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Propaganda and History

Propaganda is a term that causes unease in many people. But just what is it? Making a persuasive argument? Telling lies? WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY defines it in the following ways:
  1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.
  2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda.
  3. Propaganda — Roman Catholic Church. A division of the Roman Curia that has authority in the matter of preaching the gospel, of establishing the Church in non-Christian countries, and of administering Church missions in territories where there is no properly organized hierarchy.
The origin of the word comes from third definition — specifically from the New Latin Sacra Congregti d Prpagand Fid, or Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith which was established 1622 to convert, or propagate, the faith.

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY's definition is less benign. Propaganda is defined as "the deliberate attempt by the few to influence the beliefs and actions of the many through the manipulation of ideas, facts, and lies."

Modern advertising and marketing practices have made the practice of propaganda more effective. Whether the arguments of propaganda are evaluated by history as true or false or their results good or ill, making an argument through words an images has a long history — especially when the cause to be sold is war.

Trajan's Column

Long before the Catholic Church gave birth to the term propaganda, individuals and empires were using stories and images to "make their case." For example, Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Roman Emperor AD 98-117) used his wealth and power to record the triumphs of his reign in a permanent fashion across the face of Rome. His rule hence had visible glories and benefits.

Later empire builders used visions of wealth and glory — military and spiritual — to entice volunteers. Visions of unbaptized souls and mountains of gold were common in reports emanating from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Early English tracts promised astonishingly fruitful lands and friendly natives to prospective settlers.

  • Read more about Trajan's Rome
  • Read documents from Colonial History

  • Scene from UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

    In the years leading up to the Civil War both sides of the slavery issue made great use of images, fiction and religious propaganda to convert citizens to their side. None was more effective than Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. The unprecedented effect of the book on public opinion led President Lincoln to greet author Stowe with "So, this is the little lady who started this big war." The book was a bestseller and stage interpretations became a staple of American regional theaters, before, and after the war.

    Slave Eliza fleeing across floes of ice toward freedom with her infant in her arms is one of the most famous images in American culture.

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site

  • World War I Poster, Courtesy of Georgetown University Library

    The Spanish-American War is often seen as a conflict almost initiated and fed by propaganda. Publisher of THE NEW YORK JOURNAL Randolph Hearst is commonly believed to have told a reporter in Cuba, "You furnish the pictures, I'll provide the war." Regardless of the veracity of that tale, Hearst's claim in the press that Spanish mines had sunk the Maine, pushed the nation toward war. His paper's notorious and ugly characterization of the Spanish and generous helpings of melodrama and sentiment became known as "Yellow Journalism."

    World War I marked the American government's first official foray into creating propaganda. In order to jumpstart enlistment and sell war bonds to a somewhat isolationist public, President Wilson formed the Committee of Public Information. The CPI produced posters, films and other material that equated the American cause with democracy, hearth and home. American propaganda took its tone from British and French efforts which stressed the brutality of "The Hun" and the "rape" of neutral Belgium. Worries about immigration and European revolutions became prominent in government propaganda in the post-war Red Scare.

  • Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War
  • FIRST CALL: American Posters of World War I
  • TAKE UP THE SWORD OF JUSTICE: British Posters of World War I

    Image courtesy of Fairchild Memorial Gallery Georgetown University Library

  • WPA WWII Recruitment Poster

    During World War II the word propaganda took on a more sinister tenor — due largely to the great emphasis placed on the creation of propaganda by the Third Reich, under the leadership of a Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.

    The United States called its own war propaganda program a "strategy of truth." The new Office of War Information was in charge of selling the war at home. The Office of Strategic Services concentrated on getting the Allied word out abroad. These campaigns defined the war as a classic battle between good and evil.

  • German Propaganda Archive
  • World War II Poster Collection
  • American Memory from the Library of Congress

  • Chinese Propaganda Poster

    The very nature of the Cold War assured great reliance on propaganda by both sides. In the United States, efforts were spearheaded by the United States Information Agency and Radio Free Europe. At the same time the Communist regimes put their best face forward with "official" images of smiling peasants and productive workers.

    Today there is an academic field dedicated to the study of propaganda. Scholars, and interested surfers, can view online exhibits of Chinese propaganda like "The Chairman Smiles" from the International Institute of Social History and even read some of the United States own Cold War efforts in the National Security Archive.

    Perhaps the Center for the Study of Political Graphics best illustrates the dual nature of propaganda — the propagation of doctrine for persuasion and the use of symbols to create cohesion. The Center collects contemporary and recent images — everything from Che T-shirts to the pink triangle. Do they inform or manipulate? Perhaps history will tell.

  • Smithsonian's "Posters American Style"

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