A Very Brief History of Propaganda in Times Past

Propaganda has been around for a long time, going back to ancient Greece. Chapter 2 of Jowett & O'Donnell provides an excellent historical background. In there you will find numerous examples of historical propaganda campaigns. Anyone interested in propaganda would find Jowett & O'Donnell very interesting.

  • Ancient Greek commander Themistocles, in 480 BCE, used a disinformation campaign to lure Xerxes into a naval battle at the Straits of Salamis. The strait was so narrow that the large Persian fleet could not manuever. This helped the outnumbered Greeks defeat Xerxes.
  • Alexander used images of himself on statues, monuments and coins as propaganda.
  • Propaganda was used extensively in the Roman Empire; Julius Caesar was exceptionally good at it.
  • Pope Urban II used religious propaganda to stir up support for the Crusades (12th & 13th centuries).
  • Martin Luther appeared to be a propaganda master, knowing exactly how to get his message out in the most effective way, thus setting off the Reformation.
  • The Vatican countered Luther with a propaganda campaign in the Counter-Reformation. Its purpose was to solidify the Catholic Church's dominance, and it worked very well.
  • Benjamin Franklin is noted as being skilled at propaganda in the time of the Revolution. So was Thomas Jefferson.
  • From the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War, propaganda was used extensively and effectively.
  • In the 19th century, the political cartoon emerged as a very effective form of Propaganda. The name best remembered is Thomas Nast.
  • British propaganda induced America to enter the Great War (WWI).
  • Propaganda was widely and powerfully used in Word War I (WWI), so much so that a backlash against propaganda resulted later.
  • In 1937, propaganda was an important factor in breaking a strike in New York. This produced the Mohawk Valley Formula.
The meaning of the word derives from Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, a Vatican organization. The meaning of propaganda has morphed over the years from an organization through a doctrine to the modern meaning of methods and techniques. In the 20th century, propaganda reached new heights in the First World War (WWI). Propaganda in this war featured some really gross lies about German "atrocities;" these stories were mostly from British propaganda. America's Committee on Public Information (CPI) handled All U.S. propaganda during WWI. The CPI used all available means of dissemination available during WWI; modern students may have a hard time imagining a world in which the primary mass communication methods were mostly printed: newspapers, posters and magazines. Most of the electronic media we take for granted did not exist.
  • First radio transmission of voice: 1919.
  • First licensed radion stations: 1920
  • Development of short wave radio: After WWI
  • First movie with synchronized soundtrack: 1927
  • Commercial broadcast television: After WWII.

This lack of instant communication meant that most of the outright lies that circulated during WWI could not be quickly refuted. See Ponsonby.

In any event, the organization of propaganda efforts really took off during WWI. In this country, a man named George Creel headed up the effort. His book, How We Advertised America:... is his chronicle of what they did. The book by Lasswell is one of many digging into the mass of propaganda produced in WWI. There was so much of it flying around that it is difficult to see how anyone outside of governments could ever get a realistic picture of what was happening. A number of books published after WWI detailed how it was done. It appears that the revelations about the propaganda produced a large anti-propaganda backlash in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1930s, there existed an organization called the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). They produced educational materials concerning the analysis of propaganda, including seven common devices used in propaganda. Their work was sometimes described as generating a widespread cynicism instead of rational analysis. The IPA was likely a part of the anti-propaganda backlash.

In the Second World War (WWII), propaganda is strongly associated with Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Propaganda Minister 1933-1945). Goebbels was an acknowledged master of the art. This is not to say that the U.S, Britain and their allies did not use propaganda; they did, and quite effectively. After WWI, Hitler himself studied Allied propaganda and described it as brilliant, well-executed and effective. Hitler and Goebbels together were an unsurpassed pair of propagandists.

Propagandists in WWII had far more resources at their command than did their predecessors in WWI. Tape recording had been invented. Sound movies were well-established, also radio broadcasting. The book by Howe describes a clandestine broadcasting operation in England that was aimed at German morale. It sounded like a loyal German complaining about corruption in the Nazi party organization, etc.

Modern, more respectable, incarnations of propaganda include advertising, public relations, and election campaigns (these are respectable?).


  • Propaganda and Persuasion, Jowett & O'Donnell
  • The Black Game; Ellic Howe