What Harold Lasswell Said About Propaganda in the 20th Century Is Relevant to Iraq in the 21st

Roundup: Historians' Take

Bruce A. Williams, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the Chronicle of Higher Education(April 12, 2004):

With the 2004 presidential-election campaign well under way, the invasion of Iraq has become a central concern. In debating the action's merits, we have an important opportunity to reflect on the impact on democratic politics of how our government mobilizes Americans for war.

In 1927 Harold D. Lasswell, who would go on to be one of the most influential political scientists of the 20th century, published his doctoral dissertation as a book entitled Propaganda Technique in the World War. A close study of the propaganda campaigns waged by both Central and Allied powers during World War I, the book bears rereading now as charges fly over whether or not intelligence estimates used to justify invading Iraq were just plain wrong or were distorted for political reasons. Though we may consider ourselves sophisticated when it comes to government uses of the news media to manipulate public opinion, the techniques chronicled by Lasswell, developed in the early decades of the 20th century, are still used at the dawn of the 21st. While we obscure their enduring power by calling them"spin" or"PR," rather than"propaganda," the methods used to mobilize populations in 1914 to 1918, to support a war that was fought for obscure reasons and that left tens of millions dead, are quite familiar to anyone who has lived through the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. The issue is less whether there is some truth to the propaganda claims made by government -- even the worst atrocity stories of World War I had a core of truth -- than the continuing implications for democracy of the techniques used by governments to mobilize populations for war.

Lasswell argued that mobilizing public opinion through propaganda was a prerequisite for modern war, since conflict had become total, requiring conscript armies and the marshaling of a nation's entire resources. The justification for war had to be widely understandable and capable of fostering total popular commitment to the conflict. Since it's difficult to communicate to a mass audience the inevitably complex and usually debatable reasons for one nation's use of force against another, the leader of the enemy state must be used to stand for the entire nation and then demonized. Lasswell meant the term quite literally: The enemy leader must be portrayed as the incarnation of evil, the devil himself. Sound familiar? Just as Saddam Hussein became the personification of both Iraq and evil, so too was Kaiser Wilhelm used by Allied propagandists in World War I.

While the strategy of demonization is familiar to us, so too are the problems it creates once the war ends. If the cause of war is an evil leader, then his elimination should be the solution. Once that leader is dead or captured, problems faced by the victors as they attempt to reconstruct a shattered society are no easier to explain to Americans today than they were to the Allied populations in the wake of World War I....

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