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Modern Understandings of Propaganda 1920–2020: The Post–WW I Surge of Books on Propaganda (1920–1939)

By Burton St. John III

The Post–WW I Surge of Books on Propaganda (1920–1939)

In the years after WW I, some observers in the United States, befitting postwar disillusionment with the US’s involvement in the conflict, began parsing how propaganda played a significant role in society. Some authors maintained that propaganda had a useful role in an increasingly modernized world, while others maintained that the war revealed the dangerous ability of propaganda to manipulate the populace.

Those who were more positive about the role of propaganda were the first to offer book-length accounts of its benefits. George Creel, who oversaw the efforts of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to encourage US domestic support of the war, released How We Advertised America in 1920—arguably the first book detailing how modern propaganda worked in the early twentieth century. Creel, a former newspaper reporter, used the book to provide an exhaustive rendering of how President Woodrow Wilson had charged him with advocating the war as a necessary and vital effort to a widely unenthusiastic US citizenry. To dramatize the necessity of such propaganda efforts, Creel offers extensive accounts of the activities of the various divisions of the CPI (e.g., the newspaper division and a massive speakers’ bureau), all with the self-assuredness that such propaganda was in service of a virtuous cause.

By 1923, public relations practitioner Edward Bernays had published Crystallizing Public Opinion (his first book), claiming that his new profession used propaganda, beyond the war effort, in service of the social good. In Bernays’s view, propaganda could promote not only products and services but also social causes. Bernays was impressed with the CPI’s efforts, claiming that propaganda could be used to overcome the stasis of the crowd and encourage people to move in the direction of a beneficial cause. Five years later, Bernays published Propaganda, his attempt to further accentuate how well-informed, powerful people could advocate worthy causes to the masses and overcome the somnolence of the crowd. Across eleven chapters touching on politics, business, education, art, science, and the burgeoning women’s movement, Bernays states that, depending on the intentions of the propagandist, propaganda could be designed to move people toward productive outcomes for themselves and their society.

That same year, fellow public relations pioneer Ivy Lee drafted Mr. Lee’s Publicity Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Public Relations (recently discovered and released with the participation of this essay’s author in 2017). In contrast to Bernays, Lee devotes only a section of his book to propaganda. Also unlike Bernays, Lee was not a prolific book author, and when he wrote long-form publications, he had an affinity for analyzing international relations. Not surprisingly, portions of his book recount how the Allies and Central Powers used propaganda during WW I, but he also examines the propaganda European governments used in the nineteenth century. As such, the book provides a patchy yet valuable thought-leader perspective on propaganda. While Bernays was more interested in propaganda for products, services, and causes, Lee attempted to analyze propaganda as a vehicle for addressing societal conflicts that are driven by varying emotions, reasons, and agendas.

Other authors of this period published works on propaganda that maintained it was an essential part of modern mass society. In 1927, Herbert D. Lasswell, a scholar who studied how propaganda was used in WW I, asserted that propaganda is a value-neutral tool. In Propaganda Technique in the World War, he observes that propaganda is particularly useful when tensions are high, and the traumas of WW I were a seedbed for mass persuasion. However, Lasswell is not interested in moralizing about the power of propaganda. To him, it is an instrument; he refers to it as a hammer and anvil that can shape how the public coalesces around a subject. He clarifies that it is a more seductive form of persuasion than coercion, and this potentially makes propaganda a more efficient mode of garnering public support in the modern era. In 1939, James R. Mock and Cedric Larson published Words That Won the War, a review and analysis of the CPI’s activities. The authors, with active support from Lasswell, use previously unpublished CPI documents to provide a comprehensive overview of how the CPI started, how it successfully mobilized American support for the war, and how it was quickly disbanded at the end of the war. Mock and Larson strike a tone similar to Lasswell’s in that they withhold criticism of the ethics of the CPI’s efforts. When they point out areas of concern—e.g., domestic censorship and the dissemination of German stereotypes—they tend to minimize moral judgment by pointing out that Creel improvised the committee’s actions. Nevertheless, they maintain that the government learned from the CPI experience and predict that in future wars, the US government will deploy a similar, multifaceted public relations operation. Their prediction was correct: the US government constructed the Office of War Information, similar in manner to CPI, during WW II.

Some observers, however, offered assessments of propaganda during this period that were less sanguine. In his 1920 book The Behavior of Crowds, Everett Dean Martin observes that press agents used propaganda to manipulate the masses in modern society. Martin maintains that propaganda messages influence the emotions of the crowd and attempt to coerce them into supporting the ideas of vested interests. Two years later, in 1922, the domestic use of propaganda in the US during World War I informed Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion. Lippmann briefly touches on the activities of the CPI, but his book argues that Americans are best served by experts (not propagandists) who can apply semi-scientific methods to determine and then present accurate news. This was a theme that Bernays picked up and used, both in Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda, to argue that public relations people were ideally suited to fulfill Lippmann’s vision.

By the mid-1920s, journalists and some scholars began to offer more full-throated criticisms of the role of propaganda in the US, reflecting on how the state used propaganda to cajole Americans into supporting WW I. This position was articulated in Nelson Crawford’s 1924 volume The Ethics of Journalism, and in Leon Nelson Flint’s The Conscience of the Newspaper the following year. Long-form books containing critiques of propaganda then went dormant for almost ten years until Frederick Elmore Lumley’s The Propaganda Menace appeared in 1933. Lumley, an academic, establishes that propaganda treats individuals as objects to be manipulated, and that the best way to defend against such actions is to pursue more education about propaganda while improving social conditions. Shortly after, Leonard W. Doob’s Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique and journalist George Seldes’s Freedom of the Press, both published in 1935, provided extensive accounts of how propagandistic messages, now offered by the burgeoning public relations field, were beginning to dominate the content of US newspapers. In 1936, reporter and former CPI employee Will Irwin’s Propaganda and the News, or What Makes You Think So observed that the public relations industry was not only built on the domestic messaging manipulations during WW I but also channeled public relations people—many of them former journalists—into political party and governmental communication. Irwin’s criticism of propaganda is not as clear as other skeptical books of this time; he defers, instead, to the need to

protect free speech even if it includes deleterious propaganda. In contrast, the following year’s The Daily Newspaper in America, written by academic Alfred McClung Lee, detailed how publicists, working on behalf of moneyed interests (e.g., the oil industry), successfully placed multiple news stories in papers across dozens of cities, potentially reaching audiences in the tens of millions. In 1939, McClung Lee, in partnership with his wife Elizabeth Briant Lee and published under the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, offered another examination of manipulative messaging in The Fine Art of Propaganda. They analyze the speeches of Father Coughlin, who promulgated anti-Semitic and fascist messaging through a weekly radio broadcast. Lee uses terminology developed by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which had started in 1937, to reveal how Coughlin used propagandistic approaches to influence his audiences (e.g., testimonials, name-calling, and the bandwagon effect). The Lees offer something new in this volume: a coding system that used visual icons to signify the various devices of the propagandist.

This post–WW I period was the seedbed for observers to stake out positions on the usefulness and appropriateness of domestic propaganda within a democracy. As World War II approached, some authors had developed preliminary methods for classifying the methods of propaganda, primarily so that the public could identify and learn how to better navigate it.

Works Cited