Poor Yogi Berra. He never knew just how analogous baseball would be to the propaganda war. The Pentagon has just publicly announced the existence of the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). Created shortly and in secret after September 11, OSI is an arm of the Bush Administration’s overall wartime communications effort to advance the U.S. government’s perspective in Islamic countries and to generate global support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. OSI is now “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations" in an effort "to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries" (New York Times, February 19, 2002).
A government disinformation effort may ring alarm bells for those of us living in the United States but such tactics have precedent in American history. In July 1941, President Roosevelt set up the office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), the first peacetime intelligence organization, headed by William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan. COI, according to historian Thomas F. Troy, was “a novel attempt in American history to organize research, intelligence, propaganda, subversion, and commando operations as a unified and essential feature of modern warfare; a `Fourth Arm’ of the military services.” After the Pearl Harbor attack, half of COI’s staff became the new Office of War Information (OWI) for officially attributable (so-called “white” propaganda campaigns) and half became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for clandestine “black” propaganda missions. A special squadron, the Flying Fortresses, carried out leaflet raids and by the end of World War Two, the United States was dropping over seven million propaganda leaflets over Axis-occupied Europe. Roosevelt classified Hollywood as “an essential war industry” and priority film themes were designated, including explaining to the American people why we were fighting; encouraging work and productivity; boosting home front morale; and depicting the heroism of the armed forces.
British scholar Philip M. Taylor characterizes the Cold War as “a war on the mind, a contest of ideologies, a battle of nerves which, for the next forty years or so, was to divide the planet into a bi-polar competition that was characterized more by a war of words and the threatened use of nuclear weapons rather than their actual use.”
Is the War on Terror beginning to sound like déjà vu all over again?
The Pentagon’s announcement of the OSI should raise concerns for anyone who recognizes that the United States continues to lack credibility in the world and not just in the Middle East. President Bush is now on a swing through Asia where the Los Angeles Times reports that he is being “dogged” by the Axis of Evil remark from his January 29 State of the Union address. His six-day trip to Japan, South Korea and China has been met with student protests and editorials characterizing the Bush Administration as inciting tension in a nuclear-rich region instead of promoting peace. (The Okinawa Times said the U.S. is engaging in a “law of-the-jungle approach to international relations.)
A tarnished credibility may become a chronic condition of the Bush White House and the Pentagon’s OSI plan to manipulate media will only reinforce the belief that the United States tells other countries how to behave but doesn’t walk to the beat of the same drum. The U.S.-led war on terrorism is being defined for us as a battle between those who love freedom and democracy and those who would bring it down. Loving a cherished concept like democracy and rolling it out for pep rallies and sports events is not enough. We must match our walk to our talk and lead by example. This Administration is calling on the American public to do its part to help win the war on terrorism. Then let’s show our love for democracy by pressuring President Bush and the Pentagon to promote a free flow of information and a free and open press to help win the battle for the public mind.
Nancy Snow teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California (email@example.com). She is the author of the forthcoming expanded second edition of Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the World (Seven Stories Press, 2002).