views updated May 23 2018


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.


views updated May 21 2018



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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views updated Jun 11 2018



David F. Herr


Carol Brennan


Carol Brennan


Stephen Rockenbach


George A. Milite

Propaganda: An Overview

The American Civil War gave rise to rich and diverse propaganda, although in neither the Union nor the Confederacy was much of this propaganda generated by the government directly, aside from speeches by their respective presidents. Unlike governments in subsequent wars, both sides dedicated the bulk of their attempts at persuasion to international lobbying, rather than focusing on the home front. There was, however, no shortage of propagandistic rhetoric from politicians seeking election, newspaper editors and reporters, and assorted public speakers. The South's changing fortunes during the war limited the amount of propaganda it produced. Whereas there were close to 800 daily papers published in the South in 1860, there were at best twenty by the end of the war.

The influence of nongovernmental propaganda was complex and significant. During the 1863 New York City draft riots, for example, Republican newspapers played a pivotal role when they fixed blame for the riots on New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who had delivered a series of speeches attacking emancipation and conscription. In the South during the closing years of the war, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, increasingly became a reviled figure once Southern editors turned their vitriol against him. They repeatedly accused him of choosing poor generals and meddling in military affairs.

Newspaper editorialists both North and South were perhaps the most significant contributors to wartime propagandizing. At the same time, they also criticized the practice: "It is impossible to condemn too strongly," the Newark, New Jersey, Daily Advertiser exclaimed in January 1861, "the pestiferous inventions and exaggerations of reckless political gossips and paid letter-writers, whom the times have hatched into being." The problem was not merely the dishonesty of the propaganda, but its results. The stories had, the Advertiser asserted, "a tendency to take the bread out of the mouths of thousands, and in the end to endanger the Union everywhere and bring anarchy itself in their train" (Smith 1948, p. 1,043). The Daily Picayune of New Orleans spoke in equally harsh terms against anti-Confederate propaganda, labeling some newspapers, "atrabilious sheets, whose columns are blackened by detraction and scandal—whose mission is to misrepresent and slander" (Dumond 1964 [1931], p. 487).

Diverse Expression

The unexpected ferocity of the fighting during the war's early stages and the conflict's profound implications quickly gave rise to an abundance of varied propaganda. Newspapers were by far the most common medium. Nineteenth-century papers were overtly political and built their readership through allegiance to specific party politics. Their appeal to the masses was limited until the 1830s. Reliable steam-powered cylinder presses helped create the era of the "penny press" by the late 1830s. The inexpensive papers' new audience was less interested in political diatribe, and newspapers, including the New York Herald, responded by beginning to publish sensational stories about crimes and scandals. The Civil War proved a desirable topic and the papers provided coverage of the fighting, as well as editorials on the actions of both governments. Many papers also included poetry from poets and amateurs alike, as well as directly propagandistic political cartoons. Readership was large in urban regions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans subscribed to Harper's Weekly, for example. Although Southern subscriptions rates are more difficult to determine, many Confederates regularly read Southern Illustrated News and the Magnolia Weekly.

One reason the warring governments may not have felt compelled to produce their own domestic propaganda was the effort of private citizens. Historian George Winston Smith (1948) argues that the various clubs and organizations in New England that reproduced editorials for wide dissemination as broadsides played a significant role shaping public opinion. Boston businessman John Murray Forbes, for example, began in 1862 to have newspapers reprint editorials at his expense for distribution to Massachusetts troops and residents. Northern pamphleteering was also significant. Union Leagues and pamphlet societies distributed millions of propaganda pamphlets throughout the war. The South had a tradition of outspoken public speakers, and many of these men employed their rhetoric skills during the sectional conflict. These "fire eaters" were wealthy, powerful men who took every opportunity to disseminate their propaganda. They included large planters like Robert Barnwell Rhett and Edmund Ruffin, and the newspaper editor and lawyer William Lowndes Yancey.

Literature was another popular form of war propaganda. New fiction genres focused on the war included stories of women defending the home front, tales of boy's adventures supporting the war, and stories about the opposing side. Harriet Beecher Stowe introduced what proved to be the most enduring of the fictional works used propagandistically almost a decade before the fighting: Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. Stowe effectively captured the inhumanity of slavery, and her book became wildly popular; more than three hundred thousand copies were printed between 1852 and 1853 alone. Almost 8,000 more were printed during the war.

Poetry and music were also effective media for propaganda and may have surpassed newspapers and broadsides in their reach. Easily learned and passed on orally, songs and poetry about the war were enormously popular on both sides. The message was rarely subtle, as reflected in the opening lines of a poem by George H. Miles:

God save the South!

God save the South!

Her altars and firesides—

God save the South!

Now that the war is nigh—

Now that we arm to die—

Chanting—our battle-cry,

Freedom or Death! (Miles 1866)

Northern poetry was similarly direct, as evidenced by these lines from Caroline A. Mason's poem, "God Bless Abraham Lincoln":

God bless him—with a large increase,

With righteousness that shall not cease,

With wisdom and His "perfect peace." (Mason 1864)

While much of the most famous poetry and song from the Civil War years may not be overtly propagandistic, authors nonetheless frequently tried to convey that the cause they championed was great and its heroes admirable. Sidney Lanier's poem "The Dying Words of Stonewall Jackson" paints a heroic image, as does Walt Whitman's homage to Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!" John Savage's "Dixie" takes the Confederate song and makes it a Union cheer, with such lines as, "Oh, the Starry flag is the flag for me; 'Tis the flag of life, 'tis the flag of the free" (Hill 1990, p. 222). People on both sides drew from a wealth of similar material as they sought to apprehend their place in the conflict.

The Meaning of Propaganda

Propagandists of all stripes invoked a wide range of emotionally charged topics in their attempts to incite or persuade, including nationalism, nation-making, the Constitution, the fighting, race, gender, and patriotism. While almost every aspect of the war was the subject of propaganda, the most popular forms were driven in part by the desires of the audience and the context of the moment. Shortly after Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter, the focus of propaganda shifted to addressing the implications of war. Following the Union retreat at Shiloh, Confederate propagandists began to crow about imminent victory. Each battle or political move generated the next wave of propagandistic material.

Studies of newspaper editorials during the period leading to war reveal that the most divisive issue was slavery. Slavery was either seen as a challenge to the notion of liberty, or as an institution that needed to be protected if the rights of individuals (individual property owners, that is) were to be affirmed. On both sides of the argument, propagandists placed the survival of the country in the balance. Both sides turned to the Revolutionary generation for inspiration. Increasingly, propagandists claimed that their side was the true inheritor of the American Revolution, whereas their opponents desired a society antithetical to the values the Revolution embodied.

During the war, both sides experienced a shift away from blind public support. New debates arose as a result of wartime deprivation and, for the South, the increasing uncertainty of victory. Peace movements launched their own propagandistic efforts and the press in North and South freely criticized the policies of their respective governments. While there was some government censorship, the trend was more toward restraint. War correspondents were a new type of journalist, and enjoyed almost unlimited access to the military. In fact, correspondents were often present when commanders discussed strategy. Some reporters were even used by the military to communicate orders. Despite this unfettered access, the quality of war reporting was often poor. The style of reporting was propagandistic, not objective. Southern reporters tended to exaggerate the size of the enemy forces, whereas Northern reporters sometimes claimed victory even when the Union lost. The press on both sides was fond of evaluating the performance of prominent generals. Reporters praised their victories or castigated them for losses. One of the Confederacy's most unpopular generals, Braxton Bragg, was notorious for his dislike of war reporters.

The absence of extensive government propaganda efforts and the proliferation of organized civilian efforts make Civil War propaganda quite different from that seen in later conflicts. Rather than centralized control aimed at shaping ideas about a conflict, the Civil War period featured many voices and little repression of critical views.


Cullop, Charles P. Confederate Propaganda in Europe, 1861–1865. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1969.

Dumond, Dwight Lowell. Southern Editorials on Secession. New York and London: Century Company, 1931. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Freidel, Frank, ed. Union Pamphlets of the Civil War, 1861–1865. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Hill, Lois, ed. Poems and Songs of the Civil War. New York: Gramercy Books, 1990.

Mason, Caroline A. "God Bless Abraham Lincoln." In Personal and Political Ballads, ed. Frank A. Moore. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1864. Available on-line from

Miles, George H. "God Save the South." In War Poetry of the South, ed. William Gilmore Simms. New York: Richardson & Company, 1866. Available online from

Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690–1960. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Perkins, Howard Cecil. Northern Editorials on Secession, vol. 2. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1942. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964.

Smith, George Winston. "Broadsides for Freedom: Civil War Propaganda in New England." New England Quarterly 21, no. 3. (1948): 291–312.

Stevenson, Louise L. "Virtue Displayed: The Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom's Cabin." In Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive. Available from

Winship, Michael. "Uncle Tom's Cabin: History of the Book in the Nineteenth-Century United States." In Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive. Available from http://

David F. Herr

Rallies, Lectures, and Speeches

During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate sides actively marshaled support for their respective cases through rallies, lectures, and speeches. At these frequently well-attended events, impassioned orators either condemned slavery and the treasonous secession of the Confederate states, or affirmed the South's moral justifications for slavery and its right to secede in order to continue its way of life. Celebrated orators such as Edward Everett and Frederick Douglass drew large crowds, but so too did various politicians, ministers, and other notables.

Edward Everett

In the cities and towns of the Union side, mass meetings were frequently held to rally patriotic support for the war. The famed orator Edward Everett—a former governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard College, and one of the most respected Whig Party politicians of his era—was the most sought-after speaker at such events. In November 1863, Everett spoke at the dedication of a Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of terrible Union losses earlier that year:

And now, friends, fellow-citizens, as we stand among these honored graves, the momentous question presents itself, Which of the two parties to the war is responsible for all this suffering, for this dreadful sacrifice of life, —the lawful and constituted government of the United States, or the ambitious men who have rebelled against it? …I call the war which the Confederates are waging against the Union a "rebellion," because it is one, and in grave matters it is best to call things by their right names. I speak of it as a crime, because the Constitution of the United States so regards it, and puts "rebellion" on a par with "invasion." The constitution and law, not only of England, but of every civilized country, regard them in the same light; or rather they consider the rebel in arms as far worse than the alien enemy. To levy war against the United States is the constitutional definition of treason, and that crime is by every civilized government regarded as the highest which citizen or subject can commit. (Everett 1864, p. 61)

His speech was two hours in length, but was followed by President Abraham Lincoln's far briefer, yet also eloquent, the Gettysburg Address. Everett's words, however, were characteristically forceful and stirring, and widely reprinted in Union newspapers of the day.

Frederick Douglass

One of the most popular figures on the Northern lecture circuit was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and America's most famous abolitionist in the years leading up to the war. Douglass published a series of newspapers and journals, and during the war his editorial writings took up the Union cause and advocated for the abolition of slavery. These writings also shaped his lectures, including one event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May 1863, titled "What Shall Be Done with the Negro?" This speech gives a sense of Douglass's stirring oratorical powers:

Our answer [to the question of what should be done with the slaves] is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs. Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone…. Let us stand upon our own legs, work with our own hands, and eat bread in the sweat of our own brows. When you, our white fellow-countrymen, have attempted to do anything for us, it has generally been to deprive us of some right, power or privilege which you yourself would die before you would submit to have taken from you. (Douglass 1975, p. 164)

Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the authorization of new Union Army regiments for black soldiers, Douglass became an ardent recruiter of blacks for the Union side.

Recruitment Rallies

Recruitment rallies in general—such as those occurring during a massive recruitment drive in Boston, Massachusetts, during the spring and summer of 1862—were a commonplace event in many cities during the first years of the war (O'Connor 1997, p. 101). The Boston effort, a response to President Lincoln's call for 600,000 more troops, kicked off in August with a major rally at Faneuil Hall, during which a brass band playing military marches and hymns. This was followed by a weeklong drive in which recruiters canvassed the city and set up recruiting tents on busy street corners. During the final week of the August drive, all stores and businesses closed at 2 p.m. and a festive atmosphere overtook the city. Large crowds turned out for the daily rallies in which local politicians and military officials urged the men of Massachusetts to join the Union fight. The jubilant mood of the city got a bit out of control at times, as when crowds pumped up with patriotic fervor tossed bricks through the windows of businesses that had not closed promptly at 2 p.m.

Southern Ministers

In the Confederate states, lectures were a popular draw in cities, many of which were suffering severe economic hardships, including a lack of food. In the final year of the war, these speeches increased in number as local officials and church pastors sought to bolster the spirits of an increasingly hard-pressed civilian population. Often, the ideals of the American Revolution were invoked, because patriotic sentiment in the Confederacy rallied around the belief that the secessionist states were battling the tyranny of a larger power, much as the original thirteen colonies had fought for their independence from England. In a somewhat ironic twist, some members of the British aristocracy supported the Confederate cause.

Sermons were also an occasion to provide justifica-on for the preservation of slavery. In Savannah, Georgia, a minister named Stephen Elliott delivered a sermon on September 18, 1862, which Jefferson Davis had proclaimed as a day of thanksgiving throughout the Confederacy for battlefield victories at Manassas, Virginia, and Richmond, Kentucky. He was the Episcopal bishop of Florida and subsequently, during the war, the first and only presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. "It is very curious and very striking, in this connexion, to trace out the history of slavery in this country, and to observe God's providential care over it ever since its introduction," noted in his sermon. "Strange to say, African slavery, upon this Continent, had its origin in an act of mercy. The negro was first brought across the ocean to save the Indian from a toil which was destroying him, but while the Indian has perished, the substitute who was brought to die in his place, has lived, prospered and multiplied" (Elliott 1862, pp. 11–12).


Boston Daily Advertiser, August 28, 1862.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers Company, Inc., 1975.

Elliott, Stephen. Our Cause in Harmony with the Purposes of God in Christ Jesus. Savannah, GA: Power Press of John M. Cooper, 1862.

Everett, Edward, and Abraham Lincoln. Address of Hon. Edward Everett, at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, 19th November 1863. Boston: Little, Brown, 1864.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

New York Times, May 16, 1863.

O'Connor, Thomas H. Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Carol Brennan

Political Humor and Cartoons

The American Civil War witnessed the rise of searing political humor featured on the pages of scores of new newspapers founded in the mid-nineteenth century. Much of the humor took the form of cartoons, which merged opinion with visual artistry and, in the North, helped shape public opinion against the war. In an era entirely devoid of electronic media, such propagandatinged images were crucial to marshalling public sentiment.

Thomas Nast

In 1857 the New York publishing house Harper and Brothers launched a new illustrated publication called Harper's Weekly, which was modeled after the highly successful British publication, the Illustrated London News. Though Harper's Weekly was focused on New York City, it was also widely read in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington; and in the first months of the war it experienced circulation peaks as high as 115,000 copies per issue (Fahs 2003, p. 42). In 1862 Harper's Weekly rehired a young German-born illustrator named Thomas Nast (1840–1902), who had spent the past three years working for other publications. Considered the father of American political cartooning, Nast produced scores of images for Harper's Weekly, many of which appeared on its cover.

Just twenty-two years old in 1862, Nast, as an immigrant, had experienced difficulties in school during his early teen years. He was believed to be functionally illiterate, at least in English, his second language. He was, however, a talented artist, and his pictorial illustratitions of Civil War battles and the evils of slavery spoke to a nation of new immigrants like himself, many of whom possessed the same limited English-language skills. Nast was an ardent supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, and was committed to the Union cause—personal beliefs that were reflected in his illustrations. These often delivered scathing indictments of Confederate policies, as with two multi-image prints from 1863: "The War in the West, " which depicted the suffering of civilians in border states, including starving women and children, and "Southern Chivalry Dedicated to Jefferson Davis," which showed a Confederate soldier holding the severed head of a Union soldier and Confederate wagons tossing wounded soldiers out onto the roadside to die. Nast was also known for producing battlefield scenes that were epic in scope and rich in detail, such as "Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac" from 1863, in which the line of soldiers appears to stretch on into infinity. Such images stirred patriotic sentiment and helped boost public support for the war, despite the terrible death toll that was rising daily by that time, and they thus became invaluable tools of wartime propaganda.

Railing against Copperhead Perfidy

Nast produced scathing satirical images critiquing Northern opponents of the war, who were known as Copperheads, and also as Peace Democrats. This faction—considered somewhat allied with their Democratic Party brethren in the South—advocated an immediate end to the war. One famous image by Nast was used for a much-circulated anti-Copperhead leaflet called A Traitor's Peace. Published by the Congressional Union Committee of Washington, DC, its front page featured Nast's illustration of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis standing triumphant on a Union grave, accepting the bowing gratitude of a Union Army soldier who was missing part of his lower leg. Underneath Nast's image were conditions for peace taken directly from a Richmond newspaper, which called for the withdrawal of all troops from Confederate states, and the warning, "so surely shall we make [the North] pay our war debt, though we wring it out of their hearts" (Wagner 2006, page for April 20).

The Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who in later years would become a close personal friend of Nast, once famously described him as the one person most responsible for the preservation of the Union. President Lincoln also spoke highly of Nast and his work, once calling him "our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce" (Heidler 2002, p. 1,390). During Lincoln's 1864 bid for reelection, Nast's pen produced several images for Harper's Weekly that derided the Copperheads, who were Lincoln's most important political opponents, and who were exerting their influence on the presidential campaign of Lincoln's Democratic Party challenger, a Union Army general named George McClellan. In one of Nast's most famous cartoons of the era, "How Copperheads Obtain Their Votes," Nast depicted Copperheads in a cemetery at night copying names from the headstones onto voting ballots. The Copperhead peace movement in the North incited such forceful public opposition that McClellan was eventually forced to recant his position on the matter of ending the war before a Union victor.

Union Abolitionist Sentiment

Another well-known work of Nast's was "Emancipation," from 1865. In this multi-image piece, vignettes juxtapose African American life in the slave-owning Confederate South with hopes for a life of freedom and dignity in the North. The anchor image is a multigenerational family scene in which several blacks gather around a wood-burning stove marked Union. A portrait of Lincoln is visible in the home, and is repeated elsewhere on the page. Scenes depicting the barbarity of bondage, such as fugitive slave hunts and slave auctions, contrast with images of a former slave in the North being paid wages and a black mother sending her children to school.

Nast was not the only political cartoonist who gained prominence during the war years, though he remains the best known. Besides Harper's Weekly, another publication that published strong pro-Union cartoons was the New York Illustrated News. The New York City printing house of Nathanial Currier and James Merritt Ives also produced scores of propagandistic images. Currier and Ives's immense factory turned out hundreds of hand-colored lithographs that were the mid-nineteenth-century version of poster art for the home. During the war years these lithographs often contained strongly pro-Union imagery, as with one from 1861, The Dis-United States, Or the Southern Confederacy, which shows prominent figures from the first six states to secede from the Union. The figures representing Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are seated on bales of cotton, while the one representing Louisiana sits astride a barrel of liquor, the one representing Florida sits in a canoe, and, most prominently, Francis Pickens, representing South Carolina, the initiator of secession, is seated atop the back of a kneeling slave (Wagner 2006, page for January 19).

Southern Political Humor

Political humor was far less developed in the Confederate states than in the North. Wartime shortages meant a drastically reduced stock of ink and newsprint, and many publications struggled to stay afloat. Because of this scarcity, few publishers had funds to pay established professional writers and artists. Many publications, such as the Southern Illustrated News and Magnolia Weekly, relied on reader submissions to fill their pages, and, indeed, in the first half of the war thousands of war poems and hymns to Dixie were sent in every week.

The only Confederate artist to equal Nast's success was Adalbert J. Volck (1828–1912), who like Nast was a German immigrant. Volck, a dentist in Baltimore, produced artwork that was intensely critical of antislavery advocates and of Lincoln. Many of these images were reproduced under Volck's pen name, "V. Blada." One example of Volck's work is Under the Veil—Mokana (1863), which caricatures Lincoln as a female dancer in an Arab harem, and gives him obviously African facial features. This image reflected a belief found in the South that Lincoln was of mixed ancestry. Another of Volck's works was copied from a widely circulated Northern print of Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation, but in Volck's version allegorical details reveal the president to be doing the work of the devil. Volck's Worship of the North (1863) shows Lincoln and several other figures, including a young man who is a sacrificial victim, surrounded by such phrases as "free love," "negro worship," and "socialism." Volck's works, many of which were published via subscription series throughout the South, also included less ferocious, but nevertheless patriotic images. These include Offer of Bells to Be Cast into Cannon (1863), which showed Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy bringing their dismantled church bells to the local forge so that the metal could be used for Confederate Army field weapons.

During the war years, the Atlanta Constitution published regular letters that were the work of the journalist Charles Henry Smith (1826–1903), writing under the pen name "Bill Arp." This weekly feature, which allowed Smith to poke fun at the North using the voice of a typical Confederate, was written in a common Southern vernacular form. The first of these appeared quite early in the war as a letter to "Abe Linkhorn" written by the fictional Arp in response to Lincoln's order for the Southern rebels to disperse. From Rome, Georgia, Arp writes:

Mr. Linkhorn: Sur: These are to inform you that we are all well, and hope these lines may find you in statue ko. We received your proklamation, and as you have put us on very short notis, a few of us have conkluded to write you, and ax for a little more time. The fact is, we are most obleeged to have a few more days, for the way things are happening, it is utterly onpossible for us to disperse in twenty days. Old Virginny, Tennessee, and North Callina, are continually aggravatin us into tumults and carousements, and a body can't disperse until you put a stop to sich onruly con-dukt on their part. (Smith 1903, p. 7)

Smith continued to write a regular feature as Bill Arp even after the war, which permitted him to voice opinions he might not have otherwise been able to express in his position as the mayor of Rome, Georgia. In New York City, Nast went on to further distinguish himself with cartoons that called attention to the rampant municipal corruption in the city under a notorious figure, William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.


Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Heidler, David Stephen, Jeanne T. Heidler, and David J. Coles. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Smith, Charles Henry. Bill Arp from the Uncivil War to Date, 1861–1903. 2nd ed. Atlanta, GA: Hudgins Publishing Company, 1903.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. Jackson, TN: Westview Press, 1997.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Wagner, Margaret E. The American Civil War: 365 Days. New York: Harry N. Abrams/Library of Congress, 2006.

Carol Brennan

Biased Newspaper Reporting

Newspapers performed the vital task of providing civilians and soldiers with information about military events, politics, and the home front. Most small rural communities had at least one newspaper, and large cities, such as New York, had several. Civil War-era newspapers, however, were quite forthright about their biases. Many editors were politicians or had political aspirations. Editors usually supported a particular political party, resulting in the reporting of most news from a single political view. A few editors considered their newspapers to be neutral, but the common practice of the day was to editorialize on recent events instead of simply conveying the facts. The political impact of newspapers was most evident during the secession crisis, but throughout the Civil War editors fought their own rhetorical battles over the war's conduct. Although there were fewer newspapers in the South, newspapers both North and South fueled political debates and offered social commentary. During the war people in the Union and the Confederacy read newspapers not only to become informed, but also to form their own opinions on controversial topics such as emancipation, military strategies, and political leadership.

The bias in newspaper reporting often resulted from editors establishing newspapers with the purpose of representing a particular political or social perspective. There were abolitionist newspapers, such as William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) Liberator, foreign language newspapers, including German newspapers in most Northern cities, and papers that supported various political parties. During the war most Northern newspapers aligned with either the Republican and Democratic parties. With their particular points of view, newspapers served as a forum for political debate. Many editors were more concerned about shaping public opinion than on reporting what happened.

Newspapers varied in size and circulation. Horace Greely's (1877–1970) New York Tribune boasted a circulation of 55,000, whereas a typical rural newspaper would have only a few hundred. All newspaper editors, however, read and printed news from other papers, often responding to other editorials. They would also sometimes print unsubstantiated information or rumor, correcting any errors later, if at all.

Wartime Correspondents

The desire for information led larger newspapers to hire correspondents to travel in search of newsworthy information. Some of these men followed the armies, and on several occasions these reporters, or "specials" as they were called, witnessed battles firsthand and wrote reports. Correspondents, however, could only report on what they witnessed or were told, which often caused the newspapers to print misinformation. A reporter who witnessed the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 (also known as First Manassas) returned to Washington, DC, before the battle had ended, mistakenly spreading the news of a Union victory. Based on these early reports, New York newspapers announced the "glorious Union victory" the day after the battle. As J. Cutler Andrews relays in his 1955 work The North Reports the Civil War, other newspapers were able catch the error before they went to press and were then able to print the correct account of the disastrous Union defeat. Even correspondents who took the time to check their facts often gave overly optimistic and ingratiating accounts of the Union army and its officers. Because reporters relied on officers as a source of information, some newsmen found that they could gain access to the armies if they frequently spoke well of military men in their articles.

Union Newspapers

In addition to providing the public with information, newspapers could also affect shape public opinion and affect politics. Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune, initially supported President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), but as the war continued Greely went on to criticize Lincoln's leadership and the military situation. He condemned Lincoln for taking so long to develop an emancipation policy, but also rebuked Lincoln for not seeking a peace treaty with the Confederacy. Greely's criticism was not consistent or along party lines, but may be attributed to the Lincoln's decision to appoint one of Greely's political enemies, William H. Seward, as Secretary of State.

Lincoln understood that editors played an important role in politics and public opinion. He made a concerted effort to correspond with James Gordon Bennett (1795–1872), the editor of the New York Herald. Bennett's newspaper had a wide circulation, including overseas subscriptions, and its large professional staff meant that the Herald often had better intelligence than the Union Army. On one occasion the newspaper printed the Confederate Army's muster roll, which the staff meticulously gathered from Confederate newspapers. Unlike Greely, however, Bennett resisted infusing the news with his own political agenda.

Bias was most evident among those editors who opposed the war, known collectively as the Copperhead press. Copperheads were members of the peace faction of the Democratic Party, which opposed Lincoln's wartime policy, especially emancipation, and called for a peaceful restoration of the Union. Some of these editors were simply opposed to the president's decisions, but a few editors made unsubstantiated claims to turn public opinion against the Republican Party. The best example of this political bias occurred after Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. On October 10, 1862, the Cincinnati Enquirer, considered a Copperhead newspaper by local Republicans, declared that "the President's Negro Proclamation, if it can be enforced, will bring hundreds and thousands of negroes into Ohio to compete with the white laboring men." This was a scare tactic aimed at convincing readers to vote for Democrats in upcoming state elections. A New York Copperhead newspaper, the Weekly Caucasian, also used race as a way to sway opinion against emancipation. On October 11, 1862, as Andrew S. Coopersmith recounts in his 2004 work Fighting Words: An Illustrated History of Newspaper Accounts of the Civil War the paper warned readers that if the defenders of slavery were defeated "and the negro distorted into the status of the white man, then liberty and Republican institutions, and civilization itself, will be overthrown" (pp. 106–108). Editors eager to criticize Lincoln also allowed false information to be printed. In 1864 the New York World ran a phony proclamation that indicated President Lincoln was calling for four hundred thousand additional volunteers. The announcement implied that the war was not going well and, in response, military officials temporarily stopped publication of the newspaper.

Newspapers and Secession

Southern newspapers played an important role in the establishment of the Confederacy. During the winter of 1860–1861, southern newspapers provided a forum for the debate over secession. After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, prosecession editors published heated editorials warning that Lincoln's presidency would result in abolition and violence against white southerners. These editors used fear to convince undecided southerners that secession was the only viable course of action. On October 30, 1860, South Carolina's Charleston Daily Courier declared that "if Lincoln is elected there is an end to cotton and all the various advantages that result from it." The editor based his conclusion on the assumption that Lincoln would end slavery and because no free black farmer had been known to grow cotton, the crop would perish.

Secessionist editors openly criticized southern editors who believed that the Union could be preserved or that secession should be organized and gradual. In several cases secessionist editors called for Unionist papers in the south to be banned. South Carolina secessionist William Lowndes Yancey (1814–1863) sent a threatening letter to Unionist editor William G. Brownlow, which Brownlow printed in his paper, the Knoxville Whig. The letter indicated that Yancey believed someone would hang Brownlow in 1861. Brownlow's reply, reprinted by Donald E. Reynolds in his 2006 book Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis, says "come what may, through weal or woe, in peace or war, no earthly power shall keep me from denouncing the enemies of my country" (p. 172). Confederate authorities did eventually capture Brownlow, but he was released and did not return to Knoxville until Union forces occupied the city in 1863.

Confederate Newspapers

In the Confederacy, newspapers reported the progress of the war to people on the home front who were desperate to hear news of Confederate victories. As with Union correspondents, Southern journalists tended to write what they believed people wanted to hear or, rather, what would sell papers. Confederate newspapers often printed stories about how Union soldiers abused southern civilians, although reporters witnessed few of these accounts. Printing stories about the greed or incompetence of "Yankees" helped build morale, so editors freely printed rumors and second-hand stories for the good of the war effort. After the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, the Knoxville Daily Register exaggerated the odds against the Confederate troops by claiming, as J. Cutler Andrews reprints in 1970's The South Reports the Civil War, that the Union "had 200,000 soldiers participating in the battle while the Confederates had only 20,000" (p. 230). In fact, during the battle an estimated 78,000 Confederate soldiers faced approximately 120,000 Union troops, a much smaller disparity than the Register's ten to one odds. Over-exaggerating reports of victories and downplaying defeats did raise morale in the Confederacy, but it also meant that citizens were often misinformed about the prospects for ultimate victory.

The Southern press could also be critical of Confederate political and military leaders. Editors freely commented on the character and performance of generals, especially when these commanders restricted reporters' access to the news. In early 1862 Confederate general Braxton Bragg issued an order excluding correspondents from accompanying his army after he read newspaper accounts that he believed depicted him in a negative way. Bragg's unsuccessful invasion of Kentucky in September 1862 only drew additional criticism from the press. Editor John M. Daniel of the Richmond Examiner wrote about Bragg on November 19, 1862. Andrews reproduces Daniels words in The South Reports the Civil War. "with an iron heart, and iron hand, and a wooden head, his failure in a position where the highest intellectual facilities were demanded was predestined" (p. 253). The negative press coverage drew the attention of Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), who took action to reduce the extent of Bragg's command. Confederacy newspapers also scrutinized Davis's actions. Although there were no competing political parties in the Confederacy, some editors blamed Davis for military losses by claiming that Davis made poor choices when appointing generals.

The Civil War-era press held a substantial amount of influence, but publishing standards of the time also allowed editors to take liberty with the facts. In spite of some efforts by both Union and Confederate governments to censure newspapers, editors openly voiced their opinions about the war. This allowed people access to a wide range of perspectives and created a national forum for discussion of major issues. The extent of bias in Civil War newspaper reporting, however, often contributed to controversy and political division.


Andrews, J. Cutler. The North Reports the Civil War. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1955, reprinted 1985.

Andrews, J. Cutler. The South Reports the Civil War. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, reprinted 1985.

Coopersmith, Andrew S. Fighting Words: An Illustrated History of Newspaper Accounts of the Civil War. New York: New Press, 2004.

Douglas, George H. The Golden Age of the Newspaper. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Harris, Brayton. Blue and Gray in Black and White: Newspapers in the Civil War. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1999.

Ratner, Lorman A., and Dwight L. Teeter Jr. Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Reynolds, Donald E. Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.

Stephen Rockenbach

Party Politics

By the election of 1860, the wheels of secession had been set in motion, and the disputes and rivalries among the major political parties reflected this starkly. The Democratic and Republican parties represented camps that seemed diametrically opposed (with the Republicans opposing slavery and the Democrats accepting it), but within each party were rifts that would grow as the Civil War progressed. Lincoln, the presidential victor, represented the conservative (moderate) Republicans, who wanted to end slavery but favored a gradual end as a means of preserving the Union. The radical Republicans, who counted staunch Northern abolitionists among their ranks, wanted an immediate end to slavery across the nation. The Democrats were split into Northern and Southern factions, with the Southern faction more steadfastly opposed to any government action that could curtail the rights of white citizens to hold slaves as personal property.

Southern and Northern Politics

For the duration of the war the Southern Democrats remained fairly unified, with their key focus on maintaining the Confederacy and the slave economy. The states that made up the Confederacy were not a monolithic entity, however; indeed, little unified them but their commitment to maintaining slavery. President Jefferson Davis led the new government with a strong hand and helped create a centralized government to hold the seceded states together (Catton 1971, pp. 220–221). Moreover, because the Confederate constitution called for the president to serve a single six-year term, Davis had no need to worry about running for reelection.

In the North, politics were different. The Republican National Convention of 1860 in Chicago made the party's position on slavery quite clear: "[W]e brand the recent re-opening of the African Slave Trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity, and a burning shame to our country and age" (Halstead 1860, p. 139). The radical Republicans saw Lincoln as ineffective and they made their disapproval quite plain. Led by politicians, including Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and Ohio's James A. Garfield (later President in his own right), they worked both openly and behind the scenes to push their agenda. Aided by prominent individuals such as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips and New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the radical Republicans sought to exert their influence on the president.

Lincoln, however, was not about to allow the radicals to dictate policy. A practical man who looked toward the longer term, he allied himself with other conservative Republicans, most notably William Seward, who served as his secretary of state. The president wisely chose both radical Republicans and Northern Democrats to fill various cabinet and other government positions. Salmon P. Chase, a radical Republican and self-avowed rival of Lincoln's, was named treasury secretary and later chief justice of the United States. George B. McClellan, a young and brilliant general, was named commander of the Union Army. Edward M. Stanton, who had served in James Buchanan's cabinet, was named Lincoln's secretary of war in 1862.

Pro- and Anti-War Forces Clash

The tensions between pro- and anti-war politicians continued to grow throughout the war. Many political leaders were opposed to slavery, but equally opposed to the bloodshed that seemed to be increasing daily. Moreover, while among the general public the sentiment was decidedly antislavery, many Northerners viewed blacks as an inferior race nonetheless, just as their Southern counterparts did. As the war continued, many white Northerners began to question whether freedom for the slaves was worth the destruction of so many lives. The sentiments expressed by Maine legislator Moses Page in a speech before the state's house of representatives in 1863 were not uncommon: "I think this country was destined for one people, and would have remained ok, had not the fell spirit of abolition crept in and overturned the work of our fathers" (Stout 2006, pp. 279–280).

Democrats split into two factions: the "War Democrats," who supported Lincoln's aims of reunifying the nation, and the "Peace Democrats" (called Copperheads because they wore copper Indian Head pennies on their lapels), who wanted an immediate end to the war—at any price. The Copperheads produced anti-Lincoln propaganda in the form of pamphlets, articles, newspaper advertisements—even songs. One example was a booklet titled The Lincoln Catechism, Wherein the Eccentricities and Beauties of Despotism Are Fully Set Forth, printed in time for the 1864 election. It offered such question-and-answer couplets as, "What did the Constitution mean by freedom of the press? / Throwing Democratic newspapers out of the mails… What is the meaning of the word 'traitor'? / One who is a stickler for the Constitution and the laws" (pp. 4–5).

The 1864 presidential election was viewed as a critical juncture for a country that was war-weary and cynical. Abraham Lincoln was chosen as the candidate for what was dubbed the "Union Party"—made up primarily of Republicans and War Democrats. (Andrew Johnson, his running mate, was a Democrat from Tennessee.) The Copperheads chose General McClellan as their candidate. McClellan, despite his brilliance, had failed to live up to his reputation while on the battlefield and Lincoln had removed him from his command in 1862.

Partisan Activity and the Public

Both sides printed massive quantities of posters, pamphlets, and other documents stating their case and asking the public for support. In Pennsylvania, an estimated 280,000 pieces of political literature were printed (Neely 2006, p. 74). People from all walks of life had strong political opinions and had no trouble making them known. Poet Walt Whitman wrote about visiting a Brooklyn pub in 1864 and seeing a barmaid wearing a McClellan pin. He "called her and asked if the other girls there were for McClellan too—she said yes every one of them, and that they wouldn't tolerate a girl in the place who was not, and the fellows were too" (Neely 2006, p. 1).

In addition to posters, pamphlets, and buttons, Americans could purchase a variety of political memorabilia, either to show support for a particular group or to build up collections. The printing industry was more than accommodating when it came to meeting this need; for example, copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were produced for display in homes. Cartes de visite (small collectible cards not unlike today's baseball cards or postcards) depicting various political figures proved popular collectors' items as well. People purchased cards with portraits of Lincoln, his cabinet, members of Congress, and other leading figures of the war years (Neely 2006, p. 27).

After the election, conservative and radical Republicans continued to attack each other, but the business at hand was now bringing the war to a conclusion and political intrigue was largely kept behind the scenes. When the war ended in April 1865, the radical Republicans wanted strong punitive action taken against the Confederacy, but Lincoln planned for a more moderate approach. His assassination on April 14 made the question moot.


Catton, Bruce. The Civil War. New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Alan T. Nolan, eds. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Halstead, Murat. Caucuses of 1860: A History of the National Political Conventions of the Current Presidential Campaign. Columbus, OH: Follett, Foster & Company, 1860.

The Lincoln Catechism, Wherein the Eccentricities and Beauties of Despotism Are Fully Set Forth: A Guide to the Presidential Election of 1864. New York: J. F. Feeks, 1864.

Neely, Mark E, Jr. The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Schouler, James. Eighty Years of Union, Being a Short History of the United States, 1783–1865. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1903.

Stout, Harry S. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. New York: Viking, 2006.

Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and the Radicals. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1941. Reprint, 1969.

George A. Milite


views updated May 29 2018



The word "propaganda" derives from the Congratio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), an organization established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Its original missionary denotation has been incorporated into modern dictionaries, where it is defined as the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. However, this rather neutral meaning has taken on, in common parlance, a more negative connotation, namely the assumption that disinformation, not information, is at its core.

Propagandistic messages have been a mainstay of films throughout the history of the medium. Mise-en-scène, editing, dialogue, voice-over narration, and music are some of the techniques that impart specific meaning. In short, the aesthetics of the cinema have long been used as powerful tools both to convey and to disguise overt and covert polemical proclamations.


Among the earliest filmmakers to incorporate conscious or unconscious propagandistic messages were the Lumière brothers. In their short film Démolition d'un mur (Demolition of a Wall, 1896), for example, we see the seeds of later, more carefully constructed propaganda. The "boss" in this little film is given narrative and spatial privilege over the workers. Had a socialist made this film, she or he might have emphasized the workers' labor by choosing a camera angle that favored them and their physical efforts rather than their employer's perspective. The boss might have been satirized or portrayed as a tyrant and the workers' endeavors ennobled or depicted as exploited. Other Lumière films depicted dignitaries, parades, the military, fire departments, and the bonhomie of French bourgeois life; throughout, the viewpoint is clearly that of the self-satisfied industrialist filmmakers, who were comfortable with their class privilege and national identity. By contrast, their contemporary, Georges Méliès (1861–1938), often used fictionalized situations, special effects, and lighting to rigorously deconstruct the bourgeois universe erected in the films of the Lumière brothers and their vision of an orderly universe, which has come to dominate mainstream cinema.

The movie pioneer D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) has often been accused—and rightfully so—of manufacturing propaganda, especially of an antiblack nature, in his Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Birth of a Nation begins with a provocative prologue which explains that the seeds of national discord were sown by the introduction of African slaves into the colonies. Subsequently, the "negroes" (as the film spells it)—most of whom were played by whites in blackface—are portrayed as either savage brutes or fools. Most infamously, Gus leers with animalistic delight at young Flora Cameron and then chases her to her death. Gus is "tried" and lynched by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), his body then dragged through the streets and deposited at a black meeting place. At the film's climax, marauding blacks, intent on rape and murder, surround and attack a cabin that contains "innocent" white people from both the North and South. The message is clear: all whites, from whatever region, should unite against the menace of the freed slaves. The "heroic" Ku Klux Klan comes to the rescue, scattering the black mob and saving the whites. This "rescue" is in sharp contrast to the historical reality of the KKK, whose mission was less to defend the interests of innocent whites than to intimidate and commit violence against innocent blacks.

Griffith's portrayals of African Americans as slow-witted, lazy, or comical are just as stereotyped and prejudicial. During the Reconstruction scenes in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith shows black legislators dressed in clownish clothes and eating and drinking alcohol on the floor of the US House of Representatives. While some of the film's images are supposedly based on photographs of the period, these images of African Americans in The Birth of a Nation convey a clear rhetoric: blacks are irresponsible, unmotivated, and unruly—not capable of holding elective office or even casting a vote.

The Birth of a Nation instantly produced controversy. The NAACP demanded Griffith cut two scenes that depicted white women being molested by rampaging blacks and an epilogue that suggested blacks should be shipped back to Africa. The director grudgingly made these excisions, but many national leaders argued that the film should still be banned. Riots ensued when Birth opened in Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago, and it was banned in at least eight states. Nonetheless, the movie was the most successful of its time—and retained the honor for decades to come. Its nineteenth-century constructions of racial stereotypes were used as recruitment tools for the Ku Klux Klan, and from 1915 to 1940 the Klan's membership grew substantially. It is rare for individual films to have such social impact, but in the case of The Birth of a Nation, the social consequences were apparent.

Immediately after the release of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made Intolerance (1916)—another epic, but with pro-tolerance, pro-labor, and antiwar themes. The film's epilogue contains its most blatant message: world peace will eventually arise out of hate and intolerance. But such sermonizing did not fare well with the public and Intolerance failed at the box office and was banned in several countries. Some of Griffith's earlier films, however, seem to conflict directly with the proslavery message in The Birth of a Nation. A Corner in Wheat (1909), for example, has implications that verge on being socialist. Griffith juxtaposes a breadline scene with a lavish party in the mansion of the Wheat King, who engineered a rise in the price of bread by shrewd stock market deals. This simple contrast cut between the elegance of the rich and the immobility and despairing looks of the poor establishes a potent class analysis. When the Wheat King meets his ironic fate in a grain pit, where he is drowned in the "torrent of golden grain" that made him wealthy, Griffith again cuts to the breadline to compare the stockbroker's excess with the scarcity of the poor. In the end, the downtrodden farmer survives, though further impoverished, while the moneyed get their just desserts.


In other countries, especially the Soviet Union, leaders began to recognize the power of film to influence social and political attitudes. Film production was nationalized in Russia in 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution. "Of all the arts," Vladimir Lenin said, "for us, the cinema is the most important." Documentary and fictional silent films were therefore produced to abet the Leninist cause. Notable examples include Sergei Eisenstein's (1898–1948) Stachka (Strike, 1925), Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (Ten Days that Shook the World and October, 1927); V. I. Pudovkin's (1893–1953) Mat (Mother, 1926) and Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of St. Petersburg, 1927); and Dziga Vertov's (1896–1954) Kino-pravda (CinemaTruth, 1925) and Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929).

Because of the inherent domination of visual images and the illiteracy of a good deal of the Russian peasantry, the silent cinema was an ideal tool for presenting ideas and information about the fall of the czar and the rise of the industrial and agricultural proletariat. The fact that film was a mass medium, reproducible and widely distributable, added to its propagandistic appeal. As in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the hero of these films was often not a lone individual but a social class.

Based on an actual event during the unsuccessful revolution of 1905, Potemkin uses the historical circumstances of a mutiny aboard a ship to make a larger statement about Leninist insurrection. The most famous montage in cinema history—the Odessa Steps sequence—punctuates the film with hundreds of quickly edited shots that plunge the viewer into the midst of a czarist massacre. Although the actual massacre in 1905 occurred on level ground, Eisenstein saw the dramatic (and propagandistic) value of taking artistic liberties. By using the steep steps, Eisenstein was able to sensationalize the helpless entrapment of the fleeing masses as they rushed from the faceless minions of the czar and their rifles. In addition, an establishing shot from above the steps suggests that the fleeing people are visually trapped between the militiamen and the cathedral at the bottom of the steps, making the Marxist point that the Church and State are the enemies of the proletariat. The culmination of the sequence—the "rising" of a statue of a lion (accomplished by editing together images of three separate statues)—was likewise the product of creative license; the three statues were located near Yalta, far from Odessa. Nonetheless, those three quick shots, followed by a cannonade by the Potemkin against the Odessa Opera House, headquarters of the generals, metaphorically mark the masses' outrage at the czar's cruelty.

Later in his career, under the thumb of Josef Stalin and Commissar Boris V. Shumiatski's Socialist Realist policy, Eisenstein was not allowed to make films from 1929 to 1938. Eventually, though, he made three films that used czars as the heroes: Aleksandr Nevskiy (Alexander Nevsky, 1938) and Ivan Groznyy (Ivan the Terrible, parts I (1945) and II (1946, not released until 1958). Whereas Lenin had said that cinema was the most important art, Stalin wrote that "the cinema is the greatest medium of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands." Encouraged to produce epics that extolled the "leader of the Russian people," Eisenstein went back in history to glorify the czars, obvious avatars of Stalin himself.

While Eisenstein was barred from filmmaking, Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) was coming into prominence in Germany. Her landmark propaganda film, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), still provokes controversy. Commissioned by Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Triumph of the Will was meant to be the official documentation of the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. Yet the film also promulgated fascism and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) as the bases for renewed German nationalism and patriotism. Swastikas, eagles, statuary, Sieg Heil gestures, and children predominate as national metonymies.

Although Triumph of the Will was made about the party congress, it does not articulate any specific political policy or ideology. Hitler repeatedly stressed that one could not sway the masses with arguments, logic, or knowledge, only with feelings and beliefs. True to form, the film's "star" has a "cult of personality"—a mystical aura associated with nature, religion, and a "folkish" family-based patriotism. Its heroic leader is connected with the sky, earth, and animals; pagan and Christian religious connotations abound (i.e., cathedrals draped with swastika banners); and flags, parades, torchlight rituals, and military-national symbols dominate the mise-en-scène. Indeed, all the signifying mechanisms of the cinema—camera angles, lighting, editing, set design, and music—were marshaled to appeal to a malleable mass audience.

Triumph of the Will emphasizes optimistic, upbeat, and patriotic themes that reinforce the need for a renewed sense of unity and national identity after a period of economic and political instability. Hitler saw the film as an effective glorification of Nazism, a view reiterated years later by critic Susan Sontag, who wrote that it achieved nothing less than transforming history into theater. Propaganda such as Triumph of the Will mingles historical realities and cultural expression so as to have a tangible material and historical effect on society and social consciousness.

Of course, propaganda has been used in films to promote not only right-wing but left-wing causes. The Spanish Civil War, for example, became the battleground not only of loyalist and fascist ground troops but also of cinematic forces. Joris Ivens's (1898–1989) The Spanish Earth (1937) and Leo Hurwitz's (1909–1991) Heart of Spain (1937) are two notable examples that center on the conflict. In 1935 the Communist International had decreed that no longer was socialism versus capitalism to be the dialectic, but rather, democracy versus fascism. So in an attempt to lead the struggle against the fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco (1892–1975), and to combat his propaganda, Ivens and Hurwitz made impassioned documentary films for the Popular Front cause of the loyalists. Ivens made no secret that his goal was not to portray unvarnished truth, but rather to enhance reality through the techniques of cinema in order to sway people into action.

In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) authorized the building of Cinecittà—a major film production studio—in 1936. The sign above the gate read, "Cinema Is the Strongest Weapon." LUCE (1926–1943) was a state-owned agency, founded by the fascists to produce "educational" and propaganda material for the Italian populace. LUCE made 2,972 weekly newsreels during its existence, most of which focused on Il Duce, military successes, and social progress in Italy under the fascist regime. In addition, the fictional films produced under fascism were highly successful adaptations of Italian novels and "white telephone" films about the bourgeoisie. Protected through strict import quotas, this cultura popolare reflected the cultural mythology of the fascist regime.

To counter Nazi and fascist propaganda and to inspire reluctant, isolationist American troops to fight the Axis powers, the US War Department commissioned the Hollywood director Frank Capra to produce a series of seven films called Why We Fight (1942–1945). One of the cinematic strategies of the series was that the enemies' own words and footage would be used against them; hence, much of the Why We Fight films are compilations of news footage. The themes (Good vs. Evil, Democracy vs. Totalitarianism) and characters (the Leader, Children, the People) were presented, through effective cinematic techniques, to elicit audience identification and involvement as in fiction movies.

The Nazis Strike (1943), for instance, utilized cross-cutting and "creative geography" to create propagandistic meaning. In one scene, dive-bombing German planes are intercut with fleeing civilians and cowering children to suggest that the bombers are menacing the victims

b. Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, Berlin, Germany, 22 August 1902, d. 8 September 2003

Leni Riefenstahl gained international fame in the 1930s as the official filmmaker of the Third Reich. She studied dance in her youth and appeared as an actress in German "mountain films" under the tutelage of Arnold Fanck. While performing in these movies, she learned the art of filmmaking and soon became the director of her own mountain film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), in which she also starred.

Adolf Hitler admired The Blue Light and commissioned Riefenstahl to film the congress of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg in 1934. The result would be her masterpiece and triumph, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935). Multiple cameras were used to powerful effect to lend full cinematic expressivity to the event, sweeping up the viewer in the spectacle. Riefenstahl insisted that Triumph of the Will was not propaganda, claiming "it is history—pure history." Yet the film relies on a nearly constant display of national symbols and mythic iconography to instill a sense of Teutonic grandeur, and her cinematic techniques convey a propagandist message beneficial to the Nazi cause. Indeed, its monumental style seems to convey the essential appeal of the fascist mentality. From its opening, Triumph creates identification with its "hero" by presenting the visual perspective of Hitler from inside his airplane. This "God's-eye" viewpoint is used as the plane parts the clouds (of postwar confusion? of the Weimar Republic?) over Nuremberg and thereby presents Der Führer as a mythic Messiah.

Olympische Spiele 1936 (Olympia, 1936), an ostensibly objective account of athletic competition at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, utilized cinematic techniques to emphasize the German-Axis contestants. The famous diving sequence—with low-angle, slow-motion shots of gravity-defying divers leaping gracefully into the sky—depicts German, Italian, and Japanese competitors from slightly more imposing angles and with more grandiose music. (Riefenstahl's style could not disguise, however, African American Jesse Owens's four gold medal victories in track events.) Through Riefenstahl's camerawork and editing, the divers at times appear to defy gravity and tumble through the air, their athletic bodies—in seeming freefall—serving as a summary image of Riefenstahl's ideal of physical beauty.

Riefenstahl's last feature was Tiefland (Lowland). The filmmaker was accused of using gypsy concentration camp inmates as extras. Filmed during World War II, Tiefland was not released until 1954. By then, Riefenstahl had spent four years in Allied prison camps, undergone denazification, and been acquitted by a German court. In her later years, Riefenstahl became a still photographer, most notably of the African Nuba tribe. In her nineties, she shot stunning underwater scenes of deep-sea flora and even sharks. Despite these apolitical artistic projects, Riefenstahl is best remembered as a political pariah for her propaganda efforts on behalf of the Third Reich.


Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), Olympische Spiele 1936, (Olympia, 1936), Tiefland (Lowland, 1954)


Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Riefenstahl, Leni. The Last of the Nuba. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

——. A Memoir. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism." In Under the Sign of Saturn, 73–105. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.

Tomasulo, Frank P. "The Mass Psychology of Fascist Cinema: Triumph of the Will." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 99–118. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Frank P. Tomasulo

shown. In fact, these events did not occur simultaneously, but footage was cut together in the editing room. Later, we see Nazi soldiers loading howitzers and then the result of their handiwork: civilian areas exploding, a church steeple falling, children fleeing, and dead horses. Such associative editing enhances the portrayal of Germans as evil. Music is also used to accentuate the pro-Allies message; in particular, Chopin's Polonaise accompanies a voice-over narration that states, "Warsaw still resisted [the Nazis]." Later, a funereal passage from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is heard over images of the bodies of dead Poles and their weeping widows. A heroic passage from the same symphony is used over images of Winston Churchill, and an uplifting rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers" is played as the film ends—thereby equating the Allied effort with a religious crusade.


A classic example of the juxtaposition of neutral visuals with ideological commentary is the little-known documentary Operation Abolition (1960), which uses relatively unbiased television newsreel footage of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in San Francisco during 1960 combined with a right-wing narration to excoriate witnesses who refused to testify and the protesters who supported them. As one witness denounces the committee's witch-hunting activities and is summarily escorted out of the chamber, the voice-over refers to the man's cowardice for using the Fifth Amendment; similarly, when protesters are propelled down the steep steps of the city hall by fire hoses, the narrator praises the local gendarmes for performing their legal and civic duties. In 1961 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) produced a two-part remake of Operation Abolition titled Operation Correction, which used much of the same newsreel footage but with a different voice-over. In the ACLU version, the narrator commends the witness who refuses to testify for standing up to the belligerent committee and exercising his constitutional rights; likewise, when the police hurl demonstrators down the steps of city hall, the ACLU voice-over refers to the lawmen as "goons" who are breaking up a peaceful, lawful meeting. In this case, contradictory messages were disseminated by two separate groups to two different political constituencies by using the same visual images; no reediting was even necessary.

The most well-known propaganda film about the HUAC era is Point of Order (1964) by Émile de Antonio (1920–1989), which used kinescopes of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 to show the gradual self-destruction of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) and his red-baiting cause. Although the film begins with an intrusive voice-over—"Everything you are about to see actually happened"—there is no overt authorial voice, music, or cinematic commentary thereafter. However, despite the appearance of neutrality, Point of Order represents a distillation of thirty-six days of testimony into an hour-and-a-half movie. The rhetoric lies in the film's editing, which left a month of footage on the cutting room floor and used footage that both plays up the most dramatic moments of intensity (in particular, Joseph Welch's famous challenge to McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?") and demeans HUAC. While the film uses objective newsreels, they are edited like a legal brief to make an argument: McCarthy was a dangerous fraud and hypocrite, and the HUAC investigations damaged the republic.

As with much propaganda, on first viewing, Alain Resnais's (b. 1922) Nuit et Bruillard (Night and Fog, 1955) may seem to be a highly emotional yet factual film, in this case about the Holocaust. After all, its heart is obviously in the right place. Nonetheless, based on a strict definition of propaganda, Nuit et Bruillard is a propaganda film, for it is only because of the juxtaposition of horrific and peaceful images, poetic narration, and mournful music that viewers develop an empathetic stance. In particular, Resnais edits stark black and white newsreel footage from the 1940s of the Nazi concentration camps, especially of hundreds of emaciated corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave, in conjunction with rich color footage of the camps a decade later—peaceful and serene in their quietude. The director also uses black and white footage of the 1945 Nuremberg trials in which one German leader after another denies responsibility for the genocide and cuts to color footage of the calm green meadows of 1955; on the soundtrack the narrator asks, "Then who is responsible?" while heartbreaking music crescendos. Although the film generally remains distanced from its horrific contents, the finale brings home the propaganda point: that humanity needs to be humanized.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Cubans have been well aware of the power of film propaganda. The Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) took over film production three months after the over-throw of dictator Fulgenico Batista in 1959. Although technically not a state agency, ICAIC emphasized documentary and fictional filmmaking that valorized the ideology and accomplishments of Fidel Castro's regime. Santiago Á lvarez (1919–1998) used Soviet montage style in his documentaries Hanoi, Martes 13 (1967), LBJ (1968), and 79 primaveras (79 Springs 1969). The latter film, for example, a tribute to the life of Ho Chi Minh, opens with an intellectual montage that juxtaposes time-lapse photography of flowers opening with slow-motion footage of US bomb strikes against Vietnam. Later, scenes of American military atrocities are conjoined with newsreel footage of US peace demonstrations, suggesting that the American people are not to blame for the Vietnam War, but its political leaders. In the final scene, Á lvarez uses juxtaposed torn/burned pieces of celluloid, bits of paper, and quickly cut individual frames of film to create an animated montage of attractions further enhanced by music and poems written by Ho Chi Minh and Jose Marti.

Another Cuban, Tomás Guitiérrez Alea (1928–1996), started out by making pro-revolutionary shorts, such as Esta tierra nuestra (This Is Our Land, 1959), for the rebel army's film unit. Later, in fictional feature films such as La Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966) and Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968), Alea critiqued the intellectuals of the Batista bourgeoisie. Still later, Alea made Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1994) whose sympathetic portrayal of Cuba's homosexual community earned it international recognition—yet limited distribution in his homeland. In Lucía (1968), Humberto Solás traced the history of Cuban women through his story of three women named Lucía, living in three different eras. A different cinematic style was used in each episode, although overall the Cuban cinema hews closely to Castro's famous dictum about the arts: "Inside the revolution, all is permitted; outside the revolution, nothing is allowed."

Gillo Pontecorvo (b. 1919) is best known for La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965), a classic example of a fictional film with overt propaganda value. Although an opening credit states that none of the images in the film are real, the movie's cinematic techniques (grainy film stock, hand-held camera, frequent zooms, newsreel style, no expressive lighting, no makeup) suggest the film is presenting the reality of the Algerian revolution. The Algerian government funded the film, but it was later used by many insurgent groups, such as like the Black Panther Party in the United States, to teach urban guerrilla tactics; conversely, the film has been studied often at FBI and CIA headquarters to plan counterterrorist operations.

Although primarily meant as a paean to the Front dération Nationale (FLN; National Liberation Front), one scene in The Battle of Algiers illustrates how even propaganda can be fraught with ambiguity. Following French atrocities against Algerians in the Casbah, the FLN leaders set up a series of bomb attacks against French civilians. Three women are outfitted with make-shift bombs and disguised (with Continental clothing and cosmetics) so they can pass through heavily guarded checkpoints into the French Quarter. Once there, the women plant their bombs in a milk bar, a discothèque, and an airport terminal. Although most viewers probably side with the Algerians against the harsh colonial rule of Libe the French, this partisanship is tested when Pontecorvo shows the innocent victims of the explosions: a youngster licking an ice cream cone in the milk bar; teenagers dancing in the club; and an elderly woman sitting in the airport. Indeed, the film segues immediately after the assaults from the upbeat disco music to Bach's Requiem, the film showing the human cost on both sides of the struggle. Such moments suggest that propaganda need not be completely one-sided and insensitive to be effective.

In the United States, several filmmakers produced films, both documentary and fictional, in opposition to the Vietnam War. The pro-war exception was The Green Berets (1968), an epic codirected by and starring John Wayne (1907–1979) that extolled the efforts of the US military against the Communists. Among the notable antiwar documentaries were Émile de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig (1968), Barbara Kopple's (b. 1946) Winter Soldier (1972), and Peter Davis's (b. 1937) Academy Award®–winning Hearts and Minds (1974), which used unstaged interviews with participants (soldiers, civilians, politicians) and newsreel footage of combat and speeches to critique US policy. All three films eschewed "voice-of-God" narration, relying instead on editing and other cinematic techniques to skewer the pro-war Establishment.

In In the Year of the Pig, de Antonio presents an interview with General George S. Patton in which the officer, in a caricature of himself, comments on his unit: "They're a great bunch of killers !" His gleeful tone and facial expression convey his underlying sadism and, by implication, the brutal mindset of the Pentagon and White House. Likewise, Winter Soldier, shot in grainy black and white, is composed of extended interviews with twenty Vietnam veterans who describe the atrocities they witnessed or in which they participated: rape, torture, disembowelment, mutilation, tossing prisoners from helicopters, and stoning a child to death. An occasional color photo of a civilian victim of US mistreatment is presented as evidence of the disturbing eyewitness testimony. The film was shot shortly after the My Lai massacre, making it particularly topical. Neither In the Year of the Pig nor Winter Soldier received wide release, hence their impact is difficult to assess. This pattern is often seen with controversial, one-sided movies: their commercial viability is uncertain and their audience is composed mainly of adherents to their cause.

This was not the case, however, with Hearts and Minds, whose Oscar® victory exposed it to a wider audience. Davis relies on selective editing of stock footage and candid interviews to support his antiwar stance. For example, an interview with General William Westmoreland (1914–2005), commander of the US forces in Vietnam, is juxtaposed with a military funeral in South Vietnam. Westmoreland wears a comfortable seersucker suit and is positioned in front of a peaceful glade as he says, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner." This statement is in sharp contrast to the images with which it is juxtaposed: the burial of a slain soldier, whose sister cries disconsolately over the man's photo and whose mother attempts to jump into his open grave. The general's comment on the Asian mindset may be insensitive, but Davis's montage—placing these words right after this heartbreaking scene and just before shots of napalmed Vietnamese children—their burned flesh dangling from their bones, heightens the smugness of the "ugly American."

Antiwar sentiment was usually disguised in Hollywood films during—and even years after—the Vietnam War so as not to alienate large segments of the audience who may have supported the war effort. In M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970), for example, the action took place during the Korean War but clearly commented on the Vietnam conflict. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) went back even further—to the Mexican Revolution of 1913—to comment on the war. The unprecedented fierceness of the film's opening and closing massacres—achieved through the innovative use of montage and slow-motion death—allegorically depicted the wholesale killing of combatants and civilians, thus exposing the dark side of America's "noble cause" in Southeast Asia.


More recently, the American Michael Moore (b. 1954) gained both notoriety and acclaim for his "documentary" films, which are unabashedly tendentious—and funny. Although comedy is not usually associated with propaganda, muckraker Moore uses irreverent satire and wry humor in Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Most documentaries have taken liberties with veracity but also hold up objectivity as a goal. Moore, however—using a first-person, polemical, and postmodernist style—often overtly restructures chronology, intercuts events unrelated to a scene's focus, and adds music and narration to make a political point—or get a laugh. He has even admitted that Roger & Me is not a documentary at all.

Roger & Me is an exposé of corporate greed at the highest levels of General Motors (GM), especially as it relates to the economic devastation of the director's hometown of Flint, Michigan. Moore personifies the villain in the elusive figure of Roger Smith, GM's CEO, and takes on the hero's role for himself—appearing onscreen and proffering a voice-over narration throughout the film. Other villains appear as Moore finds that tracking down his prey is increasingly difficult. Miss Michigan, Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross, GM public relations man Tom Kay, Anita Bryant, Pat Boone, the television celebrity Bob Eubanks, corporate (and United Auto Workers [UAW]) flunkies, and rich ladies at a golf club all make insensitive, if not cruel, comments about the auto plant closings, but Moore's editing and voice-over add a more polemical dimension. As the camera tracks past rows of abandoned homes and businesses, the Beach Boys' song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is played. When UAW union leaders and unemployed workers (including a woman forced to sell rabbits "for pets or meat") are lampooned as well, Moore's progressive point may be lost.

Bowling for Columbine, winner of the Academy Award® for Best Documentary of 2002, offers a forceful antigun message, focusing on the Columbine high school shootings and other gun death tragedies in the United States. At times, however, Moore is overly aggressive in his pursuit of celebrities. For example, one scene involves Moore's hounding of Dick Clark, who—Moore claims—is culpable in a little girl's death because of the celebrity's financial ties to a fast food chain. Moore's "logic" runs like this: Clark's restaurant pays minimum wage salaries, forcing a young mother to take a second job and leave her son with relatives; the lonely boy finds a handgun in his uncle's home and accidentally uses the weapon to kill a playmate. Moore ambushes Clark as he enters a van and peppers the music impresario with questions about his restaurant's pay scale, trying to directly link low wages with gun violence.

At the end of Bowling for Columbine, Moore goes even further in making questionable connections. Actor Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), grants the filmmaker an interview. The discussion soon moves to the subject of gun violence and the NRA's legislative agenda. Moore poses a seemingly innocent question: "Why does Canada have a lower rate of gun deaths than the United States?" to which Heston opines that racial tensions cause more murders in America. The filmmaker first attempts to turn this comment into a rabidly racist remark and then ambushes the doddering star as he walks away from the camera. Moore adds a voice-over plea for "Mr. Heston" to come back and continue the interview and, further, to apologize for the Columbine shootings. Finally, the director shamelessly lays a photo of a dead child in the star's driveway, as if Heston were somehow personally responsible. Such sanctimony is not uncommon in propaganda films; however, in the past, journalistic objectivity prevented many documentarians from attempting to arouse emotions so blatantly. In the twenty-first century, the pastiche-like "personal" postmodernist documentary knows no such restraint.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was the highest-grossing documentary film of all time and also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2004. Although it is apparently riddled with factual inaccuracies, suggests that events occurred in a different chronological order than they actually did, and takes cheap shots at celebrities and government officials, its satirical passion and rage against the administration of George W. Bush (b. 1946) found an audience willing to suspend logic and its customary demand for truth. Even when the scenes are factually accurate—perhaps a vestigial concept in a postmodernist documentary—Moore still uses ad hominem attacks and chicanery to skewer the regime. For example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is seen wetting his comb with saliva and slicking back his hair before a TV interview. This unhygienic practice certainly makes him look foolish, but does it say anything substantive about the Iraq War? Furthermore, does Wolfowitz's minor attempt at TV stage management compare with Moore's major manipulation of TV news footage?

Many in sympathy with Moore's antiwar agenda argued he did not have to resort to falsification to critique the president and his post-9/11 policies: the public record and the administration's own words, they said, provided enough fodder to support Moore's points. There is biting humor and irony in showing Bush play golf while the United States prepares for war, but President Bill Clinton also played golf while the nation was at war in Bosnia. Likewise, while Bush's look of stupefaction when informed that the Twin Towers had been attacked on September 11, 2001, suggests he was incompetent, it is an ambiguous image. Although Bush continues to read a book, My Pet Goat, to schoolchildren for seven minutes after he is told the news, the president may have been trying to maintain an air of calm while his staff investigated. But Moore goes for the easy explanation.

Indeed, Moore is rarely interested in subtlety. He takes great pains to prove that: (1) the US presidential election of 2000 was rigged; (2) Bush was in cahoots with the royal house of Saud and even Osama bin Laden—"facts" that have been challenged by the findings of the nonpartisan September 11 commission; (3) the president was a Vietnam-era deserter; and (4) the Iraq War was instigated to please the administration's wealthy backers. Whether Moore proves these allegations beyond a reasonable doubt is not the point; his chief concern was to create a dramatic and engaging film that marshals images and sounds (often his own voice-over commentary) to show that Bush is an incompetent, dishonest war-monger—and to affect Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. Moore wanted the film to "become a part of the national conversation" in the months before the 2004 election, and it did. It was not, however, sufficiently influential in the election-year debate to sway the results, even though the film contains powerful scenes of emotional blackmail, including a grieving mother who lost her soldier son in Iraq weeping in front of the White House, horrific scenes of Iraq war amputees in the Walter Reed Medical Center juxtaposed with the president addressing a fundraiser full of fat-cat contributors, and dead Iraqi youngsters positioned next to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's assurances about "the humanity that goes into our conduct of the war."

While Moore's films may be among the most freely manipulative of documentaries, ultimately, to an extent, all films (whether documentary or fictional) are propagandistic in that they are products of a particular culture at a particular moment in its history. Thus, films cannot help but reflect (and influence) that culture. In short, movies are social acts in that they contribute to depicting a certain vision of society and say something—consciously or unconsciously—about the culture that produces them, which is very close to the definition of propaganda.

SEE ALSO Documentary;Ideology;World War II


Chomsky, Noah. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Clark, Toby. Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century: The Political Image in the Act of Mass Culture. New York: Abrams, 1997.

Culbert, David, ed. Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History. 4 vols. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990–1991.

Cull, Nicholas John, David Culbert, and David Welsh. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA, and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Giesen, Rolf. Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 2003.

Grant, Barry Keith, and Jeannette Sloniowski, eds. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Updated ed. New York: Pantheon, 2002.

Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

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

Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism." In Under the Sign of Saturn, 73–105. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.

Taylor, Philip M. Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Era. 3rd ed. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Taylor, Richard. Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London and New York: I. B. Taurus, 1998.

Welch, David. Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933–1945. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Frank P. Tomasulo


views updated May 23 2018


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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David Welch


views updated Jun 11 2018


Discrimination and its promotion through hate propaganda disturb peace and can pave the way to massive human rights violations such as genocide. Hate propaganda is the public promotion or incitement of hatred against people and identifiable groups and that is likely to result in harm to those targeted. It is directed at persons or groups based on factors such as color, race, religion, nationality, or ethnic origin.

Hate propaganda causes harm to individuals by degrading them, attacking their dignity and sense of self-worth. It also hurts society as a whole, because it destroys social harmony and encourages discrimination and violence, thus creating a hostile environment for the targeted members of that same society. Hate propaganda is defined as a crime in most domestic law systems and in international law.

Propaganda serves to dehumanize the members of the targeted group. It degrades them and stigmatizes them, creating the necessary illusion that the identifiable group is the enemy. Propaganda has more than once contributed to the development of a climate that led to the implementation or toleration of exclusionary behavior, and hate speech has preceded massive physical persecutions. Propaganda is used to trivialize the importance of crimes committed against its targets, it confers a sense of social acceptability and even desirability upon those crimes. This was the case with both the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. Propaganda is the starting point of the progression that leads to genocide. Beginning with limited propaganda directed at an identifiable group, the crime moves to more systematic propaganda, then to state-sponsored hate speech, and finally to the direct incitement to hate, ultimately giving rise to publicly-supported, mass crimes.

The Role of Hate Propaganda in Causing Genocide

Propaganda has a long-term effect. Its repercussions can take years to appear, making it more difficult to regulate than direct acts and overt public incitements to genocide. Propagandist rhetoric dulls the conscience, thus furthering the development of a social psyche willing to tolerate inhumanities. It works to modify people's normal and expected reaction, leading them to accept, rather than condemn, discriminatory behavior. The propagandist uses speech to persuade others to his view, or at least to create a climate in which the oppression he champions is acceptable.

Propaganda legitimizes aggression by conveying the message that something has to be done regarding a targeted group. Genocide requires such a collective agreement among perpetrators and also bystanders. Direct incitement to genocide is usually not enough, it generally needs to be based on a pre-established ideology, shared by an indoctrinated population. In a culture already inundated with anti-Semitic or anti-Tutsi propaganda, and in which inter-group tensions are high, innuendos about the killing of members of those groups may be enough to instigate violence, eliminating the need for explicit calls to violence. In a context of economic difficulties, social and political turmoil, or during a war, propaganda becomes even more efficient. In such situations people are often disconnected from certain aspects of society, and thus cannot assess the accuracy of what they are being told, allowing propagandists to create rumors and invent "facts" that suit their goals.

The Nazis raised anti-Semitic propaganda to an unprecedented level by turning it into a state-sponsored dogma. Nonetheless, the Nazis based their implementation of propaganda on pre-existing linguistic casuistry. They took well-known, popular anti-Jewish sentiment and systemized it, and in so doing they cleared the way for the devestation of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, in other words, required lengthy propaganda preparation to induce the different actors involved—the perpetrators to commit such actions and the population to be numb vis-à-vis such a catastrophe.

Propaganda was the springboard from which the Nazis launched the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was disseminated by many, including government representatives such as Josef Goebbels and full-time anti-Semitic propagandists and ideologues such as Julius Streicher, the publisher of the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Streicher may not have been a murderer himself, but he created the climate for murder. After the war, Streicher was at Nuremberg for his propagandist's role in bringing about the Holocaust. Without the climate Streicher established, the court held, the Holocaust would probably never have taken place, because too many would have rejected the orders to execute Jews. Thus, the court suggested that Streicher may have been even more responsible for the crimes than the other defendants who appeared with him in the dock. The final judgment rendered by the International Military Tribunal does not explicitly note a direct causal link between Streicher's publications and any specific murders, but characterizes his work as a poison "injected into the minds of thousands of Germans which caused them to follow the National Socialists' policy of Jewish persecution and extermination." Streicher was found guilty of crimes against humanity because of his propaganda.

Form, Means, Strategy and Diffusion of Propaganda

Hate propaganda takes many different forms. It can be disseminated in public meetings, through radio, television, movies, books, pamphlets, graffiti, governmentsponsored messages, telephone messages, gestures, signs or other visible representations. More recently, the Internet has become a popular medium for the dissemination of hate propaganda.

Propagandists prefer simple and clear arguments and descriptions over complex ones. It targets the emotions of its audience, rather than the intellect, and it seeks to build up a disdain for rational dissenting arguments or explanations. Propagandists are often charismatic orators. They tend to use straightforward, colorful language. They employ images, symbols, and evocative examples. Effective racist propaganda is usually couched in simple terms, and touches citizens emotionally through examples and stories to which they can relate. Streicher, for example, used caricature and cartoons to represent Jews, and argued that the hard times that German's were suffering were all caused by the Jews.

Propaganda themes are repeated frequently, preferably using all forms of the media. Exclusionary speeches, constantly repeated, break down the normal resistance of their audiences, and people soon begin to wonder if what is being said about the targeted group might actually be true. Such speeches are not intended to convert their listeners with genuine arguments; rather, they are aimed at creating a kind of emotional and intellectual numbness. As the message spreads through the various media, the messages become so omipresent that their truth begins to appear self-evident.

Key words are repeated to remain in the listeners' minds. The technique is to hit the same themes over and over again, until the audience internalizes the major points. In the Rwanda genocide, a propagandist named Mugesera constantly repeated the warning that Hutus beware that the Inyenzi (cockroaches, an epithet used against the Tutsis of Rwanda) and their accomplices. Listeners were gradually conditioned to associate the Tutsis with the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR), a rebel faction that was accused of wanting and trying to overthrow the Hutu lead government. By constantly linking the term Inkotanyi (infiltrators, a term for the FPR) with Inyenzi, he effectively accused all Tutsis of being infiltrators as well. The intent was to blur the distinction between the rebels and Tutsi civilians in order to justify the widespread killing of Tutsis as a preventive measure.

Der Stürmer worked in much the same way. The publication helped the Nazis persuade as many people as possible that first, there was a problem in regard to the Jewish question, and second, that it was absolutely critical to solve it. The concept, reproduced in many different ways, was that the Jews were responsible for all the evils of the world in general, and for Germany's misfortune in particular, and that the world would therefore be better off if all the Jews were wiped out.

Propagandists use various techniques and media to make their statements more appealing. Sex and horror stories in which Jews were portrayed as evildoers were frequently added to Der Stürmer, allowing Streicher to sell more copies and reach an even broader audience. The cinema played a central role in the Nazi's propaganda strategy, as well. It reached a large audience and could add the power of visual imagery to the propaganda message. The Nazis spread propaganda by shooting fictional films and false documentaries such as Der ewige Jude, depicting Jews in very unfavorable ways. Goebbels himself ordered the creation of such films. Graphic representations, cartoons, and manipulated photographs of the targeted group are also common in the propagandists' arsenal. Der Stürmer, in Nazi Germany, and Kangura, the anti-Tutsi newspaper in Rwanda, both employed these media. The "Fips" cartoons, which portrayed Jews in the most exaggerated stereo-types, were a regular feature in Der Stürmer. In Rwanda, Kangura regularly featured cartoons of Prime Ministers Uwilingiyimana, Twagiramungu, and General Dallaire (who lead the UN peacekeeping force), depicting them in unfavorable situations and employing popular stereotypes.

The use of stereotypes furthers the audience's acceptance of propaganda because the images are so familiar. Stereotypes provide the audience with a common denominator. The Nazis based the identification of the Jews on exaggerated physical attributes. Propagandists added to the stereotypes by describing Jews as cockroaches, vermin, rats, and spiders. In Der Stürmer, Jews were described as bent-nosed, fat, and having unpleasant features. It then attempted to establish a link between stereotypical impressions of Jews with current or historical events. For instance, Der Strürmer accused Jews of conducting ritual murders during which Christians were killed.

In Rwanda, the Tutsis were stereotyped as inherent liars, thieves, and killers. Kangura also depicted the Tutsis as biologically distinct from the Hutus and as being consumed by malice and wickedness. Radio Télévision Libra Mille-Collines (RTLMC), the local media outlet, joined in the propaganda effort, accusing the Tutsis of being plotters and parasites, and using the Tutsis' historical domination of Rwandan politics and society as a propaganda tool: Tutsis were still perceived as "the ones who have all the money," a reference to the fact that a Tutsi royalty once ruled Hutus. Tutsi women were stereotyped as tall and slim with a "beautiful nose," thus very attractive to male Hutus. Tutsi women, because of these alleged attributes, were accused of being enemy agents, used by the Inyenzi to deprave Hutu men.

Propaganda seeks to reverse normal allocation of the burden of proof, forcing their targets onto the defense. It also seeks to generate the sense of constant threat, so that its audience is forced to be vigilant vis-àvis the targeted group. By spreading fear, propagandists gather ever larger groups of supporters. Kangura persistently conveyed the message that Tutsis intended to conquer the country in order to restore the Tutsi feudal monarchy, subduing all Hutus. Kangura repeated that the enemy was among them, waiting to strike, and that the day would come when Hutus would have to defend themselves. RTLMC also played on the public's fear of an armed Tutsi insurrection. In a speech, Mugesera made repeated references to this fear, not to ease it but to inflame it. Mugesera pleaded, "the one whose neck you don't cut is the one who will cut your neck."

The Role of Propaganda in the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide

The Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are two of the clearest examples of propagandist exploitation of racist beliefs among the broader popularion. In both cases, the propagandist's work paved the way to genocide.

Propaganda in Germany

The Nazis exploited racist ideology and economic hardship to influence a nation to persecute a minority. It offered a scapegoat to a population that had been defeated in World War I and was suffering under the burden of a devastated post-war economy. Germany's disastrous situation was portrayed as mono-causal: the Jews were to blame for everything. Anti-Semite propaganda had become common even before Hitler came to power.

The source of much of this early propaganda, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a famous anti-Semitic document—was widely circulated. It is a work of fiction that allegedly contains the minutes of a meeting held by a shadowy group of Jewish Elders, and sets forth their fictional plan to take over the world. The document employed all the commonly used religious and physical stereotypes associated with the Jews. Judeophobia, inflamed by documents such as The Protocols, proved an effective tool for bringing together a broad cross sampling of German society, drawn from religious, intellectual, and political walks of life. That the document was exposed as a fraud in the early 1920s did not stop anti-Semites from referring to it. In fact, it is still used by Holocaust deniers to support their claim that the Holocaust is just another myth created by the world's Jewry to achieve their ultimate goal of global domination.

When the Nazis came to power, propaganda became a government policy, used to create a climate that would support the genocidal plans of Hitler and his followers. Goebbels, serving as the Minister of Information and Propaganda, controlled all of Germany's media outlets and later assumed the same control over media in the occupied territories. Goebbels was the father of propagandist strategies such as the "Big Lie Theory," in which he argued that by repeating lies about the Jews and progressively magnifying these lies, he could increase public acceptance of the lies and mobilize public support for Hitler's policies.

Public boycott campaigns against Jewish businesses were made possible through propaganda. Legislation was passed to isolate and stigmatize all Jews. This was followed by state-sponsored, anti-Semitic propaganda to galvanize the intolerance of the non-Jewish population. This approach led to Kristallnacht, an anti-Jewish riot organized by Goebbels. The strategy was extremely successful. Beginning on November 9, 1938, and continuing well into the next day, German citizens who had been exposed to hate propaganda directed at Jews exploded into the streets to burn synagogues, destroy Jewish properties, and kill Jews.

Propaganda in Rwanda

The newspaper, Kangura, and the audio-visual media controlled by RTLMC were instrumental in systematically spreading propaganda against the Tutsis. Kangurapublished cartoons and editorials that inflamed Hutu prejudices against Tutsis, and ultimately published the so-called Hutus' Ten Commandments, which comprised a blanket condemnation of all Tutsis on the sole basis of their ethnicity.

Rwanda's high illiteracy rate meant, however, that Kangura could reach only a limited audience. For nonreaders, the radio played a significant role both before and during the genocide. RTLMC was used to broadcast orders and detailed information on the positions and names of Tutsis to be killed. United States–based NGOs pleaded to have the airwaves jammed during the genocide, but the U.S. government opposed the idea.

After the genocide was ended, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) brought charges against the management of both the RTLMC and Kangura. The court held that both media outlets indulged in ethnic stereotyping in a manner that promoted hatred for the Tutsis, and were thus implicated in the genocide.

Leon Mugesera's Speech

On November 22, 1992, Leon Mugesera made a speech that was repeated on Rwandan radio and in which he frequently uttered incitements to hatred for the Tutsis. In January 1993, an international human rights fact-finding mission to Rwanda found the country in a state of turmoil and agitation provoked in part by Mugesera's speech. Mugesera eventually fled Rwanda to take refuge in Canada, but the Canadian authorities tried to deport him for having committed a criminal act before obtaining his permanent residence. The criminal act to which they referred was the speech he had given, back in 1992.

In his speech, Mugesera claimed that FPR rebels were in secret collusion with all of Rwanda's Tutsis. Mugesera's speech was made two years after the Hutus' Ten Commandments had appeared in Kangura, at a time when other propaganda outlets were increasingly active in the attempt to isolate all Tutsis. Mugesera's speech was intended to build upon that propaganda effort, to encourage Hutus to seek out and kill Tutsis, civilian or otherwise, because they were all, in his words, infiltrators and traitors to Rwanda.

The Canadian courts failed to recognize the true meaning of Mugesera's speech, and declined to deport him. The court failed to recognize Mugesera's genocidal intent because he couched his incitements to violence in indirect and figurative language, but the incitement he intended was nonetheless clear to Rwanda's Hutus as a call to mobilize against all Tutsis. The court only considered the literal content of the speech, and lacked the understanding of the social context in which the speech was made. It did not recognize that there was a direct link between the speech and the genocide that ensued eighteen months later. It could not understand that thousands of killers were following orders passed by various means after a propaganda campaign initiated years before. Mugesera was not deported, but the prosecution has filed an appeal to challenge the court's decision.

Legal Issues Facing the Regulation of Hate Propaganda

Measures to eradicate harmful propaganda are controversial. Hate propaganda undermines the humanity of those targeted, but democratic societies are reluctant to pass laws limiting the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is probably the most universally recognized human right. Most international human rights instruments, as well as numerous national constitutions, contain provisions protecting it. The freedom to express one's opinion constitutes one of the basic conditions for society's progress and for the development of every human being. Unfortunately, such freedom is not always used for the benefit of that society. History, in many circumstances, has demonstrated that harmful propaganda has led to tragic events such as crimes against humanity and genocide. In most cases, propaganda is in fact the prerequisite for such crimes. That is why freedom of speech comes with duties and responsibilities.

Most international human rights instruments and international jurisprudence recognize that language can cause severe social harm, and that the suppression of hate speech is warranted when it is needed to protect other rights, such as equality. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that freedom of speech may be subject to restrictions when they are necessary to guarantee respect for the rights of others. Similar to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention), the ICCPR contains a provision that nothing in the instrument should be interpreted as granting any person the right to engage in an activity aimed at the destruction of any of the other rights recognised by the ICCPR. International bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights have developed a considerable jurisprudence on the limitation of freedom of expression. When faced with restrictions of that freedom, the court views that it is not faced with two conflicting rights, but with a freedom of expression that is subject to a number of exceptions, which, in turn, need to be interpreted narrowly.

There are two opposing approaches concerning the regulation of hate speech and propaganda. The causationist approach, supported mainly by the United States, requires that a direct causal link be proved to exist between the expression and the harm such expression has allegedly caused. Without that link, there can be no limitation imposed on the freedom of speech. The correlationist approach, supported by a broad international consensus, requires the regulation of hate speech if there is a rational correlation between the expression and the harm that ensues afterward.

Hate Speech Regulation in International Law

The regulation of hate speech revolves around the interplay between and the reconciliation of the freedom of expression and the right of equality. There is an international consensus that hate speech threatens democracy, justice, and equality, which is why so many countries attempt to prohibit it. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide declares direct and public incitement to commit genocide is a punishable act, but goes no further, and it omits hate propaganda in its list of crimes. Two subsequent international instruments have gone a step further than simply acknowledging the limits of the freedom of speech by requiring states to penalize hate propaganda.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law. Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination (CERD) is even more precise. States that are party to the convention must adopt positive measures to eradicate incitement to discrimination, and must declare a punishable offense all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin. The United States signed the document in 1966, but ratified it only in 1994. Ratification was made with reservations to protect the freedom of speech doctrine developed in the United States, thus making the ratification of that point almost pointless.

International jurisprudence recognizes the possibility, even the obligation, of limiting free speech when faced with expressions of negative value, like hate speech. The ICCPR Committee has affirmed the duty of states to restrict the freedom of expression in order to assure the protection of others rights. In a case involving Holocaust denial, which is viewed by France as a subtle form of anti-Semitic propaganda, the committee expressed the view that the prosecution of the defendant, Faurisson, did not breach his fundamental right of freedom of expression.

The European Convention does not contain any specific provision dealing with hate propaganda. In numerous cases, the European Commission of Human Rights has nonetheless excluded hate propaganda from the protection of Article 10, which otherwise safeguards the freedom of speech. For the commission, hate propaganda is contrary to the text and spirit of the European Convention and contributes to the destruction of the rights and freedoms set forth therein.

In two cases, the European Court of Human Rights has dealt explicitly with hate propaganda and has made it clear that hate speech regulation was compatible with the European Convention. Recognizing the utmost importance of the freedom of speech, the court nonetheless agreed that the convention should be interpreted, whenever possible, in a way reconcilable with the CERD, which explicitly prohibits hate speech. Denial of the Holocaust and the justification of pro-Nazi policies were considered to be a form of hate and racist propaganda that was not protected by the free-expression provisions of Article 10 of the convention.

Hate Speech Regulation in Canada

Canada has a comprehensive legal mechanism with regard to freedom of speech and hate propaganda. Article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the freedom of speech. Similar to the limitation clauses found in international instruments, Article 1 of the charter recognizes that fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression are nonetheless subject to limits which need to be reasonable, prescribed by law, and justified in a free and democratic society.

Willful public incitement to hatred for any identifiable groups is a criminal offense in Canada. The Canadian Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the findings in the case of Keegstra, which involved a teacher who had taught that Jews were "child killers," and "treacherous," and that the Holocaust was a myth. The court found that the defendant had abused his right to freedom of speech and recognized the role of the government in penalizing hate propaganda. The court further held that hate propaganda harmed both the targeted persons and groups—by humiliating and degrading them—and society as a whole. It emphasized the longterm harmful influence of propaganda, recognizing that messages of racial discrimination and hatred can remain in one's mind for a long period of time. In other cases, the Canadian Supreme Court has stated that hate propaganda threatens society by eroding the tolerance and open-mindedness that must flourish in a multicultural society committed to the idea of equality.

Hate Speech Regulation in the United States.

In the United States, only the narrowest and absolutely necessary restrictions of the freedom of expression are justified. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." It does not provide grounds by which the government may justify limitations of that freedom.

In most instances, jurisprudence in the United States does not recognize the link between propaganda and the harm that may ensue therefrom. It imposes the demonstration of a clear and present danger before a limitation of free speech may be considered constitutional. Under that test, restrictions can be justified only when violence is clearly likely to arise from the expression, that the danger will occur very soon after the expression, and that no other reasonable means of preventing the violence can be used. It is not sufficient to demonstrate that there is a probability that the expression might cause such violence. The Supreme Court does not recognize the long-term effect of propaganda. The First Amendment may allow legislation to prohibit hate speech that advocates the use of force, but only in very narrowly defined circumstances.

Suppression of expression based on content is generally prohibited in U.S. law, and is considered to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has extended this prohibition of content-based regulation, rendering the regulation of speech targeting identifiable groups even more difficult to justify. In a case involving the burning of a cross in an African-American family's yard, the law became involved because the act was listed as a misdemeanor under a local St. Paul ordinance. However, the ordinance itself was found to discriminate against expression based on the content of that expression, and so it was found to contravene the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held the view that only a prohibition of all fighting words would be justifiable under the Constitution, whereas the selective prohibition of racist hate speech and anti-Semitic speeches or displays was unconstitutional. This ruling, along with the imminent threat test and the total lack of recognition of the long-term effect of propaganda, makes the prohibition of hate speech in the United States almost impossible.

The United States believes in an idealized free market of ideas, in which all acts of expression should be allowed to compete. Under this approach, it follows that citizens should be exposed to all sorts of expression. The approach basically considers an expression as a commodity, for it puts hate speech and any other expression on an equal basis, and it considers the opposition between hate propaganda and counter-argument as a legitimate debate. This relies on the premise that truth and reason will always prevail over hate propaganda, and that intolerance can be countered by more free expression. This idealism, however, is questionable in the light of history. Even in two of the most recent cases of hate propaganda, it was not reason but military victory that put an end to the hate speech that characterized Nazi propaganda as well as the Rwandan incitements to genocide.

Racist behavior takes time to gain general acceptance. Even when it does not pose an immediate threat to society, propaganda is the first step leading toward extermination policies. It establishes the basis upon which genocide can later be justified, however inappropriately. Propaganda prepares society for the crimes committed in its name by making the messages it is conveying acceptable to those who are systematically exposed to them. The Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide are but two examples in which propaganda was allowed, tolerated, and supported, ultimately paving the way to tragic events. This contradicts the philosophy underlying the U.S. policy toward freedom of expression. Unfortunately, there is little historical support for the idea that hate propaganda will simply go away by itself or fall to well-reasoned counterarguments. The more society tolerates hate speech, the more frequent it is likely to become accepted, thus increasing the probability of success of the message that is being conveyed.

SEE ALSO Denial; Der Stürmer; Goebbels, Joseph; Incitement; Radio Television Libre Mille-Collines


Bytwerk, Randall L. (2001). Julius Streicher: Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semitic Newspaper, Der Stürmer. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Guttenplan, D. D. (2001). The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gaudreault-DesBiens, Jean-François (2000). "From Sisyphus's Dilemma to Sisyphus's Duty? A Meditation on the Regulation of Hate Propaganda in Relation to Hate Crimes and Genocide." McGill Law Journal 46(121):122.

Schabas, William A. (2000). Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tsesis, Alexander (2002). Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way to Harmful Social Movements. New York: New York University Press.

Martin Imbleau


views updated May 11 2018



Propaganda and European history are indivisible. The modern concept of propaganda—in essence, mass persuasion—sprang from Europe's religious conflicts in the early seventeenth century. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church coined the word at the time of the Reformation to describe the act of spreading, or propagating, the faith to unbelievers. It is a testament to the cultural politics of Protestant northern Europe that the term should have swiftly acquired an enduring negative connotation: in popular usage, propaganda is to communication as murder is to killing. European history, however, suggests that propaganda is not the monopoly of any one ideology and—like any tool—it can be used for good or evil.


The practice of propaganda reached new heights in Europe during World War I and in the ideological struggles that followed it its wake. Europe and the world were changed as a result.

In 1914, Europe was awash with propaganda. The ideology of nationalism could be found everywhere, from school curricula to commercially produced ephemera. It permeated the print culture of the popular press and bound Europeans to their colonies overseas with talk of duty and ethnic destiny. The architects of that propaganda—the leaders who had profited from the cohesion that national missions and common enemies brought to their population—were trapped within their world of stereotyped friends and enemies by the events of August 1914. When a Serb extremist murdered the heir to the Austrian throne, Austria's rulers felt compelled to mobilize against Serbia, while the tsarist regime in Russia had traded so heavily on the rhetoric of pan-Slavism that it could not but intervene on Serbia's side. The web of rivalries, alliances, and reputations that had to be defended swiftly engulfed the Continent and its overseas colonies in war.

The outbreak of World War I presented the combatant nations with a major challenge: how to raise the armies and enroll the civilian support necessary to prosecute war on an unprecedented scale. Propaganda provided the mechanism for this. Britain led the way, recruiting publicists, artists, and writers for the cause, although it had no formal ministry of information until 1918. In Germany, propaganda remained largely in unskilled military hands and suffered accordingly.

A characteristic element in propaganda on both sides was the atrocity story, depicting horrors allegedly committed by the enemy. Famous stories, later proven false, included the report that the Germans had created a "corpse conversion" plant at Vimy Ridge in France to turn the war dead into industrial products. Other common themes in World War I propaganda included the claim that God was on one's side and the notion that one must fight to demonstrate masculinity. Common methods of propaganda included posters and the relatively new medium of film. States managed news coverage of the war through censorship and by managing the presence of war correspondents with the troops. Private enterprise also played its part as patriotic wartime themes emerged in postcards, songs, and plays across Europe.

Combatants deployed propaganda on the battlefield. Leaflets crafted to demoralize or appeal for surrender were dropped over enemy territory by aircraft, a technique pioneered by Italy in its colonial wars in Tunisia. The combatant powers also campaigned to win the sympathy of neutral nations, the most important of which was the United States. Peace activists operated on both sides throughout the war, sometimes funded by their nation's enemy.


In the aftermath of the war, propaganda provided a convenient explanation for such events as the collapse of morale in Austria and Germany. Apologists for the German defeat, including Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), exaggerated the impact of wartime propaganda. But Hitler then sought to make the weapon of propaganda his own. Other uses of propaganda in the immediate wake of the war included the French use of propaganda to rebuild the birthrate and propaganda in many nations in support of peace. Major initiatives to this end included the League of Nations Union and a succession of powerful antiwar novels, including Erich Maria Remarque's (1898–1970) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

European governments were not the only practitioners of propaganda during World War I. The international socialist movement had long since adopted the methods of mass communication, and radical class-based propaganda was a feature of politics across Europe. In Soviet Russia, the Bolshevik Party under Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) developed a two-tier concept of propaganda, drawing a distinction—first made by Georgi Plekhanov (1857–1918)—between propaganda, which he defined as giving many ideas to one person, and agitation, which he defined as giving one idea to many people. The Bolsheviks became masters of both. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power. Communist propaganda now had the additional impetus of a nation-state behind it. In 1919 Lenin established the Communist International (Comintern) to ferment international revolution and in the following decades the Soviet Union pioneered a number of important propaganda techniques at home and abroad, including international radio broadcasting in 1927, with regular Radio Moscow services beginning in 1929, and elaborate propaganda films, the best known being those created by Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948). Later Soviet techniques included disinformation—the spreading of rumors.

The rising leaders of interwar Europe hurried to deploy the ideological weapons of World War I. In Italy Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), a former newspaper editor who had once taken money to print French wartime propaganda, now led the fascist movement. Fascist propaganda looked back to the golden age of ancient Rome. The fascists used propaganda to make their members feel as though they were a part of a great movement. Uniforms, banners, and songs all played a part, with the image of the leader at the fore. In Germany Hitler used similar techniques and themes to energize his National Socialist Party. Hitler believed that without modern communications the Nazi party would not have come to power in 1933. Similar, although smaller, movements could be found across Europe, including Belgium's Rexists, Norway's Nasjonal Samlung, and Britain's British Union of Fascists. Many of these parties used Europe's well established vein of anti-Semitism as a key element in their propaganda.

The dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini and of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) in the Soviet Union shared an approach to propaganda that included rigid censorship and direction of the mass media and education; a love of spectacle, whether as parade or monumental architecture; and a cult of the leader. Film propaganda in all three societies emphasized escapist fantasy musicals and romances rather than heavily ideological fare such as the famous Nazi film Triumph of the Will (1935). All three states were involved in major efforts to project their influence internationally through both political and cultural propaganda. Examples included an emphasis on international sporting events, most famously the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

The totalitarian propaganda effort overseas led to a counter campaign by the democratic nations to both consolidate their own empires and display their culture to others. France had been investing in the projection of its language and culture around the world through the Alliance Française, an organization of private citizens who taught the French language, since the 1880s. The French Foreign Ministry founded a cultural department in the early 1920s. Britain did nothing until the 1930s when, in 1932 it inaugurated the empire service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and then created the British Council in 1934. Other major efforts included the launch of Radio Netherlands in 1927. Although noble in intent, such work could not stave off the coming of war in 1939.


World War II saw a marked divergence in propaganda techniques between the totalitarian and democratic countries. Nazi propaganda, coordinated by the Reichministerium für Volksauflärung und Propaganda (State ministry for popular enlightenment and propaganda) under Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) emphasized the dynamism of the regime and concealed its setbacks, whereas the British Ministry of Information, which eventually found stable leadership under Brendan Bracken (1901–1958) sought to work as far as possible with facts. The British government was so shy of ideology as to avoid defining its war aims until the summer of 1941. During the war, the BBC developed a reputation for telling the truth, whether the news was good or bad, and provided a platform for governments-in-exile to address their home countries.

As had happened in World War I, the combatants in World War II competed for American opinion. Although the Germans had the advantage of merely needing to sustain America's neutrality, Britain won the struggle for American opinion mainly by helping American journalists report the Blitz on London at first hand. Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) did much to capture the American imagination in the same way that he had earlier rallied his own population. Britain also coordinated propaganda from the European governments-in-exile through a United Nations Information Organization. On the battlefield, the Nazis used propaganda as a variation on the artillery barrage to soften up their enemies. The populations that folded before the Nazi onslaught in 1940 had seen German military might in news-reels and heard broadcasts from Berlin. They knew exactly what was coming. But propaganda also played a key role in the Allied counteroffensive after D-Day, with the successful use of appeals to surrender. The Allies learned that the most effective psychological warfare used truth and flattered its listeners that they had done enough to enable them to lay down their weapons without loss of honor.


In the aftermath of World War II, propaganda played a major part in the reconstruction of Europe, but the period also saw a new propaganda struggle as the wartime tensions between Stalin and the western Allies widened into the Cold War. To begin with, the Allied Powers worked on reeducation in Germany and were much helped in this by a small army of returning exiles and memories of the liberal Weimar era of the 1920s. Key institutions of re-education included a string of newspapers such as Die Welt and Neue Zeitung, radio stations, and a special newsreel called Welt im Film (The world in film). The wider U.S. effort to rebuild Western Europe through the Marshall Plan (announced in 1947) also included a major propaganda component. Each national Marshall Plan office included an information bureau to publicize American investment in that country and promote associated ideas, from an awareness of U.S. products to a detailed understanding of American management techniques. Funding for this came from the host nations, hence Europe has been said to have subsidized its own indoctrination.

The Soviet Union saw the Marshall Plan as part of an American plan for economic domination and insisted on the nations in its sphere remaining outside the plan, and it increased both Soviet propaganda and real political power within that sphere. A succession of rigged elections brought Communist governments to power in Poland and Hungary (both 1947), Czechoslovakia (1948), and elsewhere. In 1947 Moscow created Cominform, an umbrella organization for Communist Party propaganda around the world. Set-piece struggles between communist and capitalist propaganda early in the Cold War included the Italian election campaign of 1948. The U.S. government secretly subsidized the Christian Democratic Party, which won the election. Communist propaganda gambits included a powerful drive for peace at the time of the Korean War (1950–1953), which was undermined by the brutality of Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956. In 1949 the nations of Western Europe joined the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which included a small public relations section and regular talks to coordinate member states' propaganda policies.

Europe became a cultural battleground for the Cold War. Both the Soviets and the United States sought to draw intellectuals to their cause. Particular elements in the American agenda for Europe included greater political unification, although there was no shortage of Europeans campaigning for the same goal. European intellectuals from the noncommunist left benefited from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency money filtered through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but America's commercial culture had much more impact. In both Western and Eastern Europe, American popular culture, and most especially films and music, spoke of a certain freedom. In contrast, Soviet culture produced under the deadening hand of state censorship seemed rigid and unattractive. France in particular attempted to place restraint on the penetration of American popular culture, restricting the number of American films that could be released and policing the entry of English words into the French language.

European nations continued to invest in cultural propaganda around the world. Germany created a new international cultural apparatus called the Goethe Institute and began new multi-lingual international radio broadcasts on Deutsche Welle. Austria excelled at the art of what advertising people later came to call re-branding, using tourist publicity to make the world think—as one U.S. observer put it—that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. France and Germany instituted a wide range of cultural exchanges that facilitated their unprecedented rapprochement. Belgium used the 1958 Brussels World's Fair to showcase its postwar recovery.

During these years, Europe decolonized. Its empires had rested on a great deal of propaganda, not least about white supremacy, and their demolition required ideologies of equal weight. Anticolonial propaganda mixed local influences with the appropriation of European nationalism and its trappings of anthems, banners, uniforms and ideologies. Anticolonial propagandists included Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) in India and the Caribbean-born Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) in North Africa. In places where the European exodus was marked by a local insurgency, the retreating imperial nations deployed the techniques of psychological warfare as part of their counterinsurgency tactics with varying degrees of success.

Postwar Western Europe was characterized, for the most part, by its free media. Exceptions included the right-wing dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, but these too had liberalized by the 1980s. Political movements flourished, including the women's movements; a lively antinuclear and peace movement (especially strong in Scandinavia); environmental movements; and movements both in support of and in opposition to the emerging presence of ethnic minorities within European populations. Each deployed propaganda. The movement for European integration moved forward with elite rather than mass support, although the accession of individual states first to the European Economic Community and then to the European Union, and later the adoption of the common European currency, saw a succession of referenda with attendant propaganda campaigns.

During the postwar period, television rapidly became the major medium of political communication, although for most Europeans television tended to be an alternative to rather than an energizing element in political realm. European television was marked by a strong state presence and much regulation in matters of content. European governments restricted the political use of television and attempted to limit political ownership of commercial channels, although the most obvious exception to this has been in Italy, where in the 1990s the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi (b. 1936) rose to the premiership. During the 1990s, the Internet became a major channel of propaganda on the Continent. Some political parties also experimented with the use of Short Message Service (SMS) text messages on mobile phones.

During the 1970s, the Cold War underwent a marked thaw and West Germany in particular pressed for reconciliation with the East. The thaw culminated in the Helsinki Accords of August 1975, which included provisions for the free exchange of cultural materials. During the 1980s, old themes re-emerged and such figures as the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) and the Polish-born Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) were relentless in their criticism of the Soviet empire. The deployment of American cruise missiles in Europe sparked a revival of the antinuclear movement and a fresh wave of propaganda for peace.

Propaganda played a key role in the dramatic political changes that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989. The populations of the East knew about the material and political benefits of Western European life from decades spent watching Western television and listening to Western radio. The bankruptcy of a communist system that feigned love for its people while repressing news of events such as the Chernobyl accident of 1986 was not in doubt. As the Soviet Union lost its ability to repress its neighbors, the collapse of the communist system in Europe became inevitable. All it took was news of unpunished defiance in one country—East Germany—and people across the region pushed for change. The borders opened and the barriers fell. On the night of 9 November 1989, the citizens of Berlin began to demolish the wall that had divided their city since 1961. In some places, the mass media repeated stories that later proved to be untrue or exaggerated. In December 1989 reports of a massacre of ten thousand people in Timisoara, Romania, stoked revolution in that country, although in fact only ninety-seven had died. The collapse of communism brought the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into warring states. The conflict, which lasted through out the 1990s, included claims and counterclaims of atrocities. Both Serbs and Muslims alleged that the other side had fed their babies to zoo animals. Such stories helped fuel real atrocities.

Despite the triumph of democracy in postwar Europe, the political fringe has engaged in an undercurrent of political violence. Terrorism must be considered a form of propaganda in which the event is planned as much for its value as political communication as for its economic impact on bricks, mortar, blood, or bone. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) spoke of "le propaganda par le fait"—propaganda by means of action. Terrorism has been a particular feature of movements for regional autonomy in Europe, such as the campaigns for Irish and Basque independence. There have also been shorter-lived political campaigns, such as the extreme left terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1970s West Germany or Brigatte Rossi (Red Brigades) in 1980s Italy. At the start of the twenty-first century, the threat of Islamic terrorism loomed large across Europe. The debate over the correct response to Islamic terrorism, and specifically the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, deeply divided European opinion, with much propaganda on both sides.

In the early twenty-first century European propaganda stood at a crossroads. Although the European Union already had many of the trappings of a super-state, it had seldom exercised a political voice on the world stage. In the absence of a European international cultural program, Britain's British Council and Germany's Goethe Institute began a basic program of cooperation, sharing office locations in the former Soviet Union. It is a small beginning but one that would have been utterly unimaginable in 1914.

See alsoCinema; Communism; Nazism; 1989; Radio; Radio Free Europe; Television; World War I; World War II.


Cole, Robert. Propaganda in Twentieth Century War and Politics: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md., 1996.

Cull, Nicholas J., David Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. Santa Barbara, Calif., 2003. A single volume that acts as a guide to the subject and includes country-specific entries for most European nations.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York, 1965. A classic study of the rise of propaganda in twentieth-century life.

Taylor, Philip M. Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Era. 3rd ed. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 2003. A concise overview of the subject of propaganda, with emphasis on its role in war.

Taylor, Richard. Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 2nd rev. ed. London, 1998. A valuable comparative treatment of the Nazi and Soviet use of a particularly powerful medium of propaganda.

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, N.C., 1994. A seminal study of U.S. cultural propaganda in postwar Austria.

Welch, David, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. New York, 2002. A comprehensive introduction to Nazi propaganda.

Nicholas J. Cull


views updated May 29 2018


"Propaganda" has been and continues to be a troublesome term. Many social scientists believe that the term is not particularly useful, since arriving at a workable definition of propaganda remains difficult. Other scholars are convinced that propaganda can and must be studied as a separate subject in its own right. No consensus on the definition of propaganda seems likely in the near future, but, after several decades in which almost no studies of propaganda were published, propaganda enjoyed a modest comeback in the 1980s and 1990s. Several important books and academic journal articles devoted to the subject appeared during those decades.

While labeling something as "propaganda" was widely perceived as pejorative through most of the twentieth century, the term did not always have an unpleasant connotation. While Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell (1999) traced the systematic study and application of propaganda techniques to ancient Greece and Rome in the Western world, the earliest use of propaganda in a way resembling the word's contemporary meaning occurred on June 22, 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established what was commonly called the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide ("Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith"). This group was charged with evangelization in the "New World" of the Americas and with countering the Protestant Reformation by promoting orthodox Roman Catholicism. However, widespread references to propaganda did not become common until the twentieth century, when propaganda was increasingly associated with the trickery and deceptive mass communication that was employed by the governments involved in the two world wars and in the Cold War. Few people in the contemporary Western world would publicly describe their work as propaganda, since less controversial terms such as "information," "persuasion," and "communication" are available.

The Problem of Definition

The central problem of propaganda studies is one of definition. If propaganda cannot be distinguished practically and theoretically from other kinds of communication, then propaganda becomes nothing more than a disparaging label for a message that someone dislikes. The term is not very useful if it simply becomes an insult or epithet. Several possibilities for defining propaganda have been explored.


One way to define propaganda is to suggest that it is a specific kind of persuasion that comes from a government or corporate source. From this perspective, a lone individual could not engage in propagandizing, but individuals working under the direction of the U.S. government or General Motors could be part of an organized propaganda effort. In the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union, for example, propaganda was produced by well-trained professionals who worked for the state. This definition suggests that propaganda is ethically neutral, since government or corporate sources are not always or necessarily evil.

Critics of this source-based approach to defining propaganda would argue that this perspective creates another word for official persuasion and/or corporate advocacy and that an additional label is not particularly helpful. Also, some critics of this definition complain that describing propaganda in this way suggests a coordinated, secret, persuasive campaign that involves government and corporate actors, when no such plan exists in fact.


Another way to define propaganda is to emphasize technology and a variety of modern techniques that are used to reach large audiences. For some scholars, propaganda is in all important respects a synonym for "mass persuasion," whether in government messages or commercial advertising. From this perspective, studies of propaganda only became necessary in the twentieth century when new media technologies (e.g., radio, film, television) began to be used regularly by ordinary citizens. As with the source-based definition, a definition of propaganda that relies on technology is ethically neutral, since mass persuasion could be used for good or ill.

Critics of the technology-centered definition of propaganda would complain that mass persuasion is not inherently different from other kinds of persuasion and should not be given its own, unique label. This complaint is especially compelling when one recognizes that "propaganda" is a term with much negative baggage and that avoiding the term when possible has some intuitive advantages.

Intent and Purpose

A final way to define propaganda is to focus on the intent and purpose of the source that created the message and delivered that message to an audience. Propaganda from this perspective is ethically defective or troublesome because it puts the interests of the propagandist ahead of the interests of the propagandist's audience. Furthermore, propaganda relies on deception to secure agreement on the part of audience members. Even if the propagandist tells the truth, she or he does so as a strategy for facilitating attitude change, rather than because telling the truth is a moral obligation that is normally owed to all other human beings. While propaganda might happen to come from a government source and use mass persuasion techniques, the ethical problems that are inherent in propaganda separate it from more ethical forms of persuasion.

Concentrating on the intent or purpose of the propagandist distinguishes this definitional approach from the others described above. Specifically, while some scholars beginning in the 1930s sought to make propaganda an ethically neutral concept that was amenable to social-scientific analysis, others consistently maintained that propaganda was morally objectionable and, thus, could be distinguished from other kinds of persuasion. If a person who designs a message places her or his interests above those of the audience in the creation of that message, then, by definition, propaganda has occurred. While some versions of this definition compare (inherently unethical) propaganda with (ethical) persuasion, other variations make propaganda an unethical subcategory of persuasion.

Critics of attempts to ascertain intent and purpose in defining propaganda would complain that intent and purpose are hard to pin down since a speaker or writer may not be entirely forthcoming or honest when asked about her or his intent. Also, as was the case above, the justification for a separate label to be used for unethical persuasion is not necessarily compelling.

These three different approaches to defining propaganda illustrate the difficulty of finding a workable definition. Each of these approaches could be constructed as a subcategory of persuasion (organizational, mass, unethical) that does not require the existence of the propaganda label. While Jowett and O'Donnell (1999, p. 4) are right that a "definition sets forth propaganda's characteristics and aids our recognition of it," the need for the term "propaganda" itself is less clear, especially given the long, complex, and largely unhappy history of the term. Nevertheless, scholars who have studied propaganda, not surprisingly, have generally accepted that the references to and research on propaganda make sense given one or more of the definitional approaches described above.

Propaganda During and Between the World Wars

In the United States, the greatest degree of anxiety over the dangers posed by propaganda have involved the U.S. role in military conflicts, beginning with World War I and continuing after the end of the Cold War. During the world wars, preparation for and support of war efforts included extensive government attempts to create pro-war messages and promote attitudes and behaviors that would make victory in these wars more likely. The systematic efforts of governments to influence public opinion were widely characterized as propaganda.

During World War I, the Allied governments produced a variety of propaganda materials that denounced German motives and emphasized the atrocities that were committed by German soldiers. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson facilitated the creation of the Committee on Public Information, which among other activities offered assistance to the film industry and worked to see that pro-war films were created for U.S. audiences. The German government did not make effective or extensive use of propaganda during World War I, but the Nazis learned from the mistakes of their German predecessors and made frequent use of propaganda during the 1930s and 1940s. Adolf Hitler's infamous 1926 book Mein Kampf would later be read as a "how-to" manual for propaganda.

In the years between the two world wars, propaganda was widely studied in the United States, despite the fact that references to propaganda had only been common in the United States since 1918. As the events of World War I were assessed, many scholars and public intellectuals described concerns about the public being misled by unethical communication practices. Driven by their belief that mass communication had a powerful potential to distribute messages that would alter audience attitudes and behaviors, these progressive propaganda critics, as J. Michael Sproule called them in his book Propaganda and Democracy (1997), wanted to educate the public about propaganda and to help people detect deceptive claims and faulty reasoning. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (1939) identified several techniques of propaganda that are still widely taught. For example, "card stacking" by a propagandist provides evidence that favors one side of an argument while withholding the best evidence that supports the other side of an argument. Furthermore, "name calling" by a propagandist attempts to discredit a person or group by describing the relevant parties in highly negative terms, as when Vietnamese nationals were called "gooks" by some U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam conflict.

In the late 1930s, those people who favored U.S. neutrality during the early days of World War II recalled efforts by British propagandists toencourage U.S. involvement in World War I. In addition, pro-war messages during this time were often denounced as propaganda. However, once the United States entered World War II, propaganda efforts coordinated by the Office of War Information were again defended as a vital part of the total war effort. As explained in a War Department pamphlet, What Is Propaganda? (1944), which was prepared by the American Historical Association, there was a difference between democratic propaganda, which was truthful and provided the information that people need to make up their own minds, and enemy propaganda, which relied on lies in an attempt to fool ordinary citizens into following misguided, dictatorial policies. This pamphlet explained that democratic propaganda was a weapon of modern warfare and that it was vital for spreading accurate information about the war and for inspiring people to sacrifice in order to make victory possible.

Despite the insistence on a distinction between democratic and enemy propaganda, the practice of propaganda during World War II made this distinction difficult to sustain. For example, as described by Douglas Walton (1997), one 1939 newspaper article in London's Sunday Times recounted the bombing of a British fishing trawler in an exceedingly unbalanced and one-sided way. According to the story, a German submarine deliberately, rather than accidentally, bombed a civilian vessel and sank it, thus proving that Germany was an evil nation. Later, when the German submarine returned to the area to pick up survivors and give them water and shelter, this only proved that Germany was trying to deceive other nations, who would wrongly conclude that the Germans were not so bad after all. German behavior, whether in sinking the vessel or in tending to the survivors, was always interpreted in the most unfavorable manner. This democratic propaganda, even though published by an independent news source, did not provide for multiple interpretations of the same facts.

Additionally, enemy propaganda was not always deceitful during World War II. For example, some Japanese short-wave radio broadcasts during the war were designed for African-American consumption and argued that U.S. involvement in the war was designed to ensure white world supremacy at the expense of both the Japanese and African Americans. Japanese propagandists in this case were often truthful, since they had only to make reference to conditions in the Jim Crow South to support their claims about racial inequality in the United States. In short, conventional distinctions between democratic and nondemocratic propaganda did not seem entirely consistent with the actual propaganda messages of the period.

The Cold War and Its Aftermath

In the transition from World War II to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union—the two great postwar military powers— both countries made extensive use of print and electronic media to disseminate messages that portrayed their economic and political systems on favorable terms. International short-wave radio broadcasts became a popular means of promoting governmental causes. For example, U.S. broadcast services included Voice of America and a variety of other radio and television services.

The United States Information Agency published magazines and bulletins in several countries and, since the 1990s, it has maintained an Internet website. During the Cold War, attempts were periodically made to distinguish between totalitarian propaganda, which relied on central control of the content of messages and was intolerant of dissent, and democratic propaganda, which was truthful and allowed for expression of some differing perspectives. However, not surprisingly, democratic propaganda still sought to portray the experience of democratic political systems as being generally positive.

Despite the end of the Cold War at the conclusion of the 1980s, interest in propaganda was renewed by the sophisticated public relations operation of the U.S. military and the constraints on media coverage of military operations during the Persian Gulf War, as well as by the comparison of the independent news media in purportedly democratic nations with the state-controlled news media of Iraq. The Internet and international television broadcasts via satellite also were examined during the 1990s as new technologies that presumably would provide new capabilities both for the distribution of propaganda and for the challenging of propaganda.

Computer-Based Media and the Future

The future of propaganda and propaganda studies is not at all clear. With the creation of the Internet, access to mass media outlets is no longer limited to the wealthy. While nightly news television programming and commercial print, radio, and television advertising continues to have larger audiences than individual Internet websites, relatively inexpensive desktop publishing, electronic mail, and websites will provide convenient and cost-effective means for distributing information and challenging official sources of news. Unless a national government is willing to ban computers, facsimile machines, and other advanced communication technologies, that government will not be able to restrict the flow of ideas and information among its citizens.

When confronted with charges that some message is a kind of propaganda, perhaps the best response is to remember that those who create such messages are not the only individuals who have important duties to perform. Many communication scholars have argued over the years that, unless misled or intellectually incapable of making tough choices between two or more competing arguments, audience members—receivers of propaganda messages—also have an ethical obligation to think through and critically analyze those messages. In other words, if an audience member thinks that something she or he has heard might be propaganda, it is the job of the audience member to reflect on that message, to do research on it if necessary, and to act accordingly. Propaganda is only effective if audience members allow it to be.

See also:Democracy and the Media; Globalization of Culture through the Media; Internet and the World Wide Web; Social Change and the Media; Social Goals and the Media; Society and the Media.


American Historical Association. (1944). What Is Propaganda? Washington, DC: War Department.

Bytwerk, Randall L. (1999). "The Failure of the Propaganda of the German Democratic Republic." Quarterly Journal of Speech 85:400-416.

Cunningham, Stanley B. (1992). "Sorting Out the Ethics of Propaganda." Communication Studies 43:233-245.

Doob, Leonard W. (1935). Propaganda—Its Psychology and Techniques. New York: Henry Holt.

Edelstein, Alex S. (1997). Total Propaganda: From Mass Culture to Popular Culture. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ellul, Jacques. (1965). Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trs. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Knopf.

Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.

Hitler, Adolf. (1943). Mein Kampf, tr. Ralph Manheim.Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Institute for Propaganda Analysis. (1939). The Fine Art of Propaganda: A Study of Father Coughlin's Speeches, eds. Alfred McClung Lee and Elizabeth Briant Lee.New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Jowett, Garth S., and O'Donnell, Victoria. (1999). Pro paganda and Persuasion, 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kellner, Douglas K. (1992). The Persian Gulf TV War. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Larson, Charles U. (1998). Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 8th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Marlin, R. R. A. (1989). "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion." International Journal of Moral and Social Studies 4:37-72.

Masaharu, Sato, and Kushner, Barak. (1999). "'Negro Propaganda Operations': Japan's Short-Wave RadioBroadcasts for World War II Black Americans." His torical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19:5-26.

Parry-Giles, Shawn J. (1996). "'Camouflaged' Propaganda: The Truman and Eisenhower Administrations' Covert Manipulation of News." Western Journal of Communication 60:146-167.

Pratkanis, Anthony, and Aronson, Elliot. (1991). Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persua sion. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Qualter, Terence H. (1985). Opinion Control in the Democracies. New York: St. Martin's.

Smith, Ted J., III, ed. (1989). Propaganda: A Pluralistic Perspective. New York: Praeger.

Sproule, J. Michael. (1997). Propaganda and Democ racy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Walton, Douglas. (1997). "What is Propaganda, and What Exactly is Wrong with It?" Public Affairs Quarterly 11:383-413.

Brian R. Mcgee


views updated Jun 11 2018



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


views updated May 09 2018


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 .