“Jingoist newspaper articles, or thoughtlessly provocative speeches in Congress, may become propaganda in reverse.”
This was the 1963 observation of emeritus Princeton professor of politics John B. Whitton (1892-1977) in his book Propaganda and the Cold War (Washington, Public Affairs Press, 1963, pp. 10-11). His chapter on “The American Effort Challenged” included a subhead — “Responsibility of individual Americans.”
The Cold War framed Whitton’s article, but it surely addresses current concerns.
Whitton spoke of “jingoism,” extreme nationalism. It’s making a comeback. At that time he cautioned against “provocative speeches”; now there are provocative tweets. “Public men” – we can now say “men and women” – of a new generation work at different ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but there are still “irresponsible statements.”
At the time, Whitton regretted the negative impact of “a single lynching” or “a thoughtless act by a New York hotel-keeper” on international opinion. Distressing incidents of police shootings, deaths of foreign students on U.S. campuses, or separation of families at the border may be the contemporary equivalents that affect how foreigners regard American society and governance. And the comments of Ambassador Chester Bowles (1901-1986), quoted in Whitton’s chapter, seem remarkably “woke.”
Good propaganda is not the sole responsibility of the American Government. The individual may undo the most ambitious efforts of the U.S.I.A. or Department of State. In this matter, although freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among our most cherished traditions, they do present certain obstacles to the success of our political communications abroad. During the entire period of the Cold War, certain irresponsible statements made by American public men have done our cause considerable harm. Moscow’s charge of war-mongering leveled against us may appear in neutral countries to have some substance of truth, after American generals and admirals have spoken loosely of the use of the bomb in preventive war. Jingoist newspaper articles, or thoughtlessly provocative speeches in Congress, may become propaganda in reverse.
If words uttered by American individuals can do us great injury, their deeds can be even more mischievous and damaging. A single lynching can undo a dozen good-will tours by Congressmen to the new states of Africa. Little Rock, or a well-publicized story of sit-down strikes in southern restaurants, or a thoughtless act by a New York hotel-keeper toward a United Nations delegate from Africa or Southern Asia may make our information people wring their hands in despair.
Nor should we forget the impact abroad of American movies, whose foreign audience is estimated at 110,000,000 weekly. The responsibility of Hollywood producers and American publishers with respect to the American image abroad was graphically demonstrated by Ambassador Chester Bowles. He reports that an Indian friend of his told him as follows: “Then there are your movies. Some of them are splendid. But so many deal with nothing but divorce, night clubs, murder and other violence. And your comic books! Yesterday after I left your fine library, feeling so good about America, I went home to find my son with one of your particularly violent comic books called ‘The Mongol Bloodsucker.'”
“In Asia,” comments Ambassador Bowles, “it is impossible to explain such things away by pointing out that it is pure fantasy. The communist propagandists themselves could not possibly devise a more persuasive way to convince color-sensitive Indians that Americans believe in the superior civilization of people with white skins, and that we are indoctrinating our children with bitter racial prejudice from the time they learn to read.”
In a free country it is extremely difficult to prevent individuals, either by their words or their deeds, from falsifying the American image current abroad or from otherwise damaging the national interest. All we can do is to appeal to the conscience and sense of responsibility of the individual, above all that of the newsmen and men in public life. This sense of responsibility can be quickened by intelligent and vigorous leadership. An illustration of such leadership is the message from the President inserted in each American passport as a reminder to the American traveller of his responsibility for our good name when he goes abroad. However, suggestions from even the President and the Secretary of State may have little effect on a Senator McCarthy, or the Mayor of a great American city bent on twisting the tail of the British Lion, the Russian Bear, or an Oriental Dragon.
In an essay, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute made Whitton’s point that “words uttered by American individuals can do us great injury.”
. . . in a globalized age it behooves our elected officials to recognize that hyperbole might end up fueling those who seek not to craft a better strategy, but rather defeat America entirely. Simply looking back at some of the rhetoric aired regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and how congressional statements were picked up and recast on insurgent media should give pause to the bipartisan array of officials who were quick to declare new Vietnams or allege ill motives on the part of national-security leaders.
Public Diplomacy practitioners work with foreign audiences to explain American policy and society – to place speeches and incidents, not to mention movies and comic books, in context. But who explains the effects of Whitton’s “propaganda in reverse” to Americans?
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.