“We have been attacked. We are at war.” On Sept. 19, actor Morgan Freeman appeared in a short video opening with this line. The Committee to Investigate Russia, a new nonprofit website focusing on Russia’s interference in U.S. politics, produced the announcement.
A brainchild of activist Hollywood director Rob Reiner, the site launched with backers from across the political spectrum, including conservative military historian Max Boot and President Barack Obama’s former director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., “trying to break through and explain … that there is a serious problem here that people don’t seem to really grasp,” Reiner said.
The video charged Russian President Vladimir Putin — once a KGB spy, always a KGB spy — with using cyberwarfare to undermine the global democracy that the United States has been defending since D-Day. It accused President Trump of inaction in this battle and urged him to act. More disturbingly, it garnished the narrative with hackneyed backdrops: Russia’s military might parading on the Red Square, followed by an American bald eagle looking troubled in a close-up, all with ominous music in the background.
These gratuitous and prejudicial flourishes that are the hallmark of propaganda, the celebrity narration and the nongovernmental sponsorship echo a disquieting Cold War tradition of mobilizing private American citizens to defend democracy with an information war fought on the home front.
During the Cold War, the government strategically chose to leave this front to private citizens because of Americans’ comfort with independent, grass-roots initiatives. Today, private initiatives fill the vacuum left by a government not taking the threat seriously enough. Yet regardless of the motives, privatization of propaganda has serious costs.
The hyperbolic output from these efforts is coordinated by people who claim to speak for all Americans, yet face no accountability to ensure that their work best serves American interests. As a result, their public awareness campaigns often resort to glib propagandistic cliches, utilizing celebrity voices to court the public instead of qualified policy experts to educate it. Their hawkish tenor stokes blanket Russophobia that is as questionable as the Russian state media’s all-out anti-Americanism.
In short, such private undertakings threaten American credibility more than they promote public awareness.
This was as true 70 years ago as it is today. During the Cold War, Hollywood stars lent their services to a campaign that bombarded Americans with a variety of anti-Communist messages. In the name of nonprofit, private organizations like the Crusade for Freedom, these efforts employed roadside billboards, newspaper and radio ads, and even a television thriller series to ask ordinary Americans to do their bit against Communism.
The Crusade was established in 1950 with two goals in mind. Its first ostensible mandate was to raise funds for the news broadcasters Radio Free Europe and, eventually, Radio Liberty (RFE and RL), to provide Western news and enable dissent in the Eastern bloc. At the same time, it was also tasked with championing anti-Communism on the home front. The Crusade aimed to “break through” the Iron Curtain with information while also capturing the attention of the American public.
Its private orientation let the organization circumvent Sec. 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act, which restricted the traffic of official U.S. overseas propaganda materials on American soil. It also meant that the Crusade, seemingly independent from any government activities, didn’t run afoul of the taboo on proselytizing to Americans about — and at times even with — the propaganda intended for other countries and funded by citizens’ tax money. In contrast to similar outlets with Washington’s imprimatur (such as the U.S. Information Agency), the Crusade could fearmonger at will, unrestrained by standards of decency or accuracy.
Unfortunately, the Crusade was not only staffed by many people with modest knowledge of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but also organized into regional chapters, helmed by industrialists, bankers and lawyers dabbling in anti-Communism. In the absence of strict top-down directives or government coordination, they were often left to their own devices.
The resulting heavy touch manifested itself in a clumsy barrage of messages that reproduced East-West stereotypes without necessarily conveying much substantive information to Americans. Under their local purview, homegrown anti-Communism assumed odd guises. These ranged from a Detroit beauty queen photographed standing next to the latest Chevrolet station wagon, with balloons spelling “Wolność” (liberty, in Polish) up above, to picturesque Iron Curtain floats at July Fourth parades.
Their simple-minded propagandistic displays entreated Americans to do their patriotic duty and donate to the Crusade. For just one “truth dollar,” a share in the country’s anti-Communist enterprise could be every Tom, Dick and Harry’s. “Help Truth Fight Communism” was the 1951 fundraising campaign slogan.
That year, the Crusade signed on its own Hollywood star: Ronald Reagan. At an outdoor rally, Reagan suggested to “forget the words ‘Communist’ and ‘Communism’ and substitute a proper term, ‘pro-Russian.’” Communism, he warned, was nothing but a “coverup for Russian aggression and expansion.” His tenor was tamer in the studio, where he praised RFE’s efforts to “pier[ce] the Iron Curtain with the truth” and advertised the Crusade as “your chance, and mine, to fight Communism.”
Reagan wasn’t alone. The Crusade’s olodex resembled a miniature version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Ingrid Bergman, James Cagney and Audrey Hepburn all posed next to microphones with the RFE logo. Frank Sinatra recorded radio jingles, and Walter Cronkite narrated a newsreel.
The Advertising Council, a nonprofit organization for advertising agencies full of the real-life Don Draper prototypes working pro bono in exchange for their industry escaping government regulation, tried to build these campaigns to “sell freedom.” What could awaken Americans from their “apathetic state,” these Scotch-sipping executives wondered? Most were at a loss, lurching from the “doom and gloom” of “the Iron Wall,” as one participant put it, to “hope for the future.” Barbed wire and threadbare refugee children were go-to staples.
Did the appeals work? Partially. Private citizens and industry giants like Ford or Nabisco pitched in about $2 million yearly, motivated to donate by the opportunity for free advertising on the anti-Communist displays. But, unbeknown to Americans, the CIA fronted the rest of the bill, upward of $8.5 million.
In 1967, the progressive journal Ramparts uncovered the CIA’s covert sponsorship of these and other outlets. The revelation spurred congressional hearings that jeopardized RFE and RL’s continued existence. Appalled by the stations’ dishonest domestic financing and their outrageous budgets, Congress created the supervisory Broadcasting Board of Governors to provide official oversight for the merged RFE/RL.
Eastern bloc governments had long reviled both stations for being Washington’s mouthpieces, and the revelation of the broadcasters’ actual government ties only empowered detractors. Even today, this once hidden link remains a potent weapon with which to discredit any American broadcasts — regardless of their veracity — as duplicitous CIA propaganda.
Of course, the Crusade for Freedom and the Committee to Investigate Russia differ. Most importantly, the former had ties to covert government activities, while the latter is responding to government inaction. Yet, the Cold War offers a cautionary tale: Private efforts are often nimble but amateurish, democratic but lacking accountability, informal but perceived as having official sanction abroad. Privatization promises to save taxpayer money but comes at a cost not measurable in dollars and cents.