Ever since words were invented, they’ve been used to attack as well as communicate. This reached a culmination of a kind in World War II, as Ted Lipien writes in his slim, incisive book “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Nazi Terror.” Hitler, a champion of the “big lie,” thought propaganda on top of troops was the key to victory. It worked to some extent in Europe but fell on deaf ears in America. The U.S. provided its own counter-propaganda against the Nazis, says Lipien, while at the same time succumbing to the still more subtle and destructive propaganda of an ally, the Soviet Union.
Nazi Germany, to be sure, was the enemy to be defeated in the war. The U.S. pamphlet, “Divide and Conquer,” described Nazi intentions: “Before Hitler attacks any country, his agents sow seeds of hate and disunity, turning people against their own governments, governments against their allies, class against class.” Like the Russian interference in elections today, our media warned of German and Japanese broadcasts disrupting the American vote.
Propaganda was often delivered in person. Agents and local sympathizers called a “fifth column” spread rumors intended to demoralize a nation scheduled for attack. Once sufficient terror had been created, Hitler would move. The pamphlet notes: “Nazi propaganda wears a thousand false faces. It never announces itself as “Nazi.” It appears where least expected, and under the most innocent auspices, often turning up as the latest funny story told during lunch.”
But in the end it didn’t work. Hitler lost the war. Lipien, who was born in Poland in 1953 under Communist rule, says its propaganda was more effective and longer lasting. The Soviet Union, to be sure, was an ally, and Russian troops basically defeated the Nazis. Even so, U.S. propaganda started to resemble Soviet, writes Lipien. There was little recognition of Soviet atrocities like the Katyn massacre of 20, 000 Polish officers, which was falsely blamed on the Germans. U.S. propagandists sometimes called Russia a democracy when Stalin was slaughtering and imprisoning tens of thousands of his own people. Even Voice of America (VOA) had some broadcasters touting the Soviet line.
Lipien helped restore balance when he joined VOA in 1973. Assuming the most effective American message to the world is accurate news and analysis, he closely followed the Solidarity union uprising against Communist rule in Poland. Later he was put in charge of all Polish broadcasts.
After leaving VOA in 2006, Lipien established FreeMediaOnLine.org to monitor press freedom around the world. He also helped create the online Cold War Radio Museum, a reminder that in war hot or cold, words matter.