The disinformation, propaganda, and malign narratives that now trouble international relations reach beyond the traditional Public Diplomacy frames of “mutual understanding,” “winning hearts and minds” and “soft power.” They are tools of “sharp power,” defined by the National Endowment for Democracy as “authoritarian
influence efforts” that “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments . . . seeking to influence their target audiences by manipulating or distorting the information that reaches them.”
Is this new? Five decades ago, the term “sharp power” had not been coined, but retired Air Force Major General Edward G. Lansdale (1908-1987) concluded that during the Vietnam War there was “a political, psychological campaign by the enemy that was filled with disinformation to make us believe something that wasn’t true; and we actually came to believe it.”
At the Air Force Academy’s military history symposium on Air Power and Warfare in 1978 (his comments are on pp. 335-336) he addressed, at least glancingly, many issues that are still relevant to “influence”: images, narratives, audience analysis, understanding another nation and its leaders, propaganda campaigns, how the pressure of responding to the American media crowds out thinking about insurgents, and commanders who believe that “psychological operations consisted entirely of dropping leaflets.”
What concerns me, and what should concern everyone in this room, is that we were subjected during Vietnam to a political, psychological campaign by the enemy that was filled with disinformation to make us believe something that wasn’t true; and we actually came to believe it. Ho Chi Minh, for example — who had been a classmate of Stalin’s at the Lenin Academy in Moscow, who had helped to form the Communist party in France, and who was certainly one of the most skilled and effective Communist leaders in the world — was a very tough propagandist. He was very successfully portrayed to Americans as a kindly old gentleman with a wispy goatee who often played with little children. Now, who is going to make war against such a kindly image as that?
Let me give you another example of our failure to deal adequately with the psychological aspects of the struggle in Vietnam. We based our policy in that war on the idea that we could punish the enemy leaders until they gave in to our demands. Yet most of the Politburo members were almost completely unknown in the United States. We knew little about their past and even less about their personalities or how they would react to our actions. The result was sheer folly. Not only did the Communist leadership in North Vietnam not succumb to our military strength, they turned it against us in propaganda campaigns throughout Europe and even in the United States.
Lansdale, then, understood what we now call “sharp power,” but when he spoke of responses, he used a different word, “psychological.” In a few sentences, he shone a light on different views of Public Diplomacy’s purposes.
I regret that we did not do more during the Vietnam conflict in terms of psychological operations. We had agencies to do that. We had military groups to do that. Unfortunately, we had commanders who felt that psychological operations consisted entirely of dropping leaflets when the enemy was penned in to give them the option to surrender. We had many people in Vietnam who saw their main duty as explaining the war to the American people rather than waging a war against the enemy. Perhaps the American people did need more understanding, but the explaining was often done to reporters whose views were sunk in concrete and which weren’t about to be changed either by words or by visible proof in the war itself.
I feel very strongly about the subject of psychological aspects of war, as you can tell. I think the opponents we are likely to face in the future are far more skilled at such things than are we and are subjecting us to things that we had jolly well better become aware of and take into consideration in the planning and execution of our national policy and strategic planning.
What did Lansdale mean by “psychological”? The term unsettles most Public Diplomacy officers. Isn’t “psyop” part of “information operations” by the armed forces?
To understand Lansdale’s meaning, the comments of historian Kenneth Osgood (in his Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad) are helpful. He related how Americans “perceived the Cold War as a war, but as a different kind of war – one that was difficult to define, one that was fought not so much with guns and tanks and atom bombs, as with words and ideas and political maneuvers all over the world.”
When Lansdale said that the U.S. Information Agency (the forebear of today’s Public Diplomacy) was “our main psychological operations agency,” then, he was drawing on the older understandings of Public Diplomacy and influence that came out of World War II and the early Cold War experience.
The organization of the U.S. effort in Vietnam reflected this understanding. In Saigon in 1965, the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) placed the work of the U.S. Information Service (USIS) and the public affairs activities of the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under one umbrella. Barry Zorthian, USIA’s Country Public Affairs Officer for Vietnam, became the director of JUSPAO. Journalists called him Saigon’s “czar of media relations.”
In addition, Zorthian wore another hat. He was the United States Mission Coordinator for Psychological Operations. Two jobs were too much for one man, but these arrangements reflected the contemporary view that “psychological operations” and Public Diplomacy were partners in a common effort.
In the counterinsurgency environment, Lansdale’s view was that what he called “psychological operations” must work in tandem with other efforts. Recalling his role in combating the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines in the early 1950s, historian Philip S. Meilinger judged that Lansdale and Philippine Defense Minister Ramon Magsaysay:
. . . realized attempts to deal with the rebellion up to that time had involved solely military forces. Yet, the concerns of average Filipinos that made them susceptible to Huk propaganda were largely economic and political in nature. The solutions, therefore, had to be economic and political as well. A measure of the veracity of that insight – so radical at the time – is its acceptance today as conventional wisdom in counterinsurgency strategy.
My read is that Lansdale intended the military campaign in Vietnam to be paralleled by an integrated balance of economic, political, and “psychological” initiatives – “integrated” meaning a synergy — “balanced” meaning equal in emphasis. (Thus he anticipated “smart power” as well as “sharp power.”)
Lansdale’s comment also tells us that between World War II and the Vietnam War views of what we now call Public Diplomacy were contested. Was “publicity” to be USIA’s mission? “Public affairs”? Was its purpose simply to “inform,” to “influence,” or to “persuade”? Was it about “hearts and minds” or “hearts and will” (which implies a “psychological” change)?
In 1978 Lansdale noted that USIA had “dropped that term [psychological operations] and has taken up another, and it is now staffed by people who are very happy, as they put it, to get out of the cold war era.” This short sentence captures a significant change in the emphasis of Public Diplomacy — affected by the “détente” of the 1970s, which devalued the “Counter-Disinformation Mission.”
Lansdale worked at the American Embassy in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, but scholars agree he was bureaucratically marginalized by both the Embassy’s leadership and the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam. He was an “advisor” who did not have his own programs and funds. According to journalist Don North, Barry Zorthian was among the Embassy officers who believed Lansdale came to the Embassy too late and was “irrelevant” in a larger war.
Public Diplomacy practitioners who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of American efforts to defeat insurgencies, as Lansdale had been four decades earlier. Decades after Vietnam, Public Diplomacy keeps its distance from the psychological operations or operations in the information environment (OIE) conducted by the armed forces. Lansdale’s view of the “war of ideas” was larger and more robust, with more edge. And when disinformation and propaganda by adversaries have become so challenging, we should credit Lansdale’s foresight when he said: “the opponents we are likely to face in the future are far more skilled at such things as we are.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.