Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

There has been much loose talk about propaganda. This talk started long before the war. So-called educational campaigns of some commercial advertisers created suspicions in the minds of the public. Nazi use of propaganda before and during the war built up fear of it. But the fear evaporates, when people on the receiving end recognize what they read or hear for what it is. Witness the reception accorded Lord Haw-Haw in Britain.

Wide discussion of the question “What is propaganda?” will inoculate our citizens against the effects desired by the enemies of democracy. In a society which guards the right to freedom of speech, it is doubly important that people discriminate between legitimate talk about controversial issues and the type of propaganda that conceals fact and reason in a cloud of prejudice and fear. You will find one or more discussions or a forum on What Is Propaganda? useful in your program.

What Is Propaganda? can be particularly well handled in informal or panel discussion. A forum or a symposium will be successful if your speakers are skillful and well informed. For suggestions on how to conduct discussion meetings, refer to War Department Education Manual, EM 1, G. I. Roundtable: Guide for Discussion Leaders.

Make What Is Propaganda? available, if possible, for reading by members of your group. Several individuals can share one copy if you will place those you have in a library, day room, service club, or other central spot for reading. Discussions go off better when members have some information upon which to base their talk. If you have an insufficient supply of the pamphlet for general reading by your group, be sure to spend, or have some assistant of yours use, the first five or ten minutes of the meeting for an introductory talk. In this introduction it would be important to attempt a definition of propaganda, suggesting the question whether a propagandist, in order to be such, must have a conscious purpose. You might raise here the issue of whether there is such a thing as good propaganda. You could mention some of the devices used by propagandists who seek to befog rather than clarify issues.

After the brief background talk you will need to have in mind some questions to get your group started. The questions that follow have been devised to suggest, but not to impose a procedure for the discussion:

First,—Develop a definition of propaganda. For many persons “propaganda” is a smear word, carrying the suggestion that anything to which it is applied is “bad.” Is this too limited a meaning of the word? One writer on the subject says: “Propaganda is the premeditated selection of what we see and hear, designed to influence our attitudes.” Is there such a thing as unpremeditated propaganda? Are all forms of propaganda “concealed,” or are some open and avowed? Can propaganda be used in the public interest? Is it a phenomenon of recent origin? Why has it played such an important part in human history? Would you wish to stamp out all propaganda?

Second,—Get your group to distinguish between propaganda and education. Are teachers propagandists? Are parents propagandists? Does the attitude of the propagandist differ from that of the scientist? How are the opinions of the average person formed? By newspaper, radio, or movies? Is it the function of education to train individuals to be immune to the distortions, the biases, the omissions, and the prejudices found in the various types of propaganda material? Is it the function of any other agency?

Third,—Discuss this question: Are there differences between the use of propaganda in a democracy and in an authoritarian nation? Is advertising propaganda? What are the objectives of war propaganda? Of Nazi propaganda one expert says: “Nazi propaganda techniques include no secret devices, no newly-discovered psychological processes, no new channels of communication.” If you support this statement, what is new about the Nazi method and why has it been so effective? Why, with all the amazing propaganda apparatus at his disposal, did Hitler think it necessary to use force against minority groups in the German nation?

Fourth,—Consider the safeguards against propaganda. Do specific information and a sound knowledge of facts influence opinion? What are some of the propaganda devices commonly used? What is a symbol? What is legend making? What is a slogan? How does the element of prestige work in fixing or altering attitudes and opinions? Do most persons accept such propagandas as seem most nearly to conform to their own interests, needs, and prejudices? Are most persons so “fed up” with propaganda that they do not let it affect them? Do many individuals support propaganda which is in the public interest and not solely in line with their own selfish interests? What propa­ganda devices did the Nazis “think up” to win followers? To “soften up” a nation they wished to absorb or attack? Do you believe this is a sound statement: “Although propaganda is pervasive and will be persistent, it need not be fatal to intelligent popular decisions”? Why do you believe or disbelieve the last statement?

A Few Suggestions for Further Reading about Propaganda

Radio in Wartime. By Charles A. Siepmann. No. 26 of America in a World at War, published by the Oxford University Press, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. (1942).

War in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Willard Waller. Published by the Dryden Press, 103 Park Avenue, New York, N. Y. (1940). See the chapter entitled “Propaganda and Public Opinion” by Ralph D. Casey.

Radio Goes To War: The “Fourth Front.” By Charles J. Rolo. Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2 West 45th Street, New York 19, N. Y. (1910).

Democracy through Public Opinion. By Harold D. Lasswell. Published by George Banta Publishing Company, 450 Ahnaip Street, Menasha, Wisconsin (1941).

An Introduction to Public Opinion. By Harwood L. Childs. Published by John Wiley and Sons, 440 Fourth Avenue, New York, N. Y. (1910).

The Strategy of Terror: Europe’s Inner Front. By Edmond Taylor. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 Park Street, Boston 7, Massachusetts (1940).

News Is a Weapon. By Matthew Gordon. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 501 Madison Avenue, New York 22, N. Y. (1942).

Conquering the Man In The Street. By Ellis Freeman. Published by the Vanguard Press. 424 Madison Avenue, New York, N. Y. (1940).

Mobilizing for Chaos: The Story of the New Propaganda. By Oscar W. Riegel. Published by Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut (1934).

Public Opinion. By William Albig. Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, 330 West 42nd Street, New York, N. Y. (1939). See especially chapters 17 and 18.

Political Propaganda. By Frederic C. Bartlett. Published by the Cambridge University Press (1940). Distributed by Macmillan Company, 60 Fifth Avenue, New York 11, N. Y.

The Fine Art of Propaganda. Edited by Alfred M. Lee and Elizabeth B. Lee for the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Inc. Published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, 383 Madison Avenue, New York 17, N. Y. (1939).