It never dies because it’s techniques have been so effective and in this story from the New York Times Magazine entitled: RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War: How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century — and why it may be impossible to stop, the present practice of Russia to control information through the use of disinformation/propaganda is examined and this excerpt notes its roots.
One way of looking at the activities of Russia’s information machine is as a resumption of the propaganda fight between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that began immediately following the Second World War. In the late 1940s, the Marshall Plan, the herculean development project helmed by Secretary of State George Marshall, flooded postwar Europe with money and advisers to help rebuild cities, advance democracy and form an integrated economic zone. Joseph Stalin immediately saw it as a threat — and saw propaganda as one of his best weapons to contain it.
In 1947, Stalin formed the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), a Belgrade-headquartered forum to coordinate messaging among European Communist parties. Cominform used Communist newspapers, pamphlets and posters to paint the Marshall Plan as an American plot to subjugate Europe. A representative Soviet poster distributed in Vienna showed an American — identified by American-flag shirt cuffs — offering aid packages with one hand while plundering Austria’s gold with the other. Radio Moscow — the state-run international broadcaster — and Soviet-supported newspapers throughout Europe accused the “imperialist” United States of pursuing a plan of “dollar domination” to make the Continent dependent on American goods and services, and of conscripting local youth to fight American proxy wars elsewhere.
Writing in The New York Times that year, the correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick recounted false reports in the Red Army newspaper in Vienna that the locals were afraid to walk the streets at night lest American soldiers rob and mug them — propaganda, she wrote, that “may not convince, but it adds to the confusion between truth and falsehood and fosters that darkness of the mind in which dictatorships operate.” In a 1947 letter to George Marshall’s undersecretary, Robert A. Lovett, William C. Chanler, a wartime Defense Department official, urged a response, warning that “we are making the same mistake that was made with Hitler.”
For the counterinformation campaign, the U.S. government enlisted journalists, including the Washington Post Pulitzer winner Alfred Friendly and the Christian Science Monitor’s Roscoe Drummond; Hollywood filmmakers; and the top marketers of Madison Avenue, including McCann-Erickson and Young and Rubicam. The new effort — which eventually fell under a new United States Information Agency — produced upbeat posters with slogans like “Whatever the weather, we only reach welfare together,” which offered a bright contrast to the Communists’ anti-Marshall Plan messaging. Operating on the theory that local voices would have more credibility than American ones, it fed news to foreign reporters about how well the Marshall Plan was progressing in their countries and recruited top European directors to produce hundreds of news features and documentaries that promoted “Western values” like free trade and representative democracy.
America went into the propaganda war with distinct advantages. At the time, the Marshall Plan was pumping $13 billion into Europe, while the Soviets were taking $14 billion out in the form of reparations and resource seizures; America’s image abroad was as squeaky clean as it would ever be. “This was the time when finally the United States came of age as an international power — when it still had its virginity, as it were,” David Reynolds, a Cambridge University history professor, told me.
America’s midcentury propaganda success set the tone for the decades to come. It was not entirely a matter of America’s having a better story to tell, and savvier storytellers, than the Soviet Union did. Soviet propaganda did, in fact, work on the people it reached. A controlled study conducted by a professor at Florida State University in 1970 found that Americans who listened to Radio Moscow broadcasts developed more open attitudes toward the U.S.S.R. than those of average Americans. The problem was that very few Americans did hear Radio Moscow: It was available only on shortwave radio and on a handful of American stations — including WNYC in New York — reaching less than 2 percent of the adult population in the United States as of late 1966. Meanwhile, Voice of America, the United States’ equivalent service offering a mix of news, music and entertainment, was reaching 23 percent of the Soviet adult population by the early 1970s. Later studies found that up to 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s adult population listened to “Western broadcasting” of one sort or another, in spite of aggressive Soviet signal-jamming efforts.