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

By Brett Gary | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Dangerous Words and Images:
Propaganda's Threat to Democracy

By the end of the 1930s, as World War II was breaking out in Europe, Americans anxious about propaganda's threat to U.S. democracy focused on the totalitarian Fascist and Communist movements, especially their supposedly effective techniques of fifth-column subversion through propaganda.1 Journalists of all stripes and congressional investigative entities such as the House Un-American Activities Committee identified propaganda as an effective instrument of political manipulation in the United States, focusing their attention on the pamphlets, speeches, insignia, rallies, leadership, and foreign influences over the different supposedly un-American organizations operating in the United States. Dozens upon dozens of military disaffection, alien control, repatriation, registration and disclosure, and sedition bills were introduced by an increasingly suspicious and edgy Congress. And numerous ad hoc organizations formed to monitor and report on all manner of propaganda activities. Within liberal political and intellectual culture on the eve of WWII, the prevailing perception of propaganda was that it was a dangerous antidemocratic weapon that needed to be combated, but without destroying democratic processes along the way. The excesses of World War I loomed too large in liberals' memories to allow speech and association-restrictive measures and policies to go unchallenged.

Chief among the stalwarts of the speech-tolerant civil libertarian strain in pre-WWII U.S. culture was the noted First Amendment authority and Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee Jr. Chafee, who earned his stature and his battle scars as a critic of WWI-era state repression, saw clearly the dilemma facing liberal policy makers, jurists, and others confronting the problem of developing democratic strategies for the control of undemocratic activities. Offering a guidepost to fellow liberals, he framed his landmark 1941 study Free Speech in the United States around this conundrum. For Chafee, the problem had two main components: In what ways does propagandistic, even “seditious” speech threaten U.S. democracy? And how could the liberal guardians of that democracy deal with such a threat without diminishing or destroying democratic protections?2 Chafee's ques-

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