Why We Fight: A Study of U.S. Government War-Making Propaganda.

Author:Seagren, Chad W.
Position:Essay

Propaganda in Support of War

In this paper, we examine the extent to which officials within the U.S. government employ propaganda to influence the American public's opinion regarding going to war. We begin with a definition of propaganda as "the deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and behave in a desired war (Taylor 1995, 6, emphasis in original), to which we add, "using means that involve either selective information or outright deception." We concentrate primarily on the public statements or actions of the president, secretary of defense, and high-ranking members of the military, though we also allow for the products of various other agencies insofar as they relate to foreign policy.

In wartime, the U.S. government might engage in legitimate propaganda to influence the behavior of foreign people and governments. Such propaganda may attempt to convince the members of opposing armies to give up or to encourage citizens of belligerent governments to press their governments to end the war. (1) However, our focus in this paper is on propaganda intended to mislead Americans. Our main finding is that in the three wars we examine, the U.S. government has systematically misinformed Americans about various aspects of the war, all with the goal of persuading them to support the initiation or conduct of the war or both. A reasonable case can be made that in all three instances the misinformation caused Americans to be more supportive of the war than the)' would otherwise have been.

Politicians leverage an information asymmetry when they engage in propaganda. We seek to identify characteristics of scenarios in which such asymmetries are more likely to exist and citizens are more susceptible to propaganda.

Scholars, military science theorists, and career officers who attend the armed services' staff colleges routinely cite the "will of the American people" as the strategic center of gravity for U.S. conflicts during the period after World War II (Schmader 1993; Von Wald 1995; Kasupski 2000; Upchurch 2009; Boylan 2015). (2) General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2004, stated, "The will of the American people to carry on the war on terror prevents the enemy from meeting its objective; it is the enemy's center of gravity" (quoted in Garamone 2006). According to U.S. military doctrine, a belligerent's center of gravity is "the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act" (U.S. Department of Defense 2002, 29; see also Clausewitz 2009, 144). Thus, in those instances when the will of the people is one's own center of gravity, for a military intervention to succeed the national will must be protected from attack or subversion. For example, because the U.S. government enjoyed massive technological superiority against North Vietnam, one reason the intervention there ended in strategic failure may have been that the American public simply lost its will to support the fight (Gelb 1972; Mandelbaum 1982; Summers 1995). An important lesson that political leaders and some military leaders seem to have drawn from the Vietnam experience is that they need to cultivate the public's willingness to fight and then jealously protect that willingness from harm.

For example, General Creighton Abrams was chief of staff of the army immediately following the Vietnam War and oversaw the enormous reorganization of the army's active and reserve elements. He purposely placed a large proportion of necessary combat power in the reserves in order to ensure that "they're not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves" (quoted in Sorley 1991,45). A member of his staff confirmed that "General Abrams hoped this would correct one of the major deficiencies of the American involvement in the Vietnam War--the commitment of the army to sustained combat without explicit support of the American people as expressed by their representatives in Congress" (quoted in Sorley 1991, 46).

The importance of the "will of the American people" to scholars of military science and military history is difficult to overstate. Political scientists routinely acknowledge the salience of foreign-policy issues to American voters, especially the decision to use military force (Hurwitz and Peffley 1987; Klarevas 2002). We argue that political leaders who believe in this importance will attempt to influence people's opinions about the use of military force. It is critical to note that they seek to influence public opinion not merely for democratic reasons such as passing legislation that authorizes the use of military force in a particular situation but also because positive public opinion of a military intervention can, in their view, be a military necessity. Thus, anything that undercuts the people's support ultimately places military victory at risk.

Public Choice Provides a Useful Lens

One of the earliest and most important contributions to public-choice theory is Anthony Downs's (1957) paradox of voting. The paradox states that because the likelihood is extremely small that any individual's vote will be the one that decides the election, the practical benefits to voting are essentially zero. Yet the opportunity costs of voting are undeniably positive. The paradox is that people do, in fact, turn out to vote even though economic theory suggests that such behavior is irrational. (3) An implication of this paradox germane to the present discussion is that, given the seeming futility of voting, individual citizens generally have little or no incentive to gather information and educate themselves about political issues. Even if economists' view of rationality is too narrow, which we believe it is, the incentive for voters to gather information and educate themselves on the issues is still low. Those who get expressive benefits from voting can still get those benefits without being particularly informed. This state of ignorance leaves them susceptible to the influence of propaganda.

Several public-choice scholars have considered propaganda and the voting public's vulnerability to it. Thomas Dalton (1977) developed a model in which ignorance of citizens' preferences results in suboptimal policies and de facto coercion. (4) His model shows that in certain instances government may employ propaganda in an effort to influence citizen preferences and reduce the amount of perceived coercion. In other words, when government policy diverges from citizens' true preferences, government may propagandize to reduce the perceived divergence.

Tobias Ursprung presents a model that specifically leverages the paradox of voting to suggest that constituents are "happy to receive free information, in order to improve the basis for their 'well-founded' decision" (1994,261). Because special interests stand to gain financially from a favorable political outcome, they may have an incentive to provide selective information to potential voters in an effort to sway voting behavior. It is important to note that this information need not always alter voters' preferences; it may work to fill in gaps in voter knowledge and change perceptions of the causes and effects of various policy proposals. Similarly, Reiner Eichenberger and Angel Serna (1996) develop a model in which voters receive information that either improves or reduces the accuracy with which they assess policy, and they examine how certain actors may engage in political propaganda. Likewise, it is not necessary for our analysis that the propaganda affect preferences, merely that it is selective information that alters perceptions of policy. Voters' general inability or unwillingness to overcome their informational deficiencies has long provided the foundation for democratic institutions' vulnerability to exploitation by special interest groups. (5)

The sine qua non of public choice is imperfect information on the part of voters and citizens generally. This means that they are open to being persuaded by propaganda. Although not using an explicitly public-choice framework, two recent articles give strong evidence that government propaganda can powerfully influence behavior. David Yanagizawa-Drott (2014) shows that radio broadcasts over station KTLM by Hutu government officials inciting violence against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1994-95 had a powerful effect. Specifically, 10 percent of the overall violence occurred as a result of these broadcasts. Maja Adena and her colleagues show that "after the Nazis established their rule, radio propaganda incited anti-Semitic acts and denunciations of Jews to authorities by ordinary Germans" (2015, 1885). (6)

There are a number of reasons to believe that rationally ignorant citizens are more susceptible to government propaganda about war making than to government propaganda on domestic-policy areas. First, Americans are generally less familiar with matters of foreign policy than they are with domestic issues. The geographic distances involved tend to mean that fewer Americans have direct experience with the incident or region in question, in contrast to the numbers that have direct experience with a domestic situation--say, the millions of Americans who personally experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The paucity of direct experience with foreign policy means that government as a source of information becomes more important relative to a situation in which various sources are available. Another related factor is that in many international incidents, members of the military may be the only Americans involved, and information from the military is easily suppressed or shaded for political purposes'

In addition, the president, in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces and head of state, tends to have a privileged role in foreign-policy debates with respect to voters and Congress. Since World War II, presidents have assumed the authority to commit forces to combat without first...

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