Propaganda Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Propaganda, simply put, is the manipulation of opinion.


Propaganda, simply put, is the manipulation of opinion. This, however, is the only thing simple about it. In its nuances and implications, propaganda’s basic appearance belies its utter complexity. To begin with, the propagandist aims to communicate messages at the level of the emotions rather than thought. The more emotional the message is, the more successful the propaganda will be in persuading its audience. It is important to avoid logical thought; members of the target audience must become so enchanted with the message that they are seduced into a state of willing disbelief. Confusion and deception, rather than discussion and debate, rule the day for this subterfuge. Through the telling of partial truths and the omission of others, the propagandist attempts to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and directly control the behavior of the intended audience.PropagandaPropaganda

While propaganda can be utilized by governments or groups to push forward social agendas or movements, it holds its most powerful potential in warfare. In warfare, propaganda often conveys a message concerning a real or imagined threat. Here propaganda is aimed at two targets: the nation’s own citizens and the enemy.


A World War II propaganda poster reminds Americans never to reveal sensitive information to anyone, because “loose lips sink ships.”

(National Archives)

Propaganda has taken as many different forms as there are societies in which it has been used. In its broadest sense, propaganda is information intended to persuade or orient its audience toward a certain way of thinking. Some examples are personal, such as the tattoo-covered Caddo warrior, whose body attests to every victory, accomplishment, or god worshiped. Some are thunderous, such as Hannibal’s titanic war elephants advancing across the Italian plain. Some are deafening, such as the “rebel yells” of Confederate soldiers proclaiming that a charge was about to ensue. Some are subtle, such as the poster of a coquettish woman announcing that if she were a man she would join the U.S. Navy. Some are persistent, such as North Korean radio, announcing good morning from the Great Leader as the Sun peeks over the horizon. Some are selective, such as the media’s decision to show jetliners colliding into the World Trade Center but not to show civilians leaping from windows and plummeting to their deaths. All of these examples of propaganda, while seemingly disparate, have a common purpose: They serve to rally a group of people around an image or to manipulate the morale of an common enemy. All are forms of propaganda.

Both the people of Imperial China;propaganda useChina and their enemies saw the power of the emperor in the Great Wall. Later, the great cathedrals that filled Europe were symbolic not only of the Christian godhead but also of the worldly power of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. In the 1930’s, during the worldwide Great Depression, different ideologies were displayed through building projects to demonstrate the supremacy of their causes. TheSoviet Union;propagandaSoviet Union built the world’s largest fixed-wing aircraft, the Tupolev ANT-20; Nazi Germany;propagandaGermany built the world’s largest airships, the Zeppelins; and at the same time, the German Volkswagen, or “people’s car,” crossed the Third Reich on the Autobahn. To buoy up the the capitalist democracy of America during the economic crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent on great public works projects, and the federal government subsidized artists who painted murals and actors who presented plays in the Art for the Millions program. Such projects not only put people to work; they reinforced the greatness of America in the minds of the nation’s downtrodden citizens. For the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle provided a strong image of plebeian empowerment. Nazi Germany took a Sanskrit symbol, the swastika, turned it at an angle, and made it the symbol of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and “Aryan” purity. United States;propagandaThe United States adopted the bald eagle as the country’s symbol: an image of fierce beauty and proud independence, flying above others and symbolizing what many consider great about America. Propagandists, in summary, work to remove all doubt about the superiority of a society by focusing that greatness into symbolic images.

History of PropagandaAncient World

In the ancient world, the success of a society depended on many things, but predominantly on the size of the population. One of the ways this was promoted was to persuade the people that they were somehow set apart. Historically, building the notion of the “greatness” or “moral superiority” of the group has been accomplished in many ways–from early tribal organizations that taught that the gods held their people in special favor to later civilizations in which the leaders themselves claimed some form of divine right. To doubt the group’s moral superiority, therefore, was to doubt the gods, tantamount to a form a sacrilege. As civilizations advanced, architecture was used as a physical symbol to illustrate the greatness of the state.

Methods of communication enhanced the ability of civilizations to broadcast their superiority, especially the development of written forms. At first these symbols were limited to pictographs that recounted the greatness of the society. Early examples can be found in the prehistoric Cave paintings;Lascauxcave paintings at Lascaux, France, where a landscape filled with bounty was depicted. As language continued to develop into the written word, the fact that literacy was limited to the elites forced the propagandists to continue to rely heavily on representative (rather than abstract) symbols for expression. Although Ramses the Great was possibly the most famous of the Pharaohs for his building projects, by no means was he the only one to undertake projects to assure his greatness through the ages. Almost every Egypt;ancient propagandaEgyptian ruler had murals painted and reliefs sculpted depicting the favor of the gods upon their society. Edifices ranging from the brightly painted temple walls to the tall obelisks recounted the favor the gods showed the Pharaoh and, by extension, the people of Egypt. This form of propaganda was not limited to the civilizations of the Mediterranean basin; symbols propounding greatness can also be found among other ancient peoples, from the triumphal arches of the Romans to the image-laden walls of Temple of Warriors at Chichén Itzá.

Medieval World

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire marked the entry of Europe into the medieval age. With the breakdown of large-scale infrastructure in the West, a void was created that was filled by the increasing power of the Roman Catholic Church, the development of the feudal system, and the growth of aristocracy and monarchy. Each of these elements of society used some form of propaganda to justify its position of authority.

TheChristianity;propaganda useRoman Catholic Church;propaganda useChurch built symbol-laden cathedrals, which–beyond their gargoyles, statuary, and ornate stained-glass windows–spoke to parishioners of God’s grace and favor for his people. Feudalism;propagandaFeudal lords built impregnable fortifications both for the protection of their people and as tangible expressions of their greatness. These fortifications, with their tall, thick walls of stone surrounded by defensive moats, were designed to deter enemies who might attack not only physically but also psychologically, with their stark, daunting appearance. Armor slowly developed until it reached the pinnacle of defensive propaganda: the metal plate of the knight. Weapons, such as the crossbow, were developed that were so dangerous–and whose possession was so effective as a propaganda tool–that the Church attempted to outlaw them. Because building and supporting armies with the latest technologies took resources, the escalating need to “out-might” the enemy eventually led to the formation of centralized nation-states under the governance of monarchs. As strong governments reappeared, the focus could be expanded beyond merely survival and the modern age arrived.

During the late tenth through twelfth centuries Crusades;propagandathe Crusades against the Islamic “infidels” of the Middle East and North Africa were promoted by the Roman Catholic popes as a struggle behooving all good Christians. Beginning with his speech at Clermont in 1095, for example, Pope Urban IIUrban II (pope)[Urban 02]Urban II used his power of the pulpit and graphic language (re-rendered here from the account of Robert the Monk, about twenty-five years later) to call on Christian soldiers to fight Muslims in the Levant who were killing Christians and destroying churches:

When they [the infidels] wish to torture people by base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to the stake. . . . On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you. . . .

What prompted this appeal was not only a call from Byzantine emperor Alexius IAlexius I (Byzantine emperor)[Alexius 01]Alexius I for defenses against Turkish incursions but also the (quite political) hope on the part of the Papacy to reunite Christendom after its schism in 1054, thus solidifying the power of the Church to achieve a theocracy over Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the kingdom of Jerusalem. Not insignificant in this effort was the popes’ fear of the increasing secular powers of feudal kings and their vassals. For all these reasons, Urban II preached a sermon that rivaled the intensity of the speeches of Adolf Hitler eight and a half centuries later. The frenzied audience responded, “Deus volt!” (“God wills it!”).

Perhaps the most important tool of propaganda developed near Printing press;propaganda usethe end of the Middle Ages, with the arrival of Gutenberg, JohannGutenberg, JohannJohann Gutenberg’s printing press in 1453. The ability to mass-produce printed documents quickly made possible the dissemination of the written word to a populace that formerly was not (and could not afford to be) Literacyliterate. Like today’s Internet, the printing press revolutionized–created, really–mass communications. Within a few decades, the number of books in Europe increased from thousands to millions and literacy was on the rise, increasing dramatically by the sixteenth century. In the meantime, one of the first uses of the printing press was during the religious upheavals known as the Reformation;propaganda duringProtestantsProtestant Reformation and the ensuing Counter-Reformation. The printing press made possible the dissemination of propaganda images to an illiterate population, often casting the pope, as the representative of the Roman Church, in a negative light. Cranach, LucasCranach, LucasLucas Cranach’s Whore of Babylon and Dürer, AlbrechtDürer, Albrecht[Durer, Albrecht] Albrecht Dürer’s series of what would now be called political cartoons, Passion of the Christ and Anti-Christ (the anti-Christ being the pope), are examples. As literacy increased, bills, pamphlets, and other writings disseminated Protestant and Catholic propaganda messages to the mass populace. Perhaps the most important of these was the Ninety-five Theses (Luther)[Ninety five Theses] Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther himself–widely considered to be the spur to the the Reformation.

Modern World

During the modern age, propaganda has become more vivid and widely used, as an ongoing revolution in communications media has allowed for the easier distribution of inflammatory imagery and messages. Should the government need its population to take action against a real or perceived threat, the focus of propaganda becomes the unquestioned supremacy of the group. Propaganda has continued to be used to dehumanize and incite hatred toward the enemy–an enemy that can be either external or internal (that is, anyone who stands against the ideal the propagandist supports). To this end, the propagandist manipulates the use of symbols. The enemy is reduced to a malicious, dehumanized StereotypesCaricatures in propagandacaricature.

Some groups used these tactics simply to put forth their agendas. The GrangersGrangers (later the Farmer’s Alliance), for example, promulgated images of the fat eastern capitalist draining the wealth of the hardworking western farmers. Immigrants were often caricatured by xenophobic nativist (anti-immigrant) Americans as evil-looking beasts; the Irish in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese during the late nineteenth century, and Mexican Americans in the early to mid-twentieth century are among these groups. Both Native Americans and African Americans have been the victims of such propaganda from the arrival of Europeans in North America, suffering the double atrocities of oppression and slavery as well as hatred incited by propaganda. Today, some might even consider the portrayal of a greedy, uncaring tobacco industry as nothing more than a type of propaganda that paints the “enemy” with a broad brush as merchants of death.

Combining language with imagery and symbols has allowed propagandists to increase their effectiveness. As a greater percentage of the population became literate, the power of words was used to advance propagandists’ positions. For propagandists, the message was best kept simple and short. Like visual forms of propaganda, the words had to be clear, concise, and repeated–hammering home the same emotional message. With the advance of technology, the modern propagandist had a wide assortment of rhetorical tools on which to draw to persuade the people, from transparent appeals to fear, prejudice, or groundless personal attacks to subtler messages that associate positive imagery with behaviors the propagandist wishes to promote or negative imagery with groups the propagandist wishes to demonize.

An excellent example of how a small minority used the power of language, stereotype, frustration, and fear to further its message can be seen in the reporting of the 1770 Boston Massacre (1770);propagandaBoston Massacre. After the conclusion of the French and Indian War (1763), the American colonists were frustrated by Britain’s imposition of new taxes, increased regulation, and insufficient government services, which were seen as threats to the prosperity the colonials had enjoyed. However, with no unity among the colonies, this displeasure was too diffuse to find effective expression. On March 4, 1770, British soldiers, in self-defense, fired on an agitated mob of more than four hundred American colonists in Boston, Massachusetts. When the smoke cleared, five bodies lay dead. Adams, SamuelAdams, SamuelSamuel Adams, leader of Boston’s Sons of LibertySons of Liberty, knew that this incident was “propaganda gold.” Adams pursued many avenues to turn an action of civil disobedience into martyrdom. First, he gave this incident a name: the Boston Massacre. Turning to fellow Son of Liberty and well-known silversmith Revere, PaulRevere, PaulPaul Revere, he commissioned Revere to create a lithograph, an image that depicted an image the propagandists wanted to reinforce in the minds of the colonists. The British soldiers were reduced to mere caricatures: faces frozen in devilish grins, firing on command into innocent townspeople. One of the civilian targets was depicted as innocently walking his dog. (It is noteworthy that, although Attucks, CrispusAttucks, CrispusCrispus Attucks, a mixed African and Native American, was one of the first to die, all victims portrayed were white.) Despite the fact that the event took place at night, the picture painted it as occurring during the day. Despite, or perhaps because of, such inaccuracies, this piece of propaganda was very effective. The colonies unified, and the tax was repealed. Through Committees of correspondence (colonial America)“committees of correspondence,” news and suspicions surrounding the British continued to flow through the colonies. In 1773, when the British passed the Tea Act (1773)Tea Act to save their struggling East India Company, the colonial reaction was immediate and intense. Although the new law actually would have made tea cheaper, the propagandists were able to paint it as a devious trick by the British to force the colonists to pay one more duty. The conversionof the colonials to the revolutionaries’ cause was so effective that anger and riots in some areas took place against attempted landings of the new and cheaper tea, culminating in the famous Boston Tea Party (1773)Boston Tea Party of December, 1773.

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre of 1770.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Through the utilization of words and imagery, newspaper magnate Hearst, William RandolphHearst, William RandolphWilliam Randolph Hearst helped foment the 1898 Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War]Spanish-American War by carrying sensational stories of Spanish atrocities against the Cuba;Spanish-American WarCuban people. Such stories, combined with imagery and music, prepared the American people for the reality of war. Hearst’s papers, it has been argued, issued so many fabricated or at least exaggerated stories of atrocities in Cuba that his Yellow journalism“yellow journalism” can be seen as manufacturing the rationale for a war of imperialism on the part of the United States. When Hearst sent illustrator Remington, FredericRemington, FredericFrederic Remington to Cuba to record mutilations and other horrors perpetrated by the Spanish, Remington sent Hearst a telegram: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war.” Hearst’s now famous reply was immediate and unequivocal: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” When Hearst’s newspapers carried the story of the explosion on the Maine, USS USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, an enhanced color lithograph accompanied the text, along with a jingoistic headline, “Remember the Maine!” So powerful was this report that, despite the fact that the President McKinley, WilliamMcKinley, William[Mackinley, William] William McKinley was hesitant, a declaration of war sailed through Congress.

World Wars I and II offer some of the most famous instances of propaganda, on both sides. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];propagandaDuring World War I, the Creel CommissionCreel Commission in the United States, for example, propagated the characterization of Germans as “vile Huns.” In the years leading up to World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propagandaWorld War II, Jews;scapegoatedJews and other ethnic groups were made scapegoats for every imaginable wrong suffered by the German people. The Nazi regime, headed by Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler, found a populace willing to be persuaded, under the direction of propaganda minister Goebbels, JosephGoebbels, JosephJoseph Goebbels, that whole ethnic populations were unfit to live and that Germans who could consider themselves part of the pure "Aryan" race[Aryan]“Aryan” race were destined to rule the world. As a result, the deaths of six million Jews and approximately one million others were blinked at by a brainwashed citizenry.

The New York World two days after the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor.

(Library of Congress)

Propaganda became global during the Cold War (1945-1991);propagandaCold War (1945-1991). The propaganda produced during the second half of the twentieth century, a period of brinkmanship and détente, was nationalistic and ideological. The governments of both the United States;propagandaUnited States and the Soviet Union employed any and every media outlet they could to reinforce, remind, and ultimately convert other nations to their point of view. The United States Information AgencyUnited States Information Agency was created to spread its message of freedom. Utilizing such outlets as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, the U.S. government broadcast messages crafted to entertain, inform, and, of course, warn against the dangerously aggressive Soviet Union;propagandaSoviet Union, portraying it as a system that sought to brainwash citizens in any territory it acquired. The Soviet Union, for its part, happily used the image of the fearless juggernaut the West provided, employing Radio Moscow to broadcast its own messages that the West was a place of moral decadence whose governments were dominated by greedy capitalists who exploited the citizenry, leaving them to live in conflict and poverty.

In the so-called War on Terror;propagandaWar on Terror (following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001), propaganda continued to be employed. This global conflict, however, has produced an interesting form of propaganda, almost a sterile Anti-propaganda[Antipropaganda]“anti-propaganda.” If propaganda is the manipulation of facts, it is interesting to note what facts are presented to the American people. With an almost sanitized coverage of the war over much of the media, many Americans have enjoyed a comfortable mental separation from the conflict (unlike what they experienced during the Vietnam War [1961-1975], when images of battle and carnage could be seen daily on their television sets and the draft threatened sons, brothers, and boyfriends). Moreover, Americans were asked to sacrifice nothing as the War on Terror began in 2003: Soldiers were not drafted; food and personal items were not rationed. Likewise, caricatures of zealous terrorists have not been presented. At times it seems as though the only propaganda use of the conflict occurs when a political party sees an opportunity to further its agenda. Once pulled out of the box, however, the War on Terror and its attendant conflicts have just as quickly been stuffed back inside: to be forgotten or dropped. The media, perceiving the citizenry’s lack of appetite for coverage of seemingly endless and goal-less conflict, after the initial years have tended to report on the war with the same emphasis they give to the death of a pop musician, using the events to fill gaps in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. With no casualties seen or advancements toward a clear victory heralded, it seems as if this lack of coverage may be a new, postmodern form of propaganda by omission.

In Digital-age propaganda[Digital age propaganda]World Wide Web;propaganda useInternet;propagandathe twenty-first century, the proliferation of information transmitted by handheld communication devices–such as “smart” cell phones equipped with still and video cameras whose images are easily uploaded to Web sites on the Internet such as YouTube–vies with editorially vetted sources of information such as established news agencies. The speed with which information, confirmed or unconfirmed, is globally transmitted both facilitates and complicates the propagandist’s purpose. What is clear is that information must be consumed responsibly, and dispassionately, if the peoples of the world are to perceive, and protect themselves from, the intention behind the message.Propaganda

Books and Articles
  • Aldrich, Richard J. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence. New York: Overlook Press, 2002. Details the covert activities by British and American intelligence units beginning in World War II and continuing as the enemy changed from Germany to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
  • Edwards, Mark U. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Addresses the question of to what extent the Reformation was a “print event” by examining Protestant and Catholic pamphlets c. 1518-1530, made possible by the proliferation of Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Examines the advent of printing and its impact as a force for social change, especially during the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of modern science.
  • Fleming, Thomas. Liberty! The American Revolution. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1997. Presents the story of the coming of the American Revolution from the personal perspectives of both loyalists and patriots, including propagandists such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.
  • Konstam, Angus. San Juan 1898. New York: Osprey, 1998. Examines the Spanish-American War, including the use of propaganda in promoting both the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine and the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill.
  • Krivitsky, Walter G. In Stalin’s Secret Service: Memoirs of the First Soviet Master Spy to Defect. New York: Enigma Books, 2000. The autobiography of the first top Soviet intelligence officer to defect to the West, whose life came to an end at the hands of a Soviet assassination squad.
  • Leighton, Marian. Soviet Propaganda as a Foreign Policy Tool. London: Freedom House, 1991. An analysis of the development of Soviet propaganda and its expression on the world stage.
  • Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. A detailed account of the rise of the ideology that led to the American Revolution, including the activities of the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence, which used propaganda as tools to increase the feeling for revolution.
  • O’Neill, William L. A Democracy at War: America’s Fight At Home and Abroad in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1993. Analyzes American involvement in World War II through the lens of the war fought to transform the American people from isolationism to a war mentality.
  • Snyder, Alvin A. Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War–An Insider’s Account. New York: Arcade, 1995. Written by the former director of the United States Information Agency’s Television and Film Service, this account details the American propaganda campaigns against Soviet Communism during the 1980’s.
  • Zacour, N. P., and H. W. Hazard, eds. The Impact of the Crusades on Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Includes a chapter, “Crusade Propaganda,” that examines the use of propaganda and its reception during the Crusades.

Civilian Labor and Warfare


Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations

The Press and War

Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency

War’s Impact on Economies

Women, Children, and War

Categories: History