Propaganda: Then and Now

by Gilles d'Aymery

November 12, 2001

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"So far as individuals are concerned, the art of democracy is the art of thinking and discussing independently together."
—Institute of Propaganda Analysis (1)
In January 1916, President Woodrow Wilson stated, "So far as I can remember, this is a government of the people, and this people is not going to choose war." (2) Later in the year, Wilson campaigned and won his re-election on a platform stressing a policy of neutrality, if not antiwar pacifism, toward the raging conflict on the old continent. The slogan used by his team, "He kept us out of the war," was factual though from 1914 to 1916 the US exports to Britain and France increased from $825 million to $3.2 billion. Months later, Wilson's request to declare war against the German government was approved in the Senate by 82 votes to 6 (April 4, 1917), and in the House of Representatives by 373 to 50 (April 6, 1917).

If "people [were] not going to choose war" then war would choose people, as Wilson's rhetoric drastically changed: "Lead this people into war, and they'll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of national life, infecting the Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street." (3)

One week later, as he was confronted with a deeply ambivalent public, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) on April 13, 1917. According to a must-read study by Aaron Delwiche at the School of Communications, University of Washington, (4) "Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state." "Invoking the threat of German propaganda," the study continues, "the CPI implemented 'voluntary guidelines' for the news media and helped to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The CPI did not have explicit enforcement power, but it nevertheless 'enjoyed censorship power which was tantamount to direct legal force.'"

"The CPI's domestic division was composed of 19 sub-divisions, and each focused on a particular type of propaganda." Scholars, novelists, moviemakers, artists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, advertisers, and all kind of professionals were recruited by the CPI to develop and disseminate its pro-war message, based on emotional appeals and demonization of the enemy. "On any given week, more than 20,000 newspaper columns were filled with material gleaned from CPI handouts." Pacifists and dissenters were silenced through threats and accusations of un-patriotism. Americans, once intensely divided, embraced the war with fervor and dedication.

On November 11, 1918, that mass insanity and slaughter, that "war to end all wars" came to a close with the Armistice signed at Compiegne, France. The next day, the CPI disbanded its domestic division and a few months later, following the Paris Peace conference that led to the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, closed its foreign division.

The tools, techniques and processes developed by the CPI to manipulate the collective attitudes of the public did not disappear with the termination of the endeavor. The heads of the organization went on to apply the lessons learned in time of war to a country at peace. These former CPI agents moved on to Madison Avenue, joined the nascent Public Relations firms and became lobbyists.

"Two years later," the study states, (5) "the Director of the CPI's Foreign Division argued that 'the history of propaganda in the war would scarcely be worthy of consideration here, but for one fact — it did not stop with the armistice. No indeed! The methods invented and tried out in the war were too valuable for the uses of governments, factions, and special interests.' Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, took the techniques he learned in the CPI directly to Madison Avenue and became an outspoken proponent of propaganda as a tool for democratic government. 'It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind,' wrote Bernays in his 1928 bombshell Propaganda. 'It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace.'"

The intelligent few....regimenting the public mind... Edward Bernays [1891-1995] is also known as the Father of Spin (6) and the godfather of modern public relations (the "father" of public relations is Ivy Lee whose firm, Ivy Lee & T.J. Ross, was hired for $25,000 a year by the German conglomerate, I.G. Farben, which invited him to meet Hitler and Goebbels. His son, James Lee went to work for Farben in Berlin.) (7)

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937 to educate the public about the nature of propaganda, identified "seven basic propaganda devices: Name-Calling, Glittering Generality, Transfer, Testimonial, Plain Folks, Card Stacking, and Band Wagon." (8)

The techniques of Glittering Generality and Name-Calling are of particular interest as they are the two faces of the device that allows the forming of the public mind by manipulating, "guiding" people's emotions. The former relies on positive words such as freedom, democracy, liberty, patriotism, civilization, peace-loving country or people, etc. — all words that have been extensively repeated in the past few weeks by officials and main media alike — that have a potent commonality; that is, their meaning differs according to different people but they have a positive connotation. In reverse, Name-Calling emphasizes the negative, thus rousing fear, intolerance, profound dislike, even hate in people. Words like evil-doers, terrorists, fundamentalists, ethnic-cleansing, genocide — and depending on the circumstances, socialist, queer, gay, communist, liberal, radical, etc. — help create the "enemy." These "good names" and "bad names" are used deliberately and strategically to manipulate public opinion in order to achieve a specific goal (sell a product, create or cancel a policy or a law (cf. the Patriot Act of October 2001), go to war, discredit dissenters, etc.).

Goebbels, the mastermind of the Nazi propaganda machine was said to have read the publications of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis and carefully studied the techniques used by Madison Avenue.

We've come a long way since the 1930s and those studies. The techniques have been refined and perfected. Goebbels used to say that "Domination of the street [was] the first step to state power." Today, the first step to state power is domination of the media; a media, utterly controlled by mega-corporations, that takes advantage of the collective ignorance to disseminate the manipulated messages. In the past, dissenters like Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau or Randolph Bourne were vilified and silenced. Today, they are mostly ignored or easily discredited in a few words. Here is an example in a recent article published in The New York Times, "Counterpoint to Unity: Dissent" (note the usage of the words Unity (Glittering Generality) and Dissent (Name-Calling):

"Another figure from the antiwar movement is Mr. Chomsky, who has never stopped criticizing American foreign policy as the major cause of hardship and harm in the world. He has long since stopped getting much notice among mainstream journals of opinion in the United States, but he retains an avid following among the numerous small leftist groups with magazines and Web sites and among the foes of so-called globalization." (9)

Or take Arundhati Roy. The famous Indian novelist, whose recent two powerful essays, (10) having reached a wide enough audience, was quickly discounted and discredited in another article published in The New York Times, "An Indian Novelist Turns Her Wrath on the U.S." Her essays were decried as "vain, shrill, unoriginal, oversimplified, hyperbolic and lacking any voices but her own." (11) Her words had to be considered serious or "subversive" enough — even though her pieces were not published in the United States — that she deserved an article not buried in the issue (as is usually the case) but featured in page A3!

In both cases, the arguments raised by Chomsky or Roy are not addressed. This is another tool of propaganda. The answers are ad hominem. Their arguments are judged "dangerous" enough that they need to be discredited. With Chomsky it suffices to bury him in the bowels of the paper on page 13 and to associate him with the minority. It is, like a friend puts it, "Well, his arguments can't be very compelling because they only persuade a small band of 'leftists'. Anyone of consequence doesn't listen to him... Therefore, neither should you." Roy, possibly regarded as a greater menace as she cannot be associated to a so-called fringe movement, is properly dispended of through vilification. In both cases, the result is the same: Mere discredit; but again their arguments are not touched with a ten-foot pole!

So, the evidence of Osama bin Laden "would not stand in court," says Secretary of State Collin Powell. Never mind such a detail. Simply keep repeating that bin Laden and the Taliban are "evildoers." Goebbels used to say, "Propaganda means repetition and more repetition!" "Repeat it until even the densest has got it."

So, civilians are being hit by our bombs. Deny it. Goebbels used to say, "Denials must always be categoric." The "collateral damage" is independently confirmed, therefore undeniable. No problem, have the networks show pictures of 9/11 after each and every report of civilian casualties. Goebbels used to say, "Denials alone won't work. You've got to counterattack."

Dissent is done with. Reason is done with. Intellect is done with. Common sense is done with. Everything the "Enlightenment" taught us is done with. We now live in an age, prescribed by Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, where "a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses" has finally dawned upon humanity.

We, the "masses," should rejoice!



1.  Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The Fine Art of Propaganda. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.  (back)
2.  Harry Elmer Barnes, The Genesis of the World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.  (back)
3.  Woodrow Wilson, quoted in Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition And The Men Who Made It. New York: Vintage Books, 1948.  (back)
4.  Aaron Delwiche, Propaganda, School of Communications, University of Washington. http://www.propagandacritic.com/articles/index.html [Ed. Note, August 25, 2006: The original location of that study -- http://carmen.artsci.washington.edu/propaganda/home.htm -- is no longer valid. The link has been replaced to its current location.]  (back)
5.  ibid  (back)
6.  Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. New York: Crown Publishers, 1998.  (back)
7.  The Latin America Solidarity Centre, Dublin, Ireland, Neoliberalism: The Balkans Scenario. http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/wk2balkans.html and The Empire of I.G. Farben, Wall Street And the Rise of Hitler, by Antony C. Sutton. http://reformed-theology.org/html/books/wall_street/chapter_02.htm — Also, Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy. The Nazi — American Money Plot 1933-1949. Delacorte Press, 1983. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Fascism/Trading_Enemy_excerpts.html  (back)
8.  Aaron Delwiche, Propaganda.  (back)
9.  Richard Bernstein, Counterpoint to Unity: Dissent. The New York Times, October 6, 2001, A13 and A15.  (back)
10.  Arundhati Roy, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?sid=1&fodname=20011008&fname=Roy+%28F%29 and War Is Peace, October 23, 2001 in The Guardian of London, http://www.guardian.co.uk/  (back)
11.  Cecilia W. Dugger, An Indian Novelist Turns Her Wrath on the U.S. The New York Times, November 3, 2001, A3  (back)


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Published November 12, 2001
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