The term propaganda has become synonymous with deception and lies. But the word did not always have this strongly negative connotation. Starting in World War I, it began to be used as a pejorative by combatants on both sides: British, German, and later, American government information agencies. Propaganda had once been a term that described a “concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice” without judging its harm or benefit, but the twentieth century saw its evolution into an all-encompassing term for insidious attempts by an enemy to manipulate public opinion.
The sinister aims of propaganda during World War I were enhanced and magnified during the Second World War. Demonization of the enemy became a preferred technique, especially for the Nazis and Soviets. The brutality of that war is in part a testament to the effectiveness of propaganda to dehumanize an opponent and thus to justify his destruction. Many such examples appear in a new Hoover Archives exhibit, The Battle for Hearts and Minds: World War II Propaganda (www.hoover.org/library-and-archives/exhibits/112296). It will be on display until February 2013. Several of its most striking images appear on the following pages.
Herbert Hoover was well aware of the power of propaganda to influence people both for good and for ill. In fact, Hoover used its positive form to help the needy and to combat the people and forces that used it with malign intent. He led highly successful appeals for donations and support while heading the Commission for Relief in Belgium, the U.S. Food Administration, and the American Relief Administration during the First World War and the years afterward. Persuasive campaigns of that nature ultimately kept millions of people from starving. The Hoover War Collection (today’s Hoover Institution), which Hoover established at Stanford University in 1919, stands “as a challenge to those who promote war” and use propaganda toward that end.
Hoover touched on that theme in June 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor, in a speech dedicating the Hoover Tower: “In an alcove of this library is a collection which shrieks to be heard today. That is the tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda in the last war. . . . [Propaganda] was used by every government in endeavor to keep some nations out of war, and to get others involved in war. War propaganda is a highly developed species of untruth and part truth and distorted truth. As war sanctifies murder, so it sanctifies the lesser immoralities of lies.”
Hoover went on to become a close observer of World War II. In writing his history of the conflict, after citing the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse—war, death, famine, and pestilence—he describes “a fifth Horseman bearing propaganda loaded with lies and hate.” He pointed out in another postwar speech that “total war results in the mass slaughter of truth” and urged postwar America to purge itself of “the war-perfected skills of government propaganda.”
The institution Hoover established, home to more than one hundred thousand posters and millions of documents and publications, many of them in the realm of propaganda, is part of his legacy to future generations. “Surely from these records there can be help to mankind in its confusions and perplexities, and its yearnings for peace,” he said in 1941.