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Four Obscure Historical Figures

On public opinion manipulation tactics used by governmental institutions that make Imperialism and war feasible.

From Steve Varalyay

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Ask someone with a BA in history about any of the four figures below and they would likely draw a blank. High school grads? Forget it. Who are they? Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Hill & Knowlton. All have ties to the public relations (PR) industry and all have figured in some important events over the past century. The latter two are still operating today.

EDWARD BERNAYS. He is the most influential person in the field of PR. While his resume is long and impressive, two accomplishments are especially germane for this article.

Bernays began his career working on the Committee on Public Information/CPI, formed by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after his reelection. The CPI’s purpose was to convince a war-leery public to accept the US’ entrance into World War I. It used the most advanced technology of the day plus the “Four Minute Men”, an army of trained public speakers, to bombard the public about the atrocities committed by German soldiers. It worked. Six months later public opinion shifted and US troops were headed for France.

In 1954 United Fruit hired Bernays to essentially do what he did with the CPI decades earlier: shift public opinion in the US, a yeoman task considering UF had a worldwide reputation as a colonizer and exploiter.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz began fulfilling his campaign promise of land reform. He did this by using an eminent domain-like procedure to take UF’s fallow land and distribute among the nation’s many peasants. The company went to the Eisenhower Administration and complained, adding that Guatemala could also go Communist.

Bernays arranged for a series of all-expense paid cruises for influential journalists and editors, especially ones from the East and Midwest; the drinks were strong, the food was four-star and the weather was balmy. Once in Guatemala City the press contingent was taken on a tightly-conscripted tour, speaking to no one and seeing only UF-approved sites.

Success again! Upon return home all wrote that Guatemala was, indeed, in danger of going Communist. President Eisenhower greenlighted the CIA’s second coup in two years. And by early summer the Arbenz Administration was deposed.

IVY LEE. Lee became the founder of PR as we know it today when he bailed out the world’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller. In 1914 Colorado militiamen fired into the tents of striking miners, causing a fire that eventually claimed the lives of 20 women and children at Rockefeller’s Ludlow coal mine. His already sullied reputation sank even deeper with each new photo of the charred bodies. Desperate, he hired Lee to perform what is now referred to as “crisis management”.

Lee broke with conventional wisdom by cooperating with reporters rather than fighting with them. He allowed them access to certain parts of the mine. He granted them interviews with certain members of management. He provided them with “fact sheets”, though failing to disclose they were written by Rockefeller-owned dailies. And during the holiday season Lee took him into downtown Denver to dispense dimes to orphans—in the presence of many photographers.

In his waning years Rockefeller could travel about the state in relative safety. He would not have been able to do this without Lee’s efforts. Lee continued to work in PR for the next 20 years until it was discovered he was on IG Farben’s (Hitler’s) payroll and discredited.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF MANUFACTURERS/NAM. The Great Depression caught corporations off-guard. The NAM was the first to start fighting back after the passage of the Wagner Act (requiring management to bargain with unions) in 1935. It funded research on how to break strikes without reverting to violence, including the Remmington-Rand’s wildly successful Mohawk Valley Formula on how to demonize union leaders and radicals.

During WWII NAM operated beneath the radar screen, parlaying its profits into still more such research and cranking out unprecedented quantities of anti-union literature. After the war the public elected a Republican-controlled Congress which soon passed the Taft-Hartley Act, by far the most anti-union bill in US history.

HILL & KNOWLTON. This PR firm was founded during the Great Depression but came into its own in the early 1950s. The tobacco industry was reeling after scientific reports surfaced linking smoking and cancer. Hill-Knowlton’s first move was to blanket the nation with newspaper ads and a pamphlet entitled “Smoking without Fear”. Later it organized the Council for Tobacco Research, now known as a “front group”, an organization that purports to support a given cause while actually being controlled by some other interest. While the tobacco industry may have lost some of the many lawsuits filed against it, in the end it emerged from the crisis a lot better than it would have without HK.

In early 1991 the US was on the verge of invading Iraq. Shortly before Congress was to vote on giving President George HW Bush authorization a woman claiming to be a Kuwaiti nurse appeared. She tearfully testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take infants from their incubators and throw them on the cold floor to die. The next day Congress voted one short of unanimous to grant authorization of the invasion.

Reporters later uncovered evidence that the young woman was not a Kuwaiti nurse, rather the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador. Hill & Knowlton professionally coached her on how to give her testimony before Congress.

The public should know about these things as well as some of the basic methods of PR and news maniulation. The question is how to do it. Getting these four into high school history texts is out. Texas has banned Rosa Parks from its history textbooks. Banning or limiting the use of PR would result in a hopeless free speech fight.

The only possibility is for activists to become educators, speaking to adults at PTA, homeowners’ and renters’ meetings. Pulling a page out of Saul Allinsky’s playbook and make those in attendance part of the team. Some would help with the teaching. Others would host meetings or get involved with voter registration. Kids could play various roles.

Going to war. Invading other countries. Overthrowing democratically-elected governments. Union busting. We’re not talking trifles here. Doing nothing would be akin to giving up on democracy.


Steve Varalyay

Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printeronce covered labor and healthcare issues for Random Lengths, a progressive biweekly serving communities in the Los Angeles Harbor area. More recently he has written short historical fiction. His “Prohibition in the Harbor” won the grand prize in Easy Reader’s 2011 Writing Competition. He has a BA in Spanish and Minor in Labor Studies from California State University Dominguez Hills and lives in Torrance.


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5 Comments »

  1. Propaganda by another name. It amounts to psychic attacks. The problem is that while you name four especially heinous actors, this kind of mind control is everywhere – there is no escaping it. People are too lazy to do their own investigations or, in many cases, to think for themselves.

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    • You’re right. It IS everywhere. What do you think about activists getting out into communities and educating about the basics of PR?

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      • I include this as part of my psychic self-defense class. But it cuts both ways – both sides of the political spectrum use it, so to be fair, you should include examples that cut both ways (which can be uncomfortable). It is the only way we can get people to think for themselves.

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