.S. government. Rowan oversaw the creation of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, which managed all the U.S. psychological warfare programs in Vietnam and accounted for some 10 percent of the agency's overseas manpower. In May 1965, Johnson assigned the USIA responsibility for all U.S. propaganda in Vietnam, the largest role ever undertaken by the agency.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing U.S. propagandists during this period lay outside the combat zone, where the USIA tried to sell an unpopular war to international public opinion. The agency presented the war as a noble defense of a free country under attack by communist insurgents. It stressed American peaceful intentions and argued that the United States had turned to military force only as a last resort. The Johnson and Nixon administrations attached a high priority to propaganda in support of the war effort, but their information policies ultimately devastated the credibility of the USIA as it became widely known that the United States was painting an excessively rosy, and at times patently false, picture of the events in Vietnam.

These distortions were less the fault of the agency's propaganda than of the policies and public relations strategies employed by the White House. For example, in April 1965 the USIA widely publicized a speech by Johnson indicating U.S. willingness to enter into "unconditional" negotiations with the government of North Vietnam. When it was later revealed that the Johnson administration maneuvered and delayed to avoid such negotiations, the United States was criticized abroad (and at home) for manipulating the peace issue for propaganda purposes. International public opinion was further alienated by the USIA's portrayal of the government of South Vietnam as a functioning democracy and by its unceasing publicity of U.S. military progress when evidence presented by the independent news media contradicted such claims. Cases of deliberate deception, such as President Richard Nixon's secret bombing campaign, worsened the "credibility gap" that plagued all official U.S. pronouncements.

All in all, the Vietnam War served as a reminder of a principle U.S. propagandists knew but neglected: obvious falsehoods, when exposed, could exact irreparable harm on the credibility, and hence the believability, of the propaganda and of the sponsor. The war also demonstrated how a crusading and skeptical press could counterbalance the effects of propaganda. No amount of clever spin-doctoring could counteract the powerful images that appeared on television screens around the world.

During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the USIA adopted a remarkable change of mission. Carter argued that the agency should not simply communicate to the world about America; it should also communicate to America about the world. He renamed the agency the United States International Communication Agency (ICA), curtailed its anticommunist programming, and ordered it to cease its covert propaganda programs. Carter also assigned the ICA a "second mandate" to educate Americans about foreign countries. It was an idealistic task that the agency, which had spent twenty-five years selling the United States to foreigners, was ill-equipped to perform.

When Ronald Reagan took control of the White House, he promptly shelved Carter's "second mandate" and restored the USIA's name. During Reagan's tenure the agency adopted the crusading zeal of the cold warrior in the White House. The president who presided over the massive arms buildup of the 1980s also presided over psychological rearmament through the USIA. In a speech in 1982 he called for a new war of ideas and values against communism. He repackaged the Campaign of Truth as Project Truth to rally the country behind an expanded psychological offensive to spread democracy and combat Soviet propaganda. Under Reagan, the USIA was funded more lavishly than ever before. The new director, Charles Z. Wick, embarked on a number of reforms to modernize the agency, including the creation of the Worldnet satellite television broadcasting system and Radio Marti, which broadcast U.S. propaganda to Cuba. Reagan himself, the "great communicator," set the tone for the new ideological offensive by branding the Soviet Union the "evil empire."

With the end of the Cold War, the USIA turned its attention from the communist threat to promoting economic expansion. National security and anticommunist justifications for propaganda and exchange activities gave way to economic justifications: these programs were now evaluated in terms of their contributions to American commerce. In October 1999, largely as the result of Senator Jesse Helms, the USIA was abolished and its functions transferred to the Office of International Information Programs in the Department of State.


The Cold War inaugurated a paradigm shift in the U.S. practice of diplomacy that reflected changes in the nature of diplomatic activity worldwide. Through propaganda, policy initiatives, and covert action, agents of the U.S. government acted directly to influence the ideas, values, beliefs, opinions, actions, politics, and culture of other countries. Foreign affairs personnel not only observed and reported, they also participated in events or tried to influence the way that they happened. The old maxim that one government does not interfere in the internal affairs of another had been swept aside.

The pattern of international relations was further transformed by the electronic communications revolution and the emergence of popular opinion as a significant force in foreign affairs. Foreign policy could no longer be pursued as it had during the nineteenth century, when diplomacy was the exclusive province of professional diplomats who used (often secret) negotiations to reach accords based on power and interest. Developments in mass communication and the increased attentiveness to domestic audiences abroad to foreign affairs meant that the target of diplomacy had now widened to include popular opinion as much, if not more so, than traditional diplomatic activities.

A report published by the House Foreign Relations Committee in 1964, entitled "Winning the Cold War: The U.S. Ideological Offensive," captured this sentiment well:

For many years military and economic power, used separately, or in conjunction, have served as the pillars of diplomacy. They still serve that function but the recent increase in influence of the masses of the people over government, together with greater awareness on the part of the leaders of the aspirations of peoplehas created a new dimension of foreign policy operations. Certain foreign policy objectives can be pursued by dealing directly with the people of foreign countries, rather than with their governments. Through the use of modern instruments and techniques of communications it is possible today to reach large or influential segments of national populationsto inform them, to influence their attitudes, and at times perhaps even to motivate them to a particular course of action. These groups, in turn, are capable of exerting noticeable, even decisive, pressures on their government.

In other words, by appealing over the heads of governments directly to public opinion, effective propaganda and other measures would encourage popular opinion to support U.S. policies, which would in turn exert pressure on government policymakers.

Throughout the Cold War, propaganda and diplomacy operated on multiple levels. At the most obvious level, propaganda as it is conventionally understood (the utilization of communication techniques to influence beliefs and actions) was employed as a distinct instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Through the United States Information Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and other mechanisms, the United States waged a war of words and of ideas that attacked communism, promoted capitalism and democracy, defended U.S. foreign policies, and advertised the American way of life in order to win the Cold War.

On another level, the awareness that international public opinion had become a major factor in the conduct of diplomacy meant that propaganda considerations intruded on the policymaking process itself. American policymakers were increasingly aware that international public opinion had to be an ingredient in policy formulation at all levels: in the planning and policy formulation stage, in the coordination and timing of operations, and finally in the last phase of explanation and interpretation by government officials and information programs.

This attitude played itself out most visibly in the United Nations, which became one of the most important arenas for Cold War propaganda. It also was reflected in the marked increase in the foreign travel of U.S. presidents and vice presidents, an important device for generating news coverage and for reaching international audiences directly. On a more routine basis, consideration of international public opinion simply involved the careful selection of words and phrases to describe the objectives of American foreign policyincluding the process of creating what came to be known as a "sound bite."

Even within the State Departmentan institution wedded to traditional diplomacy and wary of popular opinionthe Policy Planning Staff began to argue in the mid-1950s that convincing foreign officials was often less important than carrying issues over their heads to public opinion, reasoning that popular opinion would exert more of an impact on government officials than vice versa. The extensive and instantaneous media coverage that accompanied diplomatic conferences meant that negotiations needed to be conducted on two levels: on the diplomatic level between governments, and on the popular level to win international public support for policies. Diplomatic conferences were no longer merely opportunities for resolving international disputes; they were sounding boards for public opinion and forums for propaganda. Arms control proposals in particular were not infrequently tabled predominantly to satisfy the demands of public opinion for progress in disarmament. President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace and Open Skies initiatives, for example, were sophisticated propaganda exercises designed to put the Soviet Union on the defensive and establish the U.S. commitment to peace and disarmament without making costly concessions or entering into protracted negotiations.

The psychological dimension of postwar American diplomacy also included a preoccupation with American prestige and credibilityconcepts that connoted the reliability of American commitments and served as code words for America's image and reputation. As Robert McMahon has argued, throughout the postwar period American leaders invoked the principle of credibility to explain and justify a wide range of diplomatic and military decisions. American actions in such disparate crises as Korea (19501953), Taiwan Strait (Quemoy-Matsu) (19541955), Lebanon (1958), and Vietnam (19541973) were driven by a perceived need to demonstrate the resolve, will, and, determinationin a word, credibilityof the United States. In these and other cases, American actions were driven as much if not more by calculations of how the U.S. would be perceived abroad than by narrowly focused calculations of national interest.

Concerns about the maintenance of American prestige and credibility were undoubtedly magnified by the presence of nuclear weapons. The high stakes of all-out war in an age of nuclear devastation meant that the United States and Soviet Union channeled the competition into symbolic modes of combat. Nothing better illustrates this than the space race, which became the preeminent propaganda contest of the Cold War. Spectacular feats in outer-space exploration were at once symbolic of the scientific, technological, economic, educational, and military achievements of the superpowers. The space race also allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to demonstrate their military prowessand thus reinforce the credibility of their deterrent capabilitieswithout appearing warlike. The successful Soviet launch of Sputnik I in 1957 and the American moon landing in 1969 were two of the most significant events of the Cold War, largely because of what they symbolized to people around the world.

The infusion of psychological considerations and propaganda tactics into the practice of diplomacy is one of the Cold War's most important legacies, but given the revolution in communication technologies of the late twentieth century it was perhaps inevitable that the ancient art of diplomacy would become affected by the techniques of propaganda and public persuasion. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War's propaganda battles, foreign policy continued to be swayed by images transmitted instantly around the globe.

The days of brazenly propagandistic posters and radio broadcasts may have faded into history, but the science of propaganda has simply evolved into less overt forms of image making and media manipulation. Paralleling a broader development in international politics, where symbols and images loom large as critical components of political power, the phenomenon of posturing for public opinion has become increasingly sophisticated, involving such techniques as staged media events, generated news, orchestrated public appearances, and carefully scripted sound bites. The communication techniques that camouflage modern propaganda have obscured the basic fact that the end of the Cold War has brought about more propaganda, not less.


Daugherty, William E., and Morris Janowitz, eds. A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore, 1958. Compiled for U.S. Army psychological warfare experts, the work covers a wide range of subjects from both theoretical and historical perspectives.

Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution, 17631783. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1941.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York, 1973. Influential philosophic treatise on modern propaganda.

Haefele, Mark. "John F. Kennedy, USIA, and World Public Opinion." Diplomatic History 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 6384. Useful on the importance of international public opinion to U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Kennedy administration.

Henderson, John W. The United States Information Agency. New York, 1969.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 19451961. New York, 1998.

Jackall, Robert, ed. Propaganda. New York, 1995. Focuses on the twentieth century.

Krugler, David F. The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 19451953. Columbia, Mo., and London, 2000. Explores the domestic political controversies surrounding the Voice of America.

Lasswell, Harold Dwight. Propaganda Technique in the World War. New York, 1927. Classic work that influenced a generation of propaganda specialists.

Laurie, Clayton D. The Propaganda Warriors: America's Crusade Against Nazi Germany. Lawrence, Kans., 1996. Focuses on combat propaganda.

Lucas, Scott. Freedom's War: The American Crusade Against the Soviet Union. New York, 1999. Focuses on state-private collaboration in Cold War propaganda campaigns.

McMahon, Robert J. "Credibility and World Power: Exploring the Psychological Dimension in Postwar American Diplomacy." Diplomatic History 15, no. 4 (fall 1991): 455471.

Mitrovich, Gregory. Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 19471956. Ithaca, N.Y., 2000. Explores the relationships among psychological warfare, covert action, and national security strategy in the early Cold War.

Ninkovich, Frank A. The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 19381950. Cambridge, 1981.

. U.S. Information Policy and Cultural Diplomacy. New York, 1996. A brief but thorough and insightful overview of postwar information and cultural policies.

Osgood, Kenneth A. "Form Before Substance: Eisenhower's Commitment to Psychological Warfare and Negotiations with the Enemy." Diplomatic History 24, no. 3 (summer 2000): 405433. On the relationship between propaganda and diplomacy during the Eisenhower administration.

. "Total Cold War: U.S. Propaganda in the 'Free World,' 19531960." Ph.D. dissertation. University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001. Many of this essay's conclusions are drawn from the original research in the dissertation.

Page, Caroline. U.S. Official Propaganda During the Vietnam War, 19651973: The Limits of Persuasion. London and New York, 1996.

Puddington, Arch. Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Lexington, Ky., 2000. Celebrates the purported successes of Cold War propaganda.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York, 1999.

Snow, Nancy. Propaganda Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World. New York, 1998.

Sorensen, Thomas C. The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda. New York, 1968.

Taylor, Philip M. Munitions of the Mind: War Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Nuclear Age. Glasgow, 1990. A good overview of the wartime use of propaganda in world history.

Thomson, Oliver. Easily Led: A History of Propaganda. Gloucester shire, Eng., 1999. Comprehensive investigation of propaganda in world history.

Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 19421945. New Haven, Conn., 1978. Focuses on domestic politics.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold Warriors; Containment; Covert Operations; Dissent in War; Public Opinion .


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 Actthe first peacetime legislative charter for government propagandawhich 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 legislationat 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.

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Trends in theory

Factors in propaganda


Propaganda is the relatively deliberate manipulation, by means of symbols (words, gestures, flags, images, monuments, music, etc.), of other people’s thoughts or actions with respect to beliefs, values, and behaviors which these people (“reactors”) regard as controversial.

The elements of deliberateness and manipulativeness distinguish propaganda from merely casual communication or the “free” exchange of ideas. These elements also distinguish propaganda from education: whereas the propagandist presents a prefabricated argument or a single set of symbols, the educator aims to present “all” sides of an issue and leaves mainly to the audience the decision concerning the truth (if any) of the claims presented and the values (if any) at stake. Inasmuch as some communicators and some audiences regard as controversial what others regard as self-evident truth, it follows that under some conditions one man’s “propaganda” may be another man’s “education.”

The term “propaganda,” in most of its modern usages, apparently derives from the shortened name, “the Propaganda,” of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagation of the Faith), a standing committee of cardinals in charge of missionary activities of the Roman Catholic church since 1622. Hence, to many Catholics the word may have, at least when referring to ecclesiastical utterances, a responsible and respectable connotation that it lacks in many other contexts.

Something similar is the case, in communist circles, at least, when the term “propaganda” is used with the special definition and meanings given it by Lenin in a collection of writings published in 1929 as Agitation und Propaganda. In that book, which continues to furnish much of the basis for communist reasoning and practice on the subject, Lenin distinguished between (1) “propaganda,” which he defined as the reasoned use of arguments from philosophy, history, and science to influence the educated and reasonable few, and (2) “agitation,” by which he meant the use of emotional slogans, “Aesopian” parables, and half-truths to influence the uneducated, the semieducated, and the unreasonable. Thus, to the disciplined communist who follows in his Agitprop activities the theory and rules laid down by Lenin, the use of “propaganda” in Lenin’s sense is highly commendable and unqualifiedly honest.

A related term is “propaganda of the deed.” This means the performance of a nonsymbolic (e.g., coercive or economic) act, not primarily for its military or economic effects but primarily for the symbolic effect it presumably will have on some reactor—for instance, staging the public torture of a criminal for its presumable deterrent effect on others or giving economic “foreign aid” with more of an eye to influencing a recipient’s opinions than to building his economy.

Diplomatic negotiation, legal argument, commercial bargaining, and advertising obviously are likely to include considerable elements of both “propaganda” and “propaganda of the deed” as here defined.


No doubt propaganda has existed ever since primates have been sufficiently articulate to use it. Artifacts from prehistory and from early civilizations give evidence that dazzling raiment, mystic insignia, and monuments were used to advertise the purported majesty and supernatural powers of early rulers and priests.

In Western civilization, the systematic design of propaganda and of counterpropaganda appears to have begun in the Greek city-states about 500 B.C., with the codification of “rhetoric,” a set of tricks of argumentation deduced in part from the actual practice of successful lawyers, demagogues, and politicians. Such teachers as Plato and Aristotle, and certain of the Stoics, compiled the rules of rhetoric with two aims: not only to make their own arguments more persuasive but also to immunize “good” citizens against the use of logical fallacies and emotional terms by “bad” lawyers and demagogues, and to point out the possible dangers of following irrational leaders. So well did the Greek rhetoricians do these jobs that they have been studied and quoted for over 2,500 years. Aristotle’s Rhetoric was emphasized in higher education throughout the Middle Ages and even after the Renaissance, and it is often drawn upon today in classes in public speaking and logic and by many sophisticated propagandists and counterpropagandists.

In other civilizations, a number of parallel developments appeared after 400 B.C. Thus, Kautilya, purportedly chief minister to the Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, counseled in his Arthaśāstra (“Principles of Politics”) the use by princes of prudent and often deceptive wording in their diplomacy and in their public utterances, especially in times of war and preparation for war. Like modern propagandists, Kautilya was much preoccupied with techniques for sowing fear, dissension, and confusion in the opponent’s ranks (psychological warfare) and for showering blandishments on allies without becoming excessively dependent upon them. [SeeKautilya.]

Parallel advice can be found in The Art of War by the early Chinese theorist Sun Tzu. The use of “good” and truthful rhetoric and “proper” forms of speech and writing was urged by Confucius in his Analects as a means of persuading men to live the good life—a Platonic admonition deliberately echoed as a legitimating device (under the name of “brainwashing”) by the present-day rulers of Communist China.

The spread of Christianity, like that of all other religions, has of course been due very largely to a mixture of earnest conviction and the deliberate use of propaganda. Recent scholarship points out the striking extent to which the legend of the Jewish messiah has been reshaped in the course of the centuries, beginning with the earliest writers of the Gospels and Epistles, who apparently made numerous changes and invented details that seemed calculated to engage the attention and influence the actions of non-Jews as well as Jews and that bore only an allegorical relation to historic fact. In other major religions—for instance, in the recasting of the legends of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, of Gautama Buddha, of the ancestral Japanese Sun Goddess, and of the life and relatives of Muhammad—a parallel mixture of faith, conviction, and propaganda can be found. Undoubtedly a similar mixture has been involved in the spreading of every major political doctrine or “ism.”

Remnants of election propaganda have been found on Roman ruins. Such writers as Quintilian and Quintus Cicero described campaign tactics. In early modern times Machiavelli underscored, like Kautilya and Sun Tzu, the effectiveness of calculated duplicity in politics and war. In Shakespeare, many characters display and discuss the principles of propaganda in concepts and language that a present-day behavioral scientist could hardly improve upon. Mark Antony’s funeral oration comes readily to mind; and such English aristocrats as the Duke of Buckingham (see Richard III, Act III) comment knowingly upon such propaganda stratagems as the seizure and monopolization of propaganda initiatives, the displacement of guilt onto others (“scapegoating”), the presentation of oneself as morally superior, and the coordination of propaganda with violence and bribery.

After Aristotle, however, only small advances in either the highly organized practice or the systematic theory of propaganda took place until the industrial revolution made mass production possible and thus opened the way for immensely high profits through mass marketing. As part of the modern trend toward well-calculated high-profit distribution, studies began to be made after about 1900 of the wants and habits of many types of consumers and of their susceptibility to alternative kinds of salesmanship, advertising, packaging, and publicity.

In the early 1930s, commercial “sample surveys” began to develop rapidly. Almost every conceivable aspect of opinion, attitude, belief, and behavior involved in “consumer motivation” has been investigated with respect to ever more refined subsamples of the populations of most major countries. At present, vast banks of such information are stored and processed in computer centers; they are used as a basis for increasingly precise “pinpointing” of commercial and other propaganda. Nationwide and international advertising campaigns cost billions of dollars annually and occupy a very large percentage of radio and television time and of newspaper, magazine, and billboard space in countries where this is permitted. It is generally believed that this investment also exerts strong influence over some or many of the noncommercial contents of these media. One consequence has been the evolution of efforts to hold the more Machiavellian advertisers in check through such devices as consumers’ unions, “truth-in-advertising” laws, and nonprofit publishing, radio, and television alongside (or to the exclusion of) the profit-making media. [SeeMarket research.]

Concurrently with the spread of commercial rationalism and the related outburst of commercial propaganda, the spread of social rationalism, of mass education, and of mass democracy since the eighteenth century has deepened awareness among the educated and some of the semieducated of the roles of fictions and utopian aspirations in social and political systems. Long ago, Plato pointed out the social functions of “the noble lie.” The extension of the suffrage to ever broader and ever more ignorant or ill-educated strata of the population in the past two centuries has brought enriched opportunities to observe the possibilities this offers for both the demagogic and the public-spirited propagandist.

One early observer was Jeremy Bentham. His Theory of Fictions, written near the end of the eighteenth century and a forerunner of the modern study of general semantics, emphasized the extent to which a careful choice of symbols can contribute to the respect and awe with which otherwise worthless individuals and institutions can be invested. The immense growth of nonrational forms of nationalism and of plebiscitary despotism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to reconfirm his view. [SeeBentham.]

Many subsequent writers, including Georges Sorel (1908), Vilfredo Pareto (1916), Lenin (1929; and other works), Karl Mannheim (1929–1931), and Harold D. Lasswell (1930; 1935; and other works) have explicitly or implicitly taken the position that men in the mass, and even men on high educational and social levels, often react more favorably to “utopian myths,” “Aesopian language,” and “nonrational residues” of earlier experiences than to sober analytic statements. Pavlov’s experiments with conditioned reflexes, and the Freudian and Neo-Freudian explorations of the unconscious mind, have tended to give strong support to this view.

Both democratic and authoritarian regimes of recent decades have reacted with varying mixtures of warmhearted acceptance and coldhearted cynicism to such modern elaborations of ancient insights. Military inventions and the spread of particularist nationalism and of attempts at democracy have caused recent wars, social revolutions, and counterrevolutions to reach proportions that called for mobilization of entire national populations. Hence, in World War I, and even more in World War II, each of the major contending governments made massive outlays for propaganda, both domestic and foreign, and much magic was attributed to various “propaganda techniques.” Since then, almost every large state has had its ministry of propaganda (or ministry of culture, enlightenment, or international information) or some functional equivalent—at least in wartime or when danger was acutely felt. Likewise it has had its official mechanisms for censorship, “information control,” or news management. The use of such agencies became prominent after World War ii and during the subsequent cold war.

Concurrently, nearly every significant political party, major pressure group, or mass movement has developed its own corps of specialized propagandists (some of them referred to as “lobbyists” or “legislative representatives”). Many are employed full time and have relatively high levels of skill, training, or both. Many such propaganda agencies possess or hire elaborate “research and intelligence” facilities to conduct (overtly and covertly) observations, opinion polls, and information polls among various strata of the elites, the middle classes, and the rank and file. Many kinds of data are tabulated concerning those contents of the press, films, television, and other media that reach the respective strata. “Symbol campaigns” and “image building” are conducted in mathematically calculated ways. The ancient art of rhetoric, practiced by a few skilled leaders, has become the modern quasi science of opinion management, employing armies of governmental, party, and pressure-group employees, including a wide range of real and purported psychoanalytic, psychological, and social scientists.

The means of controlling these opinion manipulators and “hidden persuaders” are sought with increasing concern by consumers who are aware of having been duped, and especially by politically conscious persons who fear the spread of regimes in whose operations deceptive propaganda may be combined with tight censorship to produce a nearly unbreakable control.

Trends in theory

Trends in the theory of persuasion, including the theory of propaganda, have conformed somewhat to various functions required by the social systems of given times and places, as perceived by the intellectuals concerned.

Thus, the rules of rhetoric were devised when Greek urbanism had evolved enough to support a considerable number of rival schools of politics, logic, and philosophy, which sought to settle conflicts by persuasion as well as by violence and commercial deals. Greek thinkers explored many facets of the relations of rhetoric to various forms and functionings of the city-state. In so doing, they defined certain rules of far more general applicability for distinguishing between the discourses—including propaganda—of logical, socially integrative communicators and those of the demagogues of a less respectable stripe.

Yet communication theory among the Greeks appears to have remained essentially particularistic, since it focused on the transactions within the social system of the individual city-state. Even after Aristotle collected and compared a great many citystate constitutions—indeed, even after the Roman conquest–the Greek imagination did not reach out far enough to evolve a coherent, empirical theory of intersystem (i.e., intercity-state, or supracitystate, or intercultural, imperial, international, or worldwide) social relations. Hence, it did not develop a corresponding cross-cultural theory of value conflicts or of the possible resolution of such conflicts through propaganda or other types of communication.

Even the later Greco-Roman Stoics, who did envisage a universalistic, polycentric system of justice and order under a tolerant system of pluralistic law, did not appear to visualize, much less to formulate explicitly, the intersystem communication processes that would be required to institute such a social order and keep it functioning. They dwelt on a highly abstract plane, among broad moral concepts such as justice, harmony, and “the good life.” They did not often descend from man in the abstract to men in specific social systems; hence they did not codify the full range of individual, cultural, and social differences among men that must be considered in order to form any lasting social system above the level of the city-state.

Imperial Rome, Byzantium, and early Islam, of course, were hardly hospitable to flights of naturalistic data-collecting or comparative social and psychological theorizing; nor were the Holy Roman emperors, the Christian churches, or the monarchs and barons and caliphs and sultans who dominated the assorted social systems of western Europe and the Middle East between the fall of Rome and the industrial revolution. Machiavelli, it will be recalled, circulated The Prince in secrecy, like many empirical investigators before and since.

For comparable reasons, and perhaps for other reasons as well, the growth of behavioral science was inhibited in the other major civilizations–China and India–during the same two-thousand-year period. It remained for the scientifically oriented investigators enjoying the degree of freedom of inquiry tolerated in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to discover much more than the ancient Greeks had learned about details of the psychology and the sociopolitical applications of propaganda.

Present-day theory considers propaganda a special case of the theory of communication in general, which in turn has increasingly been treated as a subdivision of the general theory of social systems. The latter aims to study the full range of possible behaviors of all real and possible social actors, ranging from the individual acting exclusively on his own behalf, through the “dyad” (pair of people) and the small group (several people), to such large collective actors as interest groups (e.g., industrial or farmers’ unions or business associations) and territorial groups (towns, provinces, nations, international regions, and the world as a whole).

Contemporary analysts of communication (and therefore of propaganda) are aware that the world as a whole has become, to a considerable extent, a single, relatively manipulable social system of which all the surviving previous social systems are now subsystems. Most parts of the globe are now inhabited, highly interdependent economically and militarily, and so richly provided with newsgathering, telecommunications, and travel facilities that symbols of events occurring at any point on earth can be transmitted instantly and in detail to any other point.

On the other hand, contemporary social science also recognizes that the world system is not yet a community, if by “community” we mean a set of persons widely accepting a common culture (i.e., habitually receiving a common set of “information bits” and experiencing a common pattern of cognition and values). Hence, modern theory views the current state of the world social system as highly polycentric: the cultural patterns, and hence the economic patterns and political patterns, of its component subsystems are at once highly interdependent and highly diverse and often appear more or less incompatible. Yet the set of subsystems as a whole shows powerful though slow-moving tendencies to evolve, convulsively, toward global community, mainly through increases in population density and through partly planned and partly accidental diffusion of common sets of information bits.

Factors in propaganda

Confronted by the highly unstable global context in which he must operate, the sophisticated propaganda analyst employing present-day behavioral theory tends to formulate his problem as including at least 11 sets of factors. He asks:

(1) To what ends (i.e., to bring about what distributions of values), in (2) the present and expected states of the world social system and of (3) each of its subsystems (nations, lesser territorial groups, interest groups, etc.) with which the propagandist is concerned should (4) the propagandist or some agent of his distribute (5) what symbols through (6) what channels (media, such as press, radio, film, face-to-face contact, mass demonstrations, religious or cultural organizations, etc.) (7) to whom (e.g., elites, opinion leaders, middle classes, masses, customers, friends, opponents, neutrals), and (8) how can the effects of the propaganda be measured (i.e., how can one measure the value reallocations attributable to the propaganda as distinct from other causes)? In the present state of social science, this intricate question can of course be answered with only a moderate degree of confidence.

Once the propaganda campaign has begun, the propagandist, and also his opponents or counter-propagandists, will encounter at least three additional sets of factors: With respect to (9) what alternative value allocations and (10) by what means (e.g., counterpropaganda, censorship, coercion, or economic pressure) can the propaganda be neutralized or controlled, and (11) how can effects of such countermeasures be measured? These 11 sets of factors will now be discussed.

Ends (values)

When the problem is simply to acquire money for oneself or one’s group(s) by inducing others to buy a safe and useful commodity, the stating of ends is easy. When the commodity is of doubtful value or positively injurious (e.g., a dangerous drug or a weapon), the problem grows complicated. Where the problem is to convert multitudes to a new religion or a new social system, it may be extremely hard to specify just what redistributions are desired among large numbers of different sorts of persons, with respect to a large cluster of values such as prestige, income, “ease of soul,” military security, etc. Yet the propagandist can hardly proceed rationally unless he can tell at least himself what reallocations of these and many other values he is trying to bring about and what applecarts he is therefore willing to upset.

Changes in the world social system

Each act of propaganda—whether of commission or omission–is very likely to have effects of some sort in at least several parts of the global system. Furthermore, that system itself is inexorably evolving because of such factors as population growth, the invention and diffusion of new cultural sets and technologies, and the consequent emergence of new centers of cultural, military, and economic power. Social evolution, nowadays often very rapid, may decrease the feasibility of many sorts of propaganda–especially of the more simplistic, parochial, and particularistic varieties–and increase the feasibility of the more sophisticated, scientifically formulated, and universalistic. In general, the currents of social change, over the past four thousand years or so, appear to have been drifting, in step with the rising world population and rising educational levels, from smaller to larger social units. Concomitantly, the currents of cultural change apparently have been drifting from less rationality and scientism toward more, and from primary territorial-group loyalty and interest-group loyalty toward primary loyalty to world social unity. Is the propagandist, for the sake of his short-run or long-run ends, to swim with or against these mainstreams of history? If against, at what cost? If far ahead of his time, again at what cost?

Subsystems of the world system

In the past, there were many times and places when the propagandist could effectively ignore world-system requirements and employ such particularist symbols as “My country (or my family, tribe, race, religion, or business), right or wrong.” In the present and future states of the world system, this self-centered type of propaganda may be suicidal. Yet strident particularisms persist. The prudent propagandist has therefore to decide what mix or reconciliation of world-system and subsystem symbolism will best serve his purposes in particular places at given points in time. With the spread of high-capability weapons, the eventual choice, even in the relatively near future, may be between universalist coexistence and particularist nonexistence.

The choice may be easy to state in theory, but it is hard to make in practice, in view of the wide variety of particularist subsystems in the world and their frequent incompatibility both with one another and with the requirements of a world system.

Present-day social science, still much entangled in nationalistic and other small-scale preoccupations, is unclear as to details of the value consequences of promoting, in the present and proximate states of the world social system, adherence to any given set of positions; yet in every utterance the practicing propagandist is explicitly or implicitly making such value choices.

Use of agents

The use of innocent-looking agents or “front” organizations while the propagandist himself remains behind the scenes can maximize his prospects in two principal ways: (1) The agent(s) may seem to the audience to be much more credible or acceptable than the propagandist himself or the group(s) for which the latter speaks. Especially in areas where the propagandist is not very familiar with the language and customs, or where cultural, racial, religious, or nationalist attitudes would deny him a favorable hearing, the use of agents is inescapable. Some four-fifths of the employees of the United States Information Agency abroad, for example, are non-Americans; and Soviet propaganda abroad relies heavily on local communists as well as on personnel of the Soviet missions. (2) If a given propaganda stratagem fails in a pretest (a “trial balloon”) or in execution, the agent can, if necessary, be dismissed or even deliberately “scapegoated” while the principal behind the scenes attempts a new approach.

Since modern propaganda in its sophisticated forms requires so high a level of rationality and of familiarity with public affairs and behavioral sciences, the planning of major campaigns probably can best be entrusted to qualified intellectuals whose backgrounds include both knowledge of social science and “hard-nosed” experience with public affairs. However, such personalities may be viewed askance by many reactors. Hence it is important to select “front men” and “contact agents” with whom the intended audience is likely to feel rapport.

Choice of symbols

The propagandist aware of the findings of the behavioral sciences no longer has as much confidence as his counterparts from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century had in the ability of rational arguments or even of catchy slogans to influence human behavior. The evolution of psychoanalysis, clinical psychology, and experimental research on communication has made it clear that reactors’ responses are affected not only by the immediate input of symbols but also (and often more powerfully) by three other sets of forces: (1) the stored residues of, and associations to, previous inputs of related symbols, which often give the reactor a predisposition and capacity to ignore or to rationalize away the current inflow of symbols; (2) the economic inducements (gifts, bribery, commercial deals, etc.) or threats (job loss, boycotts, etc.) and the physical inducements (caresses, violence, protection from violence, or threats of violence) which the propagandist can apply in conjunction with his symbols; and (3) the coercive structures and processes in the surrounding social systems, which may either facilitate or inhibit the expression of whatever new thoughts or other behavioral impulses the current input of symbols may activate.

The sophisticated propagandist, therefore, attempts to take relevant economic and physical action in conjunction with the propagandizing at each stage of his campaign. He also tries to select his symbols in the light of the findings of all the behavioral sciences, from psychoanalytic studies of the stored-up and unconscious reactions of particular sorts of individuals and groups through the psychology, sociology, economics, and politics of international relations and of the emerging world social system. There is substantial agreement today in psychology on what Lasswell has termed the “triple-appeal principle.” This principle holds that sets of symbols are likely to be most persuasive if they appeal simultaneously to three components of the individual reactor’s personality. That is, the propagandist tries to offset the resistances due to previous information inputs by presenting the thoughts and acts he desires to induce as if they were: (1) rational, advisable, and expedient (psychoanalytically, this is an appeal to the ego); (2) pleasurable (an appeal to the id); and (3) moral (an appeal to the superego). Within any collectivity, the “mix” of these components varies from individual to individual; and in large collectivities it varies from subculture to subculture and from stratum to stratum. The propagandist tries to adjust his appeals accordingly.

Research from the clinic also suggests the relative effectiveness of choosing vocabularies and symbols and of casting the propagandist (or his agents) in roles, analogous to those associated with parents or parent substitutes (foster parents, uncles, aunts, schoolteachers, priests, witch doctors, political heroes, gods, goddesses, etc.), under whose influence the reactors have undergone many of their most formative, emotion-laden, and strongly sanctioned experiences. It is easy to sense the appeal of such familistic symbolisms as “the fatherland,” “the mother country,” “the Mother Church,” “the Holy Father” “Mother Russia,” “Uncle Sam,” or “Uncle Ho Chi Minh.” The propagandist who can seize the emotional initiative and maintain a virtually parental or divine ascendancy (charisma) can arouse both the animosities and the consciences of his followers and of neutrals by “satanizing” the aims and associates of his opponents while idealizing or deifying his own objectives and allies.

Reactors growing up in different social groupings, or in the same groupings at different times, are bound to have at least somewhat differently structured egos and superegos. Hence, the contribution that psychoanalysis and psychology in their generalized forms can make to the propagandist is not sufficient by itself. Furthermore, even those reactors who already have the attitudes the propagandist desires them to have may be prevented from acting upon these by counterpressures from the particular social groupings or social systems affecting them. It would be difficult, for instance, to act openly upon communist leanings in a totalitarian fascist country, or vice versa. Hence, the propagandist must adapt his symbolism not only to the reactors’ conscious and unconscious impulses but also to the lines of action that are open to them.

Propaganda is likely to be most effective if its contents include encouraging references (direct or implied) to all those actions that are feasible for the reactor and that the propagandist wishes him to perform, and if the contents include deterrent references to acts the propagandist wishes the reactor to inhibit (or, in some cases, no references to the latter, lest “ideas be put into the reactor’s head”). The structuring of propaganda contents around such action concepts increases the probability that the propagandist will be realistic in his demands upon the reactor and that the reactor will not be left with the feeling, “I agree with this message, but just what am I supposed to do about it?” Where military or political secrecy or surprise is important to the propagandist, he will be inclined to state his action demands obliquely or deceptively : in some cases opponents can use systematic analysis of the content of propaganda to infer the propagandist’s secret or unconscious intentions and probable future actions. [SeeContent analysis.]

Much more could be said about the selection of symbols. One especially intriguing question for our epoch should be raised: Can behavioral research discover, and will influential propagandists be willing to employ, universalistic symbolisms that can reduce interpersonal and intercollectivity destructiveness to levels that might make possible a viable world social order?

Channels of propaganda

A comprehensive list of media that a propagandist might use would be many pages long. It would include newspapers, magazines, radio, television, film, handbills, posters, billboards, speechmaking, whispering and rumormongering campaigns, flags, street names, monuments, commemorative coins and postage stamps, Rhodes, Fulbright, and Soviet Friendship scholarships, awards and prizes, the composition of novels, plays, comic strips, poetry, and music “with a message,” and all human groupings from the dyad and the family through advertising and public relations firms, churches and temples, pressure groups, parties, and “front organizations” to the propaganda organizations (overt and covert) of nations, international coalitions, and universal international organizations.

Since World War ii there has been a strong drift, in the practice of propaganda, away from attempts to “saturate” mass audiences with large quantities of simplified slogans. The new trend is toward the far more discriminating choice of those media to whose messages the intended reactors are thought to be especially receptive. This focus upon “placing the shots” instead of indiscriminately bombarding the reactors is due in part to findings of behavioral research.

Numerous controlled observations and experiments on the “media habits” and “source preferences” of given reactors have established two views: (1) most persons tend to resist messages that reach them through media they do not especially trust and enjoy; (2) the most effective media, as a rule, for messages other than the simplest of commercial propaganda are not the impersonal mass media but rather those “reference groups” with which the individual feels strongly identified and in which he feels that he is at home and is surrounded with a certain degree of intimate emotional response and personal protection. First and foremost of these is, of course, the family. But many other organizations may perform quasifamilial functions—for instance, the small club of cronies, the church, the trade union, the businessmen’s luncheon club, the clique or gang, the communist cell. If the propagandist can influence the leadership of such a reference group, he may establish a “social relay point” that can vastly amplify the meaningfulness and acceptability of his message—far more effectively than a huge number of broadcasts, leaflets, or billboards, and at much lower cost. Hence, a great deal of research has been devoted in recent years to the identification of such reference groups. One important stratagem is the programming of mass media contents (e.g., newspapers or broadcasts) in such ways that instead of using scattergun techniques on undifferentiated mass audiences they carry material that is considered likely to interest specified reference groups (and especially the elites and “opinion leaders” among these) and to be relayed by them, in their own ways and on their own initiative, to other sets of reactors.


Since propaganda deals by definition with controversial matters, its ultimate audiences, whether reached by direct or indirect media, can be ranged into three groups: (1) those who are initially predisposed to react as the propagandist wishes, (2) those who are neutral or indifferent, and (3) those who are antagonistic. It is advisable in many cases to include symbolism and to select media appropriate to many positions along this continuum.

Recent research tends to indicate that the most dependable result of propaganda is likely to be an increase in the resolve or the efforts of those who are already the propagandist’s friends. No matter how great the volume or symbolic intensity of propaganda, neutrals and opponents are likely to be little affected unless the propaganda is reinforced by relevant nonpropaganda transactions or other events. For example, propaganda that aims to induce loyalty to a given regime among a landlordridden population that is experiencing the modern “revolution of expectations” may have to be reinforced by delivering as well as promising land and tax reform and bona fide physical protection.

Measurement of propaganda effects

The problem of measurement is almost as broad as the field of behavioral research methodology. The modern world is seething with rival propaganda campaigns and counterpropaganda and with countless other symbolic transactions. The problem of disentangling the effects of one’s own propaganda from the effects of the other transactions is often insoluble. Yet it is occasionally possible to conduct research whose results can be viewed with moderate confidence.

Content analysis. Reasonably dependable quantitative evidence as to the contents of propaganda can be obtained by the method known as “content analysis.” The numbers of column inches of printed space or seconds of radio or television time that propaganda occupied can be tabulated. The symbols and themes it contained can be categorized, as already indicated, in terms of expressed or implied demands for actions of various types and in a number of other psychologically or socially significant ways. [SeeContent analysis.]

Intensive interviews. Fairly objective evidence as to the intensity and semantic significance of propaganda (i.e., the cognitive and affective associations it evokes in given reactors) can be gathered by extended intensive interviews (of a psychoanalytic or psychiatric type) with small, carefully drawn samples of the intended audience. If this audience is in a place where freedom of such inquiry is restricted (i.e., most of the world), the next best method is to interview any presumably informed persons who can be reached–e.g., refugees, expellees, or scholars concerned with the area. [SeeInterviewing.]

Extensive observations. Sometimes participant observers can be sent to the relevant places. Voting statistics, press reports, or the speeches and other actions of affected leaders can also give clues. Evidence on the size and composition of the intermediate (including “relay point”) audiences and the ultimate audiences can be obtained from extensive sample surveys, press reports, and leaders’ reactions. Where printed or telecommunications media are used, their readership or listenership figures can perhaps be obtained. If public meetings or demonstrations are involved, there may be observers’ reports. [SeeObservation.]

Experiments and panel interviews. Evidence that ensuing behavior of the audience—for instance, its vote for candidate X or its buying of product Y—is due in whole or in part to the propaganda and not to something else remains far from, conclusive, however, except in the rare situations where something like an experiment is possible. In some cases, matched groups can be compared—one of them exposed to the propaganda and the other not, or one of them exposed to version A of the propaganda and another to version B, and so on. In some cases, the propaganda reaching one group can be abruptly stopped or intensified and some of the presumably consequent reactions may be observed. However, there is always the possibility that it was not one’s own propaganda that brought about the changes, but someone else’s, or that the changes were caused by some unknown third factor or set of factors. There is also the problem of “sleeper effects”—long-delayed reactions that may not become visible until the propaganda has worked its way through or around resistances that it may encounter deep down in the reactor’s unconscious or until obstacles to expression of reactions (e.g., political policemen or suspected informers) have left the reactor’s environment. And there is the possibility that the propaganda may have “boomerang effects”—effects the opposite of those intended—or combinations of boomerang and desired effects. Research design that does not allow for all these possibilities is of doubtful evidential value. [SeeExperimental design, article onquasiexperimental design.]

In view of the extreme difficulty of tracing effects of propaganda upon reactors in their native habitats, a great deal of effort has been spent in recent years on strictly controlled experiments and repeated semi-intensive interviews (“panel interviews”) with small matched groups, with a view to establishing general principles of propaganda and persuasion. Among the many factors examined have been the relative credibility and acceptability, to given audiences, of different sources of information, advice, and opinion; the uses of different propaganda contents aimed at the same results; and the effects of different ways of arranging and presenting the same contents. However, reliance on such findings is notably limited by the fact that the behavior of reactors available for such testing may or may not be representative of the behavior of those actual audiences in whom the propagandist is interested. It seems probable that effects of propaganda among actual reactors can in most cases only be estimated, not “measured” scientifically, and that the most valid estimates are likely to be made by persons combining considerable training in the methods of social science with considerable direct experience among the reactors under analysis. [SeePanel studies.]

Opposition and social control

Once propaganda produces any effects it tends to evoke opposition. Opponents may try to offset it directly or to invoke community sanctions to bring it under control. Therefore, the propagandist has to estimate his opponents’ values and the steps opponents most probably will take. In different sorts of polities along the continuum from the democratic to the authoritarian, a variety of social controls over propaganda may be found.

By definition, a healthily functioning democracy is a polity in which opposition to propaganda is habitually expressed primarily through peaceful counterpropaganda. It is assumed that a variety of propagandists will compete vigorously in “the marketplace of ideas,” and it is hoped that the ideas best for the society will find the most takers in the long run. Prerequisites for such an outcome presumably include high levels of education, self-control, and civic spirit among the participants, and large amounts of freely available information, disinterestedly gathered and disseminated by relatively autonomous, uncensored newsgathering agencies.

In self-protection against secret or “unfair” propaganda by “hidden persuaders,” modern democracies sometimes require registration or even licensing of some sorts of propagandists by public authorities, and “plain labeling” of propaganda output. In the United States, for instance, periodicals using the second-class mails are required to publish frequent statements of their ownership, circulation, and other data. Likewise, all propaganda agents of foreign principals must file registration forms with the U.S. Department of Justice, where the interested public may inspect the data submitted about the agents’ and principals’ identities, activities, and finances. Such agents are also required to place on each piece of printed matter they circulate a label identifying the principal. This principle of “disclosure,” which appears so useful with respect to foreign agents, is not applied, however, to all domestic propagandists, although similar principles are applied to the registration of securities prospectuses and of certain types of political campaign advertisements and contributions. Many nations require similar “plain labeling” of securities prospectuses and paid political advertising, whether foreign or domestic in origin. In many countries, claims made in propaganda (including advertising) about the contents or characteristics of foods and drugs are also subject to registration and labeling.

Other efforts made in democracies to provide public control over propaganda include laws concerning libel and slander; laws giving political candidates and legislators exceptional privileges and immunities in the field of free speech; and laws or customs requiring equal space or time in public media for all major contenders in political campaigns. In some cases there may be a legally guaranteed “right of reply,” sometimes at the propagandist’s expense, for any group or individual held to be seriously injured or exposed to injury by his propaganda.

Obviously, however, opponents’ reactions to propaganda need not be limited to disclosure or counterpropaganda. All manner of economic or physical inducements or punishments may be tried, even in democracies; and this is much more the case in relatively authoritarian polities. In the extreme case, the authoritarian regime aims to monopolize for itself all opportunities to engage in propaganda and will stop at nothing to prevent any kind of counterpropaganda. How long and thoroughly such a policy can be implemented depends, among other things, on the amount of force the regime can muster, the thoroughness of its internal intelligence and policing activities, and, perhaps most important of all, the level and distribution of secular higher education in the social system of which the regime is the polity.

The effects of steps taken to neutralize or suppress propaganda can, of course, be measured by the same methods as the effects of the propaganda, and such measurement is subject to the same caveats.

Bruce L. Smith

[See alsoAttitudes, article onattitude change; Brainwashing; Communication, political; Psychological warfare. Directly related are the entriesAdvertising; Communication, mass; Content analysis; Persuasion; Public opinion. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical participation; Socialization; and in the biographies ofHovland; Stouffer.]



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Lasswell, Harold D.; Smith, Bruce L.; and Casey, Ralph D. 1935 Propaganda and Promotional Activities: An Annotated Bibliography. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Bruce L.; Lasswell, Harold D.; and Casey, Ralph D. 1946 Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Princeton Univ. Press.


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Since the twentieth century, propaganda has largely had pejorative associations. The term continues to imply something sinister; synonyms for propaganda frequently include lies, falsehood, deceit, and brainwashing. In recent years unfavorable references have been made to "spin doctors" and the manner in which "propaganda" has devalued democratic politics. The psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson intended their book Age of Propaganda (1992) to inform Americans about the "sophisticated use of propaganda techniques" and how to "counteract" its "effectiveness." A widely held belief is that propaganda is a cancer on the body politic, which manipulates our thoughts and actions and should be avoided at all costs.

If propaganda is to be a useful concept, it first has to be divested of its pejorative connotations. The ancient Greeks regarded persuasion as a form of rhetoric and recognized that logic and reason were necessary to communicate ideas successfully. Throughout history leaders have attempted to influence the way in which the governed viewed the world. Propaganda is not simply what the other side does, while one's own side concentrates on "information" or "publicity." Modern dictatorships have never felt the need to hide from the word in the way democracies have. Accordingly, the Nazis had their Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, the Soviets their Propaganda Committee of the Communist Party, while the British had a Ministry of Information and the Americans an Office of War Information. The Allies in both world wars described the opinion-forming activity by the enemy as propaganda, while claiming that they themselves only disseminated the truth.

The origin of the word propaganda can be traced back to the Reformation, when the spiritual and ecclesiastic unity of Europe was shattered, and the medieval Roman Catholic Church lost its hold on the northern countries. During the ensuing struggle between forces of Protestantism and those of the Counter-Reformation, the church found itself faced with the problem of maintaining and strengthening its hold in the now non-Catholic countries. A commission of cardinals set up by Pope Gregory XIII (15721585) was charged with spreading Catholicism and regulating ecclesiastical affairs in heathen lands. A generation later, when the Thirty Years' War (16181648) had broken out, Gregory XV in 1622 made the commission permanent, as the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith); it was charged with the management of foreign missions and financed by a "ring tax" assessed on each newly appointed cardinal. Finally, in 1627, Urban VII established the Collegium Urbanum or College of Propaganda to serve as a training ground for a new generation of Catholic propagandists and to educate young priests who were to undertake such missions. The first propaganda institute was therefore simply a body charged with improving the dissemination of a group of religious dogmas. The word propaganda soon came to be applied to any organization with the purpose of spreading a doctrine; subsequently it was applied to the doctrine itself, and lastly to the methods employed in undertaking the dissemination.

From the seventeenth to the twentieth century propaganda continued to be "modernized" in accordance with scientific and technological advances. During the English Civil War (16421646), propaganda by pamphlet and newsletter became a regular accessory to military action, Oliver Cromwell's army being concerned nearly as much with the spread of religious and political doctrines as with victory in the field. The employment of propaganda increased steadily throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in times of ideological struggle, as in the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars. The Girondists, for example, distributed broadsheets among enemy troops offering them rewards for desertion, and American revolutionary propagandists were among the most eloquent in history, their appeal on behalf of the Rights of Man striking a chord in the minds of the people that resonates to this day. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 there were no great wars of revolution, but the new visual "language" of political cartoons and satirical prints continued to feature prominently in propaganda campaigns. Historically, therefore, propaganda became associated with periods of stress and turmoil, in which violent controversy over doctrine accompanied the use of force.

It was, however, during World War I that the wholesale employment of propaganda as a weapon of modern warfare served to transform its meaning into something more sinister. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the introduction of new forms of communication had created a new phenomenon, the mass audience. The means now existed for governments to mobilize entire industrial societies for warfare by quickly disseminating information (or propaganda) to large groups of people. One of the most significant lessons to be learned from World War I was that public opinion could no longer be ignored as a determining factor in the formulation of government policies. The Great War was the first "total war," in which whole nations, and not just professional armies, were locked in mortal combat. Propaganda was an essential part of this war effort, developing in all the belligerent countries as the war progressed.

The rival alliances anticipated a violent but short war. Instead, the relative parity of the opposing forces resulted in a military stalemate and a protracted war. With civilians required to participate in a "total war" effort, morale came to be recognized as a significant military factor, and propaganda began to emerge as the principal instrument of control over public opinion; both control of the mass media and propaganda were seen as essential in maintaining support for national war aims. The press, leaflets, posters, and the new medium of film were utilized, censored, and coordinated (arguably for the first time) in order to disseminate officially approved themes.

At the start of the war most of the belligerent states had only embryonic propaganda organizations. Such institutions developed piecemeal, with local initiatives later being centralized. In Britain, which is largely credited with disseminating the most successful propaganda, the Ministry of Information (MOI) was established in 1917 under Lord Beaverbrook, with a separate Enemy Propaganda Department under Lord Northcliffe. The basic British approach, known as "the propaganda of facts," was for official propaganda to present events as accurately as possible, but with an interpretation favorable to British war aims. Upon entering the war in 1917, the United States copied the British policy of stressing facts whenever possible, establishing its own Committee on Public Information (CPI), known also as the Creel Committee after its director, George Creel (18761953). CPI activities were intended to "sell the war to the American people" and included poster campaigns and war bond drives. By comparison the German effort was controlled largely by the army. Contrary to received opinion, however, the German government had, from an early stage in the conflict, developed a sophisticated notion of propaganda and its reception by different publics and had established a national network of monitoring stations to provide feedback on the "pulse of the people." But, having constructed the means to read the mood of the people, the German authorities failed to act accordingly. Moreover, as a result of the militarization of the society, German propaganda was too closely tied to military success. Austria-Hungary and Russia made little use of organized propaganda, although the Bolsheviks after 1917 regarded it as essential to their revolutionary effort.

All sides supplemented military engagement with propaganda aimed at stimulating national sentiment, maintaining home front morale, winning over neutrals, and spreading disenchantment among the enemy population. The British are credited with having carried out these objectives more successfully than any other belligerent state. Britain's wartime consensus is generally believed to have held under the exigencies of the conflictdespite major tensions. One explanation for this is the skillful use made by the government of propaganda and censorship. After the war, however, a deep mistrust developed on the part of ordinary citizens who realized that conditions at the front had been deliberately obscured by patriotic slogans and by "atrocity propaganda" that had fabricated obscene stereotypes of the enemy and their dastardly deeds. The population also felt cheated that their sacrifices had not resulted in the promised homes and a land "fit for heroes." Propaganda was now associated with lies and falsehood, and the Ministry of Information was immediately disbanded. A similar reaction took root in the United States. In 1920 George Creel published an account of his achievements as director of the CPI, and in so doing contributed to the public's growing suspicion of propaganda; this created a major obstacle for propagandists attempting to rally American support against Fascism in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Fledgling dictators in Europe, however, viewed war propaganda in a different light. The experience of Britain's propaganda campaign provided the defeated Germans with a fertile source of counterpropaganda aimed against the postwar peace treaties and the ignominy of the Weimar Republic. Writing in Mein Kampf (19251927), Adolf Hitler devoted two chapters to propaganda. By maintaining that the German army had not been defeated in battle but had been forced to submit due to disintegration of morale, accelerated by skillful British propaganda, Hitler (like other right-wing politicians and military groups) was providing historical legitimacy for the "stab-inthe-back" theory. Regardless of the actual role played by British propaganda in helping to bring Germany to its knees, it was generally accepted that Britain's wartime experiment was the ideal blueprint for other governments in subsequent propaganda efforts. Convinced of its essential role in any movement set on obtaining power, Hitler saw propaganda as a vehicle of political salesmanship in a mass market. It was no surprise that a Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda was the first to be established when the Nazis assumed power in 1933.

The task of propaganda, Hitler argued, was to bring certain subjects to the attention of the masses. Propaganda should be simple, concentrating on a few essentials, which then had to be repeated many times, with emphasis on such emotional elements as love and hatred. Through the continuity and uniformity of its application, propaganda, Hitler concluded, would lead to results "that are almost beyond our understanding." The Nazis though, unlike the Bolsheviks, did not make a distinction in their terminology between agitation and propaganda. In Soviet Russia, agitation was concerned with influencing the masses through ideas and slogans, while propaganda served to spread the communist ideology of Marxism-Leninism. The distinction dates back to Georgi Plekhanov's famous definition of 1892: "A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but presents them to a whole mass of people." The Nazis, on the other hand, did not regard propaganda as merely an instrument for reaching the party elite, but rather as a means to the persuasion and indoctrination of all Germans.

If World War I had demonstrated the power of propaganda, the postwar period witnessed the widespread utilization of lessons drawn from the wartime experience within the overall context of a "communication revolution." In the years between 1870 and 1939 the means of communication were transformed into mass media. In an age in which international affairs became the concern of peoples everywhere, governments could not afford to neglect the increasingly powerful press. But there was now more than just the press to contend with. Governments sought to come to terms with the mass media generally, to control them and to harness them, particularly in time of war, and to ensure that as often as possible they acted in the "national interest." During the 1920s and 1930s the exploitation of the mass mediaparticularly film and radiofor political purposes became more common. Totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany provide striking examples of media being conscripted for ideological purposes. These developments had grown to such proportions by the mid-1930s that, for example, the British government established (1934) the British Council and inaugurated (1938) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) foreign language broadcasts in an attempt to combat the perceived challenge to democracy.

World War II

According to Philip M. Taylor, World War II "witnessed the greatest propaganda battle in the history of warfare." All the participants employed propaganda on a scale that dwarfed that of other conflicts, including World War I. Britain's principal propaganda structures were the MOI for home, Allied, and neutral territory and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) for enemy territory. The programs of the BBC proved an asset long after the war had ended. When Sir John Reith (18891971), the former director general of the BBC, was appointed minister of information in 1940, he laid down two fundamental axioms, that "news is the shock troops of propaganda" and that propaganda should tell "the truth, nothing but the truth and, as near as possible, the whole truth." Although Hitler believed implicitly in the "big lie," Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, claimed that propaganda should be as accurate as possible. Similarly, in the early part of the twentieth century Lenin had proclaimed that "in propaganda, truth pays off"; this dictum has largely been accepted by propagandists.

During what is known in Russia as "The Great Patriotic War," propaganda played a central role in rallying the population to resist the Nazi invasion. Soviet propaganda was supervised by the Directorate of Propaganda and Agitation of the Central Committee under A. S. Shcherbakov and administered by the newly established Soviet Information Bureau. The story of American propaganda during World War II can be divided into two phases: a period of neutrality from September 1939 to December 1941, during which debate raged among the population at large, and the period of U.S. involvement in the war, when the government mobilized a major propaganda effort through the Office of War Information (OWI). The United States used propaganda to orient troops (most famously in the U.S. Army Signal Corps film series Why We Fight ) and to motivate its civilian population. In all phases of war propaganda the commercial media played a key role.

The extraordinary level of government and commercial propaganda during the war continued during the period of economic and political hostility between communist and capitalist countries known as the Cold War (19451989). Propagandists on all sides utilized their own interpretations of the truth in order to sell an ideological point of view to their citizens and to the world at large. U.S. president Harry S. Truman described (1950) the conflict as a "struggle above all else, for the minds of men." The Soviet leadership under Joseph Stalin (18791953), untroubled by the negative connotations of propaganda, viewed the role of the media as mobilizing and legitimizing support for expansionist policies. Stalin's determination to control the countries "liberated" by Soviet armies led to a growth in arms production and strident anticapitalist propaganda, which contributed to growing tensions. The Department of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party fed official propaganda to the media, closely scrutinized by the Soviet censors, while the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) in September 1947 began a systematic campaign, masterminded by Agitprop, to marshal international support for Moscow against the West.

In the United States, the Smith-Mundt Act (1948) created the legal framework for a permanent overseas information effort, using the media, exchange programs, and exhibitions to counter the massive disinformation campaigns launched from Moscow to discredit the United States. From the mid-1950s, U.S. policy-makers believed that cultural diplomacy would successfully complement psychological warfare and that in the long term it might prove more effective. From the 1950s the export of American culture and the American way of life was heavily subsidized by the federal government and was coordinated by the United States Information Agency (USIA), which operated from 1953 to 1999. Cultural exchange programs, international trade fairs and exhibitions, and the distribution of Hollywood movies were some of the activities designed to extract propaganda value from the appeal of America's way of life, particularly its popular culture and material success. From the 1960s the Voice of America (VOA) utilized the popularity of American rock music with audiences behind the Iron Curtain, using the music to boost the standing of the United States. While radio remained an important weapon in waging psychological warfare against the Soviets, broadcasting was also seen by American authorities as a means by which the United States could win hearts and minds throughout the world through a long-term process of cultural propaganda. Throughout the Cold War, the United States was also able to call upon the appeal of products of private and multinational concerns such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and others. The universal popularity of such symbols of "Americanization" testified to the success of this approach. Such "cultural imperialism" was designed to convert the world into a "global village" dominated by American values.

The far-reaching impact of the Cold War led to new political and sociological theories on the nature of man and modern societyparticularly in the light of the rise of totalitarian states. Individuals were viewed as undifferentiated and malleable while an apocalyptic vision of mass society emphasized the alienation of work, the collapse of religion and family ties, and a general decline in moral values. Culture had been reduced to the lowest common denominator and the masses were generally seen as politically apathetic, yet prone to ideological fanaticism, vulnerable to manipulation through the mediaparticularly the new medium of televisionand through the increasing sophistication of propagandists. Accordingly, propaganda was viewed as a "magic bullet" or "hypodermic needle" by means of which opinions and behavior could be controlled.

This view was challenged by a number of American social scientists, including Harold Lasswell (19021978)a pioneer of propaganda studieswho argued that within the context of an atomized mass society, propaganda was a mechanism for engineering public opinion and consent and thus acted as a means of social control (what Lasswell referred to as the "new hammer and anvil of social solidarity"). In recent years the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (19121996) has taken this a stage further and suggested that the technological society has conditioned people to a "need for propaganda." In Ellul's view propaganda is most effective when it reinforces already held opinions and beliefs. The "hypodermic" theory was largely replaced by a more complex "multistep" model that acknowledges the influence of the mass media yet also recognizes that individuals seek out opinion leaders from their own class and sex for confirmation of their ideas and in forming attitudes. Many early twenty-first-century writers agree that propaganda confirms rather than convertsor at least that it is more effective when the message is in line with the existing opinions and beliefs of its consumers.

The second wave of the feminist movement in the second half of the twentieth century is an example of this. Known as "women's liberation," radical feminism developed in the United States and Britain in the 1960s among a group of women involved in a series of protest movements that challenged social norms and traditional values. Women began forming organizations to address their role and status, applying tactics of social agitation. In particular, they focused on employment and pay issues, child care, sex discrimination, and childbearing. Feminism became more mainstream during the 1970s and was addressed by a number of government-backed propaganda initiatives such as the International Women's Year (1975). As divisions within the movement appeared, a backlash of antifeminist propaganda from the media and right-wing politicians began in the 1980s, particularly in the United States.

The spread of television as a mass medium from the 1950s opened up the possibility of a radical new level of exposure of civilian populations to the "realities" of war. The term media war came into common usage during the Gulf War in 1991. In the Kosovo war (1999) both sides in the conflict understood the importance of manipulating real-time news to their own advantage. Moreover, the war witnessed the first systematic use of the Internet to disseminate propaganda, including its use by nongovernmental players. Kosovo highlights the forces of change between the preCold War era and the current globalized information environment. The centrality of propaganda was apparent once more in the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, which were planned for their media impact, as acts of propaganda by deed. Propaganda became a major feature of the "war against terrorism" that followed. The war to remove Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq began on 19 March 2003 with an invasion by the United States and Great Britain. Officially, this was part of the campaign against international terrorism, but it also became a plan for the "liberation" of Iraq by "Coalition Forces," the latter a propaganda device placing the U.S. and British military in a flattering light. Media coverage of this war and the war's psychological dimension were of particular concern to the student of propaganda: it produced a number of innovations, particularly the decision to "embed" reporters and television journalists as members of the invasion forces, on the one hand allowing an immediacy never before possible, on the other introducing a new intensity of information overload.

Defining Propaganda

With rapidly changing technology, definitions of propaganda have also undergone changes. Propaganda has meant different things at different times, although clearly the scale on which it has been practiced has increased in the twentieth century. What are the characteristic features of propaganda, and how can it be defined? Propaganda (and deliberately excluded here are purely religious propaganda and the commercial propaganda we call advertising) is a distinct political activity, one that can be distinguished from cognate activities like information and education. The distinction lies in the purpose of the instigator. Put simply, propaganda is the dissemination of ideas or images intended to convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Although propaganda can be unconscious, this entry is concerned with the conscious, deliberate attempts to employ the techniques of persuasion for specific goals. Propaganda can be defined as the deliberate attempt to influence public opinion through the transmission of ideas and values for reasons consciously thought out, and designed to serve the interest of the propagandist, either directly or indirectly. Whereas information presents its audience with a straightforward statement of facts, propaganda packages those facts in order to evoke a certain response. Whereas education (at least in the liberal notion of education) teaches the recipient how to think, so as to make up his or her own mind, propaganda tries to tell people what to think. Information and education aim to broaden the audience's perspectives and to open their minds, but propaganda strives to narrow and preferably close them. The distinction lies in the purpose.

The importance of propaganda in the politics of the twentieth century should not be underestimated. When we speak of propaganda we think of the media as conventionally conceivedpress, radio, cinema, televisionbut propaganda as an agent of reinforcement is not confined to these. Propaganda can manifest itself in the form of a building, a flag, a coin, a painting, even a government health warning on a cigarette pack. The role of commemoration in reinforcement propaganda is often overlooked; yet what better way of reinforcing the present and determining the future than commemorating the past? It is no coincidence that London has its Waterloo Station and Paris its Gare d'Austerlitz!

Propaganda may be overt or covert, good or bad, truthful or mendacious, serious or humorous, rational or emotional. Propagandists assess the context and the audience and use whatever methods and whatever means they consider to be the most appropriate and most effective. We need, therefore, to think of propaganda in much wider terms: wherever public opinion is deemed important, there we shall find an attempt to influence it. The most obvious reason for the increasing attention given to propaganda and its assumed power over opinion is the broadening base that has dramatically transformed the nature of political participation. The means of communication have correspondingly broadened, and the growth of education and technological advances have proved contributory factors. The early twenty-first century is witnessing the proliferation of "information superhighways" and digital data networks, and legitimate concerns have been expressed about the nature of media proprietorship and access and the extent to which information flows freely (the question of what Noam Chomsky has referred to as the "manufacture of consent"). Propagandists have been forced to respond to these changes; they must, as before, assess their audience and use whatever methods they consider most effective. If we can widen our terms of reference and divest propaganda of its pejorative associations, the study of propaganda will reveal its significance as intrinsic to the political process in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

See also Censorship ; Communication of Ideas ; Language and Linguistics ; Media, History of ; Nationalism ; Patriotism ; Totalitarianism ; Truth ; War ; War and Peace in the Arts .


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Messinger, Gary S. British Propaganda and the State in the First World War. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Pratkanis, Anthony R., and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992.

Reeves, Nicholas. The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? London and New York: Cassell, 1999.

Saunders, Frances S. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta, 1999.

Taithe, B., and T. Thornton, eds. Propaganda: Political Rhetoric and Identity 13002000. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Taylor, Philip M. The Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Era. 2nd ed. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Thomson, Oliver. Easily Led: A History of Propaganda. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Welch, David. Germany, Propaganda and Total War, 1914-18: The Sins of Omission. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

David Welch

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PROPAGANDA. The deliberate use of information, images, and ideas to affect public opinion, propaganda is a policy tool deployed by all governments, although its effectiveness is widely debated by scholars. The term acquired a pejorative connotation because of the exaggerated atrocity stories peddled by all sides fighting in World War I, and the horrifying accomplishments of the Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda of Nazi Germany's Joseph Goebbels. Since then, most Western governments have eschewed the term in favor of "public information," "public diplomacy," and other similar euphemisms when discussing their own practices of attempted persuasion, and have applied the word exclusively to the statements of rival regimes.

Information analysts often classify propaganda into three categories: black, gray, and white. Black or covert propaganda consists of outright falsehoods or material falsely attributed to a source. Gray propaganda is unattributed material of questionable validity. White propaganda is the overt spreading of true information in the service of a cause. During the twentieth century, the U.S. government engaged in all three types of propaganda at various times.

The first official U.S. agency charged with developing and distributing propaganda was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), created by order of President Woodrow Wilson on April 6, 1917, within a week of American entry into World War I. George Creel, a journalist who had written pamphlets for Wilson's 1916 re-election campaign, was made chairman. Creel hired reporters, novelists, and advertising copywriters for his sprawling organization that produced a daily newspaper, the Official Bulletin, with a circulation of 100,000, as well as press releases and editorials distributed to regular newspapers throughout the United States. The CPI printed millions of pamphlets for worldwide distribution of messages favorable to the United States, and sent 75,000 volunteers dubbed "Four Minute Men" to give patriotic speeches in movie houses. Other divisions of the CPI produced cartoons, drawings, and films, all designed to recruit soldiers, sell war bonds, and foster support for the war effort. In a military counterpart to the CPI, the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Division created a unit for psychological warfare, dropping leaflets behind German lines to demoralize enemy troops.

World War II

Postwar disillusionment soured the public on government sponsored information programs, and it was not until World War II that a successor agency to the CPI was created. On June 13, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Office of War Information (OWI) to present government policies to the public both at home and abroad. The OWI engaged in activities similar to the CPI, producing printed materials, films, and newspapers; but it went beyond the CPI's legacy to introduce regular broadcasts over the government radio station, the Voice of America (VOA), and worked with Hollywood to ensure that privately produced movies were in harmony with government aims in the war. The OWI soon had twenty-six overseas posts known as the U.S. Information Service (USIS). On the military side, psychological warfare was the purview of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), headed by William D. ("Wild Bill") Donovan. In addition to sabotage and intelligence work, the OSS engaged in propaganda in support of military operations, including spreading disinformation. In Latin America, Nelson Rockefeller directed an ambitious information campaign to shore up support for the Allies, placing articles in U.S. and Latin American periodicals and distributing approved films through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA).

The end of the war again brought about severe cutbacks in these agencies, and President Harry S. Truman eliminated OWI altogether, placing the VOA under the State Department. But the anti-Communist campaign of the Cold War required a continuing government information program. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), successor to the OSS, took over covert propaganda efforts, using black and gray propaganda to undermine the appeal of the French and Italian Communist Parties in elections. CIA funds supported the British magazines Encounter and New Leader, the French Preuves, the Spanish Cuadernos, the Italian Tempo Presente, and the Austrian Forum. A CIA front organization, the National Committee for a Free Europe, created Radio Free Europe (RFE) in 1949 for broadcasting to Eastern Europe; another CIA front set up Radio Liberty (RL) two years later. The Agency also funded Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) directed at East Germany, and created a covert radio station as part of its successful operation to overthrow President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954.

Domestic Propaganda

Despite its mandate not to engage in domestic intelligence work, from the late 1940s at least until the mid-1970s, the CIA also placed propaganda in the American media, either directly or by sponsoring research and paying publication costs. CIA material was delivered, wittingly or unwittingly, by major television networks, wire service agencies, and major newspapers. Between 1947 and 1967, more than 1,000 books were written on behalf of the CIA, and published by reputable houses both in America and abroad.

In 1950, President Truman persuaded Congress to back a "Campaign of Truth" to wage psychological warfare against the Soviet bloc. He created the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) within the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate propaganda efforts from the Departments of State and Defense as well as CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although the PSB's struggles for bureaucratic control were resisted by the individual departments, government information programs grew in scope. The VOA broadcast radio programs to one hundred countries in forty-six languages, and ten thousand foreign newspapers received daily materials from the U.S. press service.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the United States Information Agency (USIA) on June 1, 1953, as an independent agency controlling the VOA and other overt information programs formerly in the State Department. The USIA touted some of Eisenhower's favorite programs, such as Atoms for Peace, Food for Peace, and the People-to-People exchange programs, which brought private citizens into contact with foreigners. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy invited famed CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to head the USIA.

Controversial Outcomes

Foreign propaganda work sometimes provoked controversy, as when Radio Liberty exhorted the people of Eastern Europe to overthrow their governments. When Hungarians revolted in 1956, many counted on help from the United States and complained bitterly that Radio Liberty had raised their expectations. The station's broadcasts grew more cautious after Soviet tanks crushed the revolt.

In the 1980s, with the sharpening of the Cold War, the USIA received a billion-dollar budget to support new programs such as Worldnet television broadcasts. From 1983 to 1986, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean was directed by Otto J. Reich, who reported to the National Security Council. Reich used white, gray, and black propaganda techniques to try to reverse the negative media coverage of the Reagan administration's policies in Central America, where Washington supported regimes with poor human rights records in El Salvador and Guatemala and underwrote the counterrevolutionary Contra forces seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. His staff of psychological warfare specialists from the CIA and the Pentagon claimed credit for placing ghost-written op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post and intervening with editorial offices at CBS and NBC News and National Public Radio to alter their coverage of Central America. Reich's office spread the rumor that reporters who wrote articles critical of the Contras had been bribed by Sandinista agents with sexual favors, and his staff orchestrated a smear campaign linking the Sandinistas to anti-Semitism. The nonpartisan General Accounting Office later found that Reich's office "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities."

Since 1985, radio and later television broadcasts have been beamed to Cuba by a government station named after nineteenth-century Cuban independence hero José Martí. Radio Martí and TV Martí largely adhered to VOA standards of objectivity until 1998, when pressure from Cuban exile political organizations led VOA to move the station from Washington to Miami, where it came under the influence of hard-line exile activists. The subsequent change in tone of the broadcasts led Senate critics to call the program an embarrassment to the United States, and listenership inside Cuba fell to an estimated level of eight percent.

The Gulf War

The end of the Cold War reduced the emphasis on propaganda broadcasts to Eastern Europe, but the military continued to apply psychological warfare during armed conflicts. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. military dropped some 29 million leaflets over Iraqi lines, and used radio and loudspeaker teams to urge enemy soldiers to surrender. Army officers tightly restricted access to the battlefield, guiding "pools" of journalists to approved sites for supervised reporting. The Pentagon provided compelling video footage to news organizations, famously demonstrating the capabilities of "smart bombs" that accurately hit their targets without causing collateral damage. Only after the war was it revealed that "smart" weapons made up a small fraction of the bombs dropped on Iraq. Covert CIA broadcasts to Iraq urged the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south to rise up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but drew criticism when the revolts took place and were swiftly crushed without U.S. interference.


Green, Fitzhugh. American Propaganda Abroad. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Jackall, Robert, ed. Propaganda. New York: New York University, 1995.

Schlesinger, Stephen, and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.

Shulman, Holly Cowan. The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Wagnleitner, Reinhold. Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War. Translated by Diana M. Wolf. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1994.

Max PaulFriedman

See alsoIntelligence, Military and Strategic ; Psychological Warfare ; World War I ; World War II .

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Propaganda refers to the use of communication techniques to affect peoples thinking and behavior. Any technique or action that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, values, beliefs, or actions of a group can be described as propaganda. Typically, propaganda benefits the sponsor and puts the interests of the sponsor above those of the recipient. As an instrument of persuasion and psychological coercion, it seeks to compel the recipient to submit to the will of the sponsor. Propaganda is thus different from education, which seeks to develop independent thinking, and from information, which is based on objective facts.

Many practitioners of propaganda have insisted that they merely transmit education and information. Other euphemisms they use to describe their trade include public relations, public affairs, public communication, public information, public diplomacy, psychological warfare, psychological operations (or psyops), and communication. At the end of the twentieth century the word spin became a popular and somewhat derogatory euphemism for propaganda.

Propaganda does not necessarily include lies, as many people believe. Often, propaganda involves truthful statements that are presented, or twisted, to serve the interests of the sponsor. In addition, propaganda is not always verbal: Although speeches, articles, leaflets, books, and rhetorical ploys are common forms of propaganda, so too are photographs, films, music, monuments, currency, flags, parades, and symbols. Propaganda also can include deedsactions calculated to have an impact on the perceptions of others.

Today the word propaganda has a negative connotation, but originally it was a Latin term referring to the reproduction of plants and animals. It developed a positive religious association in the seventeenth century, when Pope Gregory XIII created a commission of cardinals (de propaganda fide ) to spread the Catholic faith in foreign lands. In the next century some English speakers began to use propaganda to refer to the spread of political ideals, though not necessarily in a negative way. Many people continue to use the word propaganda in a political context, but propaganda need not be a product of a government or political organization. The advertising and public relations industries, for example, conduct propaganda on behalf of businesses and other nongovernmental organizations.

As a technique of persuasion, propaganda has been a feature of human life since the first civilizations were founded. The scope and intensity of propaganda, however, increased dramatically in twentieth century. As the communication and information revolutions gathered steam, governments, businesses, interest groups, and revolutionaries turned increasingly to propaganda to advance their agendas in a crowded marketplace of ideas. At the turn of the twentieth century many elite observers expressly advocated the use of propaganda as an instrument of social control. Theorists such as Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) and Walter Lippmann (18891974) issued alarmist warnings of a coming age of mass society. Fearing that an uninformed public (which they called the herd) would undo the social fabric of society, they suggested that elites should manipulate images and symbols to control the masses.

World War I marked an especially notable turning point in the history of propaganda. It was widely perceived as a total war: an all-encompassing battle for national survival that demanded the mobilization of all the nations resources. All the major governments involved in the conflict developed propaganda bureaus to mobilize their publics for total war. The armies of the belligerents also developed sophisticated techniques of psychological warfare to demoralize enemy soldiers. Much of the wars propaganda consisted of wild exaggerations, crude images, and stories of atrocities. Warring governments played up nationalistic and patriotic sentiments while at the same time demonizing their enemies as barbaric savages. One of the most famous propaganda episodes of the war was a fabricated story circulated by British agents claiming that Germans were using human corpses to make soap. When the United States joined the war on the side of the Allies in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson added a peculiarly idealistic character to the propaganda by selling the war as a fight for democracy that would end all wars.

In the aftermath of World War I popular suspicion of propaganda as a technique increased, and many ordinary people came to use the word propaganda as a synonym for lies. The negative connotation was furthered by the conspicuous use of propaganda by totalitarian and fascist regimes in the 1920s and 1930s. The communist government in the Soviet Union, the fascist government in Italy, and the National Socialist regime in Germany all relied on propaganda techniques to come to power, to legitimize their rule, and to facilitate expansionist ventures abroad.

World War I also helped to stimulate the professionalization of propaganda techniques in democracies. The public relations and advertising professions ballooned into massive independent industries in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the leaders in these fields developed their expertise working for government propaganda bureaus during the war. Additionally, more and more academic researchers began conducting serious social science investigations into the management of public opinion. World War II and the Cold War accelerated this trend by funneling money into the scholarly field of communication which emerged, in large part, from government-sponsored research into public opinion management.

Perhaps the most famous propagandist in history was Joseph Goebbels (18971945), who disseminated Adolf Hitlers doctrine of racial supremacy in Nazi Germany. But probably the most influential propagandist was an American: Edward Bernays (18911995), the so-called father of public relations. By his example and through his many writingsincluding the still-consulted Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928)Bernays established the core principles that continue to be used in propaganda and public relations to this day.

Although the development of propaganda in the twentieth century was tied instrumentally to warfare and national security causes, propaganda techniques have become a reality of modern life. Few political leaders, celebrities, interest groups, businesses, and organizations go without an image advisor, public relations counselor, or spokespersonall effectively propagandists working to advance the causes of their sponsors.

SEE ALSO Advertising; Persuasion; Persuasion, Message-based; Politics


Bernays, Edward. 1923. Crystallizing Public Opinion. New York: Boni and Liveright.

Bernays, Edward. 1928. Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright.

Ewen, Stuart. 1996. PR!: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books.

Taylor, Philip M. 1990. Munitions of the Mind: War Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Nuclear Age. Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.: William Collins Sons and Company.

Thomson, Oliver. 1999. Easily Led: A History of Propaganda. Thrupp, Stroud, U.K.: Sutton.

Kenneth Osgood

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propaganda, systematic manipulation of public opinion, generally by the use of symbols such as flags, monuments, oratory, and publications. Modern propaganda is distinguished from other forms of communication in that it is consciously and deliberately used to influence group attitudes; all other functions are secondary. Thus, almost any attempt to sway public opinion, including lobbying, commercial advertising, and missionary work, can be broadly construed as propaganda. Generally, however, the term is restricted to the manipulation of political beliefs. Although allusions to propaganda can be found in ancient writings (e.g., Aristotle's Rhetoric), the organized use of propaganda did not develop until after the Industrial Revolution, when modern instruments of communication first enabled propagandists to easily reach mass audiences. The printing press, for example, made it possible for Thomas Paine's Common Sense to reach a large number of American colonists. Later, during the 20th cent., the advent of radio and television enabled propagandists to reach even greater numbers of people. In addition to the development of modern media, the rise of total warfare and of political movements has also contributed to the growing importance of propaganda in the 20th cent. In What Is To Be Done? (1902) V. I. Lenin emphasized the use of "agitprop," a combination of political agitation and propaganda designed to win the support of intellectuals and workers for the Communist revolution. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini also used propaganda, especially in oratory, to develop and maintain the support of the masses. During World War II all the warring nations employed propaganda, often called psychological warfare, to boost civilian and military morale as well as to demoralize the enemy. The U.S. agency charged with disseminating wartime propaganda was the Office of War Information. In the postwar era propaganda activities continue to play a major role in world affairs. The United States Information Agency (USIA) was established in 1953 to facilitate the international dissemination of information about the United States. Radio Moscow, Radio Havana, and The Voice of America are just three of the large radio stations that provide information and propaganda throughout the world. In addition, certain refinements of the propaganda technique have developed, most notably brainwashing, the intensive indoctrination of political opponents against their will.

See J. Ellul, Propaganda (1965, repr. 1973); T. C. Sorensen, The Word War (1967); T. J. Smith II, ed., Propaganda (1989).

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prop·a·gan·da / ˌpräpəˈgandə/ • n. 1. chiefly derog. information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view: he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda. ∎  the dissemination of such information as a political strategy: the party's leaders believed that a long period of education and propaganda would be necessary . 2. (Propaganda) a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.

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propaganda originally (as Propaganda) a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. The word is Italian and comes from modern Latin congregatio de propaganda fide ‘congregation for propagation of the faith’.

In the early 20th century what is now the main current sense developed: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

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526. Propaganda

  1. Axis Sally [Mildred Elizabeth Sisk, (1900) or Rita Louise Zucca, (1912)] Nazi broadcaster who urged American withdrawal from WWII. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 449]
  2. Haw-Haw, Lord (William Joyce, 19061946) British citizen becomes German propagandist in WWII. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1435]
  3. Tokyo Rose (Iva Ikuko Toguri DAquino, 1916) Japanese broadcaster who urged U.S. troops to surrender during WWII. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 449]

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propaganda Systematic manipulation of public opinion through the communications media. Although examples are found in ancient and early modern writings, the most effective propagandists in the 20th century have been totalitarian governments of industrialized states, which are able to control all means of public communication. Many political, economic and social organizations, and pressure groups of all kinds employ some kind of propaganda.

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propaganda committee of cardinals charged with the foreign missions of the Church XVIII; systematic scheme for the dissemination of a doctrine or practice XIX. — It. (Sp., Pg.) propaganda, extracted from the modL. title congregatio de propaganda fide congregation for propagating the faith; fem. gerundive of L. prōpāgāre PROPAGATE.

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Propaganda. The ‘Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples or for the Propagation of the Faith’. It is concerned with Roman Catholic missions in non-Christian territories and the administration of the Church where there is no established hierarchy.

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propagandaadder, bladder, khaddar, ladder, madder •Esmeralda, Valda •scaffolder • lambda •Amanda, Aranda, Baganda, Banda, brander, candour (US candor), coriander, dander, expander, gander, germander, goosander, jacaranda, Leander, Luanda, Lysander, meander, memoranda, Menander, Miranda, oleander, panda, pander, philander, propaganda, Rwanda, sander, Skanda, stander, Uganda, understander, Vanda, veranda, withstander, zander •backhander • Laplander • stepladder •inlander • outlander • Netherlander •overlander • gerrymander •pomander •calamander, salamander •bystander •ardour (US ardor), armada, Bader, cadre, carder, cicada, Dalriada, enchilada, Garda, gelada, Granada, Haggadah, Hamada, intifada, lambada, larder, Masada, Nevada, panada, piña colada, pousada, promenader, retarder, Scheherazade, Theravada, Torquemada, tostada •Alexander, commander, demander, Lahnda, slander •Pravda • autostrada

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