Pulling the Plug on America's Propaganda: Sen. J.W. Fulbright's Leadership of the Antipropaganda Movement, 1943-74

Article excerpt

Sen. J. William Fulbright is famous for his dissent against mainstream foreign policy, but he is less well known for his antipropaganda activism. At a time when critical propaganda analysis had become politically untenable in the United States, he used the power and influence of his position to keep the remnants of the interwar era's antipropaganda movement alive. As the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he investigated and publicised domestic propaganda activities organised by government, calling attention to their escalation and warning Americans about the dangers to democratic institutions. This article traces and analyses his activism and argues that for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, Fulbright was the unacknowledged leader of a dispersed and disorganized opposition to propaganda.

When Sen. J. William Fulbright's name is mentioned these days, it is usually in reference to the famous international exchange program that bears his name. Historians, however, have paid less attention to the exchange program than to the senator, largely remembering him for one thing: his political dissent.1 The Arkansas Democrat served in Congress from 1943 to 1974 and famously (or notoriously) opposed the Cold War foreign policy decisions of four presidential administrations. One of his first great acts of political independence occurred when he courageously stood alone in Congress against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. This and similar stands brought Fulbright considerable attention. Even before his retirement, his biographers were working to secure his reputation as the "stud-duck of opposition."2 They attributed much of his political dissent to the independent spirit and strong character he developed while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a law professor at George Washington University, and a college president at the University of Arkansas. Yet, as well established as his place in history is less than ten years after his death, there has been scant recognition of a particular aspect of his opposition: his postwar leadership of the disorganized, dispersed, but indefeasible antipropaganda movement in America.

Fulbright's propaganda opposition has sometimes been conflated with his political dissent, but just as often it has been overshadowed by dramatic events and, therefore, overlooked by historians; yet, when Fulbright wrote the Pentagon Propaganda Machine in 1970, it was the end, not the beginning, of a career-long battle against government-sponsored campaigns to engineer mass opinion.3 He had long been the most proactive propaganda critic in Congress, but he was far from being the only one and further still from being the first. Propaganda criticism in and out of Congress reached back to the early twentieth century. Scholars have identified the rudiments of America's antipropaganda movement as stemming from the muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker's 1906 publication of a critical exposé in McClure's about railroad "press agentry."4 He warned Americans that seeing through the manipulative practices of press agents would be a "supreme test" of the nation, determining "whether we are strong enough, whether we are brave enough, to deserve a real democracy."5

In that same year, criticism of related propaganda practices arose in Congress and recurred on the House and Senate floors several times before the outbreak of World War I. The intensely provocative critiques most associated with the antipropaganda movement, however, began appearing in abundance after the war when writers, thinkers, and philosophers began publishing articles, books, and essays about the government's wartime propaganda activities. Men like John Dewey, Will Irwin, and George Rothwell Brown convincingly argued that the war had "unleashed an evil" in the world that would forever deny Americans true democracy. Propaganda, they warned, impeded freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, and freedom of political choice.6

Sharp critiques lasted throughout the interwar period, appearing so much in popular media and literary journals that one historian has described Americans as "obsessed" with the issue. …