Them vs. Us:
Propaganda and Public Relations in Foreign Policy

exerpted from the book

Toxic Sludge Is Good For You:
Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

"The Torturers' Lobby"

by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton


The latter half of the twentieth century has been marked by growing disillusionment as the American people have learned of the gulf that separates official rhetoric from the actual conduct of US foreign policy. This disillusionment has led to a set of attitudes that on the surface seem paradoxical. On the one hand, the people of the United States donate billions of dollars each year to overseas charitable causes, and although attitudes about most aspects of US foreign policy tend to vary with the times, surveys of public opinion consistently show a deep concern abut the plight of needy people in other countries. According to one survey, 89% of the American people feel that "wherever people are hungry or poor, we ought to do what we can to help them." Only 5% feel that fighting world hunger is "not important." Eliminating world hunger and poverty rank far ahead of "protecting American business abroad" and even ahead of "defending our allies' security" as an international concern.

On the other hand, the public's attitude toward government foreign aid programs has been thoroughly negative since at least the early 1970s, when pollsters began taking surveys on that question When asked to volunteer their views of "the two or three biggest foreign-policy problems facing the nation," respondents regularly identify "reducing foreign aid" as one of their top concerns. According to the Gallup polling organization, a sharp difference has emerged between the attitudes of the general public and the attitudes of people that pollsters (somewhat misleadingly) designate as opinion leaders"-i.e., heads of business, the professions, politicians, the news media and labor union officials. With respect to economic aid, over 90 percent of "opinion leaders" support it, but the general public favors such aid by only a thin margin. Most people .see foreign aid as helpful to the economies of recipient countries, but not to the United States. Moreover, they perceive it as benefiting the rich more than the poor, and 75 percent feel that it gets t US "too involved in other countries' affairs." Public support for military aid is even weaker. Although it still receives the support of a two-to-one majority among "opinion leaders," roughly the same majority within the general public opposes military aid. Moreover, four out of five Americans believe that military aid "lets dictatorships repress their own people," and five out of six believe that it "aggravates our relations with other countries" and "gets us too involved in their affairs."

At the same time, the field of foreign policy offers a fertile breeding ground for propaganda. Most efforts at molding public opinion target the portion of the public which is undecided, uninformed or vaguely informed about an issue, and foreign countries are by definition faraway places inhabited by people whose language and customs are unfamiliar and different from ours. It is no accident that the US public relations industry first rose to prominence as a result of the Creel Committee's propaganda efforts during World War I. Every successive war has brought new innovations and growth in both the technique and scope of public relations.

Wartime propaganda has a long history, going back to Attila the Hun. The classical rhetorical model is crude but effective. "Before ordinary human beings can begin the organized killing known as war,' they must first 'kill' their opponents psychologically," observes Vincent Kavaloski. "This is the ritual-as old as civilization itself- known as 'becoming enemies.' The 'enemy' is described by our leaders as 'not like us,' almost inhuman. They are evil. They are cruel. They are intent on destroying us and all that we love. There is only one thing the 'enemy' understands-violence. This 'logic of the enemy image' leads to one inescapable conclusion: the enemy must be killed. Indeed, destroying the enemy is an heroic act, an act of salvation and purification."

Author John MacArthur notes, for example, that during World War I, the French and British seized on Germany's conquest of Belgium for propaganda purposes. The British-sponsored Bryce Committee claimed that German "murder, lust and pillage prevailed over many parts of Belgium on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilized nations during the last three centuries." The committee's claims, which were never documented or corroborated. included allegations that German soldiers had publicly raped Belgian girls, bayoneted a two-year-old child, and mutilated a peasant girl's breasts. The London Times claimed that a witness had seen Germans "chop off the arms of a baby which clung to it's mother's skirts"-a story which was embellished further when the French press published a drawing showing German soldiers eating the hands.

One of the striking features of war in the late half of this century has been the degree to which it has become closely integrated with sophisticated public relations, to the degree that military strategy itself has been transformed. For propaganda reasons, war has been redefined using new terminology-as a "police action" or "limited engagement." The dead have become "casualties," "missing in action' or the result of "collateral damage" and "friendly fire."

The Vietnam War contributed substantially to the military's new emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare. The war's planners realized that the use of US troops to accomplish traditional military objectives-capturing and holding territory-backfired when the US presence inspired anti-American nationalism among the Vietnamese. As the conflict dragged on, the steady stream of soldiers returning in body bags fed anti-war sentiment at home. Future wars the planners concluded, should avoid extended placements of US troops on foreign soil. Instead, they proposed two alternative strategies: (1) brief blitzkriegs using overwhelming force to quickly and decisively defeat the enemy; and (2) replacing US forces with foreign proxies, special operations forces and mercenaries to engage the enemy using guerrilla tactics of unconventional warfare. In either case, the psychological war for "hearts and minds" took precedence over the conventional war for terrain and physical assets.

from the book:

Toxic Sludge Is Good For You:
Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

Common Courage Press, Box 702, Monroe, MA 04951

Toxic Sludge