Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

American Overkill


A frequent target of antiwar protests when I lived in Frankfurt am Main, Germany was the local Amerika Haus.  These buildings existed in several European cities and were essentially outposts of the United States Information Agency, which was part of the propaganda wing of the United States government and under the aegis of the CIA.   As the US war in Vietnam grew in intensity and scope, their presence became a sore point among leftists and other war opponents in the countries that hosted them.  At the same time, the Frankfurt Amerika Haus was where I heard Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture that did not support the war in Vietnam.

In Justin Hart’s new book Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U. S. Foreign Policy Amerika Haus and many other aspects of Washington’s propaganda machine are addressed.  This history of the origins of the current government propaganda machine in Washington covers the years 1936-1953 and presents the debates, uncertainties and ultimate use of that machine as an important tool in the proliferation and maintenance of US markets overseas.

After watching Michelle Obama’s presentation of the award for Best Picture to a film praising the CIA from the White House, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that there was a time when politicians and government officials questioned the usefulness of propaganda in the battle for US hegemony.  Yet, that is exactly where Hart’s tale begins.  In a rather interesting tale, he presents the beginnings of what is euphemistically called public diplomacy in Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy towards Latin America.  It represented a new understanding that spreading US culture helped open markets overseas while simultaneously justifying the growing US Empire to the domestic audience, an audience which to that point was mostly isolationist in its outlook.

This new approach was not without its detractors.  Most of them came from the extreme right, who saw propaganda as communist-inspired, given its use by the new Soviet government in Russia.  This concern was also related to the fact that cultural diplomacy (another euphemism for propaganda) was championed primarily by liberals and
empireideasprogressives with Henry Wallace leading the charge.  The presence of liberal and elements at the forefront of this movement lends further credence to the argument that it was liberals and progressives who were at the forefront of the US hegemonic endeavor.  It’s obvious from Hart’s telling that the inclusion and acceptance of propaganda as a useful tool for those interested in building the US Empire (pretty much every official in Washington) was not without its ups and downs.  However, by the time Harry Truman was president, it was clear that its role was accepted and certain to expand.

Of course, when propaganda failed, the iron fist became ungloved. By 1950, the US military was engaged in a brutal war in Korea whose aim similar to the efforts of the cultural propaganda committee.  In other words, to keep the Soviets from expanding into markets Washington had defined as its own.  Meanwhile, the Marshall Plan, hyped as bringing democracy, was underway in Europe and part of the same process.    As William Blum makes clear in his latest collection, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy – The Truth About US Foreign Policy and Everything Else, the folks that truly benefitted from the Marshall Plan were the US corporations that rebuilt Europe.  Just like the so-called reconstruction funds apportioned to Kosovo after its “liberation” and Iraq after the US invasion, the truth about those reconstructions is that they were primarily a means to move taxpayer dollars from the US treasury into the coffers of a few giant corporations.

Blum’s new book is a collection of commentary exposing the true nature of Washington’s ongoing campaign to spread its democracy around the world.  While reading it I was reminded of the t-shirt that shows a photograph of a US bomber plane dropping bombs on some city somewhere on planet earth.  Inscribed above the photograph are the words
“Democracy, We Deliver.”  America’s Deadliest Export explores the lies involved in this campaign and exposes the brutality and associated arrogance.  In his inimitable style, Blum rips into the lie of US propaganda and takes Hart’s academic discussion into the streets, simultaneously pointing out the hypocrisy of US democracy and indicting it for the fraud it is, not only abroad but at home, as well.

While Hart’s text looks primarily at the role of US propaganda overseas, Blum’s tends to focus on how it is utilized to manipulate domestic public opinion.  He takes the concept that Washington and its military act only for the good of the world and traces its history from the “Good War” to the “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, and the “liberation” of Iraq.  Along the way, he not only shows the lie behind the concept but how that concept is accepted by most US citizens in the same way Christians accept the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary.

These two books provide a complementary narrative on US foreign policy.  While Hart’s examines the development of the US imperial propaganda machine, Blum’s looks at its growth and also the brutality of the military whose operations the propaganda seeks to misconstrue.  As we move into an age where the only victims of US wars are those whom our propaganda claims to be freeing and the assumption of our national goodness is enforced and reinforced to the point of overkill, the understanding these two books provide is more crucial than ever.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:




Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government; War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution Was an Atrocity
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat