Kenneth A. Osgood

The United States has utilized propaganda techniques repeatedly through its history, particularly during periods of war and international crisis. As early as the revolutionary period, Americans evinced a shrewd grasp of the utility of propaganda as an instrument of foreign policy. The total wars of the early twentieth century led the U.S. government to employ propaganda on a massive scale as an accessory to military operations, but the Cold War institutionalized propaganda as a central component of American foreign policy. The governmental use of propaganda continued to expand in the twenty-first century, largely due to the harnessing of the revolution in communications. But for most Americans, propaganda has a negative connotation as a treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative practice. Americans have generally thought of propaganda as something "other" people and nations do, while they themselves merely persuade, inform, or educate. Americans have employed numerous euphemisms for their propaganda in order to distinguish it from its totalitarian applications and wicked connotations. The most common of these has been "information," a designation that has adorned all of the official propaganda agencies of the government—from the Committee on Public Information (1917–1919) and the Office of War Information (1942–1945) to the U.S. Information Agency (1953–1999) and its successor, the Office of International Information Programs in the Department of State.

For a brief period during the 1940s and early 1950s, the terms "psychological warfare" and "political warfare" were openly espoused by propaganda specialists and politicians alike. Increasingly, they turned to euphemisms like "international communication" and "public communication" to make the idea of propaganda more palatable to domestic audiences. During the Cold War, common phrases also included "the war of ideas," "battle for hearts and minds," "struggle for the minds and wills of men," "thought war," "ideological warfare," "nerve warfare," "campaign of truth," "war of words," and others. Even the term "Cold War" was used to refer to propaganda techniques and strategy (as in "Cold War tactics"). Later, the terms "communication," "public diplomacy," "psychological operations" (or "psyops"), "special operations," and "information warfare" became fashionable. Political propaganda and measures to influence media coverage were likewise labeled "spin," and political propagandists were "spin doctors" or, more imaginatively, "media consultants" and "image advisers."

The term "propaganda" has spawned as many definitions as it has euphemisms. Harold Lass well, a pioneer of propaganda studies in the United States, defined it as "the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols." Like other social scientists in the 1930s, he emphasized its psychological elements: propaganda was a subconscious manipulation of psychological symbols to accomplish secret objectives. Subsequent analysts stressed that propaganda was a planned and deliberate act of opinion management. A 1958 study prepared for the U.S. Army, for example, defined propaganda as "the planned dissemination of news, information, special arguments, and appeals designed to influence the beliefs, thoughts, and actions of a specific group." In the 1990s the historian Oliver Thomson defined propaganda broadly to include both deliberate and unintentional means of behavior modification, describing it as "the use of communication skills of all kinds to achieve attitudinal or behavioural changes among one group by another." Numerous communication specialists have stressed that propaganda is a neutral activity concerned only with persuasion, in order to free propagandists (and their profession) from pejorative associations. Some social scientists have abandoned the term altogether because it cannot be defined with any degree of precision; and others, like the influential French philosopher Jacques Ellul, have used the term but refused to define it because any definition would inevitably leave something out.

As these examples indicate, propaganda is notoriously difficult to define. Does one identify propaganda by the intentions of the sponsor, by the effect on the recipients, or by the techniques used? Is something propaganda because it is deliberate and planned? How does propaganda differ from advertising, public relations, education, information, or, for that matter, politics? At its core, propaganda refers to any technique or action that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, or behavior of a group, in order to benefit the sponsor. Propaganda is usually, but not exclusively, concerned with public opinion and mass attitudes. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade—either to change or reinforce existing attitudes and opinions. Yet propaganda is also a manipulative activity. It often disguises the secret intentions and goals of the sponsor; it seeks to inculcate ideas rather than to explain them; and it aspires to modify or control opinions and actions primarily to benefit the sponsor rather than the recipient.

Although manipulative, propaganda is not necessarily untruthful, as is commonly believed. In fact, many specialists believe that the most effective propaganda operates with different layers of truth—from half-truths and the truth torn out of context to the just plain truth. Propagandists have on many occasions employed lies, misrepresentations, or deceptions, but propaganda that is based on fact and that rings true to the intended audience is bound to be more persuasive than bald-faced lies.

Another common misconception identifies propaganda narrowly by its most obvious manifestations—radio broadcasts, posters, leaflets, and so on. But propaganda experts employ a range of symbols, ideas, and activities to influence the thoughts, attitudes, opinions, and actions of various audiences—including such disparate modes of communication and human interaction as educational and cultural exchanges, books and scholarly publications, the adoption of slogans and buzzwords, monuments and museums, spectacles and media events, press releases, speeches, policy initiatives, and person-to-person contacts. Diplomacy, too, has been connected to the practice of propaganda. Communication techniques have been employed by government agents to cultivate public opinion so as to put pressure on governments to pursue certain policies, while traditional diplomatic activities—negotiations, treaties—have been planned, implemented, and presented in whole or in part for the effects they would have on public opinion, both international and domestic.


Daugherty, William E., and Morris Janowitz, eds. A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore, 1958. Compiled for U.S. Army psychological warfare experts, the work covers a wide range of subjects from both theoretical and historical perspectives.

Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763–1783. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1941.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York, 1973. Influential philosophic treatise on modern propaganda.

Haefele, Mark. "John F. Kennedy, USIA, and World Public Opinion." Diplomatic History 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 63–84. Useful on the importance of international public opinion to U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Kennedy administration.

Henderson, John W. The United States Information Agency. New York, 1969.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York, 1998.

Jackall, Robert, ed. Propaganda. New York, 1995. Focuses on the twentieth century.

Krugler, David F. The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 1945–1953. Columbia, Mo., and London, 2000. Explores the domestic political controversies surrounding the Voice of America.

Lasswell, Harold Dwight. Propaganda Technique in the World War. New York, 1927. Classic work that influenced a generation of propaganda specialists.

Laurie, Clayton D. The Propaganda Warriors: America's Crusade Against Nazi Germany. Lawrence, Kans., 1996. Focuses on combat propaganda.

Lucas, Scott. Freedom's War: The American Crusade Against the Soviet Union. New York, 1999. Focuses on state-private collaboration in Cold War propaganda campaigns.

McMahon, Robert J. "Credibility and World Power: Exploring the Psychological Dimension in Postwar American Diplomacy." Diplomatic History 15, no. 4 (fall 1991): 455–471.

Mitrovich, Gregory. Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947–1956. Ithaca, N.Y., 2000. Explores the relationships among psychological warfare, covert action, and national security strategy in the early Cold War.

Ninkovich, Frank A. The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–1950. Cambridge, 1981.

——. U.S. Information Policy and Cultural Diplomacy. New York, 1996. A brief but thorough and insightful overview of postwar information and cultural policies.

Osgood, Kenneth A. "Form Before Substance: Eisenhower's Commitment to Psychological Warfare and Negotiations with the Enemy." Diplomatic History 24, no. 3 (summer 2000): 405–433. On the relationship between propaganda and diplomacy during the Eisenhower administration.

——. "Total Cold War: U.S. Propaganda in the 'Free World,' 1953–1960." Ph.D. dissertation. University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001. Many of this essay's conclusions are drawn from the original research in the dissertation.

Page, Caroline. U.S. Official Propaganda During the Vietnam War, 1965–1973: The Limits of Persuasion. London and New York, 1996.

Puddington, Arch. Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Lexington, Ky., 2000. Celebrates the purported successes of Cold War propaganda.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York, 1999.

Snow, Nancy. Propaganda Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World. New York, 1998.

Sorensen, Thomas C. The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda. New York, 1968.

Taylor, Philip M. Munitions of the Mind: War Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Nuclear Age. Glasgow, 1990. A good overview of the wartime use of propaganda in world history.

Thomson, Oliver. Easily Led: A History of Propaganda. Gloucester shire, Eng., 1999. Comprehensive investigation of propaganda in world history.

Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945. New Haven, Conn., 1978. Focuses on domestic politics.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold Warriors ; Containment ; Covert Operations ; Dissent in War ; Public Opinion .

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