The psychological struggle of today is unique only in the details. The need to shape the perceptions of individuals did not materialize after 9/11 or after the Cold War. Below are two quotes, a factoid, and then a third quote. The first is from the period of the last great re-org of the American national security apparatus and the second by a man who helped, if indirectly, shape the culture of America’s information capabilities to our detriment today. The third quote is perhaps the most interesting of the three.
Speaking in 1949, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs George V. Allen, later Director of USIA (1957-1960), said in speech at Duke University:
Propaganda on an immense scale is here to stay. Technological advance may have made this as important to diplomacy as the invention of gunpowder to the military. … We still write diplomatic notes, but we try to reach directly into as many foreign homes as we can. Every other major power is doing the same. … I am convinced that unless the United States continues to utilize this new method we shall be left at the post by other countries which are becoming skilled in the use of mass media.
New methods in government, like new discoveries in science, can be used for good or ill. Direct radio contact with foreign individuals may be taken advantage of to proclaim falsehood as well as truth. But the potentialities of the direct approach are very great in both directions, and we must understand and perfect the techniques to protect and advance our interests.
Further back, George Creel (see also Espionage Act of 1917) wrote in 1917:
Back of the firing line, back of the armies and navies, back of the great supply depots another struggle [was] waged with the same intensity, and with almost equal significance attaching to its victories and defeats. It was the fight for the minds of men… and the battleline ran through every home in every country.
Separately (and not related to either of the above speakers), private cooperation in public diplomacy included filling the shelves of overseas libraries.
Probably USIA’s most successful program of cooperation with private agencies has been with donated books…. Starting in 1963, an arrangement was worked out with the Post Office Department whereby books reaching the dead-letter office were made available for shipment overseas. In 1964, 250,000 volumes came from this source.
Finally, Edward R. Murrow speaking to a Congressional committee in 1963 as Director of USIA, said his agency’s effectiveness, in spite of quotes from a North Vietnamese newspaper and a Chinese magazine that were similar to recent Iranian warnings to its people, was still very hard to measure:
No computer clicks, no cash register rings when a man changes his mind or opts for freedom. … And above all, it is what we do — not what we say — that has the greatest impact overseas. USIA can explain, interpret, clarify, synthesize, and project, but we cannot change the unchangeable or do the undoable. The United States of America cannot and should not try to please everyone on this planet; we have, and will always have, some policies that are unpalatable to some people. We are, then, and properly so, prisoners of policy. … But given intelligent and effective American policies, supported by Congress and the American people, we can make an important contribution to the achievement of our objectives. In my judgment, we are today making such a contribution.