Tag Archives: Propaganda

Sword Rattling and Stability

Current world events have again highlighted historic tendencies, in particular the tendency of great nations to deflect attention from their own unpopular policies by bringing attention to the unpopular policies of others. Often times this action can lead to a great deal of sword rattling and a call for intervention or peacekeeping efforts. During the Cold War the United Nations was hobbled by competing spheres of interest and was prevented from taking action in areas dominated by the superpowers, particularly in the ‘backyards’ of the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Cold War has ended, the international community still finds itself constrained when conflict erupts in a powerful nation’s backyard. As current events focus attention on Russia and Ukraine, it is interesting to look back at a time when the United States placed regional stability over a nation’s sovereignty.

On June 20, 1954, the United Nations held an emergency Security Council meeting to consider an appeal made by the Guatemalan government claiming that Guatemala had received hostile treatment from exterior sources and was under threat of invasion. The Soviet Union supported an investigation, France and Great Britain believed the United Nation had authority to investigate and were supportive of an investigation, but the United States was set against any UN involvement. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., stated, “Stay out of this hemisphere and do not try to start your plans and conspiracies over here.”[1] While his words were directed to the Soviet Union, his message was received by all.

In her article “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” Jenny Pearce wrote the following statement.

“The United States’ historic lack of interest in what it dismissively referred to as its ‘backyard’, and its concern with stability first and foremost, meant that the exclusionary dynamic of the years of post-Second World War growth in Central America, at both the political and the economic level, was deemed of little importance.”[2]

Pearce was correct in her assessment that “stability” was “first and foremost” in U.S. consideration. Nationalist reform, economic growth, and political ethics were of little concern to the United States during the Cold War, at least in its ‘backyard’. Stability meant keeping the status quo, and the United States was willing to work with dictators if said dictators kept any and all vestiges of communism out of the region, or in other words, remained friendly to the United States.

The Guatemalan request made to the UN Security Council was handed off to the Organization of American States (OAS) where it received little to no actual investigation but rather generated a counter accusation that Guatemala was a regional security risk because it had permitted a communist party to formally establish. Within just a few days of the UN emergency meeting, President Arbenz of Guatemala resigned due, in large part, to the invasionary force that had crossed the border in to Guatemala; a force supplied, trained, and supported by the CIA.

In the sixty-one years since the crisis in Guatemala much has changed in the world. However when it comes to the backyard of a powerful nation, the international community is still resistant to challenge regional hegemony. Stability in a region, albeit a stability by force, often speaks louder than any sword rattling or resultant calls for intervention.





[1] Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 171.

[2] Jenny Pearce, “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” International Affairs 74, no. 3 (July 1998): 593. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2624971 (accessed September 15, 2013).

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.

Change Came Quickly

In 1918, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. World War I delayed the presentation of the award because Haber was a German scientist, one who had gained the name ‘the father of chemical warfare’. Haber was a patriotic German committed to the German cause, however, less than fifteen years after he was celebrated as a great scientist, he fled his homeland fearing for his life. Fritz Haber was a Jew. He was also an intellectual who too closely associated with a war that had been lost rather than won. Like many other German citizens, Haber discovered that under the right set of circumstances hate could replace friendship with great rapidity. Those circumstances included an economic recession, a turbulent political climate, an abundance persuasive rhetoric, and a highly effective propaganda campaign. In less than two decades, a population who once celebrated Haber’s achievements turned their backs on the evidence that their government had implemented a policy of incarceration and extermination. Race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and intellectual interests were more than enough justification for the public to look the other way, or worse join the Nazi agenda. Change came quickly while the public clung to the notion that they were justified in their actions.

U.S. Compulsory Education: Teaching Exceptionalism

During the mid-nineteenth century, states began passing compulsory education laws, and although all states had these laws in place by the time the United States entered World War I, there was still quite a disparity between levels of basic education received by the soldiers. Mobilization efforts during WWI highlighted the need for greater emphasis on education in the United States, but it also highlighted the need to emphasize a common nationality among its citizenry. The war had created a stigma on citizens and immigrants who were too closely related or associated with the enemy. It was felt that the ‘old country’ culture, still held by many, needed to be replaced by a commitment to a less definable, but more patriotic American culture. The desire to eliminate overt connections with European culture, a culture that seemed to instigate war rather than peace, led to strong measures designed to force change in the U.S. population. One measure included the effort to eliminate parochial schools which were viewed as being too closely tied to European culture. When Oregon amended its compulsory education laws in 1922 with the intent to eliminate parochial schools, they faced opposition including a Supreme Court case that ended up ruling against them. It was hoped that public education would transform the population into a more cohesive culture, and while states couldn’t force public school attendance versus private school attendance, over time many states were able to dictate curriculum requirements and achieve the underlying goals sought by legislators during the post-war period.

Many in the United States believed that the nation had a vital responsibility to encourage and spread notions of republican democracy. A growing belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ developed in the post-war years, due in part to wartime propaganda. If the United States was to be exceptional then it needed to guarantee that its public understood what made it exceptional. Accomplishing this task meant that its citizenry needed to understand history, and not just the history of the United States beginning with colonization or independence, but a citizen needed to understand the connection between the United States and ancient history where the foundations of democracy resided. Compulsory education, classes in American History and Western Civilization, and an emphasis on U.S. exceptionalism became the foundation for unifying a nation during the twentieth century.

Myth, Folklore, History, and Nationalistic Pride

Recently the story of “Butch” O’Hare was recounted to a captivated audience.[1] As the tale of bravery came to an end and people reached to wipe their eyes, the thought came to my mind of the important role myth, folklore, and history play in creating nationalistic pride. Two hundred years ago, concerned with the changes technology and urbanization were having on society, two German brothers began to collect folktales. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, like other romantics, believed that folktales “were essential for reinvigorating national literatures and saving these literatures from sterile intellectualism.”[2]In 1968, during the height of the revisionist movement, historian Thomas Baily wrote that if the pursuit of history were to “shatter all myths, our social structure would suffer a traumatic shock.” He went on to state, “Historical myths and legends are needful in establishing national identity and stimulating patriotic pride.” [3] During times of societal change and strife, the importance of mythology is heightened and people cling to the stories that make them feel good. Historical precision and factualism is of less importance and can be seen as unpatriotic. During the height of the Cold War, the importance of folklore became an issue of national security. In a heated debate over federal money being used to support the study of folklore, one historian wrote that attempts to stifle the study of folklore could “cripple the efforts of the free world to combat the communist states, who [knew] well how to reach the hidden millions with the shrewd manipulation of folklore, legend, and myth.”[4]

Clearly removing folklore and mythology from the study of history is dangerous to the social structure and unity of a nation. However, the reverse could also hold true. Removing ugly historical facts and social realities from the study of history could be just as dangerous. In a world where technology is creating new communities which ignore national borders and bring together people who were once separated by geography, the promotion of national myth rather than national reality can undermine the success of international efforts to tackle world problems. While not all patriotic, historical reminiscing would be detrimental to international cooperation, jingoistic versions of a nation’s history which clearly whitewash a nation’s less than noble past can harm the nation’s credibility and fuel the fires of hatred that seldom cease to exist in the world. Furthermore, the patriotic rhetoric and reminiscence of national grandeur and exceptionalism often “alienates” a nation’s friends.[5] Myth, folklore, and history can engender nationalistic pride, but it can also become the tool used by a nation’s enemies to rally support for terrorism, even homegrown terrorism. People do not like to be lied to and learning that the noble stories of a nation’s past are not always entirely factual leads to disillusionment. Therefore, a balance must be found wherein the myths, folklore, and history of a nation are all embraced and nationalistic pride is derived from that balance.


[1] Scott Simon, “He Gave His Life For The Nation And His Name To An Airport,” NPR.org, (May 24, 2014),  http://www.npr.org/2014/05/24/315259241/butch-ohare-the-heroic-namesake-of-chicagos-airport.

[2] Elliott Oring, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986), 5.

[3] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers of American History,” The Journal of American History 55, no. 1 (1968): 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894248.

[4] Richard M. Dorson, “Folklore and the National Defense Education Act,” The Journal of American Folklore 75, no. 296 (April 1962): 164, (accessed July 24, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/538177.

[5] Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiv.

Home Front: A Culture of War

Patriotism and honor spurred the rise of War Fever during the First World War. Men signed up to fight and women proudly waved them good luck and goodbye. Yet as the war dragged on, War Fever waned. It was replaced by a culture of war which may not have eliminated the need for conscription but did place a stigma upon those who did not support the nation’s efforts to defeat the enemy. Censorship and propaganda aided in the development of a culture focused on patriotic valor, sacrifice, and mourning.

Governments felt a strong need to censor bad news. It took President Wilson less than a month after the declaration of war to create the Committee on Public Information (CPI) which was tasked with the censorship of telegraphs and radio stations. The CPI was not only tasked with restricting the negative news from reaching the public, but it was also tasked with promoting a war that seemed to have little direct impact on the United States as a whole. The United States was not alone in its need for the promotion of war when direct threat did not seem imminent. Great Britain had faced such a conundrum as well. Politicians and military leaders may have been convinced of the dangers the enemy posed to national interest and defense, but the common public had to be convinced. The United States faced an even greater challenge in convincing the public than the British had faced. Proximity to the enemy was not an arguable justification for the United States to go to war. Additionally, evidence of sabotage and espionage did not generate the kind of call to war that invasion and occupation did for nations like France. Propaganda needed to rely on inspiring the nation to develop a culture of war; not one based on immediate threat, but based upon the defense of ideology – the defense of liberty and democratic principles.

Fighting a war based upon the belief that the enemy did not seek territory but sought to destroy the virtuous fiber of the nation was accomplished by the demonizing of the enemy. In every war, demons would emerge, but it was not enough to demonize an individual or a military unit, the enemy’s society, as a whole, needed to be shown as demons seeking to exterminate all that a nation held dear. Over time, propaganda would help the public develop a hatred for an enemy who seemed to loath the virtues of liberty, freedom, and human dignity. In the name of these virtues, the home front embraced a culture of war even as they mourned the costs of war.

Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]


[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/166174 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/detail?sid=39889c50-22ab-48a2-b2e4-cd8946fd73a9%40sessionmgr15&vid=1&hid=18&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2954415 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/200219310/13BF83A38607C999D8F/7?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/213739998/13BF824CD53256D7D45/11?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Humanity on the Battlefield

There is a popular story that goes around at Christmas time about soldiers all along the Western Front calling a truce and singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. What is often left out of the story is the anger this show of humanity caused in the higher leadership. During war, a reminder that the enemy is not the monster which propaganda depicts can interfere with morale, and with a soldier’s determination to win at all costs. Yet on that Christmas Eve, men on opposing sides of a futile war remembered that only politics separated them. Christmas marked the fifth month of war and the third month in the trenches. World War I was still in its early days and there was still hope for victory and for the short war the generals and politicians on both sides had promised the soldiers. The peace which was hoped for on Christmas Eve 1914 would not be found until Christmas time 1918. The brutality of the war and the anger of generals would squelch attempts to repeat what had sprung up so naturally along the Western Front in 1914. However, the legend of the first Christmas of WWI would remind generations that in war humanity can survive.

Paranoia and Insecurity: A Lesson from WWII

“On a morning in December 1941, a small nation which the United States had sought to contain and squeeze into submission through economic and diplomatic pressure, attacked with crippling force a naval base belonging to one of the largest nations of the world. Japan’s aerial attack on Pearl Harbor shook the United States and its sense of security.”[1] In the movie 1941, director Steven Spielberg created a comical portrayal of a population driven to protect their coastline from Japanese attack. In Spielberg’s outlandish film the insecurity caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor fed paranoia and panic and resulted in chaos. The movie was a comical spoof on the real paranoia that existed during the World War II, a paranoia which allowed a nation to justify its own attack on liberty.

On February 23, 1942, a Japanese sub entered the coastal waters near Santa Barbara, California and launched a bombardment on an oil field in Ellwood. Just days before the attack, President Roosevelt had created Executive Order 9066 which authorized the creation of policies that would lead to the internment of U.S. citizens. Coupled with propaganda films portraying the enemy as barbarians and animalistic, the events of late 1941 and early 1942 created an insecurity within the population that seemed to justify the civil rights violations that would follow.

Terror is an effective tool in a war and can have a much greater effect on a population than that of physical attack. An enemy will try to strike fear into the hearts and minds of its opponent with the hope that terror will weaken it. Modern technology made it possible for fear to be rapidly spread through media, and media played a vital role in spreading propaganda messages during World War II. The U.S. government worked hard to control propaganda, both the enemy’s and its own, but public fear was used as a tool to garner support as well. Justifiable actions of a nation at war, actions which deliberately heightened public fear and restricted civil liberty, seem less justifiable when the war ends but the insecurity remains. After World War II ended, the fear generated by the physical attacks on the nation diminished, but the fear created by the pervasive use of propaganda during the war remained imbedded in the public psyche. History seems to indicate that nations can quickly recover from the physical challenges of war, but the psychological challenges which are often heightened by the use of politically motivated propaganda take much longer to repair. Long after the physical attack becomes just a memory, paranoia and insecurity can linger continuing to justify the restriction of liberty.

End Notes:

[1] Jessie A. Hagen, “U.S. Insecurity in the Twentieth Century: How the Pursuit of National Defense Ingrained a State of National Insecurity,” American Military University, 2014.

Additional Reading:

Conley, Cornlius W. “The Great Japanese Balloon Offensive.” Air University Review XIX, no. 2 (February 1968): 68–83. http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1968/jan-feb/conley.html.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Executive Order 9066 – Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas,” February 19, 1942. Papers of Franklin Roosevelt. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=61698.

———. “Fireside Chat, December 9, 1941,” December 9, 1941. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=16056.

———. “Fireside Chat, February 23, 1942,” February 23, 1942. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=16224.

“Civil Rights.” PBS: The War. Last modified 2007. http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_civil_rights_japanese_american.htm.

“George Takei Describes His Experience in a Japanese Internment Camp.” io9. http://io9.com/george-takei-describes-his-experience-in-a-japanese-int-1533358984.