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The new propaganda


Browsing through the Brighton library recently, I came across a video from a 1982 PBS mini-series titled "A Walk Through the 20th Century." This particular installment was called "World War II --- The Propaganda Battle," narrated by Bill Moyers. Being a history buff, especially about World War II, I checked it out.

The film compares how propaganda, or public information, was handled by the United States and the Axis Powers, especially Nazi Germany, before and during the war. And the contrasts between the Nazi approach and the American could not be more striking.

The main effort in America was through a series of films called "Why We Fight," produced by Hollywood's Frank Capra. Before the series was started, Capra met with General George Marshall, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In this meeting, Marshall stressed above all else that the films be entirely truthful, because the truth and the right were clearly on our side.

The films, which were shown to the American armed forces, civilians, and people the world over, emphasized the virtues of American life, such as freedom of speech and the press. They even showed people speaking out against entering the war before Pearl Harbor.

They didn't show massive armies being put into action or regimentation of American life. Rather, they emphasized the citizen soldier being called upon to defend America and civilization. To make the case, the films used an accurate depiction of the historical record leading up to the war, and they used excerpts from the Nazis' own propaganda films to demonstrate what we were up against. The American films depicted the Nazis as a polar opposite of what America stood for at that time.

The Nazi propaganda films were of an entirely different orientation. First and foremost, the story they portrayed was mostly false. The invasion of Poland was presented as a preemptive war launched because Poland was threatening Germany, and the Poles supposedly welcomed the Germans as liberators. The invasions of Norway, France, and Russia were also presented as preemptive strikes in anticipation of hostile actions.

Even more important is the depiction of how the German home front was prepared for the war. Again, falsehood was the key, and regimentation of thinking and action were the objectives. The appeal to nationalism was prominent: Flags were everywhere, and the national leaders were always surrounded by military uniforms and displays of power. The slogan of the time was "One People, One Leader, One Nation." The obvious implication: If you deviated from that norm, you were a traitor.

Fritz Hippler, the man in charge of the Nazis' filmmaking, told Moyers that the films were expected to emphasize simple themes, and they were to repeat them over and over. It was the Big Lie Technique at work: Germany was threatened and had to defend itself against the evils of Communism, the Jews, the plutocrats of the West.

The Nazi propaganda never mentioned the conquest of an empire. All news was censored, and journalists were strictly controlled. Casualties or military burials were not to be shown. German military might was to be emphasized, and the word blitzkrieg (shock and awe?) was coined to intimidate future victims. Films of early German triumphs were widely distributed to show the futility of resisting German might.

Democracy and propaganda, Moyers noted, are uneasy partners. And it's clear that Moyers feels the US propaganda during World War II is an example of a truthful and responsible effort to explain the war. Sadly, the Bush administration is not using this approach in explaining the Iraq war. The propaganda efforts at work today, unfortunately, tend toward the example of Nazi Germany. This is a hard truth to accept, and many would violently disagree. And certainly no one would compare the behavior of the US to that of Nazi Germany. But if we look at what's happening today, the parallels to the Nazis' propaganda are all too evident.

The America of today is not the America of 1941. In World War II, we were literally fighting for our lives against a regime of unparalleled barbarity determined to dominate the world. And the Germans had the power to win. Today the United States is the world's overwhelming national power. And with that power we are creating an empire.

We have major military bases in 38 countries and some form of military establishment in 153 countries. Since World War II, we have attacked or intervened in 25 countries and have had a hand in the overthrow of 17 governments. Some of these actions were justified. Many were not. With the Cold War at an end, exactly who is this military colossus aimed at? A small band of terrorists?

But it's a harder sell to convince people to go to war to defend an empire rather than to protect their country. And so we use false propaganda to justify the war. In his recent book "Sorrows of Empire," Chalmers Johnson cited several sorrows that will soon be upon us as we move forward on the imperial road. We will be in a perpetual state of war constantly creating new animosities, he says. Smaller nations will try as never before to get weapons of mass destruction to ward off the American juggernaut. There will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights at home. The principle of truthfulness will be replaced by false propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war. And lastly: there will be financial collapse as the cost of empire becomes unsustainable.

All these "sorrows" are clearly in motion.

The optimist in me says that eventually the American people will see through what is happening and demand different political leadership. The sooner the better.