Mobilizing for the War on Words:
The Rockefeller Foundation,
Communication Scholars, and the State
When in August 1938 Rockefeller Foundation officer John Marshall wrote of the “problem of propaganda,” he pinpointed tensions and conflicts central to mid-twentieth-century political and intellectual culture in the United States.1 In a political culture sensitized by World War I to the dangers of propaganda, soaked in foreign-language newspapers and films appealing to millions of European immigrants, and shadowed by the inevitability of a second European war, the debates among social scientists interested in communications research reflected larger tensions within U.S. academic and political liberalism about public capabilities and susceptibilities, about the need for anti-Axis counterpropaganda strategies, and about the public role of social scientists as objective scientists or as social planners. Among the first generation of communications scholars who came together under the aegis of the Rockefeller Foundation's Humanities Division in the late 1930s, the debates were not so much factional as interior, representing commitments to both John Dewey's pragmatic idealism and Walter Lippmann's skeptical realism. Under the pressure of war, these tensions were resolved in favor of Harold Lasswell's so-called scientific instrumentalism: members of Marshall's Rockefeller-funded Communications Group seemed to believe that they, as experts using scientifically verified information about the effects of mass communications, could streamline decision making (a Lippmannite position), facilitate public discussion of complicated problems (a Deweyan position), and take their scientific research methods into the state's emerging surveillance apparatus on behalf of the long-term survival of democracy (a Lasswellian position).
John Marshall (1903–1980) was a Harvard-trained medievalist who taught for a brief time in the Harvard English Department, served as secretary of the Mediaeval Academy of America and editor of publications of the American Council of Learned Societies, and in 1933 joined the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) as a General Education Board officer and as assistant director for the Humanities Division.2 As an RF humanities officer, Marshall, along with fellow officer David Stevens, directed the foundation's sponsorship of the inchoate field of communications research, a field