Propaganda in the United States

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An American propaganda poster from World War II produced under the Works Progress Administration

Propaganda in the United States is spread by both government and media entities. Propaganda is information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to influence opinions. It is used in advertising, radio, newspaper, posters, books, television and other media and may provide either factual or non-factual information to its audiences.[1]


World War I[edit]

The first large-scale use of propaganda by the U.S. government came during World War I. The government enlisted the help of citizens and children to help promote war bonds and stamps to help stimulate the economy. To keep the prices of war supplies down (guns, gunpowder, cannons, steel, etc.), the U.S. government produced posters that encouraged people to reduce waste and grow their own vegetables in "victory gardens". The public skepticism that was generated by the heavy-handed tactics of the Committee on Public Information would lead the postwar government to officially abandon the use of propaganda.[2]

World War II[edit]

During World War II, the United States officially had no propaganda, but the Roosevelt government used means to circumvent this official line. One such propaganda tool was the publicly owned but government-funded Writers' War Board (WWB). The activities of the WWB were so extensive that it has been called the "greatest propaganda machine in history".[2] Why We Fight is a famous series of US government propaganda films made to justify US involvement in World War II. Response to the use of propaganda in the United States was mixed, as attempts by the government to release propaganda during World War I was perceived negatively by the American public.[3][better source needed] The government did not initially use propaganda but was ultimately persuaded by businesses and media, which saw its use as informational.[3][better source needed] Cultural and racial stereotypes were used in World War II propaganda to encourage the perception of the Japanese people and government as a "ruthless and animalistic enemy that needed to be defeated", leading to many Americans seeing all Japanese people in a negative light.[4] Many people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens,[5][6] were forcibly rounded up and placed in internment camps in the early 1940s.

From 1944–48, prominent US policy makers promoted a domestic propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the U.S. public to agree to a harsh peace for the German people, for example by removing the common view of the German people and the Nazi Party as separate entities.[7] The core of this campaign was the Writers' War Board, which was closely associated with the Roosevelt administration.[7]

Another means was the United States Office of War Information that Roosevelt established in June 1942, whose mandate was to promote understanding of the war policies under the director Elmer Davis. It dealt with posters, press, movies, exhibitions, and produced often slanted material conforming to US wartime purposes.[8]

Other large and influential non-governmental organizations during the war and immediate post-war period were the Society for the Prevention of World War III and the Council on Books in Wartime.

Cold War[edit]

During the Cold War, the U.S. government produced vast amounts of propaganda against communism and the Soviet bloc. This propaganda was mainly intended to distort and discredit Communism as a political and economic ideology, and to paint the Soviets and the Soviet Union in an evil light. Much of this propaganda was directed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, who himself wrote the anti-communist tract Masters of Deceit. The FBI's COINTELPRO arm solicited journalists to produce fake news items discrediting communists and affiliated groups, such as H. Bruce Franklin and the Venceremos organization.

War on Drugs[edit]

A poster circa 2000 concerning cannabis in the United States.

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, originally established by the National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988,[9][10] but now conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Drug-Free Media Campaign Act of 1998,[11] is a domestic propaganda campaign designed to "influence the attitudes of the public and the news media with respect to drug abuse" and for "reducing and preventing drug abuse among young people in the United States".[12][13] The Media Campaign cooperates with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and other government and non-government organizations.[14]

Iraq War[edit]

In early 2002, the U.S. Department of Defense launched an information operation, colloquially referred to as the Pentagon military analyst program.[15] The goal of the operation is "to spread the administrations's talking points on Iraq by briefing ... retired commanders for network and cable television appearances," where they have been presented as independent analysts.[16] On 22 May 2008, after this program was revealed in The New York Times, the House passed an amendment that would make permanent a domestic propaganda ban that until now has been enacted annually in the military authorization bill.[17]

The Shared Values Initiative was a public relations campaign that was intended to sell a "new" America to Muslims around the world by showing that American Muslims were living happily and freely, without persecution, in post-9/11 America.[18] Funded by the United States Department of State, the campaign created a public relations front group known as the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU). The campaign was divided in phases; the first of which consisted of five mini-documentaries for television, radio, and print with shared values messages for key Muslim countries.[19]

Ad Council[edit]

The Ad Council, an American non-profit organization that distributes public service announcements on behalf of various private and federal government agency sponsors, has been labeled as "little more than a domestic propaganda arm of the federal government" given the Ad Council's historically close collaboration with the President of the United States and the federal government.[20] According to the Ad council official website they aim to make sure advertisements are not as biased and do not harm any individuals.[21] They have a myriad of published press releases and news articles relaying around different topics in the United States.[22] The Ad council has a goal to change the lives of people through advertisement through various case studies and real stories.[23] This non-profit organization continues to give public service announcements with the hope to relay information without opinion and raise awareness on issues. The Ad Council continues to distribute announcements from the white house regarding all political information and debates.


Through several international broadcasting operations, the US disseminates American cultural information, official positions on international affairs, and daily summaries of international news. These operations fall under the International Broadcasting Bureau, the successor of the United States Information Agency, established in 1953. IBB's operations include Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Alhurra and other programs. They broadcast mainly to countries where the United States finds that information about international events is limited, either due to poor infrastructure or government censorship. The Smith-Mundt Act prohibits the Voice of America from disseminating information to US citizens that were produced specifically for a foreign audience.

During the Cold War, the United States ran covert propaganda campaigns in countries that appeared likely to become Soviet satellites, such as Italy, Afghanistan, and Chile[24]. According to the Church Committee report, US agencies ran a "massive propaganda campaign" on Chile, where over 700 news items placed in American and European media resulted from CIA activities in a six-weeks period alone.[25]

In 2006, The Pentagon announced the creation of a new unit aimed at spreading propaganda about supposedly "inaccurate" stories being spread about the Iraq War. These "inaccuracies" have been blamed on the enemy trying to decrease support for the war. Donald Rumsfeld has been quoted as saying these stories are something that keeps him up at night.[26]

Psychological operations[edit]

US PSYOP pamphlet disseminated in Iraq. Text: "This is your future al-Zarqawi" and shows al-Qaeda fighter al-Zarqawi caught in a rat trap.

The US military defines psychological operations, or PSYOP, as:

planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.[27]

Some argue that the Smith-Mundt Act, adopted in 1948, explicitly forbids information and psychological operations aimed at the US public.[28] However, Emma L Briant points out that this is a common confusion - The Smith-Mundt Act only ever applied to the State Department, not the Department of Defense and military PSYOP, which are governed by Article 10 of the US Code.[29] Rumsfeld's Roadmap to Propaganda - Secret Pentagon "roadmap" calls for "boundaries" between "information operations" abroad and at home but provides no actual limits as long as the US does not "target" Americans by National Security Archive, January 26, 2006.[30][31] Nevertheless, the current easy access to news and information from around the globe, makes it difficult to guarantee PSYOP programs do not reach the US public. Or, in the words of Army Col. James A. Treadwell, who commanded the U.S. military psyops unit in Iraq in 2003, in The Washington Post:

There's always going to be a certain amount of bleed-over with the global information environment.[32]

Agence France Presse reported on U.S. propaganda campaigns that:

The Pentagon acknowledged in a newly declassified document that the US public is increasingly exposed to propaganda disseminated overseas in psychological operations.[33]

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the document referred to, which is titled "Information Operations Roadmap."[31][33] The document acknowledges restrictions on targeting domestic audience, but fails to offer any way of limiting the effect PSYOP programs have on domestic audiences.[28][30][34] A recent book by Emma L. Briant brings this up to date, detailing the big changes in practice following 9/11 and especially after the Iraq War as US defense adapted to a more fluid media environment and brought in new internet policies.[35]

Several incidents in 2003 were documented by Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel, which he saw as information-warfare campaigns that were intended for "foreign populations and the American public." Truth from These Podia,[36] as the treatise was called, reported that the way the Iraq War was fought resembled a political campaign, stressing the message instead of the truth.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Truth or Propaganda?". Intercollegiate Review. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Retrieved 2018-09-28.
  2. ^ a b Thomas Howell, The Writers' War Board: U.S. Domestic Propaganda in World War II, Historian, Volume 59 Issue 4, pp. 795–813
  3. ^ a b Riddle, Lincoln (Aug 6, 2016). "American Propaganda in World War II".
  4. ^ Miles, Hannah (2012). "WWII Propaganda: The Influence of Racism". Artifacts (6).
  5. ^ Semiannual Report of the War Relocation Authority, for the period January 1 to June 30, 1946, not dated. Papers of Dillon S. Myer. Scanned image at Retrieved September 18, 2006.
  6. ^ "The War Relocation Authority and The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II: 1948 Chronology," Web page at Retrieved September 11, 2006.
  7. ^ a b Steven Casey, (2005), The Campaign to sell a harsh peace for Germany to the American public, 1944 - 1948, [online]. London: LSE Research Online. [Available online at] Originally published in History, 90 (297). pp. 62-92 (2005) Blackwell Publishing
  8. ^ Little, Becky (December 19, 2016). "Inside America's Shocking WWII Propaganda Machine". National Geographic.
  9. ^ National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988 of the Anti–Drug Abuse Act of 1988, Pub.L. 100–690, 102 Stat. 4181, enacted November 18, 1988
  10. ^ Gamboa, Anthony H. (January 4, 2005), B-303495, Office of National Drug Control Policy — Video News Release (PDF), Government Accountability Office, footnote 6, page 3
  11. ^ Drug-Free Media Campaign Act of 1998 (Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 1999), Pub.L. 105–277, 112 Stat. 268, enacted October 21, 1998
  12. ^ Gamboa, Anthony H. (January 4, 2005), B-303495, Office of National Drug Control Policy — Video News Release (PDF), Government Accountability Office, pp. 9–10
  13. ^ Drug-Free Media Campaign Act of 1998 of the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 1999, Pub.L. 105–277, 112 Stat. 268, enacted October 21, 1998
  14. ^ Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 2006, Pub.L. 109–469, 120 Stat. 3501, enacted December 29, 2006, codified at 21 U.S.C. § 1708
  15. ^ Barstow, David (2008-04-20). "Message Machine: Behind Analysts, the Pentagon's Hidden Hand". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Sessions, David (2008-04-20). "Onward T.V. Soldiers: The New York Times exposes a multi-armed Pentagon message machine". Slate.
  17. ^ Barstow, David (2008-05-24). "2 Inquiries Set on Pentagon Publicity Effort". The New York Times.
  18. ^ Rampton, Sheldon (October 17, 2007). "Shared Values Revisited". Center for Media and Democracy.
  19. ^ "U.S. Reaches Out to Muslim World with Shared Values Initiative". January 16, 2003. Archived from the original on October 18, 2011.
  20. ^ Barnhart, Megan (2009). "Selling the International Control of Atomic Energy: The Scientists Movement, the Advertising Council, and the Problem of the Public". In Mariner, Rosemary B.; Piehler, G. Kurt. The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives. University of Tennessee Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-57233-648-3.
  21. ^ "Ad Council". AdCouncil. 2018. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  22. ^ "Press Releases". AdCouncil. 2018. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  23. ^ "Case studies". AdCouncil. 2018. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  24. ^ "Church Committee Report, Volume VII - Hearings on Covert Action" (PDF).
  25. ^ "page 169, III. Major Covert Action Programs and Their Effects, Church Committee Report, Volume VII - Covert Action" (PDF). Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  26. ^ BBC NEWS | Americas | Pentagon boosts 'media war' unit
  27. ^ Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations Joint Publication 3-53, 5 September 2003 PDF
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^ Briant, Emma L (2015) Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change, Manchester: Manchester University Press: 41
  30. ^ a b Operations as a core competency by Christopher J. Lamb, senior fellow in the Institute for National Security Studies at the National Defense University and has been Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Resources and Plans.HTML version
  31. ^ a b c Mind Games By Daniel Schulman, Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
  32. ^ Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi - Jordanian Painted As Foreign Threat To Iraq's Stability By Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post, April 10, 2006
  33. ^ a b US Propaganda Aimed at Foreigners Reaches US Public: Pentagon Document by Agence France Presse, January 27, 2006
  34. ^ US plans to 'fight the net' revealed By Adam Brookes, BBC, January 27, 2006
  35. ^ Briant, Emma L (2015) Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change, Manchester: Manchester University Press
  36. ^ Truth from These Podia - Summary of a Study of Strategic Influence, Perception management, Strategic Information Warfare and Strategic Psychological Operations in Gulf II by Sam Gardiner, Colonel, USAF (Retired), October 8, 2003, [PDF]