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Author: David Welch
Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz
Date: 2005
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 4,972 words
Lexile Measure: 1420L

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

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

The origin of the word propaganda can be traced back to the Reformation, when the spiritual and ecclesiastic unity of Europe was shattered, and the medieval Roman Catholic Church lost its hold on the northern countries. During the ensuing struggle between forces of Protestantism and those of the Counter-Reformation, the church found itself faced with the problem of maintaining and strengthening its hold in the now non-Catholic countries. A commission of cardinals set up by Pope Gregory XIII (1572–1585) was charged with spreading Catholicism and regulating ecclesiastical affairs in heathen lands. A generation later, when the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) 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 (1642–1646), 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. Page 1917  |  Top of Article
British World War I propaganda poster seeking to recruit women to the war effort, c. 1915. The first world war represented the advent of propaganda on a massive scale, as the participating countries realized the importance of public opinion and British World War I propaganda poster seeking to recruit women to the war effort, c. 1915. The first world war represented the advent of propaganda on a massive scale, as the participating countries realized the importance of public opinion and the need to keep morale high. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION /CORBIS Page 1918  |  Top of Article 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 (1876–1953). 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
U.S. Navy recruitment poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1918. In the United States the Committee on Public Information was formed in 1917 as the official disseminating agency of propaganda. The committee sought to present the facts surrounding U.S. Navy recruitment poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1918. In the United States the Committee on Public Information was formed in 1917 as the official disseminating agency of propaganda. The committee sought to present the facts surrounding the war in a way that was favorable to the image of the country. © SWIM INK /CORBIS than any other belligerent state. Britain's wartime consensus is generally believed to have held under the exigencies of the conflict—despite 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.

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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 (1925–1927), 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 media—particularly film and radio—for 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
Radio broadcast. With the rise in popularity of mass media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda were utilized, especially by the governments of totalitarian states.  H. ARMSTRONG Radio broadcast. With the rise in popularity of mass media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda were utilized, especially by the governments of totalitarian states. © H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS / CORBIS 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 (1889–1971), 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.

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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 (1945–1989). 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 (1879–1953), 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
Soviet poster, c. 19411945. During World War II, the use of propaganda reached a fever pitch amongst the warring countries. In the Soviet Union, the war was known as The Great Patriotic War, and the countrys propaganda was managed by the Direct Soviet poster, c. 1941–1945. During World War II, the use of propaganda reached a fever pitch amongst the warring countries. In the Soviet Union, the war was known as "The Great Patriotic War," and the country's propaganda was managed by the Directorate of Propaganda and Agitation of the Central Committee. © CORBIS 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 society—particularly 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 media—particularly the new medium of television—and through the Page 1921  |  Top of Article
Poster celebrating Chinas Fifth National Peoples Congress, 1978. Propaganda seeks to evoke thoughts and actions that are desirable to those seeking sway over the public. The goal is to narrow viewpoints until they are in line with those of the Poster celebrating China's Fifth National People's Congress, 1978. Propaganda seeks to evoke thoughts and actions that are desirable to those seeking sway over the public. The goal is to narrow viewpoints until they are in line with those of the propagandist. © BETTMANN/CORBIS 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 (1902–1978)—a pioneer of propaganda studies—who 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 (1912–1996) 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 converts—or 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 Page 1922  |  Top of Article its use by nongovernmental players. Kosovo highlights the forces of change between the pre–Cold 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 conceived—press, radio, cinema, television—but 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.


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David Welch

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424300639