The Journal of International Affairs Vol. 5 No. 2 1951

Propaganda in World Politics 

Psychological Warfare in an Age of World Revolution

By Saul K. Padover 

Psychological Warfare, as a term, is a newcomer to the political dictionary. The phrase was coined in recent years, being a translation from the German, and has achieved popularity in World War II.

What is Psychological Warfare? One may say of it what Mark Twain said of Christian Science — that it was neither Christian nor science. Likewise, Psychological Warfare is neither psychology nor war. The term covers a field of activity in the realm of politics, foreign affairs, publicity, public relations and propaganda. In essence, however, Psychological Warfare is a streamlined, mid-twentieth century term to describe actions that used to be known by the old fashioned label "political propaganda."

The essence of Psychological Warfare, or political propaganda, is the use of all available media of communications for the purpose of destroying the opponent's will to fight or resist. This use of the press, film, radio and television as political and military instruments is unprecedented in the history of mankind. It presents both a challenge and a danger, primarily because the new media are geared to mass audiences and can be employed to reach hundreds of millions of people through their fearsand other emotions, not infrequently the baser ones.

In the twentieth century the mass media have been systematically employed by revolutionaries for the capture of power and for the subordination of the mind and will of their followers. Stalin and Hitler are among the most successful practitioners in this field. Long before he started World War II, Hitler remarked: "The place of an artillery barrage as a preparation for aninfantry attack will in the future be taken by revolutionary propaganda. Its task is to break down the enemy psychologicallybefore the armies begin to function at all."

With fully developed radio facilities, not to mention the fast-growing television, it is now possible to encircle the globe and speak to every part of it. From a Psychological Warfare point of view, there is at present a possibility, even though as yet remote, of uniting or disrupting the universe. It is interestng, in this connection, to recall the words of Woodrow Wilson, speaking in Iowa on September 6, 1919, when radio was still an infant:

"Do you not know that the world is all now one single whispering gallery ? Those antennae of the wireless telegraph are the symbols of our age. All the impulses of mankind are thrown out upon the airand reach to the ends of the earth."


When World War II ended with the defeat of the Axis, it was assumed by many that a new era of peace and international cooperation was beginning. Gradually, however, it became clear that one of the victors, the Soviet Union, had no intentions of permitting the world to settle down to an acceptance of the status quo. Everywhere there were tempting revolutionary situations, not necessarily the creation of Moscow, which could be exploited for the benefit of the Kremlin. Aggressive or disruptive moves by the Russian Communists and their foreign allies irritated the United States into counter-reaction. In time this aggression and counter-aggression has hardened into what is now known as the Cold War.

One of the main instruments of this cold war has been political propaganda, used by both sides. Its aim, poorly carried out by the United States so far, has been to discredit the opposition, to neutralize potential opponents, and to win possible allies.

The Russians and their Communist followers abroad have met hitherto with considerable success in their foreign propaganda. As iswell known, the chief target of Communist political warfare is the United States. "The Soviet Union's propaganda effort, now bordering upon open Psychological Warfare," to quote an official declaration of the State Department, "is a major threat to this country's foreign policy objectives."

Soviet propaganda against the United States follows three main themes:

(1) United States is corrupt, run by Big Business.

This theme is broadcast with infinite variations. The Federal Government is said to be corrupt. The armed services are corrupt (as "proven" by the "bestialities" supposedly perpetrated by American soldiers in Korea). The nation is corrupt, full of grafters and racketeers. Wall Street runs America and controls every aspect of life. The capitalists are allied with "Fascists" abroad, just as they had been with the Hitlerites before World War II. Sample broadcast line: "No less monstrous is the fact that American capital not only helped Germany in preparing the second World War but also aided the Nazis in waging it."

(2) United States is imperialist.

This is the most consistent and continuing theme to Soviet propaganda. It is stressed in nearly every broadcast to most of the world. The essence of the argument here isthat capitalism needs foreign markets to survive and, therefore, "dollar diplomacy" is out to dominate and "enslave" the world. The Marshall Plan and other economic aid programs are designed, according to Russian propaganda, for three main purposes — to make foreign countries economically dependent upon America, to reduce the standard of living of workers everywhere, and to save American capitalism from collapse.

(3) United States is a warmonger.

Here the broadcasts stress American "saber rattling" and intensive preparations for offensive war against the "people's democracies." Those who mention the atom bombare labelled "atomshchiki" — atomists. American "bandits" are "atomshchiki." Why? Because war against "the people" is inherent in the capitalist system. Hence the United States is everywhere the "aggressor."

The Communist anti-American propaganda is a long-range, strategic offensive against the free world; it is part of the far-reaching policy of undermining the United States even before a single bullet is fired. In other words, the Kremlin propaganda line is not a conventional name calling affair but an integral instrument of total aggression on a global scale.

The theme that the United States is a warmonger is, propaganda wise, extremely clever. It enables Communism to cloak its aggressions as a supposed defense against so-called American warmongering machinations. In the case of Korea, the Soviet (and then also the Chinese) linehas been that imperialist Americans invaded the innocent "people's democracy" of North Korea. This is the well-tried technique of the Big Lie. It is a strategic maneuver to undermine either America's will to action moral ground before action. Should, for example, Communist aggressions and provocations become so intolerable as to move the United States to take armed steps, the Russians will be in a position to announce to the world a triumphant — "I told you so."

Potentialities of Propaganda

Considering Psychological Warfare as a whole, one must stress that it is but an instrument of policy, and not a policy by itself. It must not be viewed as a new-fangled gadget or a secret weapon. There are certain things it can do. Certain others it cannot do. It cannot, in the long run, get away with a system of falsehoods, as Abraham Lincoln knew when he remarked that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Nor can it impose an alien system of values on one that already exists. It cannot alter basic institutions or satisfy physical needs or permanently substitute words for deeds.

But there are things Psychological Warfare can do. It can under mine and disrupt, when used in connection with a larger political or military policy. It can give political goals life and impetus. It can be used to encourage friends and discourage enemies. Tied to a military campaign, it can be used to confuse the enemy, damage his morale, and put him on the defensive. It can do much to dishearten the enemy's allies and win over neutrals. Properly used — which means always in coordination with action-policy — it can also neutralize the potentially hostile or wavering.

At present, in this twilight period of half-war and no-peace, Psychological Warfare is not altogether war. Should the present struggle lead to shooting between the major belligerents, Psychological Warfare can go all out in blasting or damaging the enemy either through "white" or "black" propaganda methods. As an example of possible action, one may mention efforts to disrupt the Soviet Union's internal unity. In wartime, Psychological Warfare could make steady appeals to the latent and smoldering nationalism of such restive components as the Ukraine.

An evaluation of the American program must touch upon physical limitations, personnel, practices and policies. One fundamental shortcoming, which Washington cannot help, is the uneven distribution of the world's radio receiving sets and the limitation of the radio reach. Just as literacy is spread unevenly on the globe, so are radio sets (not count ing the United States and Canada). Asia and Africa, with almost half the earth's population, possess only 18 per cent of its radios.

What makes this maldistribution particularly serious, is that precisely in the countries where it is most important to reach the people, it is virtually impossible to do so, owing to a scarcity of radio receivers. China,with around 460 million inhabitants, has a mere 850,000 radio sets. India, whose population is close to 400 million, has only 268,000 sets. There are only 250,000 radios in Turkey and 6,600 in Iraq.

In the Far East, excluding Japan and Australia which are quite firmly in the American camp, there are 348 persons per radio set, and in the Near East the number is 530. Compare this to an average of about 7 in Western Europe and 19 or 22 in Latin America. And yet Asia is the crucial area, both in terms of the present and the future. It is the region of teeming and restless populations now in the process of social, military, and nationalistic upheavals. In Asia, quite conceivably, the freeworld may win or lose the future.

There are possible methods to overcome the limitation of radio receiving sets. One way to do so would be to manufacture large numbers, perhaps hundreds of millions, of cheap sets and drop them where they would do most good. Since there is a scarcity of electricity in large parts of the world, such sets would have to be run by bàtteries, which would have to be supplied at regular intervals. The cost of such an operation would be considerable, but probably less than a single atom bomb.

One of the serious weaknesses in the American political propaganda program is personnel. It is unfortunate that the whole operation has not been worked out by the foremost specialists in the general fields of political sociology, social psychology, history, cultural anthropology, and communications. A program of such magnitude and ultimate importance requires the constant skill and imagination of the ablest men possibleto find. This has not been the case in Washington. The persons who run our political propaganda are not always the top specialists in their profession.

In this connection, one must mention a widespread misconception. There exists in the United States the belief that Psychological Warfare or political propaganda is just the same as advertising. And Americans are supposed to be smart advertisers. All you need to do, far too many people in this country believe, is to hire a few high-pressure advertisingexecutives and fast-talking public relations counsels, give them the green sign and, bingo, they will "produce the goods."

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that political propaganda is not the same as selling soap or tissue paper. It is not a job for slick "operators." We are dealing with a world revolutionary situation involving races and cultures totally alien to what the hucksters are accustomed.This is no criticism of advertising and public relations men. They have their function inside the American economy and on the American scene. Some of their skills and gadgets, indeed, can be used in political pro paganda on operating levels. But the world situation calls for different types of professionals. Political propaganda and warfare, a task of extraordinary complexity, require intellectuals, journalists, scholars, specialists, even political philosophers.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States has taken no steps to train political propagandists or people to wage Psychological Warfare. This is a serious, but not yet fatal, omission. There should be in Washington a high-level staff to set up and supervise a political and operationaltraining center. Such an institution should, after severe screening and testing, recruit the ablest and most imaginative candidates regardless of age or sex, and train them both politically and technically. This is especially important because all world-political signs indicate that we are in for a long conflict on ideological grounds, and one that will continue whether there is shooting or not. In fact, it would be wise to act on the assumption that even if a war should break out and should end in an American military victory, there will be a prolonged political after math of global proportions. Postwar upheavals all over the world will require the ablest, brightest and most skilled American political guidance.

A few serious considerations, however, must not be overlooked. As the present crisis deepens and the struggle between East and West be comes more bitter, deep and involved, it will be seen how extensive a reliance the United States will have to place on its intellectuals. And here a grave problem will arise ; in fact, it has arisen already. The question involved here is the role of intellectuals in American civilization.

It is unfortunately true that there is a good deal of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Whether consciously or not, there existsa kind of distrust of long-hairs and high-brows. Americans tend to respect "practical" men and to disregard "theoretical" ones — despite the fact that all applied science and technology, which have made theUnited States rich and strong, is the product of "pure" scientists who, like Einstein, only use pencil and paper. 

Weaknesses of U.S. Propaganda

One of the practices which American political propaganda mustrevise is the tendency to disregard the basic interests and outlooks of the foreign audiences to which it addresses itself. The American inclination is to assume that the United States has the whole truth and that what is good for America is good for everybody. Effective propaganda, however, must take into account the hopes, demands, and expectations, not of thepropagandist but of the audience. Instead of telling a Malayan, forexample, about the daily life of a worker in the Ford factory or a Turk about the Christmas spirit in America, it would be more fruitful to inform him about his own plight and what the American democracy isready to do for him.

Ignoring the audience's expectations leads to situations when propaganda boomerangs. Thus, during World War II, American Psychological Warfare in the field made the initial mistake, in its leaflets asking German troops to surrender, of describing American treatment of prisoners of war in glowing terms. Actually, the leaflets did not exaggerate — but told the truth about how war prisoners were given good food, chocolate, cigarettes, etc. But the Germans, used to spartan rations and a severe existence, were convinced that the American leaflets were lying; they thought them "just propaganda." Later, the surrender leaflets had to be scaled down to German expectations, so that they did not seem exaggerated.

Similarly, American propaganda, even in Western Europe, fails in its effects when it describes — truthfully, to be sure — the gleaming kitchens, labor-saving devices, and assorted gadgets which the U.S. housewife has at her disposal. Since the overwhelming majority of European housewives could not possibly afford or even hope to possess such equipment, the result is either disbelief or resentment. This is particularly true in our propaganda to the Russians, whose standard of living is so low compared to that of the United States that they simply can not conceive the vastness of the difference. Consequently, statements of American superior material civilization sound to the Russians as sheer lies. The Russians plainly cannot imagine that such things as a frigidaire in every urban home and a car in every worker's garage could possibly be true.

Thus, even the most truthful statements can boomerang, if it is not geared to the range of the audience's beliefs and experiences. This has been one of the serious weaknesses of American propaganda. 

American political propaganda has been marked by naiveté, much of it due to incorrect evaluation. Consider, for instance, the case of Asiawith its tensions and ferments. Revolution surges on the mainland; restlessness stirs the coasts. "Here," Hanson W. Baldwin reported from the rim of Asia in The New York Times Magazine (December 24, 1950), "are . . . peoples . . . preoccupied with their own primitive needs, resentful of the West, groping, confused, stirring — peoples emerging (but barely) from feudalistic societies." Yet, despite warnings, we pretend not to understand what is happening in Asia. We act as if no social and nationalistic revolution were now convulsing that continent. We seem to ignore the fact that more than one billion people in Asia are full of actual or potential resentment against white people in general and the rich in particular. We fail to appreciate Asia's age-old distrust of the big imperialist or capitalist powers that have exploited and humiliated Asians for generations. And yet, unless we take all this up surge of hopes and fears into consideration, our propaganda becomes a mere exercise of the vocal chords.

In Asia our problem is particularly acute because the Communistswho are leading the social and nationalistic revolutions there, know how to talk the language of the resentful and the oppressed. In China especially, Communist propaganda seems to be scoring in its systematic of fensive against the United States. Recently, the Peiping Shih-Shih-Shoutse (Current Affairs Journal), in an article entitled "How to Understand the United States," proposed three basic propaganda lines:

1. "Hate the United States, for she is the deadly enemy of the Chinese people."

2. "Despise the United States, for she is a rotten imperialist na tion, the headquarters of reactionary degeneracy in the whole world."

3. "Look with contempt upon the United States, for she is a paper tiger and can be fully defeated."

This type of propaganda is an integral part of the larger campaign against the non-Communist world. To counter it successfully American Psychological Warfare must make the most careful and systematic appraisal of the social forces and tensions at play in China and elsewhere. Mere preaching of freedom and democracy has practically no meaningin that situation. As Wendell Willkie remarked:

"We must not expect Chinese ideas of personal liberty and democratic government to be exactly the same as ours. Some of their ideas may seem to us too radical, others may seem ridiculously archaic. We should remember that in their eyes some of our customs appearridiculous and distasteful."

Propaganda in Asia, to be successful, must take into account Asian feelings and attitudes. Above all, it must be coordinated with proper policy. Such a policy can be built only on the fundamental Asian realities,among them the revolt against misery and the distrust of the white powers. In this connection, Americans should entertain no illusions. Both American policy and propaganda face grave handicaps in Asia. Americans, some of whom openly call certain people of Asia by suchderogatory terms as "gooks" and "chinks," tend to underestimate theirmoral position among colored nations. Asians, indeed, believe thatAmerican racism — that is, mainly the treatment of Negroes — is much worse than it actually is. This writer heard Asian students say that "it is a well known fact" that during World War II the United Statesdropped the atom bomb on the Japanese because the latter were a yellowrace and did not drop it on the Germans because they were white."Everybody in Asia," the students added, "knows that to be true."

The United States is in serious danger of losing what friends it still has in Asia, particularly India, if it does not propose a bold social program or support progressive leadership in that part of the world. Already grave mistakes have been made there — errors of policy which even the cleverest political propaganda cannot gloss over or easily cure. One thing is certain, in Asia the United States can no longer afford to lose time or to miscalculate action. 

Program for U.S. Propaganda

What is true of Asia is, to a certain extent, also applicable to other parts of the world, including Western Europe, especially since the American defeat of December, 1950, in Korea. But even before the Korean campaign, a good portion of European opinion was not on our side. Our political propaganda has not succeeded in dispelling European suspicions of the United States. An influential segment of Western Europe is socialist and Marxist, with a set of values and expectations quite different from that of America. Many Europeans have a lively distrust of "capitalism." That the American capitalist system is different from thatof Europe is usually overlooked by those who assume, almost as a mat ter of course, that capitalism is not a desirable economic way of life. Europeans, in other words, are generally not "sold" on America. 

The Korean War has intensified the latent suspicion and fear of the United States among many Europeans. This is not necessarily due to Communist propaganda. Reports from Europe, published by such careful news-gatherers as Time and The New York Times, show doubts of American policy and leadership. In Britain, the Times reports (December 16, 1950), there is a "strong feeling . . . that American military intelligence is about on the level of the Boy Scouts, and that, diplomatically, the United States is more emotional than realistic." From Holland come accounts of worry over American "impulsiveness" and doubtswhether the cool British "can stabilize the 'emotional' character of United States politics." In Germany, American strength is seriously questioned;in Austria, America "has lost great prestige." As for France, the "decline in American prestige has been little short of disastrous." As for Italy, The New York Times reports (December 7, 1950):

"The 30 percent of the Italian population that is sympathetic to communism already had such a low opinion of the United Statesthat it could not grow worse. But even among the pro-American majority United States prestige, politically and militarily, has been severely damaged. Fears are reviving that the United States would not be able to prevent the occupation of Western Europe if the Soviet Union should march. Many persons now charge Washington with political incompetence and with 'landing us in a mess.'"


Even before Korea, there was developing in Western Europe a current of opinion that favored so-called "neutralism." This has been true particularly in France and Italy, where the people, having just gone through a war of immense destructiveness that left practically not a single family or home unspared, are sick at the thought of another conflict inthe future. They know that war, no matter where or how it started,would be fought again on their soil. Hence even the talk of war arouses deep fears and antipathies, and it is safe to assume that any nation that starts World War III will earn undying hatred.

In addition to this dread of war on the part of so many Europeans,there is also a feeling that no European nation outside of Russia is strong enough — or ever will be again — to resist attack or invasion. Hence the growing conviction in certain circles that Europe might as well declare itself neutral in the deepening conflict between East and West. This dangerous illusion of neutralism, which is a new form of defeatism, has affected even some conservative and basically anti-Communist groups, including clergy.

Political propaganda cannot alter these fundamental feelings and fears; but to function at all, it must take them into full consideration. It must be based upon an awareness of Europe's problems and position. A country like France, for example, has only five divisions as against a possible 200 Russian. Frenchmen know that the advance guard of Russian power is a mere 150 miles from their own frontier. The French, moreover, have neither war industry nor atom bombs nor an air force. France, like the rest of Western Europe, lies immediately and directly in the path of Soviet might; and, consequently, Frenchmen and otherWest Europeans are understandably cautious and timed. To quote the Paris newspaper Ce Matin-"France sees the American tamer face the Soviet bear in its cage. France does not doubt that the tamer will win in the end. Unfortunately, France is in the cage." 

Political propaganda is in no position to change such realities. It can, however, explain and reassure. Used in coordination with high policy and sensible action, it could help to dispel the fog of distrust and the miasma of uncertainty. Mere broadcasts about how good and righteous our side is, and how unspeakably wicked the Communists are, will not do in this situation.

A serious shortcoming of the American political propaganda program is the lack of a dramatic formulation of an overall ideal. America is a highly successful democracy in practice; and the "hows" and "whys" of free men at work and at play need to be expressed in terms that would stimulate the imagination everywhere. It is hard enough ordinarily for a democracy to wage Psychological Warfare, involving as it sometimes does the skating on the thin ice of truth and the cutting of moral corners. But without a general ideal of wide appeal to mankind, and without exciting leadership in Washington, a political propaganda campaign isin danger of being reduced to a mere exercise of salesmanship techniques.

The best radio transmitters in the world and the most far-flung organization of information specialists are no substitutes for policy andleadership. The Voice of America can only relay the words of men like Truman or Marshall, but it is up to the American leaders to supply the inspiring thoughts and the constructive lines of action, as did Secretaryof State Acheson when, in his UN speech of September 20, he proposed that Korea be made a showcase of reconstruction and development. Another example of imaginative and positive policy was containedin President Truman's San Francisco speech of October 17, when he pointed out that the United States has been guided by the revolutionary idea of human freedom and equality throughout its history, adding:

"We are strong because we never stop working for better education for all our people, for fair wages and better living conditions, for more opportunities for business and better lives for our farmers. Weare strong because of our social security system, because of ouragricultural program. We are strong because we use our democratic institutions continually to achieve a better life for all the people of our country."


Saul K. Padover, Ph.D., Professor of Politics and History and Dean of the School of Politics, New School of Social Research, contributed numerous articles to World Politics, Foreign Affairs, American Scholar, The New Republic, and The Reporter. His published works include Experiment in Germany, Democracy by Thomas Jefferson, and Life and Death of Louis.