Some Limitations of Propaganda

While propaganda, using the tools of suggestion and persuasion, can gain important and significant objectives, it is a common mistake to overvalue its power. Men and women are not so easily swayed as some who fear propaganda seem to think.

There must be a reasonably fertile field to nourish the propagandist’s seed before it can be expected to ripen into attitudes and opinions.

As one writer has pointed out, if the propaganda is not in harmony with the individual and his desire, it is likely to be met by cynical skepticism. The propaganda of Hitler, for example, fitted in with a German desire for supremacy; and the propaganda of the sellers of some patent medicine, whatever its real merits, harmonizes with the desire of people for good health.

Moreover, it should be remembered that forces quite apart from propaganda may have a large part in preparing the ground. One must he careful to distinguish between the opinion that propaganda creates and the opinion that is developed by events.

To give an illustration, the American attitude toward Germany was not bitterly hostile in the early months of World War I. But when the Lusitania was torpedoed in May 1915, with loss of 128 American lives, anger against the Central Powers mush roomed overnight.

The studies of George Gallup, since World War II started, reveal a similar relation between events and attitudes. In the early spring of 1940 only 7 Americans out of 100 voted “yes”- in response to Dr. Gallup’s question as to whether the United States should declare war on Germany. A month later, after the battle of Flanders, 16 out of 100 said they would vote for war if a national referendum were called. Dr. Gallup went on to say that “events and actions are infinitely more potent factors in influencing the formation of public opinion than a mere desire (for example) to imitate one’s fellow citizens.”

Goebbels’ job as a propagandist was comparatively easy while the German armies were winning victories in Poland, the Low Countries, France, Norway, and Greece. But his job was not so easy after the tide began to turn. The routing of Rommel in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily and Italy, the smashing defeats of the Germans in Russia, the bombing of German cities, and the invasion on the west made the propaganda appeals of Goebbels far less effective in their impact than they had been before. It was only after Allied bombing of the Reich got into full swing that we began to hear of “weakening German morale.”

No American should need to be reminded that the isolationists lost most of their following—and a good deal of their own conviction—within a matter of hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Heredity and environment are also important in forming opinions. A great many men and women hold to the political beliefs of their fathers. The public opinion polling experts believe that sex, age, place of residence, and income are all of some importance in influencing attitudes, and that on some issues, race, religion, and party affiliations also enter.

In addition to all these things, a man’s own knowledge and information may cause him to hold to an opinion no matter how heavy the barrage of propaganda attempting to force him to change it.

So propaganda is not the all-powerful weapon that many people believe it to be. It is only one of the tools in the formation of public opinion.