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

By Brett Gary | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

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.1

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.2

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