Propaganda before and after World War 2

Propaganda before and after World War 2 before 1914, propaganda was usually associated with religion and the implanting of ideas to be cultivated in support of existing beliefs and ‘faith’. Its wartime applications, in the Napoleonic or the American independence wars, were confined largely to calls to arms, lampooning the enemy, glorifying victory, and sustaining morale. The intention by the few to impress the many can be traced back to the ancient world in art, architecture, and symbolism. The advent of printing in the 14th century shifted the emphasis from script to print. In wars of religion, propaganda from the pulpit remained a potent method of swaying emotions, hence the Vatican’s Sacre Congregatio. Massive advances in communications technologies in the 19th century, the development of a global cable network, and the arrival of the mass media by the end of the century extended propaganda to a global audience.

The Great War of 1914-18, a total war which industrialized warfare and made the home front as important as the fighting front, altered the nature of popular involvement and introduced domestic morale as a military asset. It also discredited the word ‘propaganda’ which henceforth came to be associated with the manipulation of opinion, by foul means rather than fair, with lies or half-truths, and with deceit. In particular, the popularization of atrocity propaganda through the relatively new mass-circulation press and the increasingly popular silent cinema discredited the relationship between propaganda and ‘truth’. It was this manipulative power over human emotions which Hitler identified as being a weapon that could be of enormous value for his purposes.

In the new USSR also, propaganda was seized upon as a device that could serve the state, by extending revolutionary ideas to the illiterate masses and, more innovatively, into the international class struggle. With the advent of radio broadcasting in the 1920s, the ability to transmit propaganda across frontiers and appeal directly to foreign audiences undermined traditional notions about non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. A series of radio ‘wars’ prompted the League of Nations in 1936 to pass a convention attempting to outlaw the use of broadcasting for these purposes. More honored in the breach as the Nazi and Fascist regimes positioned propaganda as a central feature of their domestic and foreign policies, the BBC ideal that ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation’ fell victim to the ideological conflict that was to produce both WW II and the subsequent Cold War.

By the outbreak of WW II, the sound cinema had also become an important medium for disseminating propaganda. The British Ministry of Information (the choice of words reflecting the nervousness of democratic countries in eschewing propaganda) recognized that ‘for the film to be good propaganda it must also be good entertainment’. Once the USA entered the war, the formidable American motion-picture industry (‘Hollywood’) was mobilized in support of wartime propaganda themes: ‘why we fight’, ‘know your enemy’, ‘unity is strength’, and so on. The wartime democratic alliance evolved a ‘Strategy of Truth’ towards their propaganda, which did not mean that the whole truth was told. But the reputation for credibility which organizations like the BBC were able to develop in their broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe was a serious corrective to the propaganda output of Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment encapsulated by the phrase the ‘Big Lie’.

While propaganda by press, poster, radio, and film was used extensively on the domestic fronts to sustain popular morale through the harsh realities of war, bombing, rationing, victories, and defeats, on the fighting fronts it was used as an adjunct to military tactics. Millions of leaflets were dropped over enemy lines, mobile loudspeaker teams shouted out messages, and radio transmissions attempted to sow seeds of confusion, doubt, and defeatism. It is axiomatic that successful propaganda must go hand in hand with policy. The Allies in this respect shot themselves in the foot with the insistence on unconditional surrender following the Casablanca Conference of 1942. By announcing that all Germans in defeat would be treated in exactly the same way, this policy fused the fate of the German people with that of the Nazi Party in a way undreamed of by a grateful Goebbels. It enabled him to launch his own drive for total war, it pre-empted the Allied use of such inducements as ‘surrender or die’ since any German soldier would be treated as a war criminal, and it partly helps to explain why the German people kept fighting to the bitter end.

Developments in new communications technologies during the 1980s, such as the portable satellite phone, the laptop computer, and digital data transmission meant that such military control of the information environment would never be possible again. However, as the Gulf war of 1991 indicated, propaganda had not been confined to the dustbin of history. An increasingly sophisticated US military information policy was able to secure a desired view of warfare through the release of videotapes showing missiles hitting (not missing) their targets with unprecedented accuracy, and through live television press conferences which bypassed the traditional role of the media as mediator. Despite the unprecedented effort by the Iraqis to counter this propaganda of a ‘clean’ and ‘smart’ high-tech war by permitting correspondents from Coalition countries to stay behind in the enemy capital under fire, the military information agenda succeeded in dominating the media coverage. Democracies had indeed demonstrated that they could wage war in the presence of more than 1, 500 journalists, and thereby sustain public support in the process.

Propaganda, Diplomacy, and International Public Opinion

The Cold War inaugurated a paradigm shift in the U.S. practice of diplomacy that reflected changes in the nature of diplomatic activity worldwide. Through propaganda, policy initiatives, and covert action, agents of the U.S. government acted directly to influence the ideas, values, beliefs, opinions, actions, politics, and culture of other countries. Foreign affairs personnel not only observed and reported, they also participated in events or tried to influence the way that they happened. The old maxim that one government does not interfere in the internal affairs of another had been swept aside.

The pattern of international relations was further transformed by the electronic communications revolution and the emergence of popular opinion as a significant force in foreign affairs. Foreign policy could no longer be pursued as it had during the nineteenth century, when diplomacy was the exclusive province of professional diplomats who used (often secret) negotiations to reach accords based on power and interest. Developments in mass communication and the increased attentiveness to domestic audiences abroad to foreign affairs meant that the target of diplomacy had now widened to include popular opinion as much, if not more so, than traditional diplomatic activities. In other words, by appealing over the heads of governments directly to public opinion, effective propaganda and other measures would encourage popular opinion to support U.S. policies, which would in turn exert pressure on government policymakers.

Throughout the Cold War, propaganda and diplomacy operated on multiple levels. At the most obvious level, propaganda as it is conventionally understood (the utilization of communication techniques to influence beliefs and actions) was employed as a distinct instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Through the United States Information Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and other mechanisms, the United States waged a war of words and of ideas that attacked communism, promoted capitalism and democracy, defended U.S. foreign policies, and advertised the American way of life in order to win the Cold War.

On another level, the awareness that international public opinion had become a major factor in the conduct of diplomacy meant that propaganda considerations intruded on the policymaking process itself. American policymakers were increasingly aware that international public opinion had to be an ingredient in policy formulation at all levels: in the planning and policy formulation stage, in the coordination and timing of operations, and finally in the last phase of explanation and interpretation by government officials and information programs.

This attitude played itself out most visibly in the United Nations, which became one of the most important arenas for Cold War propaganda. It also was reflected in the marked increase in the foreign travel of U.S. presidents and vice presidents, an important device for generating news coverage and for reaching international audiences directly. On a more routine basis, consideration of international public opinion simply involved the careful selection of words and phrases to describe the objectives of American foreign policy—including the process of creating what came to be known as a “sound bite.  Even within the State Department—an institution wedded to traditional diplomacy and wary of popular opinion—the Policy Planning Staff began to argue in the mid-1950s that convincing foreign officials was often less important than carrying issues over their heads to public opinion, reasoning that popular opinion would exert more of an impact on government officials than vice versa. The extensive and instantaneous media coverage that accompanied diplomatic conferences meant that negotiations needed to be conducted on two levels: on the diplomatic level between governments, and on the popular level to win international public support for policies. Diplomatic conferences were no longer merely opportunities for resolving international disputes; they were sounding boards for public opinion and forums for propaganda.

The psychological dimension of postwar American diplomacy also included a preoccupation with American prestige and credibility—concepts that connoted the reliability of American commitments and served as code words for America’s image and reputation. As Robert McMahon has argued, throughout the postwar period American leaders invoked the principle of credibility to explain and justify a wide range of diplomatic and military decisions. American actions in such disparate crises as Korea (1950–1953), Taiwan Strait (Quemoy-Matsu) (1954–1955), Lebanon (1958), and Vietnam (1954–1973) were driven by a perceived need to demonstrate the resolve, will, and, determination—in a word, credibility—of the United States. .

The infusion of psychological considerations and propaganda tactics into the practice of diplomacy is one of the Cold War’s most important legacies, but given the revolution in communication technologies of the late twentieth century it was perhaps inevitable that the ancient art of diplomacy would become affected by the techniques of propaganda and public persuasion. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War’s propaganda battles, foreign policy continued to be swayed by images transmitted instantly around the globe.


“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.” – Jean Anouilh

“Propaganda has a bad name, but its root meaning is simply to disseminate through a medium, and all writing therefore is propaganda for something. It’s a seeding of the self in the consciousness of others.” – Elizabeth Drew

Propaganda is the dissemination of information aimed at influencing the opinions or behaviors of large numbers of people. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda. Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.

Propaganda can be defined as any message intended to modify the attitudes and behaviour of people at whom it is directed, primarily by appealing to their emotions. Its use is not confined to dictatorships and authoritarian organizations. Democracies have employed it extensively in wartime. In peacetime it plays a significant role in electoral politics, and in public-service campaigns relating to social problems. Messages may range from simple verbal texts to elaborate combinations of aural and visual signals (e.g. television commercials). The media used have included print, graphic art, film, radio, television, and architecture, from baroque palaces to fascist monuments.


Propaganda is generally an appeal to emotion, contrasted to an appeal to intellect. It shares techniques with advertising and public relations. Advertising and public relations can be thought of as propaganda that promotes a commercial product or shapes the perception of an organization, person or brand, though in post-World War II usage the word “propaganda” more typically refers to political or nationalist uses of these techniques or to the promotion of a set of ideas, since the term had gained a pejorative meaning, which commercial and government entities couldn’t accept. The refusal phenomenon was eventually to be seen in politics itself by the substitution of ‘political marketing’ and other designations for ‘political propaganda’.

Propaganda was often used to influence opinions and beliefs on religious issues, particularly during the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. Propaganda has become more common in political contexts, in particular to refer to certain efforts sponsored by governments, political groups, but also often covert interests. In the early 20th century, propaganda was exemplified in the form of party slogans. Also in the early 20th century the term propaganda was also used by the founders of the nascent public relations industry to describe their activities. This usage died out around the time of World War II, as the industry started to avoid the word, given the pejorative connotation it had acquired.


Common media for transmitting propaganda messages include news reports, government reports, historical revision, junk science, books, leaflets, movies, radio, television, and posters. In the case of radio and television, propaganda can exist on news, current-affairs or talk-show segments, as advertising or public-service announce “spots” or as long-running advertorials. Propaganda campaigns often follow a strategic transmission pattern to indoctrinate the target group. This may begin with a simple transmission such as a leaflet dropped from a plane or an advertisement. Generally these messages will contain directions on how to obtain more information, via a web site, hot line, radio program, et cetera (as it is seen also for selling purposes among other goals). The strategy intends to initiate the individual from information recipient to information seeker through reinforcement, and then from information seeker to opinion leader through indoctrination.

A number of techniques based in social psychological research are used to generate propaganda. Many of these same techniques can be found under logical fallacies, since propagandists use arguments that, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid. Some time has been spent analyzing the means by which propaganda messages are transmitted. That work is important but it is clear that information dissemination strategies become propaganda only strategies when coupled with propagandistic messages. Identifying these messages is a necessary prerequisite to study the methods by which those messages are spread. Below are a number of techniques for generating propaganda:

Appeal to prejudice -Using loaded or emotive terms to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition.

  • Black-and-White fallacy –Presenting only two choices, with the product or idea being propagated as the better choice. (e.g., “You are either with us, or you are with the enemy”)
  • Beautiful people -The type of propaganda that deals with famous people or depicts attractive, happy people. This makes other people think that if they buy a product or follow a certain ideology, they too will be happy or successful. (This is more used in advertising for products, instead of political reasons)
  • Big Lie -The repeated articulation of a complex of events that justify subsequent action. The descriptions of these events have elements of truth, and the “big lie” generalizations merge and eventually supplant the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events. After World War I the German Stab in the back explanation of the cause of their defeat became a justification for Nazi re-militarization and revanchist aggression.
  • Demonizing the enemy -Making individuals from the opposing nation, from a different ethnic group, or those who support the opposing viewpoint appear to be subhuman (e.g., the Vietnam War-era term “gooks” for National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam aka Vietcong, (or ‘VC’) soldiers), worthless, or immoral, through suggestion or false accusations.
  • Direct order -This technique hopes to simplify the decision making process by using images and words to tell the audience exactly what actions to take, eliminating any other possible choices. Authority figures can be used to give the order, overlapping it with the Appeal to authority technique, but not necessarily. The Uncle Sam “I want you” image is an example of this technique.
  • Disinformation -The creation or deletion of information from public records, in the purpose of making a false record of an event or the actions of a person or organization, including outright forgery of photographs, motion pictures, broadcasts, and sound recordings as well as printed documents.
  • Euphoria -The use of an event that generates euphoria or happiness, or using an appealing event to boost morale. Euphoria can be created by declaring a holiday, making luxury items available, or mounting a military parade with marching bands and patriotic messages.
  • Half-truth -A half-truth is a deceptive statement which may come in several forms and includes some element of truth. The statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may utilize some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade blame or misrepresent the truth.
  • Intentional vagueness -Generalities are deliberately vague so that the audience may supply its own interpretations. The intention is to move the audience by use of undefined phrases, without analyzing their validity or attempting to determine their reasonableness or application. The intent is to cause people to draw their own interpretations rather than simply being presented with an explicit idea. In trying to “figure out” the propaganda, the audience forgoes judgment of the ideas presented. Their validity, reasonableness and application may still be considered.
  • Name-calling -Propagandists use the name-calling technique to incite fears and arouse prejudices in their hearers in the intent that the bad names will cause hearers to construct a negative opinion about a group or set of beliefs or ideas that the propagandist would wish hearers to denounce. The method is intended to provoke conclusions about a matter apart from impartial examinations of facts. Name-calling is thus a substitute for rational, fact-based arguments against the an idea or belief on its own merits.
  • Oversimplification -Favorable generalities are used to provide simple answers to complex social, political, economic, or military problems.

Nazi Germany

Most propaganda in Germany was produced by the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Joseph Goebbels was placed in charge of this ministry shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. All journalists, writers, and artists were required to register with one of the Ministry’s subordinate chambers for the press, fine arts, music, theater, film, literature, or radio. The Nazis believed in propaganda as a vital tool in achieving their goals. Adolf Hitler, Germany’s Führer, was impressed by the power of Allied propaganda during World War I and believed that it had been a primary cause of the collapse of morale and revolts in the German home front and Navy in 1918 (see also: Dolchstoßlegende). Hitler would meet nearly every day with Goebbels to discuss the news and Goebbels would obtain Hitler’s thoughts on the subject; Goebbels would then meet with senior Ministry officials and pass down the official Party line on world events. Broadcasters and journalists required prior approval before their works were disseminated. Along with posters, the Nazis produced a number of films and books to spread their beliefs.

Cold War propaganda

The United States and the Soviet Union both used propaganda extensively during the Cold War. Both sides used film, television, and radio programming to influence their own citizens, each other, and Third World nations and USA. The United States Information Agency operated the Voice of America as an official government station. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were in part supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, provided grey propaganda in news and entertainment programs to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union respectively. The Soviet Union’s official government station, Radio Moscow, broadcast white propaganda, while Radio Peace and Freedom broadcast grey propaganda. Both sides also broadcast black propaganda programs in periods of special crises.

In 1948, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office created the IRD (Information Research Department) which took over from wartime and slightly post-war departments such as the Ministry of Information and dispensed propaganda via various media such as the BBC and publishing.

The ideological and border dispute between the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China resulted in a number of cross-border operations. One technique developed during this period was the “backwards transmission”, in which the radio program was recorded and played backwards over the air. (This was done so that messages meant to be received by the other government could be heard, while the average listener could not understand the content of the program.) When describing life in capitalist countries, in the US in particular, propaganda focused on social issues such as poverty and anti-union action by the government. Workers in capitalist countries were portrayed as “ideologically close”. Propaganda claimed rich people from the US derived their income from weapons manufacturing, and claimed that there was substantial racism or neo-fascism in the US.

When describing life in Communist countries, western propaganda sought to depict an image of a citizenry held captive by governments that brainwash them. The West also created a fear of the East, by depicting an aggressive Soviet Union. In the Americas, Cuba served as a major source and a target of propaganda from both black and white stations operated by the CIA and Cuban exile groups. Radio Habana Cuba, in turn, broadcast original programming, relayed Radio Moscow, and broadcast The Voice of Vietnam as well as alleged confessions from the crew of the USS Pueblo. George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are virtual textbooks on the use of propaganda. Though not set in the Soviet Union, these books are about totalitarian regimes in which language is constantly corrupted for political purposes. These novels were, ironically, used for explicit propaganda. The CIA, for example, secretly commissioned an animated film adaptation of Animal Farm in the 1950s with small changes to the original story to suit its own needs.

Afghan War

In the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, psychological operations tactics were employed to demoralize the Taliban and to win the sympathies of the Afghan population. At least six EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft were used to jam local radio transmissions and transmit replacement propaganda messages. Leaflets were also dropped throughout Afghanistan, offering rewards for Osama bin Laden and other individuals, portraying Americans as friends of Afghanistan and emphasizing various negative aspects of the Taliban. Another shows a picture of Mohammed Omar in a set of crosshairs with the words “We are watching.” This technique has been shown to be rather ineffective in terms of long term opinions change given current political and social conditions in Afghanistan.

Iraq War

In November 2005, The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, alleged that the United States military had manipulated news reported in Iraqi media in an effort to cast a favorable light on its actions while demoralizing the insurgency. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said the program is “an important part of countering misinformation in the news by insurgents”, while a spokesman for former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the allegations of manipulation were troubling if true. The Department of Defense has confirmed the existence of the program. The New York Times published an article about how the Pentagon has started to use contractors with little experience in journalism or public relations to plant articles in the Iraqi press. These articles are usually written by US soldiers without attribution or are attributed to a non-existent organization called the “International Information Center.” Planting propaganda stories in newspapers was done by both the Allies and Central Powers in the First World War and the Axis and Allies in the Second; this is the latest version of this technique.

Anti-Semitic propaganda for children

In Nazi Germany, the education system was thoroughly co-opted to indoctrinate the German youth with anti-Semitic ideology. This was accomplished through the National Socialist Teachers League, of which 97% of all German teachers were members in 1937. It encouraged the teaching of “racial theory.” Picture books for children such as Don’t Trust A Fox in A Green Meadow Or the Word of A Jew, The Poisonous Mushroom, and The Poodle-Pug-Dachshund-Pincher were widely circulated (over 100,000 copies of Don’t Trust A Fox… were circulated during the late 1930s) and contained depictions of Jews as devils, child molesters, and other morally charged figures. Slogans such as “Judas the Jew betrayed Jesus the German to the Jews” were recited in class. The following is an example of a propagandistic math problem recommended by the National Socialist Essence of Education: