Despite the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare to the war effort, the United States moved quickly to dismantle the propaganda apparatus it had constructed during World War II. Within weeks of Japan's surrender, President Harry Truman liquidated the Office of War Information, transferring only the bare bones of an information service to the Department of State. Although the OWI was abolished and the budget of its successor was slashed, Truman insisted that the United States maintain at least a modest information program to support U.S. foreign policy. This was a remarkable step, since prior to the 1940s no one seriously considered an organized, government-sponsored effort to influence foreign peoples except during a national emergency.
While Truman acknowledged the importance of propaganda as a peacetime instrument of foreign policy, it was primarily the Cold War that institutionalized propaganda as a permanent instrument of U.S. foreign policy. A widespread belief developed that the United States was losing the "war of ideas" to the Soviet Union's supposedly superior propaganda apparatus. As Cold War tensions intensified, the United States gradually expanded its propaganda capabilities.
In 1948, the information program received permanent legislative sanction with the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act—the first legislative charter for a peacetime propaganda program. The act gave the State Department jurisdiction over both international information operations and cultural and educational exchange programs. Additional propaganda activities were conducted by the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, the economic assistance agencies (forerunners to the Agency for International Development), and the armed forces, especially the army.
In 1950, Truman called for an intensified program of propaganda known as the Campaign of Truth. In a speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Truman articulated the perennial domestic justification for official U.S. propaganda: in order to combat enemy lies, the U.S. needed to promote the truth. Under the Campaign of Truth, the State Department's budget for information activities jumped from around $20 million in 1948 to $115 million in 1952—a development aided by the outbreak of the Korean War a few weeks after Truman's speech. The Campaign of Truth also brought a change in the style and content of U.S. propaganda output, which shifted from objective-sounding news and information to hard-hitting propaganda in its most obvious form—cartoons depicting bloodthirsty communists, vituperative anticommunist polemics, and sensational commentary.
In April 1951, Truman created the Psychological Strategy Board to coordinate the American psychological warfare effort. The board acted as a coordinating body for all nonmilitary Cold War activities, including covert operations. It supervised programs for aggressive clandestine warfare and propaganda measures against the Soviet bloc and it developed "psychological strategy" plans for dozens of countries in western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. By the time Truman left office, the U.S. government had established a far-reaching apparatus for influencing public opinion in both friendly and hostile countries.
During these years, the practice of propaganda became inextricably tied to the practices of psychological warfare and covert action. During World War II, psychological warfare was largely seen as an accessory to military operations, but with the onset of the Cold War, psychological warfare specialists defined the concept broadly to include any nonmilitary actions taken to influence public opinion or to advance foreign policy interests. Psychological warfare was transformed into a catchall formula that went beyond mere propaganda to embrace covert operations, trade and economic aid, diplomacy, the threat of force, cultural and educational exchange programs, and a wide range of clandestine activities. Psychological warfare became, in essence, a synonym for Cold War. It reflected the belief of many politicians and foreign policy analysts that the Cold War was an ideological, psychological, and cultural contest for hearts and minds that would be won or lost on the plain of public opinion rather than by blood shed on the battlefield.
Psychological warfare in the Cold War context was also associated with the policy of "rollback," or the employment of nonmilitary means to force the retraction of Soviet power and the "liberation" of Eastern Europe. Rollback was openly espoused by the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which campaigned in 1952 against the "immoral" and "futile" policy of containment. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the policies of liberation and rollback did not originate with the Eisenhower administration. Scholarship in the late 1990s by Gregory Mitrovich, Scott Lucas, and others reveals that Truman's Democratic administration inaugurated a muscular form of rollback years earlier. To these scholars, U.S. efforts to liberate areas under Moscow's control indicate that American foreign policy in the early Cold War was not as defensive and fundamentally nonaggressive as the term "containment" implies or as earlier historiography suggested.
Indeed, the "father of containment," George F. Kennan, was also the driving force behind an aggressive program of psychological warfare and covert action against the Soviet bloc. In early 1948, Kennan, who was then serving as head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, developed a plan for "organized political warfare" against communism. The plan was set forth in National Security Council Document 10/2. The document, approved by President Truman in June 1948, authorized a comprehensive program of clandestine warfare, including black propaganda, psychological warfare, subversion, assistance to underground resistance movements, paramilitary operations, and economic warfare. NSC 10/2, although not generally recognized as a landmark policy paper like the future NSC 68, was especially significant in that it established psychological warfare and covert action as vital instruments of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War.
Under the authorization provided by NSC 10/2, the Central Intelligence Agency made a botched attempt to detach Albania from the Kremlin's grip, launched leaflet-dropping operations via enormous unmanned hot-air balloons, encouraged defections from behind the Iron Curtain, and sponsored provocative (and generally unsuccessful) paramilitary operations involving U.S.-trained émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe. The agency's most famous form of anti-Soviet propaganda came in the form of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast to Eastern Europe and Russia, respectively. The radios were staffed by émigrés and exiled political leaders from the Soviet bloc, but the CIA maintained a fairly loose control over their broadcasts through the National Committee for a Free Europe (also known as the Free Europe Committee), an ostensibly private organization created to camouflage U.S. government involvement.
The CIA also conducted clandestine propaganda operations in allied and neutral areas. The agency subsidized noncommunist labor unions, journalists, political parties, politicians, and student groups. In western Europe the CIA conducted a secret program of cultural and ideological propaganda through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a purportedly private, but CIA-funded, organization that supported the work of anticommunist liberals. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the agency published more than twenty prestigious magazines, held art exhibitions, operated a news and feature service, organized high-profile international conferences, published numerous books, and sponsored public performances by musicians and artists.
For much of the Cold War, the CIA also organized both successful and unsuccessful "political action" programs to influence democratic elections, sponsor revolutions or counterrevolutions, and, on a few occasions, topple governments. It conducted numerous operations to influence political developments around the world, most notably in Italy, the Philippines, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Vietnam, Thailand, Chile, Iraq, and Angola. Although details surrounding these operations are murky, the available evidence indicates that propaganda and psychological warfare were the principle instruments of the agency's political action programs. These activities became a means for the United States to influence and manipulate developments in foreign countries so that they served the perceived interests of American national security policies. The extensive employment of covert action signaled an unacknowledged revolution in the way the government conducted its foreign policy: it was now actively intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations to encourage the development of ideas, actions, and policies to benefit the United States.
During the Korean War, sensationalized charges that the United States had been waging bacteriological warfare, accounts of Soviet brainwashing techniques, and communist-inspired "peace" campaigns, focused American attention on psychological warfare as a mysterious Cold War weapon. During the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower repeatedly called for an expansive and coordinated psychological warfare effort on a national scale. In San Francisco he delivered a major speech on the subject, arguing that every significant act of government should reflect psychological warfare calculations. He emphasized that the Cold War was a struggle of ideas and argued that the United States must develop every psychological weapon available to win the hearts and minds of the world's peoples. Defining psychological warfare in truly expansive terms, Eisenhower included among the means of psychological warfare diplomacy, mutual economic assistance, trade, friendly contacts, and even sporting events.
These campaign speeches were not mere rhetoric; they reflected Eisenhower's unparalleled faith in psychological warfare. This faith grew in part from his experience with it during World War II and in part from his strong conviction that the Cold War was a long-haul struggle that would be won by nonmilitary means. Whereas Truman was relatively uninvolved in the information activities of his administration, Eisenhower was personally involved in several major propaganda campaigns and played an active role in establishing propaganda themes and tactics.
One of his very first acts as president was to appoint a personal adviser to serve as special assistant for psychological warfare planning, a position filled first by Time-Life executive C. D. Jackson and later by Nelson Rockefeller. He also established a high-level committee, chaired by William H. Jackson, to make recommendations on how to strengthen the U.S. psychological warfare effort. The Jackson committee investigation was arguably the most influential study of U.S. information policy ever conducted. The investigation led to numerous innovations including the establishment of a high-level coordinating body attached to the National Security Council devoted to psychological warfare and strategy. Euphemistically designated the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB), it replaced the Psychological Strategy Board in the fall of 1953.
Under Eisenhower, the United States abandoned the aggressive anti-Soviet psychological warfare tactics initiated by his predecessor. The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty continued to broadcast propaganda to the Soviet bloc, but gradually they abandoned the strident, polemical tone that characterized the Campaign of Truth. This trend was accelerated by controversy surrounding the involvement of Radio Free Europe in provoking the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The brutal suppression of the revolt by Soviet armed forces demonstrated that Moscow would fight to maintain its influence over Eastern Europe and revealed that the policy of liberation carried with it unacceptable psychological, political, and human costs. By the end of 1956, as the historian Walter Hixson has shown, "liberation" had been replaced by an evolutionary strategy that stressed cultural infiltration and straight news and information over aggressive psychological warfare.
Eisenhower also oversaw the creation of an independent propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA). (Information posts abroad were called the U.S. Information Service, or USIS, because "information agency" had an intelligence connotation in many languages, but both names referred to the same organization.) The agency was modeled after the Office of War Information and Creel's Committee on Public Information, but, unlike its predecessors, the USIA was authorized to conduct only foreign propaganda; domestic operations were explicitly forbidden. The USIA assembled under one roof all the various information programs scattered throughout the government, except those administered by the CIA and the military. It operated a press and publication service and a motion picture and television service. The USIA also assumed responsibility for the Voice of America and for U.S. libraries and information centers abroad.
Despite the many attempts by the United States to "pierce the Iron Curtain" with American propaganda, most of the USIA's resources were directed on the other side of that curtain, in the so-called free world. The agency was primarily concerned with winning the support of neutrals and strengthening the resolve of allies. As a USIA policy document stated: "We are in competition with Soviet Communism primarily for the opinion of the free world. We are (especially) concerned with the uncommitted, the wavering, the confused, the apathetic, or the doubtful within the free world." The agency oversaw more than 208 USIS posts in ninety-one countries, all of them in allied or neutral countries. For much of the Cold War, the USIA's largest programs were in Germany, Austria, Japan, India, Indochina (Vietnam), Thailand, France, and Italy. The USIS also maintained sizable operations in Spain, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, and Pakistan. Beginning in the mid-1950s, an increasing amount of attention was spent "targeting" countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with U.S. propaganda—a development that reflected the growing importance of the developing world to the Cold War competition.
When the USIA was created in 1953, Congress insisted that the Department of State retain jurisdiction over cultural programs in order to distinguish cultural relations from propaganda. In practice, the distinction proved mostly symbolic, since public affairs officers abroad, under orders from the USIA, managed both cultural and information policy and pursued both with an eye to improving the "climate of opinion." Increasingly, foreign policy experts recognized that such activities could be more effective in promoting pro-American attitudes than conventional types of propaganda. During the Cold War, such activities as the Fulbright exchange program, the People-to-People program, and the Peace Corps were utilized to promote goodwill between the United States and other countries through person-to-person contacts. Although many Americans who participated in these programs did not see themselves as propagandists, government administrators saw them as positive, long-range programs to create a favorable atmosphere abroad for U.S. political, economic, and military policies.
In broad form, the USIA's principal propaganda themes remained fairly constant throughout the Cold War. The obvious theme was anticommunism, and the agency exploited the ideological contradictions, forced labor camps, restrictions on freedom, and absence of consumer goods in communist countries. The agency devoted a greater percentage of its programming, however, to positive themes about the United States. The USIA publicized U.S. economic and technical assistance programs, scientific and technological advances, and other policies, programs, and developments that reflected positively on the United States. It promoted free trade unionism, explained the workings of American democracy, and extolled the benefits of consumer capitalism. The agency also developed cultural propaganda depicting the lives of ordinary Americans in a favorable light and celebrating American achievements in the arts. Many USIA films, radio broadcasts, publications, and other programs were devoted to educational purposes, covering topics ranging from agriculture to English-language instruction. Most of these activities were slow media operations that aspired to cultivate favorable attitudes over the long haul. They also reflected the belief that, in addition to military defense and economic prosperity, U.S. security required the active promulgation of American ideas, values, and beliefs.
One of the most important activities of the USIA was simply to present U.S. policies favorably to international audiences on a daily basis. The USIA explained and promoted policy decisions through all its media, transmitted complete texts of important speeches to news organizations around the world, and distributed, authored, and secretly subsidized books and publications that defended controversial aspects of U.S. policies.
The USIA professed to adhere to a "strategy of truth" in its operations, in the belief that to be effective its propaganda had to be credible, and to be credible, it had to be truthful. The agency thus repudiated the sensationally propagandistic tone that had characterized the Campaign of Truth, instead adopting as its model the neutral tone and style of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). That does not mean, however, that the USIA merely dished out objective information; there was undoubtedly an element of protesting too much in the agency's claim to truth. While the agency generally avoided deliberate distortions, wild exaggerations, and broad generalizations, it remained in the business of shaping, influencing, and manipulating popular opinion. As the first director of the USIA, Theodore C. Streibert, noted: "We are no less engaged in propaganda because we are to minimize the propagandistic."
The USIA operated on the assumption that it could best influence international opinion in the free world by influencing opinion makers. Its most important target was the world press. The bulk of USIA operations fell under the category of "media control projects" designed to influence the news and information that reached the public through indigenous media outlets. Rather than address audiences directly—through radio and overtly propagandistic materials—the USIA preferred to plant news, place programs on local television, and utilize personal contacts to influence the views of foreign journalists and other influential persons.
U.S. propagandists also worked to enhance the potential persuasiveness of American propaganda by obscuring the source. A large percentage of USIA propaganda was of the unattributed gray variety, even though the agency was not explicitly authorized to engage in covert propaganda. USIA operatives maintained a network of contacts with journalists and media outlets in countries around the world, many of whom knowingly cooperated with the agency in placing unattributed materials prepared by the U.S. government. Another strategy involved the participation of private groups and nongovernmental organizations, or what the USIA termed "private cooperation." The agency maintained an Office of Private Cooperation, which worked to involve nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and ordinary Americans in campaigns to promote a positive image of the United States abroad.
When John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he attached a high priority to the USIA. Kennedy was acutely sensitive to the importance of images and ideas to international relations, and he made the apparent decline in American prestige abroad a major theme of his campaign. Upon his election, Kennedy appointed the respected journalist Edward R. Murrow as the agency's new director. Murrow's appointment raised the stature and visibility of the agency both at home and abroad. Murrow's prominence also helped the USIA in Congress: agency funding increased dramatically from around $100 million in 1960 to more than $160 million in 1963. Despite Murrow's journalistic background, the USIA under his tenure became more, rather than less, focused on hard-hitting propaganda. It also became increasingly focused on propaganda in the developing world. In just under three years, it opened more than two dozen new posts in newly independent countries in Africa.
Kennedy also assigned the USIA a new advisory function. The agency was now explicitly charged with contributing to the formulation of U.S. foreign policies by advising the president on issues pertaining to international opinion. Nevertheless, it was primarily an operational agency rather than a policymaking one. (In fact, on several notable occasions, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the agency was not informed of what the U.S. government was doing.) Its most important advisory function began in the 1950s, when it administered international public opinion surveys to collect "psychological" intelligence. This information was used in part to gauge and improve the effectiveness of USIA propaganda, but it was also sent to the president and the National Security Council for consideration in the policymaking process. Successive U.S. presidents, especially Eisenhower and Kennedy, monitored these public opinion surveys very closely, an indication of the seriousness with which they took international public opinion.
As the United States became involved in Vietnam, the information program, like the rest of the country, became focused on the war. Both overt and covert propaganda programs had been going on in Southeast Asia since the 1940s and continued through the Vietnam War. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Carl T. Rowan as director of the USIA—at the time the highest post held by any African American in the U.S. government. Rowan oversaw the creation of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, which managed all the U.S. psychological warfare programs in Vietnam and accounted for some 10 percent of the agency's overseas manpower. In May 1965, Johnson assigned the USIA responsibility for all U.S. propaganda in Vietnam, the largest role ever undertaken by the agency.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing U.S. propagandists during this period lay outside the combat zone, where the USIA tried to sell an unpopular war to international public opinion. The agency presented the war as a noble defense of a free country under attack by communist insurgents. It stressed American peaceful intentions and argued that the United States had turned to military force only as a last resort. The Johnson and Nixon administrations attached a high priority to propaganda in support of the war effort, but their information policies ultimately devastated the credibility of the USIA as it became widely known that the United States was painting an excessively rosy, and at times patently false, picture of the events in Vietnam.
These distortions were less the fault of the agency's propaganda than of the policies and public relations strategies employed by the White House. For example, in April 1965 the USIA widely publicized a speech by Johnson indicating U.S. willingness to enter into "unconditional" negotiations with the government of North Vietnam. When it was later revealed that the Johnson administration maneuvered and delayed to avoid such negotiations, the United States was criticized abroad (and at home) for manipulating the peace issue for propaganda purposes. International public opinion was further alienated by the USIA's portrayal of the government of South Vietnam as a functioning democracy and by its unceasing publicity of U.S. military progress when evidence presented by the independent news media contradicted such claims. Cases of deliberate deception, such as President Richard Nixon's secret bombing campaign, worsened the "credibility gap" that plagued all official U.S. pronouncements.
All in all, the Vietnam War served as a reminder of a principle U.S. propagandists knew but neglected: obvious falsehoods, when exposed, could exact irreparable harm on the credibility, and hence the believability, of the propaganda and of the sponsor. The war also demonstrated how a crusading and skeptical press could counterbalance the effects of propaganda. No amount of clever spin-doctoring could counteract the powerful images that appeared on television screens around the world.
During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the USIA adopted a remarkable change of mission. Carter argued that the agency should not simply communicate to the world about America; it should also communicate to America about the world. He renamed the agency the United States International Communication Agency (ICA), curtailed its anticommunist programming, and ordered it to cease its covert propaganda programs. Carter also assigned the ICA a "second mandate" to educate Americans about foreign countries. It was an idealistic task that the agency, which had spent twenty-five years selling the United States to foreigners, was ill-equipped to perform.
When Ronald Reagan took control of the White House, he promptly shelved Carter's "second mandate" and restored the USIA's name. During Reagan's tenure the agency adopted the crusading zeal of the cold warrior in the White House. The president who presided over the massive arms buildup of the 1980s also presided over psychological rearmament through the USIA. In a speech in 1982 he called for a new war of ideas and values against communism. He repackaged the Campaign of Truth as Project Truth to rally the country behind an expanded psychological offensive to spread democracy and combat Soviet propaganda. Under Reagan, the USIA was funded more lavishly than ever before. The new director, Charles Z. Wick, embarked on a number of reforms to modernize the agency, including the creation of the Worldnet satellite television broadcasting system and Radio Marti, which broadcast U.S. propaganda to Cuba. Reagan himself, the "great communicator," set the tone for the new ideological offensive by branding the Soviet Union the "evil empire."
With the end of the Cold War, the USIA turned its attention from the communist threat to promoting economic expansion. National security and anticommunist justifications for propaganda and exchange activities gave way to economic justifications: these programs were now evaluated in terms of their contributions to American commerce. In October 1999, largely as the result of Senator Jesse Helms, the USIA was abolished and its functions transferred to the Office of International Information Programs in the Department of State.