Book Review -- The Perils of Propaganda: Lessons from the Cold War

John Brown

Place Branding, October 2006


John Brown is Senior Fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy in Los Angeles.

Reprinted with permission

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Fallout Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War
Michael L. Krenn
(The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005;
ISBN 0 8078 2945 5; $ 39.95 cloth, 300pp)

Total Cold War: Eisenhower 's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad
Kenneth Osgood
(University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2006; ISBN 0 7006 1445 1;
$ 45.00 cloth; 506pp)

The Truth Is Our Weapon: The Rhetorical Diplomacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles
Chris Tudda
(Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2006; ISBN 0 8071 3140 7;
$ 39.95 cloth; 224pp)

A month after 9/11, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke declared in the Washington Post (21st October, 2001):

'Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or -- if you really want to be blunt -- propaganda. But whatever it is called, defining what this war is really about in the minds of the one billion Muslims in the world will be of decisive and historic importance.'

Since Holbrooke wrote these words, discussing the role of public diplomacy in the war on terror has been a cottage industry. Dozens and dozens of reports have appeared related to the topic, not to speak of hundreds of studies in specialised journals and articles in the mass media. Among this literature -- so much of which lacks historical perspective -- we can also include, thankfully, monographs that shed light on the role of public diplomacy and propaganda during the Cold War. This was a period when, arguably, propaganda was used — some would say misused -- more extensively than in any other prior conflict. Indeed, the person who coined the modern use of the term 'public diplomacy ' in 1965, Dean Edmund Gullion of Tufts University, wrote that he would have preferred, '[t]o describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda', simply using the word 'propaganda'itself but that, because "propaganda" has always a pejorative connotation in this country ... we hit upon "public diplomacy." 1

Two impressive new books pertaining to US propaganda during the Cold War -- Kenneth Osgood's Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad and Michael L. Krenn's Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War -- have appeared. They are joined by a third, shorter new study, Chris Tudda's The Truth is Our Weapon: The Rhetorical Diplomacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, which (like the other two studies under review) has a useful bibliography on the considerable number of works about Cold War propaganda published in recent years. Osgood is an assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University; Krenn, professor and chair of the Department of History at Appalachian State University; Tudda, a historian with the Department of State whose views, he notes, 'do not necessarily reflect those of … the United States government'.

As their titles suggest, these three books, which make extensive use of unpublished materials, have different perspectives. Krenn deals with post-World War II overseas exhibits of American modern painting used by the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA) as propaganda for 'freedom and individuality in contrast to the strict dogmas of the Soviet Union's "socialist realism." Osgood's main concern is the Eisenhower administration's psychological strategy — 'the shaping of policies and programs for their impact on public attitudes at home and abroad'— that included extensive propaganda. Tudda's study argues that rhetorical diplomacy (which he contrasts to 'confidential diplomacy') 'represented more than mere propaganda' and (he adds in not the clearest of statements) 'was consciously designed to educate Western citizens for globalism while girding them for a long-term diplomatic effort'.

These books are noteworthy in Cold War historiography for two reasons. First, they provide much new information. Krenn contends that the government's overseas arts programme, which included numerous projects with the cooperation of the private American Federation of the Arts (AFA), met with many setbacks and failures. He begins his story with the State Department's 'Advancing American Art' exhibit, which had to be pulled out of Europe in 1947 because Congress -- and President Truman himself -- found the show too abstract. He goes on with elucidating sections on the US exhibits at the Brussels World's Fair of 1958 and at the American Exhibit in Moscow in 1959, both the subject of controversy back in the USA because of their display of nonrepresentational paintings. He ends his study with a chapter on the American participation in the Venice biennale, which (in 1970) was dismissed by the art critic Gregory Battcock as follows:

'The naïve, know-nothing exhibition in the American pavilion is, quite simply, humiliating. The kindest thing the art public can do at this stage of the game is to stay away. The most intelligent thing to do would be to burn it down.'

Osgood's study, the longest of the three, sheds new light on high-visibility US government initiatives such as Atoms for Peace, People-to-People, and the USIA's Facts About the United States. His detailed account of these programmes, which he sees as 'camouflaged' propaganda in that it was not disclosed at home and abroad that they were, in fact, propaganda, is not without humour. He notes, for example, that a member of a group involved in People-to-People, an American pet club, wrote that 'Dogs makes the best ambassadors' because they 'are capable of hurdling the barriers of language and ideologies in the quest for peace'. He points out that USIA's Facts About the United States characterised a Mrs. Gail Forster as a 'typical' American housewife living in a Philadelphia suburb. But had 'the USIA's global audiences known more about Mrs. Forster, they might have considered her less "typical" than the IPS (the agency's International Press Service) picture story suggested', as 'most of her family had attended Harvard' and 'the Forsters owned a beautiful estate on Mason's Island on the Connecticut shore. The USIA did not mention such details'.

Aside from the new data they unearth, another reason for the importance of these books is that Osgood and Krenn argue (and Tudda as well, but less emphatically) that the Cold War marked a significant new period in American diplomatic history. It was then that the US government became involved, far more than before, in using propaganda to serve its national interests. Pointing out that State Department first supported cultural programmes in the late 1930s (mostly to offset Nazi propaganda in Latin America), Krenn notes that a new, more proactive attitude towards the use of American art as a foreign policy tool began by the end of World War II and continued until the 1970s. According to the Advisory Committee on art to the Department of State (1945), the destination of artworks for display abroad (beyond Latin Europe, zeroing in on Europe) now 'would be determined by analyses of the target nations, US goals, and anticipated results of the exhibits'. Most important, artworks would be 'propaganda -- "in the best sense" -- serving the national interests; they would be "means to an end"'.

Osgood's view on the US propaganda campaign during the Cold War -- specifically, during the Eisenhower administration -- is that it was 'total'-- far more total than suggested by Krenn, who is careful to note that 'The Cold War was indeed a powerful force, but it was not omnipresent -- there were survivors, people and ideas who tried to find (and occasionally found) shelter from the political and ideological forms'. Whereas Krenn describes tensions between government propagandists and US art lovers over the purpose of cultural programmes (with the latter upholding that it should not just be a means to a policy end, but an 'international language of understanding'), Osgood sees the entire nation taking part -- willingly but unwittingly (hence, in part, the adjective 'secret' in the title of his book) -- in a huge psychological operations campaign, both overt and covert, both at home and abroad, orchestrated by the government, against a mortal enemy, communism. Noting that the Cold War, 'more than any other conflict in American history, was channeled into nonmilitary modes of combat, particularly ideological and symbolic ones', Osgood underscores that American psychological strategy was

'a truly global effort, one that extended well beyond the activities of the US Information Agency, the official propaganda arm of the American government. The United States pursued a wide range of activities to shape, alter, and manipulate the perceptions and politics of allied and neutral nations alike. Here, too, the story extended further into the private sphere. Total war made distinctions between propaganda intended for 'domestic' and 'international' audiences meaningless.'

So total was this psychological strategy, Osgood argues, that it went beyond mere propaganda, which he defines as 'the use of communication techniques to influence policies and actions'. Indeed -- and this is the main point of his book -- 'the awareness that international public opinion had become a major factor in the conduct of diplomacy meant that psychological warfare considerations intruded on the policymaking process itself'. It was psychological warfare, with propaganda as one of its tools, that the Eisenhower administration used -- rather than diplomacy or military might -- as its major weapon in the Cold War. This, Osgood argues, marked a completely new period in American diplomatic history. Osgood's argument, supported as it is by extensive research, is impressive, but may be somewhat strained in making the case for the 'totality' the Eisenhower administration psychological strategy, especially when he draws too close a parallel between the president of an imperfect democracy and the leader of a totalitarian propaganda ministry:

'both Goebbels and the president [Eisenhower] had similar thoughts in mind when they issued their total war pleas; they wanted to shore up the morale of their people, to steady their course, to urge them to stand tall in the fall of unyielding external challenges.'

Krenn's and Osgood's studies are not only important because they unearth large amounts of new historical data and illustrate how propaganda became a major instrument of American foreign policy in the Cold War. Equally significant, they suggest some cautionary tales on the misuse of propaganda in the Cold War that have relevance for public diplomacy in the 21st century, when the United States, under the Bush administration, has been led into a so-called 'war on terror'that requires winning over hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

A first lesson of Cold War Propaganda, as Osgood and Tudda demonstrate, is that propaganda cannot be a substitute for diplomacy, serious negotiations that could have led to agreements between the Americans and the Soviets on important matters such as nuclear weapons or the status of Germany.

A second lesson as shown by Krenn, is that official or semi-official cultural and educational programmes, if pressured to become propaganda, lose their raison d'être and indeed fail even as propaganda. Third, as Osgood suggests in his dissection of Eisenhower's psychological strategy, the use of an unwitting domestic population as 'camouflage' for overseas propaganda campaigns (and in order to mobilise it domestically to support a total war effort) is of dubious probity in democratic society, where, he implies, transparency is supposedly the norm. Fourth, Osgood's analysis of USIA's propaganda activities, much of which, he argues, painted an overly rosy picture of the United States, falsifies the nature of the very society it attempts to exalt, to the eventual detriment of that society, in that it is lying to itself. Fifth, as both Krenn and Osgood suggest, the propagandist, by turning non-propagandistic activities into propaganda, becomes like the enemy whose behaviour he attempts to change or influence. American psychological warfare experts,

Osgood writes,

'defended their efforts by claiming that they were merely spreading the “truth” to combat communist lies. Yet although they generally avoided wild fabrications and obvious falsehoods, this simplistic description belied the manipulative elements of US psychological warfare programs. Officials assumed that to win the battle against communism they would have to adopt communist methods.'


1 See the valuable article by Nicholas Cull, 'Public Diplomacy' Before Gullion: The Evolution Of A Phrase' (Public Diplomacy Blog, University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, 18th April, 2006).

Place Branding, vol 2, issue 4 (Oct 2006), pp. 341-344
doi: 10.1057/palgrave.pb.6000043

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Posted: 24 February 2007.
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