Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

The Nazis prepared for war from the moment Hitler came into power in 1933. In the feverish building up of German striking power, they had the support of the professional military men. The Nazis not only produced the weapons of war; they geared their economy for the strain of a future conflict. They carried on political intrigues to promote their purposes. Their propaganda machine had long been a going concern when Hitler felt ready to strike at Poland, the first step in an ambitious plan to lay the world at his feet.

Military, economic, political, and propaganda weapons were forged for the fray. Britain and France and, soon after, other peaceful nations were compelled to forge them to resist the Nazi onrush.

Today’s war is four-dimensional. It is a combination of military, economic, political, and propaganda pressure against the enemy. An appeal to force alone is not regarded as enough, in the twentieth century, to win final and lasting victory. War is fought on all four fronts at once—the military front, the economic front, the political front, and the propaganda front.

To understand how this four-dimensional warfare has come about, we have to look at history. We have to go back to the rise of nationalism in the eighteenth century.

Before the American and French revolutions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, many armies fought in the pay of monarchies, such as the Bourbons, Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns, or of individual leaders. They were mercenary armies. They did not fight for patriotic motives. They did not fight for causes. They fought because fighting was their business. No fight, no pay!

Something new came when the Americans formed a citizen army to win their independence and when the French threw off the yoke of the Bourbons. The French raised a national army to beat back the Austrians and Prussians who were seeking to choke off the new French state. These Frenchmen were fighting for France, for the country they loved. They weren’t fighting for a despot, a royal house, or money. Like the Americans, they were fighting for their country.

About the same time, the Industrial Revolution was introducing a vital change in the methods of warfare. Larger and larger production became possible because of machinery. New mechanized forms of weapons came into use. Today’s sequel of this story is seen in airplanes, tanks, landing boats, aircraft carriers, and a thousand other modern instruments of war.

One result of this change is that modern war calls for large armies in the field. Where 1 per cent of the population was once considered a large number to call to the colors, 10 per cent can now be mobilized. And populations are much bigger than they used to be. But modern war means not only big armies in the field. It also means even bigger civilian armies back of them, on the home front. For every man in the field, we are told, there must be a half-dozen workers in the factories and fields at home. So the masses of men directly engaged in modern war effort are staggering.

There are other changes, too. Today’s great accumulation of capital means that war can he waged on a large scale and for long periods. The mechanization of armies and navies means not only that the actual battle front can cover thousands of miles, where in the past the battle area was relatively small, but also that fighting men can continue a campaign, without stopping, through a Russian winter, a Burmese rainy season, or an African summer.

The result of these changes is that propaganda has become in modern war not only a formidable weapon against the enemy but likewise a necessary tool in promoting a national war effort. Through it are carried popular appeals to make the necessary sacrifices and to contribute muscle, mind, and money to the successful prosecution of the war. In a democratic country under governments chosen by and responsible to the people, the entire population, in and out of uniform, must be informed of the progress of the war. A free flow of information serves to stimulate the war effort, strengthens the nation to stand reverses, to hold steadfast through a long conflict, to take losses courageously, to make sacrifices bravely, to buy bonds generously, and to cooperate in every way possible in the great national effort for victory.

The political aspects of war tie in closely with all this, as has been shown, for example, by the Moscow, Cairo, and Teheran conferences. The combatant nations must have programs for victory and programs for peace. And their people must be told about them.

But even that isn’t the whole story. Propaganda in wartime must seek to demoralize enemy morale. A primary objective of propaganda aimed at enemy nations is to break down their will to fight. It seeks to lower the enemy’s will to resist and it does this in several ways. One is to picture the military successes on the propagandist’s side. Another is to picture the armed might and economic power that the enemy has to face. Yet another is to picture the moral superiority of the cause against which the enemy is fighting. It is part of a nation’s strategic plan to intimidate enemy leaders, to separate them from their people, and to break down resistance by producing evidence that the mass of the enemy people have been deceived and misled.

Propaganda, too, is an instrument for maintaining unity and good will among allies banded together in a common effort. It is sometimes effective in bringing opinion in neutral states over to one side or another. And in the battle zones it serves to keep up the morale of the men who are doing the actual fighting job.

So, as you contrast the tremendous volume and intensity of war propaganda today with the situation in wars of other eras, you can’t escape the conclusion that what is going on now is a modern phenomenon. Propaganda of some sort had, it is true, been used in warfare for centuries. But all the social, economic, industrial, and military factors that make propaganda a large-scale part of war in 1944 first made themselves seriously felt in World War I. In that war, propaganda for the first time became all important and formal branch of government. It is in modern times that we have become familiar with such governmental institutions as the British Ministry of Information, the German Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, the American Committee on Public Information (in World War I), the Office of War Information (in World War II), and their counterparts in many other countries.

It should not be forgotten that the astonishing forward strides in communications in the twentieth century have had a lot to do with the development of propaganda—especially radio broadcasting. Not only is propaganda vital to the conduct of modern war; it is also possible to reach many millions of people regularly, day and night, who only twenty-five years ago might have been almost beyond the reach of propaganda. Not only the words but the actual voices of the leaders of the nations at war are familiar to millions of people the world over, carried by the magic of radio.

Next section: The Story of Propaganda