Americans first began to give serious consideration to the power of propaganda in the years following World War I. The war had demonstrated that modern propaganda techniques could be used with startling effectiveness to assemble massive armies and to maintain civilian morale through long years of warfare. Never before had so many people been mobilized to fight a war. Never before had so many died with so little to show for it over such a long period of time and under such harsh conditions. Earlier wars had been quickly settled by decisive battles. But in this war, massive armies confronted each other along a front that extended for hundreds of miles. From their trenches they bombarded each other and launched occasional attacks that ended in futility.
Harold Lasswell, a political scientist who developed several early theories of media, expressed considerable respect for the propaganda efforts marshaled in the cause of the First World War. He wrote: When all allowances have been made and all extravagant estimates pared to the bone, the fact remains that propaganda is one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the modern world. . . . In the Great Society [modern industrial society] it is no longer possible to fuse the waywardness of individuals in the furnace of the war dance; a newer and subtler instrument must weld thousands and even millions of human beings into one amalgamated mass of hate and will and hope. A new flame must burn out the canker of dissent and temper the steel of bellicose enthusiasm. The name of this new hammer and anvil of social solidarity is propaganda. (1927a, pp. 220–221) Many social researchers in the 1920s and 1930s shared these views. Propaganda was an essential tool that had to be used to effectively manage modern social orders, especially when they are in deadly competition with other nations that rely on propaganda to mobilize their masses.
After World War I, the propaganda battle continued, and inevitably it spread beyond Europe, as nations sought to spread their influence and new political movements attracted members. During the 1920s, radio and movies provided powerful new media for propaganda messages. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was accompanied by consolidation of his control over all forms of media—beginning with radio and the film industry and ending with newspapers. In the United States, the battle lines in the propaganda war were quickly drawn. On one side were the elites dominating major social institutions and organizations, including the major political parties, businesses, schools, and universities. On the other side was a broad range of social movements and small extremist political groups. Many were local variants of Fascist, Socialist, or Communist groups that in Europe were much larger and more significant. From the point of view of the old-line elites, these groups were highly suspect. Foreign subversion was a growing fear. The elites believed the influence of these movements and groups had to be curbed before they ruined our way of life. Extremist propagandists, whether foreign-based or domestically grown, found it increasingly easy to reach and persuade audiences during the 1930s. Only a part of this success, however, can be directly attributed to the rise of the powerful new media.
In the United States, large newspapers, movies, and radio were controlled mainly by the existing elites. Extremists were often forced to rely on older media like pamphlets, handbills, and political rallies. When the social conditions were right and people were receptive to propaganda messages, however, even older, smaller media could be quite effective. And conditions were right. Remember the discussion of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft from the previous chapter. Mass society theorists and the elites they supported believed that “average people” were particularly open to demagogic propaganda because those “unfortunates” lived in a rapidly industrializing world characterized by psychological and cultural isolation and the loss of the security once sustained by traditional, binding, and informal social rules and obligations. As the economic depression deepened in the 1930s, many people no longer had jobs to provide an income to support their families and their relationships with others.
American elites therefore watched with increasing horror as extremist political groups consolidated their power in Europe and proceeded to establish totalitarian governments wielding enormous control over vast populations. How could they remain complacent when madmen like Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, could openly espouse such antidemocratic ideas as “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. What after all are a square and a circle? They are mere words and words can be molded until they clothe ideas in disguise” (quoted in Thomson, 1977, p. 111) and “In politics power prevails, not moral claims of justice” (quoted in Herzstein, 1978, p. 69)? Fear grew that Fascist or Communist groups could and would come to power in the United States. In several American universities, researchers began to systematically study both foreign and domestic propaganda—searching for clues to what made it effective. Support for this research came from a variety of government agencies and private foundations, most notably military intelligence agencies and the Rockefeller Foundation (Gary, 1996).
We will review the propaganda theories of three of the most prolific, imaginative, and complex thinkers of their time: Harold Lasswell, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey. Given the number of books these men wrote, it is impossible to provide a complete presentation of their work. Instead, we will highlight some of their most influential and widely publicized ideas. In nearly every case, these men later refined or even rejected some of these ideas. Our objective in presenting their theories is to show how thinking about media evolved during a very critical period in world history—not to demean these individuals or to denigrate their work.
Most of the propaganda theories that developed during the 1930s were strongly influenced by two theories: behaviorism and Freudianism. Some combined both. Before presenting the ideas of the major propaganda theorists, we will first look at the two theories that often guided their thinking.