Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Trouble with Propaganda: the Second World War, Franco's Spain, and the Origins of US Post-War Public Diplomacy

From: Pablo León-Aguinaga, "The Trouble with Propaganda: the Second World War, Franco's Spain, and the Origins of US Post-War Public Diplomacy," The International History Review (10 Feb 2014)


US propaganda to Spain in the Second World War was conflicted at almost every level. The internecine conflict deteriorated into two hardly complementary operations that responded to opposite ideological and operational rationales between late 1941 and early 1945. Propagandists based in New York used broadcasts plus any other means at their disposal to revive the SCW by attacking the Falange and promoting the cause of the loyalists in exile. Their message was meant to address the common man, whom they considered to be overwhelmingly anti-Franco. On the other side, the operations carried out under the umbrella of the Casa Americana in Spain were conceived as a supplement of US foreign policy as reinterpreted by Ambassador Hayes.

In all likelihood, the Spanish people - no matter their ideological alignment - witnessed the spectacle with mixed feelings of surprise and contempt, making them wonder what was the real voice of America and whether that voice could be trusted at all. To be sure, one of the most obvious reasons behind the internecine conflict was the unwillingness of US propagandists to listen to the Spanish reality without surrendering to their preconceptions of the country, one of the basic requirements of smart and effective public diplomacy. Propagandists based in New York seemed content with reaffirming their strong convictions about the Franco Regime and Spain through their contacts with Spanish exiles and former SCW correspondents. For its part, propaganda operations in Spain, which Carlton Hayes firmly controlled, ignored large sectors of local public opinion based on the dubious claim that ‘Spanish “leftists” were sympathetic with us in any way’. Hayes also blocked the attempts of the propagandists in New York to research Spanish public opinion and embraced the narrative of the Spanish government about bilateral relations and the internal situation in the country with amateurish enthusiasm.

The operational, organisational, and authority-related disagreements over Spain provided important warnings for the future, all brightly passed on from Carlton Hayes to Arthur MacMahon, who reflected on them in his seminal study. The highly passionate behaviour of US propagandists in New York was the first such warning. Indeed, it might be argued that one of the most obvious lessons to extract from the propaganda operation to Spain was the need to ‘professionalise’ its execution. Most US wartime propagandists were in for the duration of the hostilities and returned to private-sector jobs after the war. They had no particular hierarchy or any reason to behave other than as passionate individuals with strong ideological beliefs. In contrast, propagandists in the cold war were sensitive to their Foreign Service careers and their family allocations and accommodations. They also knew how US foreign policy worked.

Second, the conflict over US wartime propaganda in Spain showed that the information apparatus must be coherently organised and integrated in the policy-making process, both in Washington DC and overseas. Early post-war analysts and practitioners of US public diplomacy soon realised that the lack of co-ordination between VOA's language desks and the United States’ overall informational strategy was behind the loss of credibility of US propaganda abroad and at home. Something similar could be said about the relationship between ambassadors and operatives in the field. One of the main organisational lessons from this time was that distinct informational channels must follow the same political directives to work - whatever their content or geographical location.

The third and last of the general warnings to be extracted from the conflict over US propaganda toward Spain was the need to cope with the ideological contradictions inherent in the democratic principles of the United States and its growing realpolitik priorities as a superpower. The US government needed to decide whether spreading democracy abroad should be the objective of foreign policy or just a disposable tool of propaganda; it was the same debate that fuelled the contradictory visions held by US propagandists in Madrid and New York. The struggles with propaganda-making in neutral nations with non-democratic governments in the Second World War probably helped dissuade the US government from choosing the second alternative in the cold war. In fact, both the Harry S. Truman and the Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations institutionalised the sort of non-interventionist and elite-oriented programmes that Carlton Hayes had defended for Spain in every country whose political regime openly contradicted US ideals, but whose friendship or neutrality was deemed useful for US strategic interests. As James Warburg and many fellow progressives warned during the Second World War, the cold warriors of Hayes’ propaganda failed to understand the long-lasting impact that this approach would have on the United States’ international standing. At least in that sense, it might very well be argued that propaganda realists were as naïve as their idealist counterparts.

Image from article, with caption: OWI Staff at the Casa Americana in Madrid (c. July 1943)

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