What Are Some Pros & Cons of Using Propaganda During a War?

Propaganda may take many forms.
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Governments have used propaganda for centuries to sway public opinion in times of war. While carefully designed posters, films, press releases and even statues have been successfully used to get the public behind war, an overemphasis on censorship and the dishonesty associated with propaganda can backfire and discredit leadership. Even when it works, the costs to society can make propaganda a questionable tool to advance social causes.

1 Pro: You Can Wage the War You Want

Effective propaganda enables governments to frame issues and even create problems that they claim call for military force. Much of the work of wartime propaganda occurs in the time leading up to a conflict and in its aftermath. Oslo College professor Rune Ottosen notes that media coverage leading up to war presents the opposing nation or region as a cause for concern and steadily increases coverage to justify war that will return a state of “normality” to the region, reports Peter Steven in "The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media." Censorship of unhelpful information and images of victory and peace following the war can give audiences the impression that the war was justified and that their government was on the side of good, protecting a fragile region or defending people against harm.

2 Con: A Lot of People Will Get Hurt

Consider the pros and cons of war itself to determine the pros and cons of wartime propaganda. Nazi Germany instituted an effective but deadly propaganda campaign that convinced German citizens they were the master race and that Jews and other groups must be eliminated. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, created anti-Semitic films and oversaw the building of 20 radio stations to broadcast Nazi Germany’s message to neighboring nations. While the campaign worked to sway public opinion, over 6 million people died as a result of the Nazis' Final Solution. In the end, Germany lost World War II, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and future generations continue to live in the shadow of the Holocaust.

3 Pro: You Can Protect National Secrets

In some cases, transparency may make a nation too vulnerable. When a government’s own people know something, it’s not hard for an outside nation to tap into this information. Classifying secret information for the sake of protecting a nation may go hand in hand with propaganda that covers up the truth. The U.S. Operations Coordinating Board, responsible in the 1950s for helping protect national security, devised categories of propaganda including white, gray and black propaganda. White is factual, gray is ambiguous or the source is disguised, and black may be partially or wholly fabricated. All classes were referred to as propaganda and used with national security in mind, though not all information was untrue.

4 Con: You Will Lose Credibility

It often comes out eventually that the information was propaganda meant to deceive. Even when domestic audiences are convinced, international critics may arise to discredit such campaigns. But domestic critics exist as well, especially in nations with a free press. At the beginning of the Iraq War and overarching “War on Terror” in the United States, many slogans were coined to justify invading other countries. “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was the main reason President George W. Bush's administration used to invade Iraq in 2003. Yet when no WMDs were found in Iraq, support for the president and his party declined, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was forced from office due to his role in the claims.

Colette Phair has written and edited for nationally distributed publications and several nonprofit organizations. She is the author of "Nightmare in Silicon" and has published short fiction alongside the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and holds a Bachelor of Arts in politics from the University of California Santa Cruz.