Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 2: What Is Propaganda? (1944)

While most persons who give the matter a thought make distinctions between an objectively written news report and propaganda, they encounter difficulty when they try to define propaganda. It is one of the most troublesome words in the English language. To define it clearly and precisely, so that whenever it is used it will mean the same thing to everybody, is like trying to get your hands on an eel. You think you’ve got it—then it slips away.

When you say “policeman” or “house,” everybody has a pretty clear idea of what you mean. There’s nothing vague about these terms. But when you try to mark off the exact boundaries of “propaganda,” you wrinkle the brows even of the men who spend their lives studying the origin and history of words. And the problem of defining propaganda is all the more tangled because in the first World War it acquired certain popular meanings that stick to it like burrs to a cocker spaniel.

To some speakers and writers, propaganda is an instrument of the devil. They look on the propagandist as a person who is deliberately trying to hoodwink us, who uses half-truths, who lies, who suppresses, conceals, and distorts the facts. According to this idea of the word, the propagandist plays us for suckers.

Others think especially of techniques, of slogans, catchwords, and other devices, when they talk about propaganda. Still others define propaganda as a narrowly selfish attempt to get people to accept ideas and beliefs, always in the interest of a particular person or group and with little or no advantage to the public. According to this view, propaganda is promotion that seeks “bad” ends, whereas similar effort on behalf of the public and for “good” ends isn’t propaganda, but is something else. Under this definition, for example, the writings of the patriotic Sam Adams on behalf of the American Revolution could not be regarded by American historians as propaganda.

The difficulty with such a view is that welfare groups and governments themselves secure benefits for a people through propaganda. Moreover, national propaganda in the throes of a war is aimed to bolster the security of the nonaggressor state and to assure the eventual well-being and safety of its citizens. No one would deny that this kind of propaganda, intelligently administered, benefits every man, woman, and child in the land.

The experts have plenty of trouble in agreeing upon a satisfactory definition of propaganda, but they are agreed that the term can’t be limited to the type of propaganda that seeks to achieve bad ends or to the form that makes use of deceitful methods.

Can you distinguish propaganda from other forms of expression or promotion by saying that it is something that depends upon “concealment”—on hiding either the goals men are working for, or the means that they use, or the identity of the people behind the propaganda? A few authorities say “yes” to this question, but most of them say “no.” Most analysts of propaganda do not limit the term propaganda to “veiled” promotion. Nor do they think it accurate to describe propaganda as an activity that resorts only to half-truths and downright falsehood. They say simply that some propaganda hinges on deceit and some does not. As a matter of fact, they recognize that a shrewd propagandist prefers to deal above the table, knowing just what the reaction of a propaganda-conscious public will be to dishonest trickery when it is exposed.

Some people limit the term propaganda to efforts that make use of emotional appeals, but others will differ about this idea. In a campaign to capture public opinion, a propagandist may rely heavily upon emotional symbols—but he may appeal to logical thinking as well.

Some people assert that propaganda is present only in controversial situations. One writer, for example, says, “Propaganda is an instrument of conflict or controversy, deliberately used.” And another says, “If the report is deliberately circulated to influence attitudes on controversial issues it is propaganda.” When existing loyalties, customs, and institutions are attacked, there is controversy. In a democratic system, propaganda replaces violence and censorship as a method of bringing about change. All this may be granted, and yet the question can be raised whether the word “propaganda” should be limited to efforts to influence attitudes on controversial matters only.

Take, for example, the campaign in the United States, conducted under the direction of the Surgeon General, for the control, cure, and eradication of venereal disease. This systematically organized campaign tried to gain its ends by direct appeals to the people. Those who handled it considered carefully just what agencies to use in reaching the people—whether newspapers or magazines, the radio or the public platform, or a combination of these. They used both emotional and logical appeals. They planned the campaign to persuade diseased persons to decide to visit a physician to get cured. Their campaign used the techniques of propaganda, persuaded persons to a course of conduct, and promised a reward—good health. It used, as has been said, both emotional and logical appeals.

Unless “controversy” is interpreted to include minor debates and the making of choices in matters that command general social approval, a definition of “propaganda” that insists on stressing controversy hampers one’s approach to an understanding of the subject.

All this will indicate that there is a lot of difficulty in working out any formal definition of propaganda. Most students of the subject agree that propaganda has to do with any ideas and beliefs that are intentionally propagated. They agree also that it attempts to reach a goal by making use of words and word substitutes (pictures, drawings, graphs, exhibits, parades, songs, and similar devices). Moreover, although it is used in controversial situations, most experts agree that it is also used to promote noncontroversial, or generally acceptable, ideas. Types of propaganda range from the selfish, deceitful, and subversive to the honest and aboveboard promotional effort. It can be concealed or open, emotional or containing appeals to reason, or a combination of emotional and logical appeals.

While propaganda influences the behavior of individuals, it is important to bear in mind that it is only one of the means by which man’s behavior is influenced. There are other forms of inducement employed in winning assent or compliance. In limited or wholesale degree, depending upon the political organization of a given country, men have used force or violence to control people. They have resorted to boycott, bribery, passive resistance, and other techniques. Bribes, bullets, and bread have been called symbols of some of the actions that men have taken to force people into particular patterns of behavior.

Whatever propaganda may be, it differs from such techniques because it resorts to suggestion and persuasion.

Next section: How to Size Up Propaganda