The American way of propaganda: Lessons from the founding fathers
Public Diplomacy White Paper No. 1
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2006
This article is the first in a series of White Papers about the transformation of American public diplomacy and strategic communication.
One of the most contentious debates in the war on terrorism centers on the “hearts and minds” aspect of the fight. Many argue for complete transparency in U.S. message-making, emphasizing the softer aspects of public diplomacy. A minority argues that the United States must make greater use of edgier information instruments such as propaganda, political action and psychological warfare. Critics of the minority view say such actions are un-democratic and unworthy of serious consideration as instruments – let alone weapons – of American statecraft.
The methods, however, were part of the American founding. This article discusses how the fathers of the United States employed public diplomacy, propaganda, counterpropaganda and political warfare as instruments of democracy in the struggle for independence.
An American tradition
John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington recognized that the opinions and perceptions of foreign governments, publics, and armies mattered, and they used information operations as instruments of first resort in the American Revolution. They did it to seek support from elements within the British Empire and among Britain’s European rivals. Their efforts led to a global coalition in support of American independence and democracy, though in reality the coalition was united not by democratic principles but by a common enemy.
The positive American messages of justice, equality, independence and democracy had limited appeal at home as well as abroad. Often they conflicted with interests of potential or actual allies. American revolutionary leaders knew it, especially in France where they needed the financial and military support of the king but where their republican ideas were stridently anti-aristocratic, and indeed subversive to the French government. Among English Puritan and Presbyterian colonists, lingering hostility from the French and Indian War of a generation earlier, in which the Americans fought as British to force the French from North America, remained strong, to say nothing of anti-Catholic sentiment.
For all their mutual suspicions, the American revolutionaries and French monarchy found a common cause, if not in their ideals, in a common foe. Hopelessly outmatched against the world’s most formidable military power, the American founders compensated asymmetrically with public diplomacy, propaganda, counterpropaganda and political warfare. They never used those terms – all came into vogue as we know them in the twentieth century – but they employed all the measures, integrating them with domestic politics, secret diplomacy, intelligence and warfare with decisive strategic effect.
Public diplomacy, according to an operating U.S. government definition, “seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.” It consists usually of positive messages as a polite and nuanced form of propaganda.
Counterpropaganda is, literally, the act or product of countering the propaganda of one’s adversary. Political warfare is the employment of aggressiv