The Pentagon Propaganda Machine

by Senator J. William Fulbright

Vintage Books, 1971, paper


Since the I950s, as we have moved from crisis to crisis, the constitutional responsibilities of the Congress have been eroded in dangerous measure by the diversion of power to the President and the Joint Chiefs and the Department of State.

It seems to me we have grown distressingly used to war. For more than fourteen of the past twenty-eight years we have been fighting somewhere, and we have been ready to fight almost anywhere for the other fourteen. War and the military have become a part of our environment, like pollution.

Violence is our most important product. We have been spending nearly $80 billion a year on the military, which is more than the profits of all American business, or, to make another comparison, is almost as much as the total spending of the federal, state, and local governments for health, education, old age and retirement benefits, housing, and agriculture. Until the past session of the Congress, these billions have been provided to the military with virtually no questions asked.

The military has been operating for years in that Elysium of the public relations man, a seller's market. Take the climate into which the Sentinel ABM program was introduced. Many people looked on it, as they now look on Safeguard, not as a weapon but as a means of prosperity. For the industrialist it meant profits; for the worker new jobs and the prospect of higher wages; for the politician a new installation or defense order with which to ingratiate himself with his constituents. Military expenditures today provide the livelihood of some ten percent of our work force. There are 22,000 major corporate defense contractors and another 100,000 subcontractors. Defense plants or installations are located in 363 of the country's 435 congressional districts. Even before it turns its attention to the public-at-large, the military has a large and sympathetic audience for its message.

These millions of Americans who have a vested interest in the expensive weapons systems spawned by our global military involvements are as much a part of the military-industrial complex as the generals and the corporation heads. In turn they have become a powerful force for the perpetuation of those involvements, and have had an indirect influence on a weapons development policy that has driven the United States into a spiraling arms race with the Soviet Union and made us the world's major salesman of armaments.

A Marine war hero and former Commandant of the Corps, General David M. Shoup, has said, "America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation." He could be right. Militarism has been creeping up on us during the past thirty years. Prior to World War II, we never maintained more than a token peacetime army. Even in 1940, with Nazi Germany sweeping over Europe, there were fewer than half a million men in all of the armed services. The Army, which then included the Air Corps, had one general and four lieutenant generals. In October I941, six weeks before Pearl Harbor, the extension of the draft law was passed by but a single vote. Many of those who voted no did so for partisan political reasons, but antimilitarism certainly was a consideration for some. Today we have more than 3.5 million men in uniform and nearly 28 million veterans of the armed forces in the civilian population. The Air Force alone has twelve four-star generals and forty-two lieutenant generals. The American public has become so conditioned by crises, by warnings, by words that there are few, other than the young, who protest against what is happening.

The situation is such that last year Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, hardly an apostle of the New Left, felt constrained to say:

"For almost twenty years now, many of us in the Congress have more or less blindly followed our military spokesmen. Some have become captives of the military. We are on the verge of turning into a military nation."

This militarism that has crept up on us is bringing about profound changes in the character of our society and government-changes that are slowly undermining democratic procedure and values.

We cannot, without doing ourselves the very injury that we seek to secure ourselves against from foreign adversaries, pursue policies which rely primarily on the threat or use of force, because policies of force and the pre-eminence given to the wielders of force-the military- are inevitably disruptive of democratic values. Alexis de Tocqueville, that wisest of observers of American democracy, put it this way:

War does not always give democratic societies over to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost automatically concentrate the direction of all men and the control of all things in the hands of the government. If that does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it leads men gently in that direction by their habits.

During the twenty years Senator Ellender cited we have not only been infected by militarism but by another virus as virulent-an ideological obsession about communism. The head of steam built up in the country by the late Joe McCarthy has never really been blown off, and the extremists of the right utilize it to keep the hatreds that have developed over the years as hot as possible. This heat and the ideas espoused by these extremists produce such deceptively quick and simple solutions as "Bomb Hanoi!" Or "Overthrow Castro!" Or "America: Love It or Leave It!" --If we would only proclaim and pursue our dedication to total victory over world communism, they say, root out the subversives-real and imaginary-at home, make our allies follow our lead in world affairs, all of our troubles would soon be solved.

This heated climate makes militarism luxuriate, for the military solution is also the simple solution. I am not, of course, implying that the men of our military forces are of the extreme right. They are in the main patriotic, hardworking, worried men, but their parochial talents have been given too much scope in our topsy-turvy world. There is little in the education, training, or experience of most soldiers to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society.

The nation needs its military men as brave and dedicated public servants. We can get along without them as mentors and opinion-molders. These roles have never been and, in a time when subtlety of mind and meticulous attention to questions of right over might ought to command us, should not now be their proper business.

During the past several years, there have been too many instances of lack of candor and of outright misleading statements in treating with the public. Too often we have been misled by the very apparatus that is supposed to keep us factually informed or, in the very strictest sense, honestly guided.

Even without breaking the limits of honest presentation, any President and the heads of his "newsmaking" departments can shape the flow of information the public gets.

The President has ready access to the nation's television networks whenever he feels the need to use them, and his press conferences attract hundreds of newsmen. His statements and the statements of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense usually get front page treatment.

Through selectivity and timing, they can command attention that at times is far greater than that deserved by the content of the information released. They can give new luster to old ideas and obliterate embarrassing events with announcements, actions, trips, and "summit meetings." In a pinch, what have been called "pseudoevents" can be created.

The word "propaganda" ... [stems] from the title Congregatio de propaganda fide (Congregation, or College, for the Propagation of the Faith)-an organization set up in I673 to train Roman Catholic missionaries - the word through usage over the years has taken on the meaning set forth in Webster's New International Dictionary (Second Edition): "Now, often, secret or clandestine dissemination of ideas, information, gossip, or the like, for the purpose of helping, or injuring, a person, an institution, a cause, etc."

From 1951 to I959, the Congress in its annual appropriations for the military limited the amount that could be spent on public relations to $2,755,000. According to Hohenberg, the services complied with the spending limit:
... by specifying that only particular duties could be classified as public relations. They even made out weekly slips giving the total number of hours spent in the "public relations" function-sometimes none at all, sometimes 30 to 45 minutes out of an entire week. It was not considered "public relations" to "answer queries from the public," i.e. respond to a newspaper inquiry, or to draft statements, write speeches, or do so many of the things that are a normal part of a public relations man's duty.

The congressional restriction on spending was removed in I959.

The military public relations campaign is directed at all of the American people ("targets," they are called in the manuals, a nice military word adopted by Madison Avenue and readopted by military PR people in its new sense). The audience ranges from school children and teachers to ranchers and farmers, from union leaders to defense contractors, from Boy Scouts to American Legionnaires. The principal target of the military PR men, however, is the media.

Very few Americans, I am convinced, have much cognizance of the extent of the military sell or its effects on heir lives through the molding of their opinions, the opinions (and votes on appropriations) of their representatives in the Congress, and the opinions of their presumed ombudsmen in the American press.

When Congress passed the National Security Act in t947, it voted to end the rampant rivalry among the military services and to require each to subordinate its parochial interests to those of the military establishment as a whole. But here we are twenty-three years later with the Army, Navy, and Air Force each spending millions of tax dollars annually on persuasion of the public that its particular brand of weaponry is the best. Competition for the public's affections-and their representatives' votes in Congress-rivals the hucksterism of detergent manufacturers. This is hardly the conduct the public deserves from organizations that, taken together, consume almost half of all federal revenue.

Besides the millions spent by the separate services on publicity, other millions are spent by the office of the Secretary of Defense itself in its role as coordinator of military information and as a purveyor, too.

There is little doubt that the Department of Defense and the separate services are hard at work providing positive information to the American public and initiating and supporting activities to build up good public relations, but these efforts, in my view, are more designed to persuade the American people that the military is "good for you" than genuinely to inform.

The seminars are heavily larded with discussions of foreign affairs covering such topics as Africa, South Asia, Comparative Political Systems, Geopolitics, International Economics, Communist China, and World Agriculture. The contents of those of the lectures that I have reviewed present a simplistic, often outdated, and factually incorrect view of complex world problems. The poor quality of the lectures alone is sufficient justification for abolishing the program. But the real issue is of far more fundamental importance. It is not a proper function of the Department of Defense to educate civilians on foreign policy issues or to teach them to be better citizens, even if the material presented is completely objective, which is frequently not the case.

An Anchorage, Alaska, man who attended one of the seminars wrote to me objecting to the approach taken by the speakers.

"Charges," he wrote, "were made at every opportunity against most liberal activities on university campuses and at one point condemnations were made of what were referred to as 'skeptical congressional powers.' Outbursts of applause followed charged comments about social disruption and personal testimonials were made by the civilians on the floor of the auditorium after the speakers had effectively silenced a man asking about disarmament. At several points what could be called nothing else but 'scare tactics' were used to intimate that long lead [preparation] time considerations necessitated immediately the increase of our nuclear arsenal and strategic bomber squadrons. The C-5-A cost overruns were pooh-poohed as 'just one of those things'.... The seminar did suggest one important thing to me. The greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion dollar existence."

The military's "education" activities are but a small part of the total effort the Department of Defense expends on the citizenry. Like any organization of high visibility, it has to worry about "community relations." The presence of large military installations and large numbers of military personnel in populated localities naturally cause day-to-day problems with local governments and local residents for, whatever economic advantage may accrue due to the presence of the military near a community, the demands put upon them are burdensome. Community relations programs obviously are necessary. But, as with so many of its activities, the Defense Department carries "community relations" far beyond what would seem to be necessary. Possibly it does so because of the normal panache of the military, but the more likely reason is the enormous resources at its disposal.

The Pentagon can pick up a town's leading citizens and fly them to Florida or California. It can provide generals and admirals whose names make the headlines as speakers for the local Kiwanis Club or Chamber of Commerce. Military units and bands and color guards are available for celebrations. Skydiving paratroopers can enliven the county fair. Towns with deep water harbors can be visited by impressive Navy ships, open to public visiting. Local high schools can have ROTC units equipped and supported. And all at no expense to the local citizen-except in his tax bill.

Department of Defense Directive 5410.18 of February 9, 1968, defines a "Community Relations Program" as "that command function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the mission of a military organization with the public interest, and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance." The activities to be carried on are listed in interesting order: "liaison and cooperation with industry, with industrial, technical and trade associations, with labor" lead all the rest. (Until a year or so ago, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs each month published a magazine tided Defense Industry Bulletin, described in the Community Relations Directive "as a means of direct communication with the industrial community." It has been taken over by the Defense Supply Agency, a more appropriate organization- if it is appropriate to have such a close military-industrial connection. )

The expressed purposes of military community relations programs stretch beyond what would seem to be their normal purview. Besides "developing public understanding of and cooperation with the DoD in its community relations program" and "assisting recruiting," the purposes include "informing the public on the state of preparedness of the DoD" and "promoting national security and stimulating patriotic spirit." The multi-million-dollar public relations programs conducted by the Pentagon and the services apparently are not enough to keep people informed. As for "stimulating patriotic spirit," in our present-day society where patriotism seems to be equated with approval of billions for defense and where superpatriotism is burgeoning, it seems to me that the military is reaching too far.

Of considerable importance to the Defense Department in selling the military point of view is the stream of American citizens who pass through terms of military service. We have become a nation of veterans-now more than 28 million. This means that more than one-fifth of our adult population has been subjected to some degree of indoctrination in military values and attitudes. And all have been, whether they liked it or not, that dream of the public relations man-a captive audience.

The Pentagon today has a captive audience numbering more than 3 million Americans in uniform, and a very large part of Defense Department information activity is directed at them, although not charged to general public relations activities. The responsibility of reaching this audience, in large part, rests with the Office of Information for the Armed Forces, a part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower and Reserve Affairs). The purposes of this office, according to the Defense Department, are "to help the commander insure that the military men and women are fully informed in order that they may (I) comprehend the values of our Government and our American Heritage; (~) be fully aware of the threat to free nations; ( 3 ) understand ideologies inimical to the free institutions upon which the United States is founded; and (4) realize the responsibilities and objectives of the individual military citizen."

All of the members of the armed forces are exposed to programs furthering these ends throughout their periods of service, and the 1.5 million stationed overseas beyond the normal sources of information available at home are a truly captive audience.

For soldiers, sailors, and airmen abroad the news from home-and the news of what is happening in the world- comes from the Office of Information for the Armed Forces. Last year it sent to military units 8.5 million copies of 70 publications, 104,000 clip sheets for service newspapers, and 1.5 million posters, but its largest effort was put into the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. AFRTS, as it is known, is the world's largest television and radio network under single control. Its land-based facilities consist of 704 radio stations and 80 television stations, extending from Thailand eastward around the world to Iran, and it has 56 radio stations and 11 television stations on Navy ships at sea. Troops in Vietnam are served by 6 AM and 5 FM radio stations and 6 television stations. There are 68 radio stations in Europe and I0 television stations, some in both categories of such high power that they blanket their areas. One television station in Iran serves fewer than 800 servicemen, but many Iranians, it is reported, have adapters on their TV sets so that they can watch the latest fare from the American television networks. The cost of operating this network, without including associated military salaries, runs into the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Programming costs, however, are relatively small, since ABC, CBS, and NBC provide videotapes of their entertainment programs free to AFRTS's Los Angeles office for distribution world-wide. For its radio programming, both news and entertainment, AFRTS draws on the three major networks, the Mutual Broadcasting System, Metromedia, and the Sports Network, and for news has the network output plus that of the Associated Press and United Press International.

With this enormous amount of programming available- 450,000 radio program transcriptions and 60 million feet of TV film annually-it would seem that the serviceman abroad would be very well served and very well informed. He is well served-by entertainment, for entertainment makes up the bulk of the broadcasts. But the news he gets first has to go through several military sieves before it reaches the uniformed listener or viewer overseas, and the sievers are people conditioned by the purposes of the Office of Information for the Armed Forces described above.

Historically, there have been barriers in the United States against the military establishment's acquiring political influence. These barriers have been anchored in the country's non-military traditions, the principle of civilian supremacy, and the fact that until World War II we never tried to maintain a large permanent military force.

Today, however, as a result of thirty years of hot and cold war, the military has become an active participant in national policy processes. The influence of the Defense Department and its component parts in making national policy is not limited to Presidents, Secretaries o£ State, and the military and foreign policy committees of the Congress. This influence extends also to the "think tanks" and universities to which Defense parcels out lucrative research grants, to the corporations and labor unions which profit from Defense contracts, and (s preceding pages of this book have tried to demonstrate to public opinion.

Although I cannot conceive of a single top-ranking officer in any of the armed services who today would consider an attempt to overturn our constitutional government ... militarism as a philosophy poses a distinct threat to our democracy. At the minimum, it represents a dangerously constricted but highly influential point of view when focused on our foreign relations. It is a viewpoint that by its nature takes little account of political and moral complexities, even less of social and economic factors, and almost no account of human and psychological considerations.

Rarely does a general officer invoke the higher loyalty of patriotism-his own concept of it, that is-over loyalty to civilian political authority, as General MacArthur did in his defiance of President Truman. But if, as time goes on, our country continues to be chronically at war, continues to neglect its domestic problems, and continues to have unrest in cities and on campuses, then militarism will surely increase. And even if the military itself does not take over the government directly, it could-because of increasing use in domestic crises-come to acquire power comparable to that of the German General Staff in the years before World ,War I. I hope this never comes to pass. It may not seem likely now, but it is by no means so inconceivable that we need not warn against it and act to prevent it.

I have often warned those students who talk of the need to revise our system by revolution that if such a revolution were to take place, the government that would emerge for our country would not be the one they seek. It would rather be authoritarian and controlled by the very forces who today promote military solutions to foreign policy problems.

The leadership of professional military officer corps stems from a few thousand high-ranking officers of unusual ability and energy that comes of single-mindedness. Marked as men of talents by their rise to the highest ranks through the rigorous competitiveness of the military services, they bring to bear a strength in conviction and a near unanimity of outlook that gives them an influence, in government councils and in Congress, on public policy disproportionate to their numbers. Disciplined and loyal to their respective services, with added prestige derived from heroic combat records, they operate with an efficiency not often found among civilian officials.

The danger to public policy arises from civilian authorities adopting the narrowness of outlook of professional soldiers-an outlook restricted by training and experience to the use of force. As we have developed into a society whose most prominent business is violence, one of the leading professions inevitably is soldiering. Since they are the professionals, and civilian bureaucrats refuse to challenge them, the military have become ardent and effective competitors for power in American society.

The services compete with each other for funds, for the control of weapons systems, and for the privilege of being "first to fight." Constantly improving their techniques for rapid deployment, they not only yearn to try them out but when opportunities arise they press their proposals on civilian authorities. The latter group all too often is tempted by the seemingly quick "surgical" course of action proposed by the military in preference to the long and wearisome methods of diplomacy. For a variety of reasons- from believing it the only course of action to testing equipment and techniques of counterinsurgency, or just to avoid the disgrace of being "left out"-all the military services were enthusiastic about the initial involvement in Vietnam. By now they should have had their fill, but they still push on, trying out new weapons and new strategies-such as "destroying sanctuaries" in Cambodia.

The root cause of militarism is war, and so long as we have the one we will be menaced by the other. The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy. The dissent against our government's actions in Southeast Asia, the opposition to the ABM and MIRV, and the increased willingness of many in the Congress to do something about the hitherto sacrosanct military budget are all encouraging signs of democracy being practiced. But there is much in American polity these days that is discouraging.

There seems to be a lack of concern among too many people about the state of the nation, and a too easy acceptance of policies and actions of a kind that a generation ago would have appalled the citizenry. The apparent broad acceptance of the "volunteer army" idea comes to mind- a concept completely at variance with our historic development. Up to now, a blessing of our system has been that those who go into the military service, whether by enlistment or through the draft, could hardly wait to get out. But today, because of the exigencies of the times, there is a chance that we may turn our back on this fundamental principle: a large, standing professional army has no place in this Republic.

Along with promoting militarism as part of our society, the mindless violence of war has eaten away at our moral values as well as our sensitivity. Reporters covering the domestic aspects of the My Lai massacre story in the home area of Lieutenant Robert Calley were surprised to find loud support for the accused-not sympathy, which might be expected, but support. Among these people there seemed to be no recognition of possible wrongdoing or criminal act in the alleged massacre.

Beyond the discouragements-and even the disturbing things such as the Cambodian adventure and our activities in Thailand and Laos-one has to hope, with reason drawn from our history, that the traditional workings of our system and the innate common sense of Americans will prevail. The task certainly is not going to be easy. We have been so stunned, almost desensitized-like Lieutenant Calley's supporters-by what has gone on during the recent past that it is almost possible to turn to total pessimism. History did not prepare the American people for the imperial role in which we find ourselves, and we are paying a moral price for it. From the time of the framing of our Constitution to the two world wars, our experience and values-if not our uniform practice-conditioned us not for the unilateral exercise of power but for the placing of limits upon it. Perhaps it was vanity, but we supposed that we could be an example for the world-an example of rationality and restraint.

Our practice has not lived up to that ideal but, from the earliest days of the Republic, the ideal has retained its hold upon us, and every time we have acted inconsistently with it-not just in Vietnam and Cambodia-a hue and cry of opposition has arisen. When the United States invaded Mexico two former Presidents and a future one-John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, and Lincoln-denounced the war as violating American principles. Adams, the senior of them, is even said to have expressed the hope that General Taylor's officers would resign and his men desert. When the United States fought a war with Spain and then suppressed the patriotic resistance of the Philippines, the ranks of opposition numbered two former Presidents - Harrison and Cleveland-Senators and Congressmen, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and such distinguished-and differing-individuals as Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers.

The incongruity between our old values and the new unilateral power we wield has greatly troubled the American people. It has much to do, I suspect, with the current student rebellion. Like a human body reacting against a transplanted organ, our body politic is reacting against the alien values which, in the name of security, have been grafted upon it. We cannot, and dare not, divest ourselves of power, but we have a choice as to how we will use it. We can try to ride out the current convulsion in our society and adapt ourselves to a new role as the world's nuclear vigilante. Or we can try to adapt our power to our traditional values, never allowing it to become more than a means toward domestic societal ends, while seeking every opportunity to discipline it within an international community.

It is not going to help us to reach these ends to have a -president fearful that we are going to be "humiliated," nor for him to turn to the military as a prime source of advice on foreign affairs. In the case of Cambodia the President accepted military advice during the decision-making process, apparently in preference to that of the Department of State, thereby turning to an initial military solution rather than a diplomatic or political one. Of course the Senate was not consulted. Once the treaty power of the Senate was regarded as the only constitutional means of making a significant foreign commitment, while executive agreements in foreign affairs were confined to matters of routine. Today the treaty has been reduced to only one of a number of methods of entering binding foreign engagements. In current usage the term "commitment" is used less often to refer to obligations deriving from treaties than to those deriving from executive agreements and even simple, sometimes casual declarations.

The Department of State is not alone among the agencies of government awed as well as outmanned, outmaneuvered, or simply elbowed aside by executive military decision-making. The Defense Department has established a massive bureaucracy, like that at the Department of Commerce, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and all the rest who protect their positions and interests within the mechanism of governmental power and appropriations.

When war was abhorrent to the American people, the military was considered only as a tool to be used if needed. Today, with our chronic state of war, and with peace becoming the unusual, the military has created for itself an image as a comforting thing to have around. In reality, however, it has become a monster bureaucracy that can grind beneath its wheels the other bureaucracies, whatever their prescribed roles in the process of government and their legitimate needs.

One of the arms of the Defense Department monster bureaucracy is the military public relations apparatus that today is selling the Administration's Southeast Asia policy, just as it sold the Vietnam policy of the previous Administration, with increasing emphasis on patriotic militarism and activity directed against its critics. The enthusiasm and dedication of the purveyors of the hard military line are such that their present course could easily be changed so as to direct attention to the removal of those in the Congress who question actions of the executive branch and the growth of military influence.

The real solution to militarism, of course, requires a central attack on the previously uncontrolled size of the military establishment. The growth of the military attitude began in perilous times when an implacable Stalin and . world communism were a major threat to the noncommunist world recovering from a devastating war. But the growth of real Pentagon political power did not begin until we became increasingly involved in Vietnam seven years ago.

... there is danger to our democracy from the dehumanizing kind of war we are fighting [in Vietnam] that produces among the military an insensitivity to life hard for the civilian to comprehend. We have fought many wars before, but none since our Revolution has lasted as long as the present one. Officers and noncoms go back to Southeast Asia for second and third tours of duty, to engage in second and third rounds of killing. Such long immersion in violence of the kind peculiar to this war cannot but brutalize many of those who go through it. Harper's magazine in its May I970 issue ran an excerpt from Seymour M. Hersh's book on the My Lai massacre.

Hersh wrote, "One brigade commander ran a contest to celebrate his unit's 10,000th enemy kill. The winning GI received a week's pass to stay in the colonel's personal quarters. Many battalions staged contests among their rifle companies for the highest score in enemy kills, with the winning unit getting additional time for passes." I recall nothing during World War II that equals in callousness a statement that Hersh attributes to the colonel-son of a famous general: "I do like to see the arms and legs fly." Horrifying words, but no more so than the euphemisms "body count," "free-fire zone," and others the military use to camouflage their deadly business.

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