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Editors: Richard Dean Burns , Alexander DeConde , and Fredrik Logevall
Date: 2002
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 10,670 words
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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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 government—from the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919) and the Office of War Information (1942-1945) to the U.S. Information Agency (1953-1999) 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 persuade—either 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 truth—from 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 manifestations—radio 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 audiences—including 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 activities—negotiations, treaties—have 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 others—by 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 groups—from early antislavery societies to modern political action committees—have 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 propagandists—probably because of propaganda's pejorative associations—the 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&quot Thomas Jefferson spoke of "arousing our people from...lethargy&quot 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 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 to—incessant repetition of propaganda themes and the transmitting of ideas through local media outlets in the form of news—described 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 addresses—most notably the Gettysburg Address—were 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 articles—a 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 pre-twentieth 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, 1917-1945

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 abroad—the 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 1919—a 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 connotations—a 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 Germans—such as unrestricted submarine warfare—many 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 soldiers—who had been taught by their army that to surrender meant relinquishing their place as members of Japanese society—to 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 Act—the 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 1952—a 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 form—cartoons 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. propaganda—a 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 directly—through radio and overtly propagandistic materials—the 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 USIA—at 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 people...has 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 populations—to 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 policy—including the process of creating what came to be known as a "sound bite."

Even within the State Department—an institution wedded to traditional diplomacy and wary of popular opinion—the 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 credibility—concepts 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 (1950-1953), Taiwan Strait (Quemoy-Matsu) (1954-1955), Lebanon (1958), and Vietnam (1954-1973) were driven by a perceived need to demonstrate the resolve, will, and, determination—in a word, credibility—of 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 prowess—and thus reinforce the credibility of their deterrent capabilities—without 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.


One of the most difficult tasks facing all U.S. propaganda agencies has been simply convincing the American people and members of Congress of their right to exist. This was dramatically revealed in the debate over the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act—the first peacetime legislative charter for government propaganda—which was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation ever enacted. By the time it was passed, it had been rewritten twice and had acquired more than one hundred amendments. It also earned more days of debate and filled more pages of the Congressional Record than the controversial Taft-Hartley labor disputes legislation—at that time arguably the most controversial bill in U.S. history.

Controversy surrounding government-sponsored propaganda has also been a recurring theme in modern American political history. U.S. information programs have been subjected to incessant harassment from journalists, American citizens, and from both conservative and liberal members of Congress. These critics often charged that the information programs were ineffective, unnecessary, and wasteful. Critics also held that these programs were infiltrated by spies and saboteurs, or that they were promulgating undesirable and un-American ideas. During World War I and World War II, when the Committee on Public Information and the Office of War Information were openly conducting propaganda in the United States, critics also charged that these agencies were being used for partisan political advantage.

The best-known (and most strident) criticism of the U.S. information program came at the beginning of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a prolonged attack on the Voice of America in concert with his broader assault on suspected communists in the State Department. In 1953, two of McCarthy's aides toured the U.S. Information Service libraries in Europe and announced that they had found 30,000 books by authors with communist sympathies in the stacks. Although these charges were wildly exaggerated, hundreds of books were purged from the libraries and in some cases burned. As a result of the investigations, the U.S. information program lost dozens of employees who resigned or were pushed from their jobs (one prominent official committed suicide), while those that remained were thoroughly demoralized. Perhaps the most serious effects were felt abroad, where the highly publicized investigations devastated American prestige.

Although McCarthy's investigation was the most famous case of domestic political controversy generated by the information program, it was by no means the only one. From the 1917 decision to create the Committee on Public Information to the 1999 decision to dissolve the U.S. Information Agency, American propaganda agencies have been a favorite target of congressional critics. This incessant criticism has in part stemmed from a general American apprehension about any government program that influences, sponsors, or promulgates ideas and values. It has also reflected a powerful belief that democracies have no business engaging in cynical propaganda either at home or abroad. The belief that information activities are wasteful and unnecessary except in times of war or national emergency underlined the decision by Congress to dissolve the U.S. Information Agency.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010308097