While we may be shocked by the U.S. government's attempt to spread disinformation about the current war on terrorism, we should not be. Governments have always been less than fully forthcoming to their citizens, although they rarely admit to lying. Rather they see it as a form of propaganda, and thoroughly patriotic.
Moreover, while the term "propaganda" is almost always used in a pejorative sense and as citizens of a democracy we are deeply troubled by the idea that our government is not always engaged in being strictly truthful with us, we should perhaps before condemning the attempts of the federal government to sway public opinion reconsider our ideas about the relationship between the government and the people at large.
Certainly the government of a democracy should never lie to its people and should keep secrets from the population at large only under the strictest criteria of national security. However, this is not the same thing as saying that the government should not attempt its citizens to act in a certain way or to believe in certain precepts.
We can see the importance - and the moral rightness - of this policy in a number of cases. Looking to contemporary American society, we find nothing at all wrong with the government urging people not to smoke around children (or even to smoke at all) or not to drive while under the influence of alcohol or to give blood.
We understand that in some ways the federal government has the job of acting in loco parentis, serving as a wise guardian to guide us into acting as morally as we can.
But while few of us (one hopes!) would object to the federal government urging us not to drink and drive, quite often the persuasive goals of the government are not clearly so good - at least not at the time. Few of us (again, one hopes) now believes that it is in the best interests of the nation for each one of us to report our neighbors because we suspect them of being communists. While that might once have seemed a good policy to many people, it now seems a dark spot on American history to most.
But sometimes government attempts to persuade the American public that seem questionable at the time later on seem in fact to have been wise and judicious. Such is certainly the case with U.S. government's use of various forms of mass media during World War I to persuade Americans that a rigid isolationism was neither politically expedient nor morally acceptable.
The tendency towards isolationism was indeed strong during the first years of the war, although the fact that few Americans wanted to get involved in what was seen as a European conflict had in fact relatively little to do with the specifics of World War I itself. Rather, then stemmed from a long isolationist tradition in American politics and culture that can be seen to have its roots in the American Revolution, when this nation resolutely divorced itself from European allegiances.
Indeed, although the United States would of course enter World War I, the essentially isolationship tone of American political discourse would not end with the Great War. It would in fact become all the more pronounced after 1918 as Americans counted up their losses from the war and - looking at the ambiguous results of World War I in terms of political stability in Europe - decided that the cost of intervening in European conflicts was not worth the cost in American lives - especially given that the Europeans seemed unable to move forward toward a real peace.
After World War I - and despite the postwar efforts of Woodrow Wilson to engage the United States firmly and permanently as an active member of the international community - many Americans returned to the belief (that is, those that had left it to begin with) that the political and economic interests of the United States were essentially different from (as well as probably superior to!) those of Europe and that little good could be had from entangling the United States too directly in European wars - or peace.
This is not to say that even the most extreme isolationists in the United States ever advocated entirely severing American from the rest of the world. Even the most vocal isolationists believed that America should stand as a symbol to other nations (inspiring other countries to emulate American ideals of democracy).
Moreover, while American isolationists tended to argue for a disengagement from everything European, this did not mean that they were quite so disinclined to keep their distance in the Pacific, where the U.S. was acting rather like a colonial power. The isolationists might well turn their backs on Europe, but in doing so they found the Pacific and Asia in their sights.
The basis for this isolationism, as noted above, extended back for centuries.
When George Washington in his Farewell Address asserted that Europe had "a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation" and advised America "to steer clear of permanent alliances," he was advancing views that were already old and widely accepted. The United States ended its alliance with France in time for its third president, Thomas Jefferson, to warn against "entangling alliances."
And, given the nation's political history, it can in fact be argued that isolationism - or at least a refusal to be dragged into internecine bloodshed in Europe - was a rational and even moral strategy on the part of the United States.
The roots of isolationism extended back to the colonial period. Settlers came to escape religious persecution, economic hardship, wars, or personal problems in Europe. From the beginning there was the assumption (or the hope) that the New World would be better than the Old. The long and dangerous journey magnified the geographic (and moral) separateness of America. Despite the alliance with France during the American Revolution, the attitudes undergirding isolationism were well established long before independence.
But this centuries-old inclination toward isolationism was fundamentally challenged by World War I. As much as Americans might like to think themselves independent of Europe, they were, of course, still bound to Western Europe and especially to England by both historical and cultural ties.
As England's power began to be challenged by Germany, at least some Americans began to wonder if Germany was not therefore also a threat to the United States. This sense of American vulnerability to European aggression as well as the growing urbanization and industrialization of the United States (both forces that worked against continuing isolationism) inclined some Americans to intervene in this latest European struggle.
Among those were many in the federal government. This may have been because their positions allowed them to see all too clearly American vulnerability to European aggression - something that most Americans felt that the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean would protect them from absolutely. This sense of security was not entirely illusory - the ocean was in fact an important buffer. But people's sense of safety also depended in no small measure in ignoring the growing sophistication of weaponry - weaponry that could bring Germany all too close to the United States.
Perhaps those in government were less isolationist simply because they had a better vantage point to seeing how the United States was linked ideologically as well as economically and historically to the nations of Europe. And perhaps they were simply less isolationist to begin with, a stance that had brought them into public service initially.
Those members of the U.S. government - led by and of course including President Woodrow Wilson himself - sought to use every tool at their disposal to convince the American people that isolationism was not a defensible policy for the United States to follow as the war consumed more and more of Europe. It was only natural that they should engage the mass media as one of their tools in their attempt to win over Americans.
The government had access to what were then the traditional media - newspapers and magazines - and certainly it used these to its best advantage through opinion pieces and having anti-isolationist officials talk to reporters and so be included in news stories.
But, faced with the depth of isolationist feeling that then existed in the United States, Wilson and his administration officials understood that more would be needed to shift public opinion toward entering the war than simply editorial cartoons. So it shifted much of its energy toward one of the brave new media of the time - the motion picture.
Movies had, for the early-20th-century audience, a magic that we in all likelihood cannot today appreciate. We have become so used to new communicative technologies that we are no longer impressed by each new one. People who download a novel a week to read off their Palm Pilot during their morning commute have a hard time grasping the absolute magicalness…