Edward Bernays, the Father of American Propaganda

Gary G. Kohls, MD

Propaganda: “a message designed to persuade its intended audience to think and behave in a certain manner. Thus advertising is commercial propaganda. Or institutionalized and systematic spreading of information and/or disinformation, usually to promote a narrow political or religious (or commercial) viewpoint.” – from http://www.businessdictionary.com/

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic (AKA “capitalist”) society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” – Edward L. Bernays,  Sigmund Freud’s nephew, from his seminal book Propaganda (1928). Bernays was the founder of the public relations industry in the US

Bernays had written earlier about the use of public relations techniques as a way for corporations to “so mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.” – Bernays, in his first influential book on propaganda: Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923)

Admen like Bernays are “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism, and self-interest.” – Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter when he warned President Franklin Roosevelt against allowing Bernays to play a leadership role in World War II

“Always tell the truth. Tell a lot of the truth. Tell a lot more of the truth than anybody expects you to tell. But never tell the whole truth.”  – quote from one of the participants of the 1924 annual convention of the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World (from Stuart Ewen’s 1976 book, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture

 The Associated Advertising Clubs of the World had officially adopted the slogan: “Truth in Advertising”, which turned out to be, as with all advertising, all political campaigns and various public relations trickeries, just another bit of deception. The advertising industry had no intention of enforcing the empty promise. The promise of “truth” looked good to some naive consumers and probably influenced any number of folks, especially the gullible ones who had under-developed critical thinking skills.

We consumers of heavily advertised products (that we may subconsciously desire but can usually get along without), are accosted hourly by clever commercials that are broadcast on our “free” television and radio programs. We can’t get away from it even when we surf the internet, when we idly page through our magazines or when we fritter away our time on our cellphones Each encounter has an effect on our psyches – unless we are alert to the fact that some corporation or other is trying to sell us something.

Political Campaigns Require Critical Thinking Skills in Order for Democracy to Thrive

Thinking critically means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out. It is a way of thinking in which one doesn’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions to which one is exposed without questioning the arguments and conclusions. It requires curiosity, skepticism and humility. People who use critical thinking are the ones who say things such as, “How do you know that?” “Is this conclusion based on evidence or gut feelings?” and “Are there alternative possibilities when given new pieces of information?”

And whenever there is a political campaign happening (which in the US is essentially 24/7), prospective voters are accosted by squishy promises and sometimes vile verbal assaults from candidates who may be sociopaths, protofascists, serial liars or somehow never able to tell the whole truth about themselves, their real agendas or who their corporate paymasters are (whose hidden demands will necessarily be promoted if the bribed candidate is elected).

Personally, I don’t recall ever being taught critical thinking or sales-resistance skills, but I did acquire some by simply observing my very frugal and non-abusive parents, who provided my sister and I with our essential needs, tended a large backyard garden, bought no subscriptions to magazines, had no television and who listened to radio news programming that wasn’t sponsored by profit-driven corporations.

I also grew up in a small rural Minnesota town that had very few shopping opportunities. Back then, thankfully, there was no such thing as a mall or a supermarket and there was nothing we ate that wasn’t already organic. The only shopping we were ever tempted to do was from Sears catalog. Nobody shopped until they dropped and nobody frittered away valuable time diddling on cell phones.

Baby boomer children in my era were rarely inoculated with an occasional vaccine that did indeed contain neurotoxic mercury or aluminum , but we never as infants had multiple inoculations at one sitting. Instead, our mothers rushed to get us exposed to the many benign childhood infections such as chicken pox, measles and mumps whenever one of them appeared in town, and we then had lifelong immunity with no booster shots needed.  And, although lobotomies and electroshock “therapies” were booming  in the 1940s wherever there were shock docs and insane asylums, we were protected by our geography. Psychiatric drugs had yet to appear on the market when my  infant blood-brain barrier was maturing – and there was no such thing as ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, premature dementia or even PTSD.

I grew up in the middle of World War II, but we lived in an all-white Scandinavian town in safe, rural Minnesota that seemed to have no interest in the overseas fight against Germany, Italy or Japan and their special brands of fascism. I was fortunate that my father had been too young to “serve” in World War I and too old for #2, so I was not assaulted by a combat-induced PTSD parenting. I had to endure no beatings of my mother or us kids. There was no authoritarian or punitive parenting, no midnight violence or nightmares coming from my parent’s bedroom and I had no parental chronic alcoholism to navigate.

However, it was only much later in my adult life that I realized that I had been the victim of a subtle propagandizing in my childhood. Simply by reading the bland history books that had been approved by some school book committee down in Texas that I began understanding that I had been deceived. America was no exceptional “shining city on a hill”. The religion I was accidentally born into was not superior to all the others. I realized that my teachers had never gotten around to teaching me about the whole truth about America’s murderous, racist and genocidal military campaigns against the Native Americans and the theft of their homeland.

And I was never taught the whole truth about the satanic nature of American slavery, lynchings or the cruelty of segregation and civil liberty abuses after Lincoln had supposedly “emancipated” the African-Americans.

I never learned the whole truth of American imperialism, American racism, American militarism or American fascism. It took me decades before I realized that capitalism wasn’t the same as democracy! I am still working through the realization that I had been told uncountable numbers of patriotic lies about the First Thanksgiving, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, War Between the States and about the Reconstruction Years that followed that war. It took me a long time to rlearn about the atrocities American soldiers committed in the Spanish-American War and in every war since World War II. And it took me a lot of study to realize that America and its CIA have been actively supportive of hideous right-wing military dictators throughout our recent history and actually orchestrated the overthrow of many democratically elected national leaders.

I never asked my (equally deceived and propagandized) history teachers when I silently wondered about the ethics of the Divine Right of Kings, the Monroe Doctrine  or Eminent Domain or the many US Supreme Court decisions that were blatantly racist, sexist and totally unfair to non-whites and minorities.

I’m sure that many folks from my generation (Baby Boomers) were victims of being told partial truths by teachers that we trusted. And we trusted the propaganda coming from politicians and opinion-leaders.

In short, even though I regarded myself as being a critical thinker when it comes to consumer purchases and politics, I admit that I have been bamboozled more times than I care to admit.

And so have the citizens of other nations, including the bamboozled “Good Germans” in the Third Reich, whose fascist leaders made evil use of America’s own Edward Bernays and his insights into what he called “The Engineering of Consent” (the title of an essay that he wrote in 1947). In that essay, Bernays defined “engineering consent” as the art of manipulating people. He maintained that “entire populations, which were undisciplined or lacking in intellectual or definite moral principles, were vulnerable to unconscious influence and thus susceptible to want things that they do not need. This is achieved by manipulating desires on an unconscious level. The central idea behind the engineering of consent is that the public or people should not be aware of the manipulation taking place.” (From the March 1947 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of poliltical and Social Science.)

Bernays was handsomely paid by major corporations and assorted institutions to cunningly convince consumers to buy their products. They included the Committee on Public Information in Woodrow Wilson’s administration to make the US entry into World War I palatable and getting Republican Calvin Coolidge elected to the presidency.

In addition, Bernays was employed by General Electric, Procter & Gamble, ALCOA, the American Tobacco Company, CBS, etc.   

Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company in their efforts to expand market share for tobacco, by designing what is now called a “de-stigmatization campaign” to make cigarette smoking by women to be OK. The now infamous publicity stunt involved hiring a group of attractive flapper girls – each smoking a cigarette – to march down Broadway Avenue in New York’s 1929 Easter parade. He labelled the stunt the “Torches of Freedom” march. It worked like a charm.

Bernays made use of his uncle’s psychological insights to control the public mind and manipulate it to create public acceptance for a product of idea. He wrote, “if you can influence group leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”

One of Bernays most influential acts occurred in the mid- to late 1940s, when he was hired by ALCOA (the Aluminum Company of America) to orchestrate a public relations campaign to convince the public that purchasing ALCOA’s highly neurotoxic and cellular toxic by-product (fluoride salts) to willingly fluoridate the nation’s drinking water supplies under the guise of preventing tooth decay. It was one of his most successful campaigns, with some state legislatures passing laws that compelled reluctant municipalities to fluoridate their water with the toxic waste product that had notoriously poisoned the soil, water, air and many living things surrounding ALCOA’s manufacturing plants for decades. The aluminum industry profited greatly.

Interestingly, attorney Oscar Ewing, a highly paid ($750,000 per year) ALCOA lawyer had been appointed by Harry Truman as head of the US Public Health Service. Obedient to the hidden agenda of the aluminum industry, he and Bernays orchestrated a national fluoridation campaign that, over several years, fluoridated some 90 American cities. Opponents to the fluoride program theorizing that there was a (now proven) conspiracy occurring between industry and government, were painted as “deranged”. In 1996 they would be painted as “civil rights activists”. Today they would be denigrated as “conspiracy theorists”.

During the “Roaring 20s”, when the rigged stock market seemed to only go up, much of the impetus was provided by the public relations propaganda of Bernays and his colleagues that made the easily duped public somehow trust the sociopathic corporations and the equally sociopathic Republican politicians that dominated the 1920s.

The lessons learned from the mistakes of the administrations of Republican Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover came hard - and too late - in the form of the Great Depression, when unemployment for the middle and lower classes reached catastrophic levels but were not all bad for the 1%, whose large fortunes dwindled to small fortunes, which they used to buy up foreclosed land, homes, businesses.

Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels were big fans of Bernay

The sociopathic German fascists Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels, both of whom skilled serial liars and also anti-Semitic, were big fans of Bernays, who was a Jew.

I end this column with a number of quotes about propaganda from some famous fascists who made “good” use of the insights of his writings. My hope is that readers will apply what can be learned from this piece to the propaganda that is happening both politically and commercially in our nation.


“But it was not until the [First World] War that it became evident what immense results could be obtained by a correct application of propaganda.” – Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf (1925), having read Bernays’ book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923)

“Through clever and constant application of propaganda people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“The fascist state must not forget that all means must serve the ends; it must not let itself be confused by the drivel about so-called “freedom of the press”…it must make sure that (the media) is placed in the service of the state.” – Adolf Hitler


“All this was inspired by the principle–which is quite true in itself–that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” – Josef Goebbels, German Nazi “Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment”