If We're Gonna Fight the Last War, Let's at Least Understand it


If I can convince you to read a single cajillion-word, three-year-old policy-journal essay today, please let it be this extended book review [PDF] by Kenneth Osgood, from the Spring 2002 Journal of Cold War Studies, in which he surveys the then-recent bounty of scholarship on the role of the CIA and American cultural/information-ops on both U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War.

It's a very balanced (at least to my eyes) and wide-ranging summary/discussion, so excerpting it will be misleading, but here was one of many tidbits I found intriguing:

The Columbia Broadcasting System aired a series in 1957 entitled Conquest of the Air. The first episode, narrated by Walter Cronkite, simulated "The Day North America Is Attacked." Generals played themselves in a mock attack staged at the Continental Air Defense Command, while across the screen a message advised: "AN ATTACK IS NOT TAKING PLACE. THIS IS A MILITARY EXERCISE."

These programs were made possible by a cooperative relationship between government officials and representatives of powerful media organizations in the United States. Government officials reviewed scripts, provided footage, developed ideas for stories, subsidized production costs, and, in some cases, produced whole programs with only a minimum of assistance from the networks. In return, the television networks received free or inexpensive programming and fulfilled their patriotic duty in a time of national emergency. […]

Bernhard suggests that government and industry professionals "clearly knew" they violated precepts of a free and independent press but that they justified it to themselves as a necessary patriotic duty in a fearsome age.

The "Bernhard" in question is Nancy, author of US Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960 (1999); other interesting-sounding books in Osgood's review include Scott Lucas' Freedom's War: The American Crusade Against the Soviet Union (1999), and Gregory Mitrovich's Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 (2000).

For a more recent roundup, see this July essay (scroll to the bottom) by John Brown of USC's Center for Public Diplomacy, who includes in his multi-book survey the fascinating-sounding The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, by David Caute (2003). Oh—and I see Kenneth Osgood has got a new book coming out in February on the topic, called Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home And Abroad. In which he

chronicles the secret psychological warfare programs America developed at the height of the Cold War. These programs–which were often indistinguishable from CIA covert operations–went well beyond campaigns to foment unrest behind the Iron Curtain. The effort was global: U.S. propaganda campaigns targeted virtually every country in the free world.

Total Cold War also shows that Eisenhower waged his propaganda war not just abroad, but also at home. U.S. psychological warfare programs blurred the lines between foreign and domestic propaganda with campaigns that both targeted the American people and enlisted them as active participants in global contest for public opinion.

Very interesting stuff, given the times we live in.

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  1. Now I understand why US politicians have that big, deep spider-hole near Greenbriar, WV.
    They need a place to lay low, because they are, every one, more than willing to destroy the world in order to save it.

  2. There was an interesting review of _The Dancer Defects_ at the Boston Review, along with a book by Frances Stonor Saunders that should have kept its original title (_Who Paid the Piper?_):


    (This review is worth reading for the Faulkner anecdote alone.)


  3. Kenneth Osgood writes in his review of Arch Puddington’s book “Broadcasting Freedom”

    “Puddington also shows how RFE [Radio Free Europe] manipulated anti-Semitism to sow suspicion and distrust within Communist Party ranks. Within the satellite governments, there was a widespread practice of naming Jewish Communists to highly unpopular positions, especially within the security apparatus, and then exploiting native anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for repression and policy failures. RFE/RL broadcasters turned this tactic to the radio station’s advantage by making special appeals to Jewish party members that stressed the insecurity of their positions.”

    Did RFE “manipulate” anti-Semitism or expose it? I find Osgood’s review breathless, heavy-handed, and unimpressive.

  4. Native anti-Semitism, mind you. Good Party members would never have been anti-Semitic, of course. 🙂

  5. Bernhard suggests that government and industry professionals “clearly knew” they violated precepts of a free and independent press but that they justified it to themselves as a necessary patriotic duty in a fearsome age.

    This assumes that a “free and independent press” should take a purely neutral attitude toward the survival of the country. That’s very postmodern but rather short-sighted, don’t you think? Since our free press only exists because our country exists, I don’t see a fatal compromize in doing things that help our country survive in the face of real, mortal threats. But maybe that’s just me.

  6. Alan — I blinked at that section, too; though I’m probably too biased to be trusted, my feeling was that he was too quick to pop the balloon of RFE’s not-without-merit sense of purpose & righteousness.

    I guess what I liked about the review was simply that it was a long discussion about the books at hand & assessment of the research therein, which I wasn’t previously that familiar with. Also, reading it in light of today’s propaganda/info/media/cultural efforts is a very interesting exercise.

  7. By interesting coincidence, the BBC reported this week on some newly released papers from the seventies that detailed Britain’s plans for nuclear war. My favorite excerpt:

    The prime minister would be taken to his bunker (under the Cotswolds) but there were no plans at that time to evacuate civilians.

    However, the papers showed art treasures from London and Edinburgh would be saved by being sent to slate mines in Wales.

    Nice to know they had their priorities straight…

  8. PapyaSF,

    What is shortsighted is throwing away the independence and credibility of a free press in order to win one battle, or even one war.

    Once the newspapers all become “Pravda,” they may never become real newspapers again, and if you have any familiarity with the role the Founders felt a free press played in a democratic republic, you recognize what a threat that is.

  9. “Once the newspapers all become “Pravda,” they may never become real newspapers again, and if you have any familiarity with the role the Founders felt a free press played in a democratic republic, you recognize what a threat that is.” – joe

    The press in most countries of the Free World has survived despite being what many would call “repeatedly compromised.”

    The pendulum swings back and forth in the US, and it has certainly been rough on liberties during various wars, but somehow the pendulum does seem to swing back. (In the UK, the press does seem to have a few more restrictions than the US, and they seem to be OK on the free press front as well.)

    The US even recovered from Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus, so I have a good deal of faith that things will eventually be righted and that the PATRIOT Act isn’t the worst abuse the country’s ever seen … Despite how much ideological hay there is to be made from that wretched bit of law.

    Of course, anyone who thinks that the US media has become “Pravda” has probably gone too far down their own ideological spider hole to come up for sunlight anytime soon…

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