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Modern Understandings of Propaganda 1920–2020: Post–WW II Accounts (1951–1979)

By Burton St. John III

Post–WW II Accounts (1951–1979)

Little in the US was written in book-length form about propaganda during WW II (with the notable exception of Verne Burnett’s You and Your Public in 1943, which claimed that propaganda could help advance democracy). After World War II, the public relations industry surged, much like it did in the years after World War I. The Second World War, however, did not appear to lead to a surge in propaganda books parallel to what occurred during the nineteen-year period after WW I. The body of work that emerged in the aftermath of this period was noticeably smaller but reflected a wider range of approaches: historical accounts, both quantitative and qualitative methods, efforts to categorize the forms of propaganda, apologia for the use of propaganda, and deeper theories about how propaganda helps shape meaning.

The literature on propaganda published in the 1950s took up a wide range of topics, including the morality and effectiveness of propaganda and its role, whether insidious or benign, in a democratic society. In his 1951 book Public Relations and Democracy, J. A. R. Pimlott takes aim at the claims of Bernays and other PR practitioners that public relations professionals could be expected to use propaganda to influence crowds to support the public good. He allows that propagandistic messages can be helpful for both spreading important information and educating the public, but he also points out that the objectives of the propagandist are first to serve the interests of their client. In 1952, Bernays published his first book-length examination of public relations and propaganda since Propaganda in 1928. In Public Relations, Bernays curiously tempers what had been his previously expansive view of the promise of propaganda. He examines it primarily with a historical emphasis. He points out how propaganda during WW I provided lessons that he and others used to help launch the new field of public relations, and how this field helps the varied interests in a democracy achieve some level of consensus and harmony. That same year, Alfred McClung Lee returned to the subject in his book How to Understand Propaganda. McClung Lee details the shorthand symbols of the propagandist so readers can better think and advocate for themselves in the face of persuasion used by special interests. Also published in 1952, journalism professor Curtis D. MacDougall’s Understanding Public Opinion examines the appearance of propaganda in business, labor, and educational settings. MacDougall is particularly forceful about how the power of propaganda has been exaggerated. Instead, he argues that propaganda is primarily effective when it manipulates fear or when the propagandist otherwise manipulates existing attitudes and opinions. Even then, says MacDougall, social conditioning has already shaped those worldviews before the propagandist arrives. In 1954, lead editor and academic Daniel Katz released the 779-page Public Opinion and Propaganda, one of the longest books ever published on the subject. With more than ninety contributors from scholarly backgrounds—none of them prominent public relations people—the book is constructed as an academic reader, offering materials reprinted from scholarly journals. An outcome of seven years of work for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the book attempts to foster an interdisciplinary approach to the study of propaganda, emphasizing that researchers should pursue both quantitative and qualitative studies to better understand its influence.

As the 1950s faded into the 1960s, suspicion toward the PR industry continued to grow. Irwin Ross’s The Image Merchants, published in 1959, examines how propaganda has been baked into the expanding PR industry. Repurposing some studies he published in the New York Post, Ross devotes about half of his book to tracking the rise of prominent PR agency people, including Bernays, Ben Sonnenberg, Clem Whitaker, Leone Baxter, and Earl Newsom. Ross maintains that domestic propaganda proffered by such individuals, and the PR industry as a whole, primarily works in service of promoting capitalism, and that society should demand that public relations actors be more transparent in their propagandistic messaging. Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, published in 1962, details how public relations uses simulations, or “pseudo-events,” to give propaganda momentum. Boorstin maintains that such simulations tend to drive out “real” events. He says that manufactured events, in conjunction with manufactured celebrities and images, have more resonance in a multimedia society, because mass media programs—including everything from news reports to game shows—turn to such events for content. Boorstin holds that in the US (and, by implication, in other modernized nations), the population lives in a surfeit of modern consumer goods and, therefore, constantly expects more. As such, Boorstin’s criticism is not so much directed at the propagandist but the average American, who, he says, must learn to get past the comfort of illusions and face the world more directly. That same year, scholar Terence H. Qualter published Propaganda and Psychological Warfare, which staked out a different position from his contemporaries. Qualter maintains that propagandistic messages may not be the greatest threat to an individual, whether in a democracy or dictatorship. Rather, the ability of propaganda to push out countervailing ideas prevents a true free flow of information. In this way, he argues, propaganda, even in a democratic setting, can result in a closed society.

Following in Ross’s footsteps by investigating major historical actors in the rise of the PR industry, in 1966 scholar Ray Eldon Hiebert published Courtier to the Crowd, the only biography on PR pioneer Ivy Lee. Hiebert’s work is especially revealing because it portrays the man widely considered to be the first prominent public relations practitioner as temperamentally unsuited for articulating how public relations operates in society. Lee’s inability to codify for the public the value of public relations, says Hiebert, led to both increasing criticism of him as a propagandist for the ultra-wealthy (e.g., John D. Rockefeller) and, by the early 1930s, allegations that he was an advocate for Nazi Germany. Hiebert points out that, even thirty years after Lee’s death, his legacy as someone who helped inform the crowd was clouded by the propaganda he advanced in support of industry titans. In 1968 historian Alan R. Raucher, in Public Relations and Business, 1900–1929, offered a review of the early-twentieth-century crucible for the rise of the public relations industry. Raucher resurfaces the discussion of the PR’s industry bent for using propaganda domestically as a crucial outcome of the CPI’s efforts during WW I. At times Raucher conflates advertising with PR’s strain of propaganda. Still, he suggests that public relations, while it tends to overclaim its influence, needs to be better understood for its role in promoting self-fulfillment through the consumption of a business’s products and services.

Moving away from a focus on the relationship between the public relations industry and propaganda, Jacques Ellul provided, up to that time, the most comprehensive discussion of the strategy and tactics of propaganda. Translated into English in 1965, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes works from the proposition that propaganda, whether seen as destructive or constructive, is an essential and necessary aspect of modern life. Ellul masterfully illustrates a paradox: the more citizens proclaim they are not vulnerable to what appears to be the superficial manipulations of the propagandist, the more those citizens, by underestimating propaganda, will be subject to the propagandist’s influence. This is most notable in Ellul’s discussion of integration propaganda, in which the propagandist appeals to the existing values and motivations of the message recipient and appears to reinforce what the recipient is already inclined to believe or do.

The 1960s proliferation of books on propaganda ebbed in the 1970s; few titles of note were published in that decade. Charles S. Steinberg’s 1975 book The Creation of Consent provides a somewhat restrained view of propaganda. Most public relations people of good ethics do not practice propaganda, says Steinberg, but there appears to be good justification for using propaganda in international relations. Admitting to a slightly simplistic syllogism, Steinberg maintains that propaganda is manipulative but that good public relations is not manipulative and therefore is not propaganda. The books on propaganda in the 1970s, however, reflected—either by implication or overtly—writers’ awareness of the growth of anti-corporate activism, which started in the 1960s.

Richard Tedlow’s 1979 book Keeping the Corporate Image examines how corporations use propaganda in an attempt to control public perception. In this short volume, Tedlow tracks how the public relations industry grew across the first fifty years of the twentieth century and often turned to propaganda that appealed to emotions. Still, Tedlow’s assessment of public relations’ use of propaganda is that (1) it is not as powerful as critics claim it is, and (2) the fact that corporations use PR to attempt to manipulate audiences is preferable to outright coercion or even violence. Also of note during this time were two books published by prominent public relations people, Philip Lesly’s The People Factor and John L. Paluszek’s Will the Corporation Survive? Both books address how corporations, beset by post-1960s activism, use public relations campaigns to assure citizens that businesses pursue social goods (e.g., advocating for practices and policies responsive to environmentalism) while also working within the messiness that can come from a democratic capitalist society. While neither book expressly uses the word “propaganda,” both offer advice for how business can reassert its influence in a time of upheaval.

Works Cited