THE BLOG
05/11/2010 02:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary Clinton and Propaganda

"And therefore I choose partnership and I choose -- to put aside being a child of the Cold war -- I choose to move beyond the rhetoric and the propaganda that came from my government and yours."

--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a Town Hall Meeting at Moscow State University (October 14, 2009)

Hillary Clinton has broken with tradition. She, a high-ranking government official, has admitted that her government engaged in propaganda.

Historically the USG has avoided the use of the word "propaganda" to describe its efforts to influence overseas publics. In World War I, George Creel, the head of the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), which (in his words) "carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the World," emphasized that propaganda was what the Germans used to further their military ambitions. His organization, in contrast, was involved in informational and educational activities, he argued.

To be sure, during World War II, the US government, including officials of the Office of War Information (1942-1945) did on occasion use the word "propaganda," stressing that "democratic countries must present the truth in their propaganda" -- in contrast to Nazi and fascist propaganda. But propaganda was usually associated with what the enemy, not with what we Americans did, as Roosevelt suggested in his Four Freedoms speech (January 6, 1941):

I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world -- assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.

During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (1953-1999) pursued what it called "public diplomacy," a term coined by Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, who wrote:

Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it "propaganda." It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But "propaganda" has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon "public diplomacy."

In 1999, several years after the Cold War was over due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USIA was consolidated into the State Department, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remarked (U.S. Department of State Dispatch, October 1999) that :

For almost half a century, USIA has been the most effective antipropaganda institution on the face of the earth. It pioneered a public diplomacy based not on self-serving fictions but rather on openess and truth -- and truth not as narrowly defined by some dictatorial regime but as broadly defined by the clash of free minds in vigorous debate.

Among the things President George W. Bush may be remembered for is his statement that his job was "to catapult the propaganda." But this certainly is not the way his administration described its efforts to change hearts and minds overseas. "Public diplomacy" remained the term of choice for Karen Hughes and others.

So Hillary Clinton has committed the "sin" of historical revisionism, much condemned by the previous administration.

But was she in fact telling the truth?

Propaganda may not always be what the other guy does.