Propaganda between the Wars

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, critics pointed to the pervasive use of propaganda in American life and its often pernicious effects on an impressionable public. Exposes described “an emerging coterie of professionalized experts” who manipulated “irrational forces for concealed purposes.”21 However, the same commentators who criticized the manufacture of consent, also marveled at the sophistication of propaganda techniques and the expanding range of opportunities for those skilled in the art of persuasion. For instance, political parties established permanent media operations, moving beyond the quadrennial publicity of a presidential campaign in order to shape news coverage between elections. With the coming of the New Deal, government agencies used a steady stream of communication in a sustained effort to build public support for the spate of newly created federal programs inaugurated during the 1930s. Propaganda between the wars attests to the ongoing transformation of political work as practitioners perfected their skills and expanded their reach.

As director of the Publicity Bureau of the Democratic Party from 1929 until 1943, Charles Michelson illustrates both the rise of the paid expert in shaping campaign messages and the still porous nature of political work. Michelson began his career in journalism, as a well-regarded Washington correspondent for the New York World. Reporting from the 1928 Republican Convention in Houston, Michelson described the presidential campaign that year in Lippmann-esque terms: “The American people will elect as President of the United States in November a nonexistent person—and defeat likewise a mythical identity. They will vote for and against a picture ... that must be either a caricature or an idealization.”22 Soon, Michelson himself would play a central role in this process.

The growth in newspapers during the late nineteenth century made journalists important figures in the conduct of presidential campaigns. Newspaper experience was highly valued as the political parties placed greater emphasis on generating favorable press coverage for their presidential candidate during the election. Every four years, both parties would staff their campaigns with reporters and editors who produced a steady flow of literature, press releases, and even typeset zinc plates ready for printing. At the close of the campaign, these journalists would usually resume their employment at a newspaper, and the national party would cease operations until the next quadrennial effort.23

In this regard, Charles Michelson’s move from the World to the Democratic Party appears unremarkable. However, the timing of Michelson’s appointment and the methods he employed marked an important change in the conduct of political work. Stung by the defeat of New York governor Al Smith by Herbert Hoover in 1928, Democratic Party leaders resolved to put their political operations on a permanent footing. As Smith himself complained, his campaign suffered from “the habit of the Democratic party to function only six months in every four years.”24 As a remedy, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jacob Raskob, formed a permanent Executive Committee with Michelson serving as director of publicity in order to create a “business-like national headquarters that will function continuously.”25

Although Michelson himself had never worked in politics, his experience as a journalist exposed him to the “soggy bales of material” political parties routinely issued during a presidential campaign.26 Aware that most campaign literature went unused, Michelson recast political communications with an eye toward the production demands of the press.27 Following the October 1929 stock market crash, Michelson issued a daily stream of press releases and other statements that criticized Hoover’s handling of the economy. Because Michelson knew his material would fail to reach a wide audience unless it conformed to journalistic conventions of “news,” he packaged issues in a manner that would appeal to the reading public. Moreover, because official releases from party headquarters would likely be ignored as well, Michelson prepared material for Democratic senators and representatives to insert in their speeches on the floor before the galleries of the Washington press corps.

Michelson’s innovation, in other words, was to create Democratic “talking points”: a centralized communication operation outside the normal election cycle that could project the party message on a daily basis. Its purpose, in Michelson’s own words, was to convince the public that “a man sat in the president’s chair who did not fit.”28 Although this goal was not an unusual one for a party out of power, Michelson’s tactics appeared novel to many, and his ability to generate negative news about Hoover illustrated the power of political propaganda. Journalist Frank Kent, a Hoover supporter, attributed to Michelson “the most elaborate, expensive, efficient, and effective political propaganda machine ever operated in the country by any party, organization, association, or league.”29 Other accounts sounded similar themes. Answering the question, “Who creates our political prejudices?,” Oliver McKee explained that “trained newspaper men are an essential part of the mechanism of propaganda.”30 These commentators also detected an important change in technique as Michelson conducted party propaganda on a more sophisticated, almost scientific basis. As Will Irwin wrote in Propaganda and the News, “The permanent importance of the work of Michelson ... lies not in the fact that they ... helped to defeat [Hoover]. It lies rather in the contribution of a new method to American politics.”31 Whereas “political propaganda had been languishing in the hands of amateurs,” Michelson “brought it up to the times and gave it a professional cast.”32

Michelson’s work for the Democratic National Committee continued through the 1940 presidential campaign, and he worked for the party in an advisory capacity until his death in 1948.33 That he remained in politics rather than return to journalism as many did after the close of a presidential campaign is significant, for it reveals that a professional distinction had begun to emerge between journalism and political communication, a distinction driven by developments in both fields. Journalistic standards in news gathering created opportunities to shape the flow of information to the press, as Michelson’s career illustrates. Ironically, concerns about the influence of propaganda prompted journalists to assert their claims of objectivity even more forcefully and eschew the active role they had taken in politics since the nineteenth century. This, in turn, opened more space for Michelson and others to specialize in crafting political speech. What had been a porous boundary, with reporters moving between partisan newspapers and campaigns, was gradually becoming two distinct occupational spheres that separated journalists from those who specialized in political communication.34 With the election of Franklin Roosevelt, this distinction developed even further as Michelson and others like him found their skills in great demand amid the expanding activities of the New Deal state.

If Michelson’s work for the Democratic Party signaled the increased sophistication of propaganda, the coming of the New Deal in 1933 brought a profound expansion in its scope. “Never before,” political scientist Pendleton Herring observed, “has the federal government undertaken on so vast a scale and with such deliberate intent the task of building favorable public opinion toward its policies.”35 The New Deal opened numerous opportunities for those skilled in communication techniques as public outreach for government policies became the job of political operatives. The New Deal, in fact, offers an early example of the “permanent campaign,” a term frequently used to describe the heavy reliance on political means in the pursuit of policy ends. Although the fusion of campaigning and governing is considered a late twentieth-century phenomenon, its form took shape much earlier with sustained and organized efforts to build up public support for the New Deal.36 As one contemporary described it, “The same publicity tactics which proved so successful during the Democratic Presidential Campaign ... are being employed on an even larger scale to keep the New Deal before the public.”37

For his part, Charles Michelson worked for several New Deal agencies following the 1932 presidential campaign, all the while maintaining his official position with the Democratic Party (which continued to pay his salary). After Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, Michelson helped Secretary of the Treasury William Woodin publicize the bank holiday Roosevelt declared to avert a financial panic. Once the banking crisis eased, Michelson served stints with the Civilian Conservation Corps and as press director for the US delegation to the London Economic Conference before becoming director of public relations for the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the flagship agency of the New Deal, in July 1933.38 Working for the colorful head of the NRA, General Hugh Johnson, Michelson described his boss as “a publicity man’s dream.”39

In April 1934, advertising executive William Lawson succeeded Michelson at the NRA.40 With help from a large staff of reporters, Lawson directed the preparation of press releases, editorials, radio addresses, and newsreels promoting the activities of the NRA. Lawson’s former advertising agency created the famous “Blue Eagle” symbol and the slogan “We Do Our Part,” which soon appeared “on posters, billboards, flags, movie screens, magazines, newspapers, automobile windshields, and countless products.”41 Speaking to a group of advertising executives in 1934, Johnson described the Blue Eagle campaign as an attempt to insinuate the NRA into daily American life: “Today as you drive the country’s roads and glance . toward a billboard, you see the Blue Eagle. . It has been through advertising that the country has been gotten behind ... the NRA.” This was an artful achievement, Johnson continued. As he told his audience, “The sculptor works in plastic clay ... but your material is human minds and emotions—a far more delicate and fleeting thing.”42

Critics complained that Johnson “was dealing in propaganda on a great scale” by staging “the greatest political show ever put on in this country.”43 The loudest criticisms came from newspaper editors and journalists who saw the campaign to publicize New Deal programs as a threat to their profession. Frank Kent, a vocal opponent of the New Deal, described “an octopus of political propaganda” consisting of men and women throughout the government “who steadily and exclusively work at the job of ‘selling’ the administration’s activities to the public.”44 Will Irwin noted a similar proliferation of New Deal propaganda, concluding that “the reporter at Washington obtained no news from the bureaus until it had filtered through the mind of an expert.”45 In 1934, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association issued a series of pamphlets titled “Newspapers and the New Deal” that included a list of more than fifty government departments, agencies, and offices with staff dedicated to publicity or public relations functions.46 Elisha Hanson, general counsel for the American Newspaper Publishers Association, complained that these efforts to sell administration policies constituted “the greatest danger to freedom of the press in America.”47

Members of Congress also looked askance at these efforts to publicize New Deal programs, and they waged an ongoing congressional battle against executive branch publicity.48 In 1936, during the struggle over executive reorganization, the Senate established the Select Committee to Investigate the Executive Agencies of Government. Chaired by Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, the committee contracted the Brookings Institution to prepare a comprehensive report on governmental activities. Issued the following year, the Brookings report included one section that examined “official reporting, public-relations work, and other publicity activities.” It found that although an appropriations rider passed in 1913 prohibited the use of funds “for the compensation of any publicity expert,” executive agencies routinely evaded the letter of the law by hiring publicity personnel under a variety of titles such as “Director of Information” or “Supervisor of Information Research.”49 In total, the Brookings report found 146 “persons engaged wholly on publicity work” and 124 persons engaged part-time. During a three-month period in 1936 alone, the report continued, the government issued 7 million copies of nearly 5,000 press releases, and it maintained 3,000 distinct mailing lists containing 2.3 million names.50

In addition to newspapers, New Deal agencies made ample use of newer media as well, taking advantage of the rapid penetration of American society by the radio and the growing importance of visual images, rather than the printed word, to convey the desperate poverty of those in need.51 James McCamy estimated that in 1937 the federal government aired more than 5,000 radio programs throughout the country, released 10,000 photographs, and screened 3,000 movies.52 As the Washington Post editorialized, government attempts to play upon the public’s emotions “convert what should be matter-of-fact statement into malappropriate [sic] propaganda.”53

Congressional concern over New Deal propaganda was motivated by more than partisan difference or opposition to administration policies, although they played a part.54 More broadly, complaints emanating from Congress reflected institutional struggles that were underway. Propaganda techniques afforded the Roosevelt administration with a more direct way to reach the public, one that did not rely on Congress or political parties.55 Like the journalists who saw their role as arbiters of fact usurped by government publicity experts, members of Congress were similarly threatened by executive propaganda. As an observer noted, “Since our Government is increasingly a government of public opinion, politicians are naturally reluctant to authorize a system by which the President can reach the minds of the voters whom congressmen are supposed to represent.”56

Contemporary scholars of American politics, however, saw this reliance on public outreach as an almost inevitable consequence of growing executive responsibilities. Writing in the American Political Science Review in 1941, Harold Stoke argued that “if the executive must take the risk of acting first and seeking the support of the people afterward, it must have—in fact, it will make sure it does have—the means of persuading people to approve its actions.” Propaganda was “an indispensable instrument of government,” as were “the skilled craftsmen who make programs successful by ... winning popular support.”57 Moreover, as Pendleton Herring observed at the height of the New Deal, Congress was at a decided disadvantage in communicating with the public. “The deliberate and intelligently planned system for building up a favorable public opinion has developed greatly in the administrative branch.” The only way to correct this imbalance, Herring concluded, was if Congress secured “the needed expertise in public relations management.”58

Herring’s emphasis on the need for “public relations management” is telling, for it points to an increasing reliance on experts in messaging and communication. At the time Herring wrote, in fact, the field of corporate public relations was gaining prominence as business executives increasingly saw public opinion as a vital bulwark against a perceived threat to free enterprise posed by FDR and the New Deal.59 Along with similar developments in politics and government, the rise of public relations marks a growing sophistication in the tools of persuasion and a new kind of political work that distinguished its practitioners from journalists, party politicians, or other arbiters of popular will.

However, the status of this new occupation was far from secure. With the liberal meaning of publicity largely forgotten, attracting public attention on behalf of another carried a status akin to that of a theatrical press agent or circus promoter. The term “propaganda” had its own baggage as a form of deception and manipulation. Consequently, the paid persuader hit upon a new label, the public relations counsel, in the hopes of acquiring the professional status of a doctor or lawyer who applied specialized knowledge to the particular needs of a patient or client. Although this status remained tenuous through the 1930s, practitioners sought to portray themselves in a more favorable light as they devised new kinds of political work.

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