Daniel Lerner, cold war propaganda and us development communication research: an historical critique.

Author:Bah, Umaru


In scholarly works celebrating the genesis and growth of U.S. communication research, the two most notable being that of Rogers (1) and Everette & Wartella, (2) readers would commonly find considerable pages dedicated to the lives and works of pioneering researchers such as Wilbur Schramm, Harold Lasswell and Robert Merton, but would find only passing references made to Daniel Lerner, this despite the fact that he had published almost as much as did his contemporaries, and worked closely with them in many research projects. One reason given for this omission is that Daniel Lerner in many respects was not truly a communication researcher like his colleagues and contemporaries, that his foray into communication research was fortuitous, being in many respects merely an extension of his propaganda research. (3) Many, if not most, scholars of international/Third World/ alternative development (communication), are far more familiar with Daniel Lerner as the author and chief proponent of the dominant paradigm of development communication, than they are of his works on propaganda, making passing reference to his works only to debunk his ideas by highlighting the imperialist biases underpinning his argument.

Present day scholars' ready dismissal of Daniel Lerner's development communication research, coupled with their unawareness of his propaganda research, may well account for their failure to identify the strong connection between U.S. Cold War propaganda, and the genesis and growth of U.S. development communication research, a connection, I argue, that is embodied in the military career, academic research and political ideology of Daniel Lerner. I claim in effect that development communication research in the United States was not only influenced by U.S. Cold War propaganda objectives, it was in essence a manifest U.S. anti-Soviet foreign policy strategy, one that recruited the knowledge and expertise of preeminent social scientists to establish and fund research institutions, institutes and programs aimed at promoting U.S. foreign policy objectives in general, and Cold War propaganda objectives in particular.

I substantiate my claim by first providing a historical overview of propaganda and development communication research in the U.S. between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, identifying a critical shift in U.S. Cold War propaganda strategies as the crucial link between the two fields of study. This link is further highlighted by identifying key academic institutions and their research programs and institutes that were actively created and/or funded by the U.S. government. Finally, based on a biographical overview and a thematic analysis of his publications, I discuss Daniel Lerner's role and significance in this link by discussing the influence of his career as a World War II Allied propagandist on his later career as a propaganda scholar and development communication scholar, arguing that, in many respects, Daniel Lerner's ideology and works embody the prevailing objectives and interests of his contemporaries on one hand, and those of the U.S. State Department on the other.

My objective here is not to consider the merits or demerits of Daniel Lerner's model of development, nor to make a case for him to be placed in the pantheon of founding fathers of communication research. Rather, I seek to highlight the political imperatives underpinning the very foundation of what would quickly become a contentious field of study, with the ultimate objective being to suggest, at the very least, the impact of this connection on the evolution and practice of the field of development (communication) research and the challenges this field faces today.


Propaganda in the United States could be traced as far back as 1925, the year when Harold Lasswell published "Prussian Schoolbooks and International Amity." (4) Lasswell's study was based on a quantitative content analysis of World War One German school books, in which he "tabulated the references to national superiority, foreign inferiority, military heroes and so forth," in order to reveal German propaganda activities. (5) Studies on propaganda became prominent with the advent of the Second World War in 1939 and U.S. involvement in it by 1942. (6) During this period, the term 'propaganda' was synonymous with 'psychological warfare' and was defined as "the use of symbols to promote policies," (7) and was one of four means by which government policy is implemented, the other three being diplomacy, sanctions and war. (8)

Propaganda studies and activities thrived well into post-World War Two periods, due in large part to government's attempt to combat what it perceived to be the growing threat of Communism. Shawn Parry-Giles identified three key phases in the U.S. Cold War propaganda, namely the naivete period, the hysteria period and the psychological strategy period. (9) The naivete period (1947-1950) was marked by the belief that a celebration of American values, lifestyle and ideology would serve both as an impetus for the replication of an American political and economic system, and as a deterrent to the spread of Communism. Toward this goal, the Voice of America (VOA)--which was established by law exclusively as an international propaganda medium, and is under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibited from broadcasting to U.S. residents--aired a series of programs entitled Knowing North America, between 1948-1950. But the effect of these broadcasts was counterproductive, causing instead growing resentment in some European and Third World countries of what was perceived to be American pomposity and economic and cultural imperialism.

The period of naivete gave way to the period of hysteria (1950-1953), a phase that focused on portraying Communism as an inherently evil, pervasive menace that threatened individual freedom and international prosperity. But this period served only to bolster the prestige of the Soviets as a military and economic power as strong as, if not stronger than, the United States. By the mid-fifties, U.S. anti-Soviet propaganda took on a much more subtle and systematic approach. Under the Eisenhower administration, all propaganda activities were centralized and coordinated through the newly formed Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). The goal of the OCB was to have the United States contrast itself with Communism by re-defining itself less as an economic and political superpower worthy of emulation and more as a peace-loving nation striving for global cooperation and harmony.

This development-cum-propaganda phase itself underwent three transformations, namely the "guns-for-butter approach" stage, the "international cooperation" stage and the "international development stage." (10) As part of the Truman "Point IV" Plan, the "guns-for-butter" approach demanded the purchase of U.S. military hardware and the support of U.S. anti-Soviet objectives by developing countries in exchange for U.S. technical and food aid. But this approach was judged to be counterproductive, serving instead to paint a negative picture of the United States. The "international cooperation" stage of development was also considered a failure, in large part due to the lack of a well formulated theoretical approach to development.

The psychological phase of American propaganda under the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations--a phase described by Parry-Giles as the most effective of U.S. anti-Soviet propaganda strategies--was closely related in strategy to the "international development" phase described by Lerner. This phase took a more systematic and, one could argue, theoretically grounded approach to Third World development, one that focused, in Lerner speak, on the modification of the predisposition of Third World individuals toward Western-style development. The approach led to establishment of U.S. educational, development and informational institutions such as the United States Information Services (USIS) in 1953 (11), the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) in 1961 and the Peace Corps in 1960. The methodological approach and political objectives undergirding these institutions were and remain the same, namely a theoretical, "apolitical" approach promoting an overt agenda of cooperation and humanitarianism with a less overt intention of achieving U.S. international political and economic objectives. The international development phase also increased reliance by government on academic...

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