Historical Foreign Meddling—British Propaganda In WWII
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We hear a lot about foreign meddling via propaganda these days, so it’s worth looking at historical examples that are now well documented.

The British propaganda effort from 1939 onward was often satirized (Winston Smith in 1984 is basically George Orwell laboring for the BBC). In Evelyn Waugh’s 1942 book Put Out More Flags, a novel set during the “Phony War” of late 1939-1940 (that suddenly became very real in the spring of 1940), the pacifist aesthete writer Ambrose Silk goes to visit his old publisher, who is now working on propaganda at the Ministry of Information. He is told:

“You might write a book for us then. I’m getting out a very nice little series on ‘What We Are Fighting For.’ I’ve signed up a retired admiral, a Church of England curate, an unemployed docker, a Negro solicitor from the Gold Coast, and a nose-and-throat specialist from Harley Street. The original idea was to have a symposium in one volume, but I’ve had to enlarge the idea a little. All our authors had such very different ideas it might have a little confusing.”
But British propaganda was also highly successful, especially in the U.S. (The Americanophobic Orwell was not, of course, employed in propagandizing Americans.)

The success of British “foreign meddling” in the U.S. is not surprising considering the close cultural connection, the horribleness of the enemy’s behavior, the FDR Adminstration’s support, and the talent the British possessed.

Hollywood, for example, was full of British talent. For the famous film year of 1939, Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for Gone With the Wind and Robert Donat Best Actor for the English public school story Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Other English acting Oscar nominees in early 1940 included Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson, Claude Rains, and Olivia De Havilland (who is alive today at 101).

From World War II magazine:

Britain’s Propaganda War on America


… From the beginning of World War II to well after its end, the British government carried out a massive propaganda offensive designed to sway popular opinion in the United States. The MOI and other agencies recruited and mobilized hundreds of British writers, actors, lecturers, labor leaders, filmmakers, religious figures—and not a few American journalists, radio executives, and Hollywood moguls—to help bring the British message to America. …

Though not without some tone-deaf miscues as they learned to adjust their pitch to American ears, the British quickly perfected the art of propaganda that did not seem to be propaganda at all. …

As the British historian Nicholas John Cull says in his book Selling War, the British effort to sway the American public was “one of the most diverse, extensive, and yet subtle propaganda campaigns ever directed by one sovereign state at another.”

From the moment he took office as prime minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill made it his objective to get America and Britain “somewhat mixed up together” in the fight against Germany, as he later candidly admitted. Along with urgent requests for ships, planes, and other material assistance, he ordered an all-out charm offensive aimed at top American officials. …

But both the British and the largely sympathetic American government were well aware that American public opinion was the real obstacle to be overcome. Though Franklin Roosevelt and his administration were strongly in favor of aid to Britain from the start, Roosevelt knew the political impossibility of getting ahead of public opinion. In a 1937 poll, 95 percent of Americans said they flatly opposed American entry into another world war under any circumstances. …

Equally obvious, however, was that British propagandists faced a very tricky and delicate situation in trying to reach the American public. Not just isolationists but all Americans were extremely resentful of any obvious efforts from abroad to manipulate them. Partly this was the legacy of the Great War, when lurid stories of German atrocities in Belgium—later exposed as fabrications—had been heavily promoted by British propagandists as part of the effort to get America into that war. Lothian warned London that any conspicuous propaganda roused Americans to a “cold fury.”

It also handed a powerful weapon to American isolationists, who were ready to pounce on any example of the “insidious wiles of foreign influence.” …

But the other problem—as Lothian, Scott, and other British officials who knew America well were keenly aware—was that nothing could get through in America without a certain amount of salesmanship. “Everything in this country requires to be a drama, or a ‘story,’” noted one British Embassy official in Washington. The legendary British propensity for understatement, and for that matter the typical British upper-class accent—which, as one worried Foreign Office official noted, tended to sound “pansy” and affected to Americans—also worked against a campaign based on simply letting the facts speak for themselves.

Maurice Gorham, who headed the BBC’s North American Service, recalled how the BBC would put on the air some British commando “with a most desperate record…an enormous athlete” who had just performed an impossibly heroic feat in combat. “And then over the microphone would come: ‘Oh it’s nothing much really,’ in a little piping voice.” …

The British secret intelligence services meanwhile had begun to cautiously venture back into the once-taboo area of covert propaganda, using friendly “cut outs”—middlemen with no conspicuous ties to the British—to leak to the American press almost daily rumors discrediting American isolationist leaders and placing stories, some more reliable than others, of Nazi atrocities in Europe. …

Meanwhile the Hungarian-born British film producer and director Alexander Korda had arrived in Hollywood and was at work on a much more ambitious project. The story passed down in Korda’s family is that Churchill himself ordered him there with the mission of coming up with a full-length spectacular to arouse American sympathies. Whatever Churchill’s actual role may have been, Korda wasted no time: That Hamilton Woman, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, was shot in six weeks. Telling the story of Horatio Nelson’s passionate love affair with the notorious Lady Hamilton—and, not incidentally, the Royal Navy’s triumphant defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar—the film was a sensation when it was released in April 1941. …

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, one of a number of British academics who served in the British information operation in New York during the war, concluded afterward, “We didn’t convert anybody.” But, he added, Britain’s propaganda campaign in America had made “friends friendlier.” And in the volatile world of American popular opinion, that was more than enough to achieve many of Britain’s vital aims.

When you have Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, Dylan Thomas, etc. on your team doing your propaganda for Americans, you’ll probably do well.

In the current year, it’s worth thinking about foreign countries’ propaganda potential. Russian culture was fashionable a century ago in the Ballet Russes era of Stravinsky, but today is not. The Saudis have lots of money but no cachet. The Chinese have money and the current advantage of not being white, but even their movies have mysteriously dropped out of interest in the U.S. in this decade. The Israelis have money and connections in the U.S., but few surprisingly few homegrown superstars. Mexico has no cultural cachet in the U.S. at all.

The Brits seem like they remain best positioned of all foreign powers to engage in effective meddling in the U.S.

[Comment at Unz.com]

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