American liberalism and the problem of propaganda: Scholars, lawyers, and the war on words, 1919-1945

Brett Joseph Gary, University of Pennsylvania


Scholars exploring the "problem" of propaganda and democracy, or the history of propaganda and warfare, or the history of American mass communications research, consistently have marked World War I as the point at which the "idea of propaganda" emerged in the modern era. Historians note that democratic governments had never relied so heavily on elaborate propaganda campaigns as part of their "total war" ammunition; and never before, it seems, had the democratic citizenry been so manipulated. From the end of the World War I through World War II, a generation of American social critics, political theorists, and government officials were acutely aware that propaganda was ubiquitous, powerful, and a potentially highly destabilizing weapon of political warfare. My study explores the relationship between three important political and intellectual tendencies in mid-twentieth century America: Elite concerns about the rise of "mass society" and its purported threat to democracy; the growth of American social sciences and the emergence of communications research as a response to the challenges of mass society; and the growth of centralized state power, particularly the state's expanding capacity for marginalizing and controlling political dissent. My dissertation is not a study of the production or dissemination of propaganda, or of different psychological warfare campaigns. Rather, I am concerned with fears about propaganda and how those fears shaped social critics' political assumptions, social scientists' analytical techniques, and government lawyers' frameworks for the purposes of mobilizing for war and creating and enforcing an administrative and prosecutory propaganda "prophylaxis." My research and analysis combines traditional concerns of political history with the strategies of intellectual history and the insights of the new cultural studies to explore the contradictions and tensions at the heart of twentieth-century liberal thought and action.

Subject Area

American studies|Mass media|American history|Law

Recommended Citation

Gary, Brett Joseph, "American liberalism and the problem of propaganda: Scholars, lawyers, and the war on words, 1919-1945" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9235141.