THE BATTLE OF PUBLIC OPINION
By CARL W. ACKERMAN, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University
Delivered over Columbia Broadcasting System, June 5, 1940
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 636-638.
GOOD evening, Fellow Citizens: Our country today is the center of a world propaganda war. It is forced upon us every second of the day and night, even when we sleep, by the propaganda of events abroad and at home. The impact of these events has precipitated a battleof public opinion in the United States which will decide whether our armed forces are to become involved in the present war.
Since September I have been making a daily study of these developments because I know from experience as a war correspondent in Europe and Asia from 1915 to 1921 and by personal studies of public opinion in thirty-two foreign countries, that no nation can isolate itself from international events as reported and interpreted by the printed and the spoken word. In the field of communications the earth has a new circumference where there are no boundaries.
Since the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia we have heard and read repeatedly the statement "Our hearts are at war." Now we are faced with the necessity of deciding whether our heads are to go to war, also. This is a solemn and fateful derision involving the Bill of Rights and our national defense. For this reason I am speaking tonight on "War Propaganda" in relation to our liberties and our preparedness.
Modern propaganda is designed to influence public opinion and governmental policies. It utilizes every facility of communication and distribution: newspapers, magazines, radio, motion pictures, the theater, churches, forums, clubs, committees, farm, labor and business meetings and publications, books, news letters and conversations.
Since 1918 the strategy and technique of war propaganda has changed as much as military science. As the airplane added a third dimension to land and sea fighting so has the radio and wireless telephone and telegraph, increased the magnitude of propaganda.
It is common knowledge that the peoples of the Western Hemisphere are better informed than are the inhabitants of any other area on the globe but that does not mean that we have complete, accurate current information at any time. Newspapers and radio broadcasters have cautioned us from the beginning of this war that all news, comments and speeches from belligerent capitals are censored at the source. There is also control over governmental information in Washington. We do not know the substance of Under Secretary Welles' conversations in Berlin, London, Paris and Rome. We do not know the status of our present relations with Italy because the contents of the correspondence between President Roosevelt and Signor Mussolini has not been made public. Censorship and control have also increased the magnitude of propaganda.
In addition there is a fourth fact about propaganda which is probably the most significant one in the battle of public opinion to decide our foreign policy. This is the propaganda of events and the ideas associated with them.
Since April ninth there have been ten major successive waves of appeals, associated with events abroad and in Washington which have had a literally stupendous influence on public opinion. You will recognize each one as I read the list: Immediately following the invasion of Denmark and Norway we all read and heard the statement: "All neutrals are in danger." This was followed by a public statement in Paris that "the Allies are our first line of defense." The third wave came from Washington: "Increase preparedness in the United States." Then came the lesson of Norway, "danger from a Fifth Column." This was followed by statements in New York and Washington directing public attention to Greenland and Iceland. The sixth wave followed quickly an announcement in Tokio indicating possible danger to the Netherlands Indies. The threat of Fifth Column activities in Mexico and South America was followed by an awareness of the "danger of invasion in Canada." The ninth wave accompanied the invasion of the Low Countries: "The United States cannot let Germany win." The tenth wave grew out of the battle of Flanders: "What will we do if war comes to us?"
Our government has already answered that question: increase national defense throughout the Western Hemisphere, mobilize industry, prepare for a World War.
I think there is an additional answer which should be made by education. "What will education do if war comes to America?"
Speaking over this network a few nights ago President Conant of Harvard University said that"in a free state public opinion must guide the government and a wise public opinion on matters of foreign policy can result only if there is clear-headed, realistic discussion of all eventualities, including war."
That statement is in keeping with the highest traditions of intellectual honesty. Being outside of politics and the arena of emotion, educators would be unworthy of their academic freedom if they failed to perform that public duty of keeping discussion alive. The Bill of Rights should be an educator's first line of national defense.
Because of the propaganda of events and the accompanying intense feelings of our people, some of our most influential citizens and pressure groups are advocating a united front in foreign affairs, "uniformity of opinion" and the suppression of public debate. Some of our fellow citizens are already demanding that society discipline those who will not agree to a pro-war attitude. If these pleas prevail they will voluntarily bring to the United States the same system for destroying liberty which we all condemn in Germany, Russia and Italy.
The demand for this voluntary abrogation of our Bill of Rights is directly related to war propaganda and to our national defense. Propaganda, as an offensive weapon of war, always seeks to silence opposition. In war time the Bill of Rights may be virtually nullified by governmental action or the same end may be achieved by social ostracism and by intolerance toward the opinion of those with whom we may disagree. It is this state of affairs which is today a danger to our national defense.
In recent weeks students in more than thirty colleges have signed petitions to the President of the United States. I have before me the documents from Dartmouth College and Yale University. At Dartmouth the students declared:
"We do not feel that American intervention in the European war will aid in any way the preservation of Western culture and democracy. We feel on the contrary that our duty today is to preserve and construct at home those liberties and cultural values which would undoubtedly be lost if we too went to war."
The declaration of Yale Students stated that as men of military age"We believe that the United States should stay out of this European war. We believe that this country should grant no credits, give no supplies and send no men. We believe that our efforts should be directed toward making democracy strong at home and not toward fighting in Europe."
For their courage and conscientious expressions of opinion these young men have been publicly "spanked" for speaking on foreign affairs, even in some instances by their own professors. They have been criticised as being morally unprepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. It has been stated that as students they do not understand international politics and therefore should not be taken seriously. They have been accused of being Communists and pro-Nazi.
This attitude toward the opinion of young men is a grave mistake. It is unfair and un-American. It is a threat to our national solidarity and national defense. We must meet logical resistance to war not by the old-fashioned school master's rod but by logical arguments. College students of this generation have been taught to think for themselves, to be independent, not dependent citizens. Why should they now be denounced for applying in public life what they have been taught by parents and teachers?
In time of a grave international emergency it requires as much courage and fortitude for many men to live in support of a cause as it does for others to give their lives on a battlefield. This is no time for anyone to destroy the courage of young American citizens. Without courage we cannot have adequate national defense.
Totalitarian propaganda to regiment American public opinion will destroy our Bill of Rights and it will deprive our national defense of human courage and faith, two qualities which cannot be bought, even for five billion dollars.