The Rise of Modern Propaganda
One difference between past and present societies is how we view persuasion and rhetoric. Our modern society is untrained in persuasive techniques. In contrast to earlier cultures that were schooled in the principles of rhetoric, our society knows little about the techniques of persuasion and understanding how they work. Modern media constantly assails us with information. "Everyday we are bombarded with one persuasive communication after another. These appeals persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions. For better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda" (Pratkanis and Aronson 9)
Modern propaganda is distinguished from other forms of communication by its deliberate and conscious use of false or misleading information to sway public opinion. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century gradually made it possible to reach large numbers of people. But it was not until the nineteenth century that state governments began to employ propaganda for political purposes to any wide degree deliberately aimed at influencing the masses. The invention of radio and television in the twentieth century made it possible to reach even more people. The development of modern media, global warfare, and the rise of extremist political parties provided growing importance to the use of propaganda.
The term propaganda began to be widely used to describe the persuasive tactics used by both sides during the world wars and by later tyrannical political regimes of the twentieth century. Propaganda was used as a psychological weapon against the enemy and to bolster morale at home. The British were the first to develop an extensive system of war propaganda. In the later part of World War One, the Department of Information was formed to coordinate the government's propaganda efforts. Articles were written and distributed both at home and abroad. Important members of the press and various foreign governments received advance press releases and special treatment in the hope that they would write and report favorably on the British war efforts and bolster morale at home. At a time when most news was transmitted by telegraph, advance access to news was advantageous to those who received it first; they were more likely to influence their audiences before those that received the news later. It is not surprising that the word "propaganda" appeared as a separate entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica
for the first in 1922 right after the end of the World War One.Return to Top
President Wilson was among the first world leaders to use government sponsored propaganda on a wide scale. When the United States declared war against Germany in 1917, he created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which represented for the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale (d'Aymery)
. The CPI implemented voluntary guidelines for the news media, and while it did not have direct enforcement powers, its guidelines almost extended to censorship powers. Its tactics were so effective that Hitler and Goebbels modeled their system of propaganda in the 1930's on CPI's policies. Adolph Hitler bluntly discussed the use of propaganda in his book, Mein Kampf, in which he shared Machiavelli's low regard for his audience's intellectual capabilities:
"All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be." (qtd. in Smith 38)
Another passage, also from Mein Kampf, repeated Hitler's contempt for the masses:
"Its [propaganda's] effect for the most part must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect. We must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public. The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous." (qtd. in Pratkanis 250)
The Nazi propaganda machine relied heavily on symbolism. The swastika, a very ancient ideogram and which is now permanently associated with the Nazis, was once a positive symbol used in many different cultures. When Adolph Hitler was made chief of propaganda for the National Socialist party he chose this commanding symbol to distinguish the Nazi Party from all other rival political groups. Joseph Goebbels succeeded Hitler to become the master propagandist for the Nazi regime. With great skill Goebbels began building the myth of Aryan supremacy. He always maintained that some element of truth was necessary in propaganda to provide a means of escape if his statements were questioned. In Propaganda. The Art of War
said: "Goebbels openly admitted that propaganda had little to do with the truth. 'Historical truth may be discovered by a professor of history. We, however, are serving historical necessity. It is not the task of art to be objectively true. The sole aim of propaganda is success" (qtd. in Rhodes 19).Return to Top
Three types of propaganda were developed during World War Two and put to effective use on both sides. Black propaganda was designed to tell anything but the truth and was directed against the enemy.White propaganda was addressed more openly and contained mostly true facts. Gray propaganda omitted all mentions of its source and was designed to not tell the whole truth. Black propaganda was used to disseminate "false information in the enemy camp, military and civilian [...] aimed at undermining moral and generally sowing doubt, disquiet, and depression." White propaganda "aspires to uplift home morale with eyewitness accounts of military successes [...] it is based on truth, even if the truth is twisted a little" (Rhodes 111)
. Winston Churchill
emerged as one of the greatest orators of World War Two. He is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature whose oratorical gifts were specifically mentioned when the prize was announced. His wartime speeches are prime examples of white propaganda used to bolster morale at home. In his speech delivered on June 4, 1940 Churchill said:
"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be [...] we shall never surrender" (qtd. in Jenkins 611)
Just a few days later, on June 18, 1940, Churchill spoke again to his countrymen:
"The battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization [...] Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.'" (qtd. in Jenkins 621)
For the people of countries that have just been overrun by enemy forces or who felt that they were the next nation to be defeated, inspiring words like these helped lift up their spirits and exhorted them to go on. Here we see propaganda being used for the best of purposes.Return to Top
Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, used propaganda in the negative sense. In his rebuttal to Winston Churchill's attack on his totalitarian regime, Stalin responded to Churchill's complaints about the lack of freedom and the narrow political basis of governments in the Eastern bloc:
"In England today, the government of one party is ruling, the Labour Party, and the Opposition is deprived of the right to take part in the government. That is what Mr. Churchill calls 'true democracy'. In Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary, the government is made up of a bloc of several parties [...] while the opposition, if it is more or less loyal, is assured of the right to take part in the government. That is what Mr. Churchill calls 'totalitarianism, tyranny, [and a] police state'" (Jenkins 812)
This passage shows how Stalin used propaganda that contained some elements of the truth, but the language is twisted and corrupted for political ends and hides the real facts.
In order to use propaganda effectively, one has to have great command of language and recognize the power of persuasive speech. George Orwell
, the author of the postwar novel, 1984, realized the dangers of propaganda and the power of persuasion. In his essay "Politics and the English language," Orwell maintained that fighting propaganda meant fighting mental laziness. In "Why I Write," written in 1946, Orwell commented: "To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox." One of the themes that run through 1984 is how the State uses language for political control over the people who speak it. Orwell clearly outlined what might happen in a totalitarian state in which everything the state published was propaganda. The government used a complicated doublespeak language to convey contradictory meanings in order to obscure the truth. The population was taught the language of Newspeak where every concept was expressed in only one word in order to hide nuances and prevent the people from thinking discriminately. The political party in power rewrote the past in order to control the present. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." Return to Top
Orwell wrote numerous essays on the topic of propaganda, which he extended in his novel, Animal Farm
, where he discussed how ideas could be packaged, manipulated, and reformulated in order to change people's beliefs. The animals on the farm take on different roles the way people do in a society. The plot started with a revolution on the farm when the animals took over under the leadership of the pig Napoleon. Another pig, appropriately named Squealer, became minister of propaganda. His job was to make Napoleon's policies seem legitimate and just. As minister of propaganda he could twist language to explain why some animals are more equal than others or why food production was down when the animals have been told it was up. Animal Farm
was written in the late 1940's just before the beginning of the Cold War when the threat of communism began to be taken seriously. One name that has become synonymous with anti-communist propaganda in the United States is Joseph McCarthy. He was a freshman senator from Wisconsin who burst on the scene on February 9, 1950 when he gave a speech at the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In it, he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists in the State Department. No one saw the names on the list, but the announcement made the evening news. No transcript was kept, and there was not even an agreement to the number of people he mentioned, but the impact was instantaneous.
For the next four years, McCarthy kept up a barrage of attacks against so-called communists or people with communist or leftist leanings. No one was safe from his accusations, which were often based on false information, hearsay, and rumor. He quickly became a master manipulator of the press and was always in the headlines. A simple unfounded statement from him could ruin a person's reputation or cause them to lose their job. Many companies and industries blacklisted people and denied them work based on their rumored affiliation with communism. Measures that were instituted to protect national security became witch-hunts designed to ferret out non-conformists, and thousands of innocent people lost their livelihoods. In 1954 the vicious cycle came to an end when McCarthy's baseless hunt for alleged communists and spies was challenged in a series of televised hearings (Blum et al. 801)
. After thirty-five days of hearings full of unsupported allegations, unfounded interruptions, and condescending remarks, McCarthy's spell was finally broken. Few managed to personify all the negative aspects of propaganda to such a degree as Joseph McCarthy whose name personified the era.