Propaganda and Coercion

October 1, 2003

One hot sunny morning in April 1969 I found myself in a small Vietnamese village that had just been bombed. I was looking at more than a hundred strewn bodies of mostly young women and children, many dead, others dying. What on earth was going on here? These people were 10,000 miles from my farming community in upstate New York. They probably never traveled more than 20 miles from this village.

In one startling, shocking moment I realized I had been shamefully brainwashed. I was overcome by what seemed a simple truth, a truth that soon became irreversible knowledge, that a huge lie had been perpetrated upon me. No, not just upon me, but on my entire nation, at least the vast majority of whom believed in the war and were paying taxes to finance this incredible effort, allegedly protecting our national security by destroying another people’s aspirations for independence. I staggered at how preposterous and racist this war was. I gagged, then vomited, as I witnessed the horrible scene of carnage while understanding that these people had been savagely murdered and maimed for a nearly incomprehensible lie that I had so easily believed in.

How was it that I had so easily followed orders given by other men to travel across the Pacific Ocean in a military uniform to oversee other young men in uniforms with guns, all of us participating in ravaging another culture I knew little about? Of course, the simple answer is that our culture has a history of going to war for what are represented as just causes, and conscripting its young men to battle as a patriotic duty. Virtually everyone I knew had similar beliefs. I had never had once thought that my government might be sending me to another country without damn good reason.

I came to understand the historical importance of massive propaganda and the science of coercion in mobilizing support for oligarchic interests that dominate state and private activity. In fact for some 5,000 years since urban civilizations evolved, if suppression–the total restraint and subjection of the individual–did not work, various forms of persuasion usually did. So, the theme of what I would call brainwashing is not new.

The fact that our political and media systems are corrupt is not new to our era. U.S. socialist and reformer Upton Sinclair, in 1908, stated: "…we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed. Our masses are sinking into degradation and misery; our ruling classes are becoming wanton and cynical."

As violent suppression of labor organizers and political dissenters became increasingly unacceptable during the emerging "progressive" era in the early 20th Century, managing the "public" mind became essential to assure mass, "democratic" compliance with the oligarchic economic and political interests. Edward L. Bernays, the premier pioneer of U.S. public relations, argued that the ability to shape and direct public opinion had become indispensable to the maintenance of order. Strong-arm tactics simply were too unpopular.

President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the claim that he would keep the U.S. neutral and promised to not send "American" boys to war in Europe. Once elected, however, ongoing pressure from U.S. banking and other economic interests to enter the war on the side of England required Wilson to develop a strategy to convince a public overwhelmingly against the war to change their minds. With Bernays’ coaching, Wilson created the first modern de facto cabinet minister for propaganda, The Committee for Public Information (CPI) under the direction of liberal newspaperman, George Creel. Creel launched an intense advertising campaign using catch phrases and fear language with thousands of speakers, ads, and essays that reached every nook and cranny of the United States. By April 1917, Wilson felt enough support to declare war against Germany, in favor of England, despite his previous promises of remaining neutral. To learn more about a century of sophisticated manipulation of the public mind to support dubious and increasingly oligarchic values, see: Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion (Oxford University Press, 1994); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988); Herbert I. Schiller, The Mind Managers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1992); and Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

One more intense step is required to convert an already manipulated public to assure that their sons (and daughters) become frontline killers. It has been shown over and over again that humans have a general aversion to murder. Thus special military basic training converts an already propagandized young, often teen-age, citizen through intense brainwashing techniques to overcome this stubborn aversion to killing. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman describes this process in his classic 1996 book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little Brown and Co.).

The brilliant Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971) that manipulation of public thinking "is an instrument of conquest" and an indispensable means by which the "dominant elites try to conform the masses to their objectives" (p. 144). When I visited Freire in Brazil in 1992, he stressed the antidote to such manipulation: "With deeply held dreams and hopes" virtually all propaganda systems will fail.

In April 1969, as I realized my own shameful brainwashing (the result of comprehensive cultural conditioning to think in a particular, self-serving way), an ancient human theme of connection to all life through conscience was given birth in my being. This epiphany offered me hope for the human condition–that a more ancient, sacred understanding of the need for mutual respect and cooperation will re-emerge in time to save us from the coming of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

British anthropologist Ashley Montagu concluded in The Dehumanization of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983; written with Floyd Matson), "The possible attainment of full humanness–the transformation of the species from Homo sapiens to Homo humanus–rests upon our recovery of the lost world of fellow feeling, the source of all human connection."

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