The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War

The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War

The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War

The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War


Today few political analysts use the term "propaganda." However, in the wake of World War I, fear of propaganda haunted the liberal conscience. Citizens and critics blamed the war on campaigns of mass manipulation engaged in by all belligerents. Beginning with these "propaganda anxieties," Brett Gary traces the history of American fears of and attempts to combat propaganda through World War II and up to the Cold War.

The Nervous Liberals explores how following World War I the social sciences -- especially political science and the new field of mass communications -- identified propaganda as the object of urgent "scientific" study. From there his narrative moves to the eve of WWII as mainstream journalists, clerics, and activists demanded greater government action against fascist propaganda, in response to which Congress and the Justice Department sought to create a prophylaxis against foreign or antidemocratic communications. Finally, Gary explores how free speech liberalism was further challenged by the national security culture, whose mobilization before World War II to fight the propaganda threat lead to much of the Cold War anxiety about propaganda.

Gary's account sheds considerable light not only on the history of propaganda, but also on the central dilemmas of liberalism in the first half of the century -- the delicate balance between protecting national security and protecting civil liberties, including freedom of speech; the tension between public-centered versus expert-centered theories of democracy; and the conflict between social reform and public opinion control as the legitimate aim of social knowledge.


Histories about the modern uses of propaganda almost invariably point to the First World War and its immediate aftermath as the period when people became acutely aware that campaigns and techniques of mass persuasion were an ineluctable condition of modern existence. Though propaganda was widely employed prior to the twentieth century for purposes of empire and crown, nation building and revolution, religious consolidation and reformation, and, of course, for the demonization of all varieties of enemies, its extensive use by all World War I belligerents created a new consciousness about the relationship between modern communications technologies and public manipulation. Never before, contemporaries noted, had warring parties relied so heavily on mass propaganda campaigns as part of their war efforts, and never before had citizens been so aware of the extent to which they were being actively manipulated by governments, both foreign and their own.

The concept (or label) “propaganda”—with all its negative connotations of orchestrated deception—helped observers and critics understand the patriotic hysteria in all countries and the repressive domestic climates those passions provoked. In subsequent years, as postwar disillusionment led to widespread reassessment of the war's causes and consequences, the propaganda campaigns conducted by all warring nations became explanations for the high hopes and dashed expectations that characterized nations’ moods and, especially, for the vicious hatreds that produced vindictive, doomed postwar settlements. Although its uses were ancient, post-WWI critics conceived of propaganda as an industrial-era, even a distinctly twentieth-century problem: it combined the aggressive passions of nationalism and revolution with machine-age scales of mass production and distribution (employing powerful new communications technologies), targeted uprooted, dislocated, and allegedly volatile mass publics, was buttressed by the increasingly widespread perception that irrational impulses govern human behavior, and was practiced by an emerging coterie of professionalized experts who understood (and celebrated) the commercial or political efficacy of manipulating those irrational forces for concealed purposes.

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