Christopher Simpson: The Science of Coercion


Richard Moore

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1)Short summary copied from David Emorys For The Record program series, and links there

FTR-78 Interview with Christopher Simpson (Two 30-minute segments) $8.50

In 1994, Christopher Simpson published a formidable little book entitled The Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 (Oxford University Press.) This work sets forth the profound and vitally important relationship between the U.S. national security establishment’s psychological warfare machinery and the structure and development of mass communication research as an academic discipline in this country. The two are so inextricably linked that, as Simpson points out, it is altogether possible that mass communication research as an academic discipline might not have crystallized in the 1950’s had it not been for military and intelligence input. This two part interview highlights some of the central points of the book including: the pivotal influence of America’s World War II psychological warfare institutions on the development of both the media and communication research; the effect of several National Security Directives (NSC 4, NSC 4-A and NSC 10/2) on U.S. national security policy and psychological warfare development; the importance of military and intelligence community funding of leading communication research centers; the significance of Public Opinion Quarterly as an exemplar of the marriage of communication research and psychological warfare; the role of communication research in U.S. covert actions; the evolution of “development theory” (a social science concept that is known as “low-intensity warfare” when applied to national security matters) and the progression of, as Simpson puts it, “one generation’s psychological warfare” into “the international communication of the next.” (See also: FTR #’s 57, 93.) (Recorded in October of 1997.)

2)Below a full transcript from the interview in soundfiles FTR78a and b. The content is truthfully reproduced although not always literally.



Christopher Simpson, author of The Science of Coercion subtitled communication research and psychological warfare, 1945-1960 oxford univ press 1994

CS also points to National security directives of the Reagan and Bush administration, a Collecton of declassified National security council records from the Reagan and Bush administration and it gives a good overview of what contemporary security policy is in the words of the national security council and the president themselves. Its a reference book to be found in libraries.

About CS book ‘The Science of Coercion’ (=TSC)

DE:In this book you collate two basic elements of contemporary american society, Psychological warfare(=PW) and Mass Communication Research (=MCR) We start by giving a working definition of each.

CS:Psychological warfare first entered the english language as a translation, a mutation of a nazi german concept called Weltanshaungskrieg which means world view warfare and during WWII the Americans built on that and expanded it and used it to mean a whole range of wartime type tactics involving propaganda, dirty tricks, covert operations, whatever, to carry out a war. Where it emerges into a modern reality came in the wake of the war when more so called peace time types of essentially the same tactics emerged. For years now the government has told us that we’re living in the world of no war no peace and what that has meant as a practical matter is that we’re living in a world of ongoing low-level warfare and one of the early terms that was used to describe this is psychological warfare. Nowadays they call it lowintensity warfare. Sometimes it’s called more politely ‘public diplomacy’. Just to build on that point for a minute. When you hear people talk about lowintensity warfare, it simply means lowintensity compared to nuclear weapons.

Lowintensity warfare from the standpoint of people who are subjected to it is quite high intensity thank you very much! Some people would refer to it as total warfare conducted at the grass roots level. Its basically a form of terror.

Against union organizers, I am talking about central America now, church people, community activists of whatever sort. And in central America alone you’re talking about fatalities measured in the hundreds of thousands. All right, communications research is the sort of Ivory Tower version of much the same sort of thing. There are schools of communication research at most major universities of the US and sometimes its folded into the sociology department. In any case its a box of preconceptions and of tools. Preconceptions of what communication is. And of tools of studying communication. And these preconceptions and tools are used to train journalists, public relations specialists, TV and Radio personalities, all sorts of people, college professors (I’m talking about myself now) all sorts of people who might be called ideological workers in US society. People who’s day to day profession is to shape other peoples ideology and ideas. Communication research is very much tied up with that because in part it provides methods for measuring how successful these types of ideological campaigns have been.

DE:We should make the point that psychological warfare does not in any way preclude the use of deadly force. That the type of warfare that is called psychological warfare is warfare that is generated for the specific purpose of producing its primary reaction in the psychological field. This does not necessarily imply however that no blood is shed.

CS:No, by no means and in fact from its inception from its earliest definition in classified government records, psychological warfare is defined to include assassinations, covert operations, gerilla warfare counterinsurgency etc. From its inception psychological warfare has been the mating of violence on the one hand and what people would call today propaganda or mass communication on the other hand. Another thing that’s interesting about psychological warfare, from its inception it has also targeted the people of the United States, the common preconception is that for better or for worse this is something we do to them. The reality is that from the governments standpoint, from the standpoint of those who are paying the bills for its development the targets always involve not only foreign audiences but domestic audiences as well.

DE:One of the points that we should make just in passing is that the illusion that psychological warfare does not necessarily produce bloodshed or is not necessarily very bloody appears to have contributed to rationalizations of some of the people who bridge the gap between psychological warfare and mass communication research, they rationalize their use of psychological warfare by saying that this would lead to a reduction of blood shed or less violent methods of coercion

CS:Sure and there are circumstances where that is true. For example if you have a batallion of surrounded troups and you can use leaflets and loudspeakers to convince them that they are better of surrendering than fighting to the death etc. But that’s a very limited part of how these techniques are actually used. The mean way application both measured in terms of how often, how much money is spent, how much academic attention is given to it. The mean use of psychological warfare has been the suppression of rebellious, prodemocratic movements in countries that the united states government felt that it wanted to dominate. Generally because of the natural resources of the country, sometimes because of its geostrategic position. Thats what psychological warfare has actually been used for. Sometimes that meant beating up union organizers, sometimes it meant death squads. Sometimes it meant systematic training of police organizations and of course as time has passed, its more than fifty years since 1945 now, and the science if you will, has not stood still in this time. As this has become more and more sophisticated, new techniques have emerged, to both intensify the violence and to divorce or to separate the sponsoring country or organization from responsibility for the violence. This was one of the big lessons of Vietnam, from the standpoint of am security planners, that you kept american troops out of the line of fire to the maximum degree possible, because there was a political price to pay if too many kids came home in body bags. So what do you do, you send down the green berets to train and equip the salvadoran police force or their treasury police which then becomes an organized form of death squad. To carry out a quite bloody civil war in El Salvador that lasted for a decade in the 1980s. As horrifying as that war was, its just one name on the list, there are many other examples like that, that have unfolded over the last 30-40 years.

DE:In your discussion of psychological warfare you talk about light propaganda, black propaganda and grey propaganda do you think it would be appropriate to discuss the role of some of these personnages and institutions that are involved on the one hand with psychological warfare and on the other hand with mass communication research as perhaps a form of grey propaganda

CS:Sure, part of what the book argues is that this area of academic study in the various schools that are connected to it and the body of knowledge that is connected to it and most importantly, the preconceptions that are connected to it, the preconceptions that are tied up with communication research, emerged in very important part due to goverment psychological warfare funding at the height of the cold war.

DE:A definition of grey propaganda?

CS:OK, white propaganda is like the Voice of America, its like NBC News, it is info that is repeated constantly that has the appearance of veracity, objectivity, naturalness and so on, but which in fact has a distinct ideological subtext, distinct set of preconceptions about the message that one is trying to put across. Black propaganda on the other hand is what most people would call covert ops, assassinations, insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, dirty tricks of a variety of sorts, sabotage, the Contra affaire in Nicaragua, and then building on that the whole Iran-Contra business, then building on that the whole business of the Iran Contras and the drugs. Those would be examples of black propaganda.

Grey propaganda to get to your question exists somewhere between the two. And it has characteristics of both. The most common type of grey propaganda is where the organization that’s sponsoring it puts disinformation misinformation into the news media, that have the appearance of being independent from that sponsoring organization. A rather simple example of this would come from, say if the CIA puts a …back when Libya was on the list of our worst enemies.. the CIA had a psychological warfare campaign to paint him as sexually impotent, as somebody who had a variety of sexual fetishes etc. They planted this info as though it where truths in european newspapers. That’s grey propaganda, the next step is when the information blows back to the United States and the story could be read in the tabloids. Later this was exposed as having been a misinformation campaign. If you follow all the details of what’s going on it is possible understand it but most of us dont have time and we get this barrage of information, fake information usually from the media that takes on the appearance of being true, when in reality its manufactured by people who have a story to promote. And by and large the manufacturing is done by people who have the money to pay PR firms and so on to put this story out. Those of us who cant afford that have more difficulty to get access to the media. Now your program Dave gets out pretty well. But Dan Rather has a bigger audience.

DE:Certainly, one of my favourite expression is an old turkish proverb: ‘He who tells the truth gets chased out of nine villages’ – – – Chris you talk about the interrelationship between psychological warfare and mass communication research as involving three major types of intersections: 1) You discuss US psychological warfare as applied communication research and much of the funding for communication research has come from national security related institutions and that this in turn was shaping the post WWII nature of mass communication research as an academic discipline and you traced the genesis of this relationship to a number of different institutions which where centers of psychological warfare during the WWII, I’d like to briefly read a quote from page 25 of TSC and ask you to develop this further. ‘Virtually all of the scientific community that was to emerge during the 1950s as leaders in the field of mass communication research spent the war years performing a plant study of US and foreign propaganda, allied troop moral, public opinion both domestically and internationally, clandestine OSS operations, or the then emerging technique of deriving useful intelligence from analysis of newspapers magazines, radio broadcasts and postal censorship intercepts. This old boy network had much to do with shaping the immediate post WWII academic discipline of mass communication research as well as psychological warfare’

CS:WWII was a particular type of war – ‘the good war’ according to Studs Turkle(?) trying to make the point that it was a time when the country was unambigously united… And this hasn’t been the case since 1945 During the war you had these networks of psychological warfare specialists created. Moving into the cold war period the networks persist. Some of those who were quite influential during the wartime period moved on to become the directors and senior scientists at the main foundations like the Ford foundation and the Rockefeller brothers foundation, the social science research council and so forth. What is a major source of money for social research. Some of the others went into publishing and broadcasting. A quote from Edward Beret(?) who ended up as a dean at a graduate school of journalism in Columbia Univ, founded the Col Journal Review Talks about where his colleagues ended up. 1953: Publishers of Time, Look Fortune, several daily newspapers editors of magazines such as Holiday, Coronet, Parade and Saturday Review, Editors of Denver post, New Orleans Times Deca.?, Heads of Viking press, Harper and brothers, Strass and Young, 2 Holywood Oscar winners, a 2 time Pulitzer price winner, the board chairman of CBS, a dozen key network executives, president Eisenhowers chief speech writer, the editor of Readers Digest International edition, at least 6 partners of large adverticing agencies, the point being here is not that all of these people thought alike and where engaged in some big conspiracy but rather that they had a common wartime experience and a series of common preconceptions about what communication is and how its supposed to be used and how to be studied. That has had enormous impact on what we today take to be communication. Communication is trickier or it’s richer in meaning than it seems at first you know. The root word comes from latin Communmunia(?) sharing of burdens, a two way exchange of information… It doesnt mean that burdens at Roman times where equally shared, but nevertheless, but a multiway sharing remains true. But nowadays… it means ‘How I can tell you what to do’

DE: quoting from p 62 of TSC ‘As will become apparent, the dominant paradigm of the period proves to be in subst part a paradigm of dominance in which the appropriateness and inevitability of the /a? lead control of communication was taken as given. As a practical matter the key academic journals of the day demonstrated only a secondary interest in what communication is. Instead they concentrated on how modern techology could be used by elites to manage social change, extract political concessions or win purchasing decisions from targetted audiences’. Thats a very different type of communication from the root definition. CS discusses whether that type of communication and violence are really linked together and gives an example.

—————– end of FTR78a ———————


About a synthesis of social science and national security operations

NSC 4, NSC 4a and NSC 10/2

NSC=National Security Council the principle advisors to the president on national security issues

Up until the end of the Roosevelt administration you had the military advisors shouting in one corner and the political advisors shouting in the other and president Roosevelt was crafty enough to handle both but as a new world emerged Truman and later presidents wanted a staff to combine the military and the political questions into a single group of advisors.

One of the first things they worked on was psychological warfare and the combination of propaganda and violence.

Confidential NSC 4: US Information Agency and Voice of America for hardhitting propaganda against the russians. This was the officially secret but really public definition of psychological warfare against the russians. A confidential document is the lowest level of government secrets. Although formally it is ‘secret’ information, in practise confidential information is seen on the front page of newspapers virtually every day.

Minutes after NSC4 the national security council took up the NSC 4a which was a top secret decision. And a top secret classification is considerably stricter than confidential and one of is aspects is that the existence of a top secret decision is secret. No government official can legally acknowledge that a top secret decision has been made.

NSC 4a said that these propaganda operations of US Information Agency and Voice of America in NSC 4 would be supplemented by systematic campaigns of sabotage, gerilla warfare, covert operations, assassinations, insurgency, counterinsurgency. The authority to do this was pretty vague because the different security agencies were arguing who would get the brief to carry out this kind of warfare. And the decision on that came 6 months later as NSC 10/2

That was created in an entirely secret government agency, the Office of Policy Coordination and the function of this secret agency was specifically to carry out these types of covert operations. That secret government agency eventually became the so called Operations Directorate of the CIA, which has basically the same functions till this day.

DE:One of the institutions that you mentioned as examplifying this marriage of social science and warfare and propaganda is Public Opinion Quarterly (=POQ) a very influential academic journal which in many ways epitomizes this bridging of that gap.

CS:Wait, Yes I would like to talk about Public Opinion Quarterly but to get at this whole question of the interplay between the academic and violence, I think its necessary to take a step even further back then that. And that is to look at how mass consumer societies spread themselves, how they work. [The mass consumer society of today] runs on, how many Fords or Toyotas, cans of Coke or whatever it is that the various manufacturers can sell to their audiences. And most of the real job that the mass media is involved in is the business of selling eye-balls to advertisers and it’s all broken out rather precisely. If you want to buy advertising on Seinfeld or ’60 minutes’ the network can tell you with great precision how many million men between the ages of 16 and 25 watch this program, how many women with ages between 25 and 35 watch this program and so forth. If you watch the sitcom you can see precisely..

So what a TV station really does is not put on entertainment, where its money comes from is in selling your eye-balls to advertisers. In order to do that, in order to make that work, there has to be ways to count, how many eye-balls are being sold. There has to be ways to survey this, to put forward a plausible argument from the media side to the advertisers as to why the advertiser should come up with a $billion a year or whatever it is to sell cosmetics for example. Or comparable numbers to sell automobiles.

Where the academic field of mass communication research begins was in the development of these techniques to do precisely that type of measurement. To measure how many eye-balls (or how many ears in those years of radio) will look at particular advertisements and what impact this had on sale. To what degree did the person reading an advertisement remember that ad etc. And there are lots of studies that you can find in the library that elaborate on these themes. Now to come around to the question of violence, what we’ve seen since the 1930s was the expansion of this type of consumer society and I am not even talking about a left or right or whether one is capitalist or socialist, I am talking about the expansion of mass consumer society around the world. What one had seen is that that type of society precludes it overwhelms other forms of social organisation. It counts them out. It proceeds rather frequently with great violence often including genocide in particular genocide of indigenous peoples as it spreads around the world. As it spreads it carries particular ideals with it with preconceptions about what’s good or what’s bad and how things work. The point that I am trying to get around to here is

1) for consumer society to run there has to be some way to measure whats being bought and sold.

2) It expands only at the expense of existing society.

3) As it overwhelms an existing society, say as it arrives in Turkey or Libanon or Egypt or in South East Asia or in Peru, it breaks down the existing social structure and substitutes itself and that sets off a chain of both frequently damage to the people who live there and also resistance to these developments, so how do you manage the resistance to the arrival of Coca Cola and Ford motor company and so forth, when the local unions when the locla social activists when the local churches decide they’ve had it about up to here with what the companies are trying to push unto them. How do you manage these people?

Psychological warfare and the whole field of how economic ‘development’ comes about.

The main centers of communication research during the 1950s to 1960s were obsessed with these questions. What do you do if people in Egypt dont like the products that you’re trying to sell them. What if they’re restless, how do you keep them in line. The first step of course is that you broadcast radio programs or TV programs. Either in nice words or in nasty words, ‘you guys better keep in line’. That’s the first step. And then when that doesnt work what’s the next step. Well you got carrots and sticks so you have some economic development. But there’s also the stick. And the stick is police and military violence. Particularly counterinsurgency particularly so called low intensity warfare. Methods to identify the dissidents in these various societies and to eliminate them. And by the 1990s this process of identifying and quite literally eliminating people who were seen as inconvenient to the expansion particularly of american interests around the world. This has become high science. And you see it operating most particularly in central and south America today.

DE:Chris jumping ahead to something that follows philologically from the discussion, you write on p 53 as follows:’At least half of all the important centres of US communication research depended for there survival on a handful of national security agencies. Their reliance on psychological warfare money was so extensive as to suggest that the crystallization of mass communication studies into a distinct scholar field might not have come about during the 1950s without substantial military CIA and US Information Agency intervention. One of the 6 institutions that you talk about is the centre for international studies at MIT and in connection with mass communication and what it does to societies could I ask you to talk about development theory. Its a term that has a mass communication as well as a national security applicability.

CS:Development theory is an interdisciplinary theory. It combines communication research if sociology, political science, bits and pieces of psychology. Its idea is to figure out, its really an elegant idea, some sort of formula by which every country in the world would ‘develop’ along the lines that the hegemonic power wanted it to develop. There was a cold war going on, the Americans were not the only players in this game. And what happened was that various developing countries came out from under colonial yoke and were caught in this cross fire between the russians and the Americans and to their great disadvantage. Even pope John Paul the 2nd who is no radical has argued that this so called development in the midst of the cold war has in truth been extraordinarily damaging to the people of the world. And most particularly to the people in those countries that became centers of contention between east and west. Development theory was what the so called best and brightest of the west attempted to work out as a general strategy a unified field theory so to speak of how these types of chrisis were going to be managed.

DE:One of the the institutions which served as a vehicle for the weighing and communication of some of the concepts such as development theory developed by the cenis(?) is the aforementioned Public Opinion Quarterly and that publication in many ways epitomizes the crossover between psychological warfare and communication research. Can I ask you to discuss the 1952 issue on international communication research which could perhaps be described as a covert operation in and of itself.

CS: Public Opinion Quarterly is a wellknown academic journal that specialises in how public opinion is measured and during the early 1950s it was really rather straightforward in that it viewed itself as participating in psychological warfare and it would publish articles describing what the tactics of the west had been against the germans during WWII.

That was on the first and most obvious level. The next level which I think is what you’re getting at Dave, is that that journal itself promoted particular attitudes about what communication is, what society is, and even down to such things as what’s the correct line on strategy to deal with the russians or italians etc.

DE:I am thinking of the work that ..

CS:So the journal itself was, although it didn’t present itself in these terms, as a practical matter it was a propaganda organ and then on the third level what one sees is a very close inbreeding between the senior editors and the editorial board of the journal on the one hand and the intelligence agencies on the other hand. The founder of the journal back in 1937 was a man by the name of DeWitt Pool who was then on sabbatical from the state department and his specialty was anticommunist propaganda. That’s what he did for a living. And moving into the postwar period he eventually became a senior executive with the radio free europe, the operation that were funded by the CIA. In that particular issue of the journal there were series of interesting reports including one that presented itself as though it were simply communication research and I am paraphrasing the title now, the gist of it was ‘extremist in Iran’ communication and extremist in Iran. Sitting there and looking at the book you might give me the exact title Dave. Well who were these extremists? Well what was going on was that the V o A was paying a very well known very liberal thinktank in New York called the bureau of applied social research to study dissident groups in the middle east. In this particular study that we’re dicussing looked at so called exremists in Iran and who those people were were supporters of Muhammed Mossadeq who was at the time the leader of Iran and he was out of favor from the west because he had this extraordinary idea, chocking idea, that Iran should control its own oil resources. This did not go down very well with the Americans or with the British. And then they engineered a coup d’etat that overthrew Mossadeq and his supposed extremist followers and installed the shah of Iran. So what you see in the academic journal, the mirror of this as it appears in the academic literature is a article that has lots of footnotes and vocabulary and the whole sort of image of heavy academic research but what it is in truth is a report on applied political covert operation. They laid the land so that the coup d’etat would go more smoothly.

DE:By the way I have the title of that article: Political extremists in Iran, a secondary analysis of communications data. And that was authored by Benjamin Ringer and David Sills. And as you pointed out it was simply an adjunct to a then ongoing covert operation against Mossadeq in Iran.

CS:And you see that same sort of three level pattern, where you have officially and litterally about psychological warfare. psychological warfare report on how we convince the japanese at Saipan to surrender in WWII.

Next level of propaganda to social scientists to convince them to tell a particular lie. And then you have this third level, where the publications of social science themselves become tools for intelligence gathering or as illustrated in this particular case as elements of covert operations.

DE:You discuss also the Hook insurgency in the Filipines and similar articles that function in connection with that covert operation. And some of these operations were quite bloody. ..I’d like to read a sentence from p 85 and then ask you to comment on the effects of some of these relationships on the methodological paradigms of communication research. ‘This continuity of leading theoreticians became part of a broader pattern through which the psychological warfare of one generation became the “International Communication” of the next.’ You talk about one of the effects of the relationship between mass communication research and psychological warfare as sort of an internal purge of dissident voices so to speak. Not by the government but by the recipients of this government largesse or positive feedback. And then you discuss the effects of this on the zeitgeist or dominant paradigm of communication research.

CS:I can’t answer in the remaining 3 minutes but what I will say is this: What one saw was in early cold war that they talked frankly about psychological warfare. By the mid-1950s they realized that if they talked about being engaged in psychological warfare against the italians that the italians may not like that very much and they may take exception to it. So the rethoric of the field began to change. And there’s an example from Columbia University in which a ? bibliography of what psychological warfare was, examples of it definitions, case studies etc, had been prepared secretely during the early 50s. And then eventually published in 1955 or 1956. And the only difference between the 1953 version that was talking about psychological operations and the 1956 version was that the title had been changed and the new title was International Communication. The rethoric of the field was changing but the content of the field wasn’t or at least the content of the field was developed along the same lines as before. This is a way that the relatively straightforward use and discussion of psychological warfare as a form of violence and social control of the immediate post 1945 period became starting in the 60s and the 70s and up to the present day became international communication. Sometimes conflict resolution. And portrayed in these much more cushioned terms that tended to isolate people who were using them from the realities of the world they were in the process of creating.

DE:Do you think it would be unfair to describe this as a ‘kinder gentler psychological warfare’?

CS says that George Bush was not telling the truth when he said he was a kinder, gentler Ronald Reagan.

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