The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Foreign propaganda is a problem again, but maybe a smaller one than we think

The line between foreign media outlet and propaganda has long been blurred. But the impact of these outlets is small.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, shown in 1940 with Col. Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, left, and Col. Gen. Walther von Brauchitsch, tried to use a media outlet to propagandize the United States, but with only minimal success. (AP)

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Justice Department asked RT America, the U.S. branch of the Russian state-funded global cable TV network, to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The FBI also questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, a Russian government-funded news site, to determine whether Sputnik violated FARA by acting as a propaganda arm for the Kremlin.

The FBI’s investigation did not surprise Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli, because “the atmosphere of hysteria in relation to everything that belongs to Russia has been created in the country, and everything with the word ‘Russian’ is seen through the prism of spy mania.”

The fear of enemy propaganda is alien for younger Americans who did not live through World War II or the Cold War. But for much of the 20th century, concern about propaganda abounded, and FARA was one of the government’s major tools for combating it. Although FARA is virtually unknown today, its history offers three lessons that can guide Americans in grappling with Russian propaganda.

First, the lines separating journalism, propaganda and purported espionage have long blurred.

Second, propaganda from abroad has infiltrated domestic spaces for decades.

And third, politicians have often overestimated foreign propaganda’s ability to influence the thoughts of ordinary Americans.

FARA was enacted in 1938 as a response to the formation of multiple Nazi-inspired or Nazi-encouraged groups in the United States in the 1930s. One such group, the German American Bund, founded in 1936, attracted tens of thousands of members, leading Congress to worry that the Nazis were encouraging Germans in the United States or Americans of German descent to undermine American democracy. And so Congress passed legislation establishing FARA.

Although it encompassed all foreign nations, FARA was most directly aimed at combating fascism and communism. It required “any person who acts or engages or agrees to act as a public-relations counsel, publicity agent, or as agent, servant, representative, or attorney for a foreign principal or for any domestic organization subsidized directly or indirectly in whole or in part by a foreign principal” to register with the State Department.

That same year, a major Nazi news agency, Transocean, would coincidentally open a New York office. J. Edgar Hoover, the first and longest-serving FBI director, immediately launched an investigation into  it.

Transocean had been founded in 1913 to supply news from Germany overseas. It received government subsidies before the Nazis came to power in 1933, but Hitler’s government invested significantly more in the agency.

The Nazis deliberately obscured Transocean’s government funding and ownership. Nazi groups abroad had reported that the main Nazi newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, was unsuitable for daily propaganda outside Germany. Transocean worked better because it seemed to be independent.

Hoover was suspicious of Transocean because he worried that it both spread Nazi propaganda and was a cover for a massive Nazi spy ring in South America. His concerns sparked an investigation by the later infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was created in 1938 to investigate subversive activity with ties to communism or fascism. HUAC concluded in 1940: “When Hitler took over the Government of Germany, he transformed the Transocean News Service into an agency for the dissemination of propaganda in foreign countries and also utilized it as an organization that could, with a minimum of suspicion, engage in espionage activities.”

The next year, a federal grand jury indicted Transocean’s general manager in North America, Manfred Zapp, and representative Günther Tonn for failing to register as foreign agents under FARA.

Before an investigative committee, Zapp, a member of the Nazi Party since May 1933, falsely claimed Transocean received no government subsidies and that he was exempt from FARA because he was engaged in “bona fide trade or commerce.”

Before Zapp and Tonn could stand trial, however, they were returned to Germany, possibly as part of a prisoner swap for two representatives of an American news agency, United Press.

The trial of Transocean continued even without the defendants in custody. The court found that the German Foreign Office controlled Transocean and subsidized 93 percent of its activities.

Its government ties were indisputable, but Transocean’s effectiveness was less clear.

Barely any American newspapers printed its content, blunting its impact in the United States. In the late 1930s, however, Nazi elites most wanted to beat the American Associated Press in supplying German news to Latin America. This desire stemmed from reasons of prestige and politics. Nazis wanted Latin American newspapers to publish their version of a Hitler speech; they also wanted to sway Latin America to a pro-Nazi, or at least a neutral, stance.

Quite a few newspapers in Latin America did print Transocean content. Some radio stations also distributed Transocean’s bulletins. The British ambassador stationed in Santiago, Chile, reported in April 1941 that the station using Transocean’s news was “probably the best radio station in Santiago” and was heard across the country. Secret British reports observed that they had “a press advantage, while the Germans are far ahead of us as far as the radio is concerned.” The U.S. government feared that Transocean’s news might push South American governments to maintain their neutrality or even become pro-Axis.

But even in South America, it is hard to measure how that news affected attitudes toward Nazism. In Chile, the Nazis succeeded in taking over German institutions. Still, pressure from the United States pushed Chile to shut Transocean’s office there in January 1943.

Even in Argentina, which broke off relations with the Axis powers only in 1944, at most 5 percent of German citizens living there became members of the Nazi Party. The owners of the liberal newspaper, Argentinisches Tageblatt, refused entreaties to convert it to a Nazi mouthpiece. Internal conflicts between Argentine elites were more critical in keeping the country from declaring war on the Axis until March 1945 than Nazi propaganda.

Regardless of its impact, Transocean’s activities provoked a vigorous American response. The U.S. government created an Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) in 1940 to block German attempts at subversive radio propaganda and underhanded news activities. Just over a year later, another new government office, the Office of the Coordinator of Information, started its first international direct radio programming with Voice of America (VOA) to counter German propaganda and support British propaganda abroad through the BBC. By 1945, VOA sent programs in 40 languages, although half its services stopped after the war ended.

Ironically, however, Transocean’s trial did not stop contact between U.S. and Nazi news organizations. With government approval, the Associated Press made a secret deal to exchange photographs with the Nazi regime. Nazi photographs distributed by the AP appeared frequently in American newspapers. Sometimes they were marked as Nazi propaganda; sometimes they were printed with no identifying label.

“The ratings are almost beside the point” for RT and Sputnik, noted a recent New York Times report. What matters, according to Vladmir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, is to “break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon global information streams.”

During the late 1930s and World War II, Transocean tried to do the same by sending news over radio — the first wireless technology that could bypass borders without detection. Most observers could not see the world war of words. But it was happening — and has continued to happen — ever since.