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Perils of propaganda and presidents

During the Cold War, the U.S. government assembled a huge propaganda structure in its messianic efforts to combat communism behind the “iron curtain.” Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were the best known of these tools.

Knowing that in the hands of presidents, such an apparatus could be threatening if turned onto the United States itself, Congress made clear that it did not want the use of these techniques inside the U.S., though it did not pass a law to that effect. Many of those in Congress in the late 1940s had memories of President Woodrow Wilson’s notorious Committee on Public Information that aimed all kinds of duplicitous information at the American public.

In 1964, a film on the recently murdered John Kennedy was produced and distributed overseas by the United States Information Agency. Word of the content of the movie, “Years of Lightning/Day of Drums,” seeped back to the United States, particularly after New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther described the movie and added, “Therefore, this stunning picture, which will soon be in distribution around the world and was, indeed, shown simultaneously last evening to invited audiences in Rome, Beirut and Mexico City, cannot be shown to the people of this country, to whom its message of inspiration should mean so much — unless some special arrangement is made for it.”

Before that, the only USIA movie that had ever been released inside the United States also involved the Kennedys. It was a documentary on Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip to Asia in 1962, and there had been distinct congressional unhappiness about it.

But in June 1965, Congress yielded to pressure and passed a law allowing “Years of Lightning” to be distributed in the United States. The narrative soundtrack was released as a record album. Safeguards written into the law did not stop a Wisconsin political group from scheduling a showing of the film as a fundraiser, which the Milwaukee Sentinel called a “shocking abuse of the memory of President Kennedy.”

That involved a minor and fairly benign case of propaganda. Imagine what truly serious propaganda techniques in the hands of skilled political players could do.

We won’t have to imagine for much longer.

The real question is not whether the U.S. government should now target its own citizens for propaganda, but whether it should even be in the propaganda business anymore. As the Cold War cooled down in the 1970s, Sen. William Fulbright, D-Ark., wanted to put the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other arms of propaganda out of business. He did win legislation codifying what until then had been a custom, banning propaganda by the U.S. government aimed at the U.S.

Congress has just enacted a bill specifically allowing U.S. propaganda to be beamed directly at us. It has approved a bill sponsored by U.S. Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Adam Smith, D-Wash., that removes the ban on our government propagandizing our citizens.

This is one of those laws that could not pass on its own merits, so its sponsors decided to sneak it through Congress by slipping it into a military authorization bill. But some word leaked out and generated coverage of already-existing U.S. propaganda operations, such as a plane that has flown over Cuba for the last six years broadcasting programming, its signal jammed the entire time by Cuba, all at a futile cost to taxpayers of $24 million. Nevada should invest in jamming equipment.

Presidential administrations already have big propaganda guns to turn on the U.S., such as the enormous White House public relations operation, the Pentagon propaganda budget, and similar operations in every single federal agency.

The new law’s defenders say presidents will be responsible in their use of these tools. It’s a mistake, given the abuses and crimes of some presidents, to take their word for it.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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