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Propaganda: Wasting money through the ages...

November 14, 2007 |  5:58 pm

CoastguardcuttercourierI'm always looking for material in my one-man jihad to rehabilitate the reputation of the pre-Otis-Chandler Los Angeles Times, so I was excited to come across an interesting tidbit recently. A few weeks ago the editorial board reacted to the second fall of Karen Hughes by noting that centralized government information offices are never as good at promoting America's image as is the private sector. Sample:

The challenge has never been getting fair-minded people to agree that there are things to admire about Americans and our society. Hughes was fond of noting that the initials PD "remind us that public diplomacy is people-driven." But people do not make diplomacy. Governments do. New York and Los Angeles already do a creditable job of selling American culture to the world. Washington's job should be selling U.S. policy.

This is just a rehash of the brilliant thesis, laid out half a decade ago by Chuck Freund, that vulgar culture -- of exactly the sort that both leftwing and rightwing American politicians have always deplored -- is actually among the most powerful weapons in this country's "soft power" arsenal. It's not a new idea that Elvis did far more than the Congress for Cultural Freedom to win hearts and minds behind the Iron Curtain, but I did think this was the kind of notion that would get a more sympathetic hearing among post-Goldwater libertoid types than among the center-right, Nixon-boosting, foreigner-disdaining, reliable-men-in-charge-of-everything types I imagine running the mid-century Times.

But the following editorial from March 9, 1952, arguing that Voice of America is a waste of time, makes me rethink that stereotype. Between their skepticism about an anti-communist boondoggle and their lengthy citation of Henry Hazlitt's The Freeman, I'd have to say those editorial board alter kockers of yore knew a bit more about freedom (and not just True Industrial Freedom either) than history has given them credit for. As background you may need to know that the Coast Guard cutter Courier, which is pictured at right (buy the postcard at eBay!), was a vessel outfitted with powerful radio equipment that spent more than a decade cruising the Mediterranean and broadcasting the sounds of liberty into Eastern Europe. The editorial board, which was as anti-Red as any in the country, nonetheless argued that this was a straight-up waste of taxpayer money:

A Better Job for Less Money

As the President was launching the Coast Guard cutter Courier on her maiden voyage as a floating radio transmitter (with three times the power of any American station) the newsstands had an article by George Creel, who did a similar job much better and for very much less money during World War I. 

Voice of Experience

Creel's article, called "Study in Planned Futility," in The Freeman, is criticism of the Voice of America by a man who can justly be called an expert. His campaign as head of President Wilson's Committee on Public Information, during the full two years of World War I, cost just $4,912,553. In addition to running the propaganda office, which was highly successful, Creel also ran the censorship.

In World War II the Army and the Navy and the other so-called "information" offices — really propaganda agencies — spent at least $500,000,000 for the same purposes; with so little success that the administration felt it necessary, as Creel remarks, to "continue the courtship of other people on a larger and even more lavish scale."

The continuation was designated the "Voice of America" and at a late report had 10,615 people on its payroll, to which it was planning to add 3000.

Unfriendly Governments

The result of the VOA efforts since the fighting stopped in World War II may be judged by the fact that there are now governments definitely unfriendly or skeptically cool to the United States in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Iran, Egypt, North Korea, China and India on the Eurasian Continent; in the Americas Argentina and Guatemala are almost openly hostile and the attitude of others is equivocal.

Does this seem an exaggeration? Well, on Jan. 25, in the Political and Security Committee of the United Nations a Russian motion to admit en masse 14 so-called nations, including Soviet satellites and such phantom entities as Outer Mongolia, was carried over our opposition 22 to 21. Those voting with Russia included Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia and Argentina.

Most of our supposed friends abstained from voting.

The same resolution came up later in the General Assembly and was voted down because it required a two-thirds majority. The line-up was approximately the same.

On Feb. 1, a Chinese motion to condemn Russia for failure to carry out treaty obligations carried, 25 to 9. It was opposed by all the Communist  countries, and additionally by Burma, India, Indonesia and Israel. Abstaining were the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Iceland, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Argentina and Guatemala.

Many of these are presumed to be our friends and close allies. Fifteen of those abstaining or voting adversely have received monetary help from the United States.

The Record in Votes

Now the announced purpose of this Voice of America, and cognate moves, was to "contain Communism" and "build up resistance to Soviet tyranny and imperialism," as Creel points out, and it has most emphatically not been done.

How much the equipping of this ship, the Courier, has cost, and how much more the taxpayers will have to spend on its maintenance, are not disclosed. But such apparatus is expensive both to build and to keep up; and the intention is to keep the ship permanently on cruise near the borders of the Soviet Union.

Judging by the results of the VOA propaganda so far we can reasonably expect that the cruise of the Courier may cost us the rest of our friends and swing the whole continent of Asia into the Soviet empire. Can we hold Japan in such a case? Can the Philippine Republic stand?

Creel has a right to complain that money is being wasted and worse. And Creel, it will be recalled, was a Democrat before the New Deal.

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