Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War?

By Murphy, Dennis M.; White, James F. | Parameters, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War?


Murphy, Dennis M., White, James F., Parameters


Two years ago, the Lincoln Group, a government contractor, sold unattributed pro-United States stories to Iraqi newspapers in an effort to win the war of ideas and counter negative images of the US-led coalition. The mainstream American press, members of Congress, and other government leaders immediately and loudly condemned these actions as "propaganda" and contrary to the democratic ideals of a free press. (1) A Pentagon investigation, however, found that no laws were broken or policies violated. Nor was the term propaganda ever used by the Lincoln Group or US military in its efforts to apply the information element of power in a war in which the center of gravity (in Clausewitzian terms) is defined as "extremist ideology." (2) Which begs the question: How do you fight a battle of ideas with one hand tied behind your back? The ways and means of winning that battle are both informed and ultimately restricted by an innate US culture that struggles with democratic ideals seemingly at odds with the use of information to win over hearts and minds even while the enemy maintains no such inhibitions.

Propaganda is "any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly."(3) Certainly propaganda has been used from time immemorial as a tool in warfare. But it is only since the US experience of World War I that this rather innocuously defined term has become pejorative in the national psyche. A review of recent history is necessary to examine the challenges of today and open a window to understanding the dilemma of balancing principles of a free, democratic society with the need to counter lies and half-truths in an effort to establish trust and credibility. A look through this historical lens allows focus on the requirement for strong national leadership capable of driving the procedural and cultural changes necessary to ultimately win the generational ideological struggle the United States currently faces.

Propaganda and the Two World Wars: Shaping American Attitudes

The US experience employing information as an element of power during both World Wars still colors the way Americans view the federal government's foreign and domestic information programs. America's collective experience with what may be called government propaganda--a term that the US government eschewed from the start--has been mixed. This reflects the tensions between the branches of government, and also the resistance of the national media to any restraints on their operations. Congress, from the beginning, developed a wariness of organizations that publicized the personality and role of the President to overseas audiences. Media became skeptical of "canned" government information releases that reflected the administration's perspective and were provided as news.

When the United States finally entered the World War in April 1917 it had already been the target of propaganda efforts for two and a half years. The British influence operation based at Wellington House in London used several means, including the Reuters news agency, to reach target audiences worldwide. Sir Gilbert Parker, who had wide familiarity with America, directed the work targeted at the United States. His technique was aptly characterized by James Squires as being a "gentle courtship" versus a "violent wooing."(4) It was subtle, understated, and highly effective. Specific British disinformation programs were also aimed directly at Germany. These included efforts to incite anti-American feelings there through false "news" items such as reports of the seizure of German seamen, shipping, and other property before the United States entered the war. (5)

Despite each side's efforts to sell its cause, the United States remained officially neutral while carrying on substantial trade, including armaments, with Britain. …

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Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War?
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