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Propaganda: Necessary but Difficult

by Allan M. Winkler on Nov 20, 2001

Allan M. Winkler

Confronted with the need to win world support for its fight against terrorism, the administration of George W. Bush is launching a new propaganda campaign.

Unfortunately, however, propagandists will be starting from scratch; the effort to craft a coherent message about American aims and actions has faltered since the end of the Cold War. While the easiest course of action would be to rely on past propaganda strategies, that approach has limitations, because the current struggle against terrorism is substantially different from other wars. And even a fresh effort may not succeed, for it is not at all clear that the American government is willing to articulate its military and political goals clearly enough to provide the basis of effective propaganda.

Coherent propaganda depends on a coherent effort to address international concerns. The United States needs to counter the ire of much of the Islamic world for the materialistic excesses of modern American life. It needs to placate American allies in the anti-terrorism campaign unhappy at the administration’s unwillingness to convey adequate information about the struggle. And it needs to gain control of Afghani factions on the ground, which are threatening to spiral out of control.

Bush’s impulse is to look to past propaganda efforts, but such precedents may not work. Other presidents have faced different problems. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, led by journalist George Creel, to craft and communicate America’s message. But the nation’s first propaganda agency did its job too well. With its shrill anti-German message, it stirred up hatred of Germans and German culture in the United States.

Several decades later, in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to avoid the excesses of World War I by moving more cautiously. The Office of War Information, established in 1942, conveyed the nation’s faith in its democratic heritage and its confidence in ultimate victory. Posters showed Americans willing to support the struggle. Domestic propaganda campaigns encouraged people at home to save fats, to plant victory gardens and to buy bonds. Radio messages carried word of the American commitment to audiences around the world, largely through the format of honest and open news. In everything it did, the Office of War Information was committed to a “strategy of truth.”

The agency also employed credible managers. Its director was Elmer Davis, the beloved CBS newscaster. Top staff members included the poet and librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood.

The propaganda effort continued in full swing after the war as the Cold War unfolded. The United States Information Agency sought tocommunicate the same commitment to democratic values leaders are trying to convey today. But with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, budget cuts devastated the effort to tell the story of America’s heritage.

Now the government is seeking to revive that effort. The White House communications director, Karen P. Hughes, has set up a worldwide network of offices to develop a coherent daily message underscoring the primacy of democratic values. The State Department has hired Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive, to market such values in a way designed to counter the attacks of opponents abroad.

Officials have a tough task ahead of them. In World War II, the enemy was clear. Americans knew they needed to defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. They knew why they were fighting. They subscribed to Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and understood they were in a struggle for the “American way of life.”

The situation is different today. Although the Taliban is faltering, Osama bin Laden remains elusive, and it is not clear what will happen if and when he is found. And with American war aims murky amid debate about what kind of government might serve Afghanistan best, it is all the harder to convey just what democracy might mean in that part of the world.

At the same time, many Americans, and people around the world, are concerned about the lack of a “strategy of truth” like that governing propaganda in World War II. Ever since the war in Vietnam, full information about military operations has been in short supply.

As in every war, propaganda is necessary in the struggle against terrorism. For a propaganda campaign to succeed, the United States needs both to sharpen its goals and to provide better information about what it is doing, so that the rest of the world is willing to help in the struggle.

Allan M. Winkler is Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University, Ohio, and a writer for the History News Service.