War, Propaganda and Public Opinion


Dec 18, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on December 18, 2005.

Throughout America's history, the nation's citizens have been uncomfortable with the idea of government rather than a free press reporting on the news, both in the United States and abroad. Critics have labeled U.S. government attempts to bring news to people in other nations as "propaganda" intended to sway popular opinion, sometimes using false information. Supporters prefer to call such efforts "information campaigns" intended to educate the public with facts.

Government efforts to report on its actions are particularly controversial during wartime as the president in power always seeks to maintain public support at home and abroad despite inevitable casualties and setbacks.

And today, in part because some government efforts to mold public opinion during the Vietnam War turned out to include misinformation given to the media, journalists are more aggressive and skeptical of government announcements about "good news" in wartime than they have been in the past.

Today, the war of public opinion is focused on the Middle East, where a vigorous contest is already under way between radical Islam and more moderate forces that support values consistent with a modern tolerant society.

Recent reports that the U.S. military has hired an outside contractor to pay Iraqi newspapers to publish articles giving positive messages about the U.S. mission in Iraq have re-ignited fears about government acting to replace independent reporting with wartime propaganda. The same fears have been expressed during past wars as the U.S. government sought to promote a positive view of the nation and its policies.

For example, during World War II, America set up two departments to handle propaganda operations.

The Office of War Information (OWI) had the dual responsibilities of generating media coverage for both domestic and overseas audiences on the progress of the war effort. Within the OWI was the newly created Voice of America, the U.S. government-funded radio network.

The United States also had a covert side to its World War II propaganda operations that was handled by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the CIA. The OSS was responsible for activities such as clandestine radio stations broadcasting to Nazi Germany, spreading rumors about the enemy and planting newspaper stories.

Information activities also played a critical role in the Cold War when the United States tried to convince the public in Western and Eastern Europe that liberal democracy and not communism was the wave of the future.

One of the first key tests of strength between Communist and non-Communist forces in the Cold War was the 1948 election in Italy. As was the case in World War II, there was an overt and a covert piece to American propaganda efforts.

On the overt side, President Harry Truman broadcast a warning over VOA that no economic assistance would be forthcoming if the Communists won the election. Italian-Americans mounted a letter-writing campaign encouraging their families to support non-Communist parties.

On the covert side, the CIA spearheaded the propaganda effort, supplying newsprint and information to pro-Western newspapers. Among the stories the CIA placed in Italian newspapers were truthful accounts of the brutality of Soviet forces in the Soviet sector of Germany along with news about the Communist takeovers in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. On Election Day, the anti-Communist forces led by the Christian Democratic party won a crushing victory.

The largest and perhaps least successful propaganda campaign in U.S. history was the "hearts and minds" information operation in Vietnam. Like many other aspects of Vietnam War, the information operations of that conflict have some similarities to current operations in Iraq.

The two goals of U.S. propaganda operations in Vietnam were to undermine support of the Communist regime in North Vietnam and to solidify support for a pro-American South Vietnam. Despite enormous efforts, analysts at the RAND Corp. concluded in a 1970 report to the Pentagon that neither military actions nor propaganda operations could dent the morale and motivation of Communist forces.

Past wartime surveys of propaganda operations lead to two broad conclusions involving U.S. activities in Iraq.

First, no one should be surprised that the United States is engaged in informational or propaganda activities in Iraq. It does not matter what the government calls these activities. Propaganda has always been a part of warfare.

Second, during World War II and the early years of the Cold War, there was widespread acceptance of precisely the same activities, including covert ones that have spurred so much controversy today. One explanation for this is that the current controversy has very little to do with propaganda operations per se and everything to do with the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq. If 90 percent of the American people supported the conflict, it is doubtful these activities would generate such a stormy debate.

Lowell Schwartz is an associate international policy analyst at the RAND Corp. His e-mail is lhs@rand.org.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.