Fake News. Alternative facts. “Truthiness.” These are new labels for an old enemy of democracy: propaganda. It is particularly relevant to take a critical look at how propaganda is employed by our own government today.
Propaganda is the strategic use of misleading information to support political dominance. The term is used to describe an opponent’s efforts, never our own, of course. Linguist and critic Noam Chomsky argues that propaganda is to a democracy what violence is to a dictatorship.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of our entrance into World War I. Although governments have always manipulated the truth, this particular era represents the first time U.S. leaders built and sustained a propaganda apparatus designed to maintain American public support for foreign intervention.
Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election in 1916 because “he kept us out of war,” as his campaign slogan proclaimed. People who supported him were voting for non-involvement in the European conflict, a catastrophe that ultimately took 21 million lives. But once Wilson was in the White House, U.S. bankers and industrialists — who had a huge financial stake in Europe– were determined not to allow Germany to prevail. Within a year, Americans were being drafted.
A sudden burst of spontaneous patriotism? No, the public changed its mind largely through the “manufacturing of consent,” a term coined by the journalist and pundit Walter Lippmann. An elite class of opinion makers was required to mold the public’s ideas, Lippmann and the engineers of official manipulation believed. The war was a great object lesson.
Myth-making became an industry, based on the notion that the public was not intelligent enough to come to the right conclusions on its own. That lack of trust in ordinary Americans became a recurring theme. The public, Lippmann wrote, could never “understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend.”
In Hartford and around the country in 1917, volunteers were trained to perform as “Four-Minute Men,” speaking every week in a church, business, or theater. They were provided with a script written by Wilson’s Committee on Public Information. (The moniker referred to the Revolutionary War’s Minute Men, volunteers who could take up arms at a moment’s notice.)
In Connecticut, the Four-Minute Men played a critical propaganda role promoting the war. Remember that this was before the advent of commercial radio. The volunteers were well-known and respected community elders: lawmakers and professors, reverends and rabbis. During the first 10-week period in the summer of 1917, 334,000 Connecticut people listened to their message in 200 different venues, By the next year, over a million had heard “Onward to Victory,” and “The Second Liberty Loan” among other talks. Across the nation, 75,000 speakers provided cost-effective, enthusiastic pro-war presentations in a way no presidential speech could reach.
The government’s propaganda worked well enough to squelch dissidence and criminalize free speech without much of a public outcry. Opposition to the war became a federal offense. The local chapter of the People’s Council for Democracy and Peace was chased out of Hartford after being mocked and demonized by the daily papers. The one public meeting they were able to hold was raided by the police and the main speaker Anna Riley Hale was arrested. Soon, all public halls were officially closed to them. No other “yellow meeting” would be permitted, proclaimed the mayor.
Elsewhere, well-known figures like Kate Richards O’Hare and Eugene Debs were imprisoned because they spoke in opposition to conscription and war. Socialists and labor activists like the Industrial Workers of the World were hounded and jailed because of their anti-war stances.
After the war, the “father” of propaganda Edward Bernays wrote admiringly about the art of sanctioned lying. “We are governed,” he wrote, “ our minds are molded, our tastes are formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
Propaganda didn’t start with the first world war. The word derives from the propagation of the faith, a 17th century Catholic practice of preaching the Gospel through missionary work. Propaganda had a generally positive connotation in those days.
The word’s earliest local usage might have been the 1856 criticism of Isaac Toucey, Connecticut’s career politician. Toucey served from 1850 to 1861 as a state legislator, governor, U.S. congressman and senator, U.S. Attorney General, and Secretary of the Navy.
Toucey regularly attacked local anti-slavery advocates as “disunionists” and “traitors.” He was denounced by editorialists as “one of the ablest agents of propaganda of Slavery at the North” for voting with the Southern states on the expansion of slavery, contradicting the general sentiments of his own constituents.
Abraham Lincoln replaced Toucey as Navy secretary with Gideon Welles, a Glastonbury native. Toucey had left the American naval force under-equipped and ill-prepared to protect U.S. interests from Confederate attack. (In a vestige of Confederate sympathies, Trinity College still has a scholarship named for this “faithless and disobedient servant” of the people.)
U.S. Presidents have enlisted propaganda efforts throughout the past century for a variety of initiatives, and always in time of war. Each successive White House improves on the techniques.
Oddly enough, the news media has often been the last to catch on. It was the common folks, for instance, not Walter Cronkite, who turned against the Vietnam War, probably because their kids came home in coffins. The growing death toll was a sobering fact that neutralized the false patriotism generated by White House propaganda.
Donald Trump’s propaganda spurts like a kid’s soap bubble machine, filling the air with a massive number of fatuous, false, and fast-flying charges. His tweets are shiny and fragile; it’s impossible to catch them all. It remains to be seen if he can crank up his doublespeak efforts sufficiently to drag us into a new war.
Walter Lippmann called us “the bewildered herd” that needed to be led by the nose. But as we have seen over the last six months, millions of Americans are thinking for themselves and acting in community. They are rejecting the Trump administration’s scare tactics, threats, and false promises.
It’s a good sign that shows propaganda is not infallible.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes the website ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com