Friendly fire

Review of Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, by Kenneth Osgood, University Press of Kansas, 2006, 512 pages; $45.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower knew the power of psychological warfare. Victories in World War II had rested on an adroit combination of military force, reliable intelligence, and psychological operations. And just as “informational campaigns” had mobilized domestic and international support for that conflict, so too could techniques derived from the world of mass advertising galvanize the nation and its allies for a long struggle against communism, Eisenhower and his advisers believed. Many other books have concentrated on psychological operations behind the so-called Iron Curtain, but Florida Atlantic University history professor Kenneth Osgood’s Total Cold War emphasizes the extent to which Eisenhower’s propaganda agencies directed their messages to friends, not foes.

Eisenhower and his inner circle sensed that the Cold War battleground was shifting away from military and geopolitical arenas to a “new dimension” in which persuasion and public relations expertise were paramount. The resulting propaganda efforts blurred distinctions between public and private sectors and between domestic and international spheres. Although they operated overtly through new governmental agencies, such as the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), covert campaigns run largely by the CIA became the heart of a broad psychological strategy that relied on camouflage. A “private fa├žade” of media companies, nongovernmental organizations, and networks of opinion leaders provided the often unwitting troops for carrying out initiatives that seemed to be neutral and independent from the U.S. government.

Drawing on many recently declassified files, the book examines a range of overt and covert efforts to shape opinion, including the Chance for Peace initiative of 1953, Operation Candor, Atoms for Peace, Open Skies, nuclear test-ban proposals, and the People to People program. Each, in its own way, constructed the central message that the United States stood for peace, negotiation, and economic progress. By emphasizing Eisenhower’s personal advocacy of such new propaganda offensives, Osgood sides with those historians who portray Eisenhower as an activist president who vigorously fought the Cold War with an expanding (but often unseen) array of weapons. In fact, he presents Eisenhower’s various public nods toward accommodation with the Soviet Union mostly as well-orchestrated public relations campaigns.

For instance, Osgood argues that Atoms for Peace was “quite possibly the largest single propaganda campaign ever conducted by the American government.” The proposal emerged less from efforts to lessen nuclear rivalry than from presidential adviser C. D. Jackson’s carefully crafted public relations effort to eliminate domestic restraints on America’s nuclear buildup.

Jackson and other advisers understood that the Soviets would refuse Eisenhower’s dramatic proposal that both powers should contribute fissionable materials to an atomic energy agency for use in the peaceful pursuits of electric power production, medicine, and agriculture. They argued, however, that the proposal would divert the public’s growing fear of atomic power by flooding the media with hopeful discussions about peaceful applications. In Osgood’s words, “Atoms for war required the cultivation of atoms for peace.” Indeed, Osgood points out that the full details of the first U.S. thermonuclear test in November 1952 were not officially released until April 1954, four months after Eisenhower launched the global media blitz associated with his Atoms for Peace speech.

Osgood links his archival research into the shaping of Atoms for Peace with a fascinating cultural analysis. Jackson had drafted a comprehensive publicity campaign to reach Americans and people throughout the world. Carefully orchestrated expressions of “spontaneous” support for the program, from various groups and notables, often were picked up as “news” at home and abroad. Moreover, the themes and structure of the USIA’s Atoms for Peace pamphlets and exhibits worked their way into contemporaneous U.S. magazine articles on “friendly” atoms. Osgood, for example, analyzes National Geographic‘s article on the atom, “Man’s New Servant,” which echoed in language and style the USIA’s leaflet “The Atom: Servant of Man.” Both featured Jackson’s themes, stressing the medical, agricultural, industrial, and energy advances that the atomic age would enjoy. This and other examples in Osgood’s book demonstrate how public relations techniques, carefully executed by well-funded government agencies, could succeed in shaping media messages (or what we today might call “talking points”) both abroad and at home.

Unlike Atoms for Peace, the test ban effort late in Eisenhower’s presidency did not rest primarily on a public relations strategy. Osgood argues that domestic fear over nuclear testing and the health effects of radioactive fallout had become a powerful political issue at home, especially after the Soviet Union announced that it would suspend tests. In 1959, Eisenhower weighed the health evidence and the growing international outcry, and he concluded that the United States would be forced to stop testing. In a major shift toward negotiation, Eisenhower pressed his advisers vigorously to pursue a test ban with the Soviets, and they made significant progress by the end of his presidency.

Osgood’s study has limitations that he acknowledges. While he acquired extensive documentation on many of the USIA’s overt programs, the covert strategies to shape domestic opinion remain murky. Material remains classified on many sensitive programs, such as the Pentagon’s embrace of “Militant Liberty,” which apparently worked to spread evangelical Christianity within the U.S. armed forces as an ideological countermeasure against atheistic communism.

Moreover, Osgood hardly touches upon the questions of impact and reception, and he concedes that he could not find a practical research strategy to assess the effectiveness of so many different programs on such a global scale. He is probably correct in this judgment, but the reader is left hoping that subsequent studies, pinpointed in time and place, might begin to piece together an assessment of the various kinds of psychological and public relations efforts that are now generally called “public diplomacy.” Today, many influential voices have decried the atrophy of Cold War programs and have called for rebuilding the nation’s public diplomacy apparatus, but this effort is hampered by the lack of a reliable record of what worked in the past and what was counterproductive.

Osgood notes that in the February 1953 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Murray S. Levine, chairman of the New York Committee on Atomic Information, decried, “Secrecy has become a mania with us.” Osgood’s absorbing and readable study confirms Levine’s fears by showing how Eisenhower’s Cold War policy institutionalized the psychological weapons of modern mass warfare and secretly deployed them at home and on a global scale. Eisenhower’s oft-quoted warning against a military-industrial complex, given at the end of his term, seems shallow when considered in the context of the secret manipulation that his presidency nurtured–a manipulation that could easily be marshaled to advance those very interests the president warned against.

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