Home > Uncategorized > The Origins of American Propaganda

The Origins of American Propaganda

Chapter One of

Taking the Risk of Out of Democracy:

Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1997)

by Alex Carey

In 1942 Henry Wallace coined the phrase “the century of the common man” to epitomize his belief that American (and world) society would come under the influence of the needs and aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people. He foresaw a society where education, science, technology, corporate power and natural resources would, to an unprecedented extent, be controlled and used in the service of large humane ends rather than in the service of individual power and class privilege (Blum 1973:635-40).

In the United States, which is often seen as the epitome of a modern democracy, the outcome has been very different from Wallace’s expectations. The “common man”, instead of emerging triumphant, has never been so confused, mystified and baffled; his most intimate conceptions of himself, of his needs, and indeed of the very nature of human nature, have been subject to skilled manipulation and construction in the interests of corporate efficiency and profit.

It is a central thesis of this chapter that the failure to move significantly towards the “people’s revolution” and the “century of the common man” foreseen by Wallace is due in important measure to the power of propaganda. For sixty years in the United States propaganda techniques have been developed and deployed to ensure chat, though the common man escape the coercive control of political despotism, he will remain manageably in the service of interests other than his own. Domestic propaganda is propaganda directed, not outwards to control or deflect the purposes of some external enemy in wartime, but inwards to control and deflect the purposes of the domestic electorate in a democratic country in the interests of privileged segments of that society.

Academic and practising experts are agreed on what propaganda consists of:



Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols … Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration … intimidation … economic coercion … drill. But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the technique of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. (Lasswell, Bardson and Janowitz 1953:776-80)



Thus the successful use of propaganda as a means of social control requires a number of conditions: the will to use it; the skills to produce propaganda; the means of dissemination; and the use of “significant symbols”, symbols with real power over emotional reactions – ideally, symbols of the Sacred and the Satanic.

The United States has, for a long time, provided all of these conditions in greater abundance than any other Western country. I shall consider each of these conditions in turn.

The Will

Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role – and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role – in technologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion.

In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion. This was the point made by Robert Brady after an extensive study of business and corporate public relations – a term he uses to cover domestic propaganda. Brady (1943:288-9) concluded that in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan during the half-century to 1940, “broadly speaking the importance of public relations … decreases as one moves away from countries with long and deep-seated liberal, democratic and parliamentary institutions”. Brady argues that Italy and Japan had the least experience of democratic institutions and therefore produced the least competent propaganda. In Germany, where there had been greater, though still limited experience of democratic institutions, “Nationalist Socialist propaganda was by all means better organised … more vociferous and more versatile than the propaganda of either Italy or Japan”. At the other end of the scale, that is among countries with the longest experience of liberal, democratic institutions, “public relations propaganda … in the United States … is more highly coloured and ambidextrous than it has ever become, even in England”.

Professor Raymond Bauer (1958:126) comes to a similarly unexpected conclusion from his study of social science in the Soviet Union:



One area of social science chat is ordinarily assumed to be useful to a totalitarian regime is research on social and political attitudes … Ironically, psychology and the other social sciences have been employed least in the Soviet Union for precisely those purposes for which Americans popularly think psychology would be used in a totalitarian state – political propaganda and the control of human behaviour.



It is interesting to contrast these results with the situation in America as described by Harold Lasswell in 1927 when he wrote Propaganda Techniques in World War One. Lasswell unjustifiably believed that, in the after-knowledge of the Allied propaganda used during World War One, “familiarity with the behaviour of the ruling public has bred contempt”. As a consequence he assumed that “despondent democrats” turned elitist, no longer trusting intelligent public opinion, and therefore should themselves determine how to make up the public mind, “how to bamboozle and seduce in the name of the public good. Preserve the majority convention but dictate to the majority!” (Lasswell 197 1:4-5).

Moreover, Lasswell’s justification for “democratic propaganda” indicates a complacency wholly at variance with democratic values but in tune with the interests of private enterprise. Such a view tends to reinforce the legitimate role of propaganda in a democracy. Thus Lasswell can report, uncritically, that within recent years propaganda has become a profession:



The modern world is busy developing a corps of men who do nothing but study the ways and means of changing minds or binding minds to their convictions. Propaganda … is developing its practitioners, its teachers and its theories. It is to be expected that governments will rely increasingly upon the professional propagandists for advice and aid.


Such control through propaganda is, Lasswell concludes, a response to “the immensity, the rationality, the wilfulness of the modern world. It is the new dynamic of [a] society … [where] more can be won by illusion than by coercion” (ibid:34).

Finally, an illustration of democratic propaganda practice in the United States in the 1920s. In 1928~1929 the Federal Trade Commission conducted investigations into the multi-million dollar propaganda activities of the private utilities. Mr B J Mullaney, director of the utility interests’ Illinois “information committee”, produced in testimony a statement that Robert Dahl has described as the “classic formulation of the importance of indirect techniques” of political influence. Mullaney observed:



When a destructive bill is pending in the legislature it has to be dealt with in a way to get results. I am not debating that. But to depend year after year on the usual political expedients for stopping hostile legislation is short-sightedness. In the long run isn’t it better and surer to lay a groundwork with people back home who have the votes, so that proposals of this character are not popular with them, rather than depend upon stopping such proposals when they get up to the legislature or commission. (Dahl 1959:30)



We could agree with Professor Harwood Childs when he contends that “Americans are the most propagandised people of any nation” (Meier 1950:162).

The Skill

Commercial advertising and public relations are the forms of propaganda activity common to a democracy. In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that “advertising is peculiarly American”, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that



Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost (Dudley 1947:106, 108).



The Means

United States pre-eminence in the means of communication through which to disseminate propaganda – the scale and reach of the mass media from TV, radio and films to comic strips, nationally and internationally – has long been beyond serious challenge. However, it is the fourth condition, the creation and maintenance of emotionally “significant symbols”, that has given propaganda its extraordinary power and particular role in American culture.

The Symbols

The propagandist in the United States starts with advantages deriving from independent features of American society which predispose its members to adopt – or accept – a dualistic, Manichean world-view. This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic.

In addition, US society has a pragmatic orientation. This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all – for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil – demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States.

Moreover the kind of evangelical religious belief to which American culture has always been held hostage provides habits of thought already formed to accommodate the Manichean world-view. Some indication of the Manichean distinctiveness of American culture is provided by an International Gallup Poll about religious belief conducted in America and ten European countries in 1968. The poll yielded the following results. More people in America claimed to believe in God (98 percent) and in Heaven (85 percent) than in any other country polled (cf Britain, 77 percent and 54 percent; France, 73 percent and 39 percent). Similarly sixty percent of Americans claimed to believe in the Devil and 65 percent in Hell (Britain, 21 percent, 23 percent; France, 17 percent, 22 percent). Here too Americans led all the rest, with the single exception that they lost to Greece by seven points with respect to the Devil. These are surely surprising results in a country characterized by more advanced technological development and a more extended educational process than any other.

The Manichean dichotomy that has been most powerful – as a means of social control – in respect of both domestic issues and foreign policy issues is not God/Heaven versus Devil/Hell but the secular equivalent of these. Thus on the one hand an extravagant idealization of the Spirit of America, the Purpose of America, the Meaning of America, the American Way of Life – the transcendent values by which the United States is represented to the world as the Manifest Destiny of the world in Piety and Virtue (see Morgenthau I960). On the other hand the extravagant negative idealization of Evil secularized in communism/socialism as sui generis, in all places and at all times, malevolent, evil, oppressive, deceitful and destructive of all civilized and humane values.

The most cursory acquaintance with American political propaganda will suggest that the psychological power of almost all such propaganda derives from a calculated exacerbation of American national sentiments. Notions like the American Way of Life, the Meaning of America, the Spirit of America, become symbols with the irrational power of the Sacred, and from an equally calculated exacerbation of American apprehension about the “alien ideology” of communism and all its allegedly un-American characteristics, communism/socialism, et cetera, become symbols of the Satanic. So long as these symbol-identifications can be maintained in popular sentiment it is a simple matter to curb popular demand and support for significant reform of the institutions and conditions of American society. By associating welfare provisions and other (selected) government interventions with Socialism/Communism and conversely the Free Enterprise System with Loyalty, Patriotism, Freedom, the American Dream, the American Way of Life, propagandists are doing no more than manipulating appropriate Satanic and Sacred symbols.

The manipulation of patriotic and nationalist sentiments has, above all else, given American anti-communism its remarkable psychological force as a means of social control. Peacetime “patriotic” hysteria such as characterized the McCarthy period is a phenomenon largely peculiar to the United States among Western countries which have any extended experience with democratic forms of government. Fear of communism as Satanic is largely derived from hypersensitive nationalism. In popular consciousness it comes largely from the representation of communism as threatening the cherished, the secular-sacred idealized “American Way”: threatening, in a word, “national security” – a term conceived of as broadly as the Middle Ages conceived of defence of the faith against threats and seductions from heretical ideas and agencies.

It is no new notion, of course, that American anti-communism during the postwar decade took on a medieval temper (see Miller 1964; Parenti 1970; Trevor-Roper 1967:53, 93) – Nonetheless some illustration in passing may be useful to remind us just how regression toward a superstitious, magical world-view may be induced under the influence of aggravated nationalist faith. In the nineteenth century those who refused to accept the diabolism of old women were pilloried as “patrons of witches” (Trevor-Roper 1967:48). In the decades after 1946 anyone who argued against the diabolical view of communism was likely to be pilloried as “soft on communism” or as a “communist fellow-traveller”.

In the sixteenth century witches were regarded as possessed by (that is, as obedient to remote and magical control by) the Devil. In 1955 a reputable American journal that catered to intellectuals editorialized: “that [Ho Chi Minh] is our enemy is obvious. He belongs to that particularly dangerous species of men whose nervous system has been rewired to make it obedient to remote control from Moscow” (‘Who-What-Why’ 1955:8).

During the past sixty years this form of crass stereotyping was made tolerable because of the defeat of a culture of critical consciousness.


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