Our Propaganda in Asia
FLEUR COWLES, wife of Gardner Cowles, the publisher, came to her editing after a highly successful decade in advertising. She was one of the first American women to enter the liberated countries at the war’s end, and her work as special consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee furthered her interest in Europe’s response to American ideas. Two years ago she traveled extensively in South America gathering source material for her book, Bloody Precedent, a comparative study of two Argentine dictatorships. Recently she and her husband made a tour of the Orient, where they were appalled at the misunderstanding of American democracy. Her article contains the gist of the remarks she made to the Overseas Press Club on her return.
by FLEUR COWLES
I TRAVEL outside the U.S.A. quite a lot: in the last two years I’ve been twice to South America, three times to Europe, and recently to the Far East. I see and talk to government leaders and interesting personalities wherever I go; I also talk to anyone at hand. And I wince when I think how little the world thinks of us. Why don’t we do a better selling job?
It is in the Orient that I find the most embarrassing form of polite fear and contempt for our size. It glares at you. I admit that even in such a worldly place as France, the propaganda job is still so sticky I have yet to discover one farmer who knows the truth about Marshall Aid, Mutual Aid, or the offshore purchases — or how any one of these can possibly affect his life. Yet I think the misunderstandings in the Far East are far more critical. Despite the fact that most of the misconceptions about us are concentrated there, the area gets eye-dropper attention in the matter of public relations with the U.S.A. This is pure folly since the Far East is really the one last big testing ground left between Democracy and Communism. And all the world watches.
I’d like to state promptly that my journey this year to Asia was brief. I have only the most personal impressions — backed by direct inquiry as to what our American foreign service people are doing about information and propaganda. Even a sixweek journey is long enough to blot up intuitively what a country’s feeling is for the U.S.A. As a matter of fact, I came away wishing that the administration would make the same six-week visit.
My journey to the Orient took me through the front lines in Korea and up to the Truce Conference. I sat in on off-the-record sessions in Japan. I flew to Formosa to hear at first hand the Chiang side of the story. I went to Hong Kong, that tense city on the islands and rocks in one of the world’s most spectacular harbors, a British colony perched like a mouse under the paws of a Chinese dragon. In Calcutta, the dying man on the street still dies without a passing glance in a world too terribly unchanged. Communist swords and scabbards are hidden in many corners of this starving dung-ridden city — ready for action. In Siam lies the most tempting loot of all for the Communists, because Siam is fat with rice. As a food-surplus country, she trembles at her own potentially lush value to the Reds.
In the Philippine Islands I discussed the food problem and agrarian reform with President Quirino. I also got to know the intrepid Magsaysay, their Secretary of Defense, who is slowly killing off the Communist Huks right in the very jungles which once were their refuge. I saw Magsaysay twice again when he was in New York recently, and had long talks with him about enforcing land reform. Magsaysay knows this would remove the political teeth from the Huks’ bite —they couldn’t even hold their ranks together without this propaganda weapon. And he is helping to accomplish this by the bold stroke of giving land to the captured Communist Huks.
Magsaysay s meeting of war veterans from the Philippine Islands’ neighbors was an extraordinary cultural and propaganda attack against the Communists. He invited delegates from North Borneo, Thailand, the Malay States, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Indo-China to come to this secretly planned session at Baguio to pool their experiences in psychological as well as military warfare in dealing with the Communists. To keep this conference from being snarled by politics and government, Magsaysay called it in the name of veterans of the last war. Yet, in four instances, the veterans’ organizations sent defense ministers as well as chiefs of staff. This is the kind of cold war propaganda setting the Russians stage so well. I am pleased to see the technique introduced and adopted by our side.
Magsaysay told me one of his unsung armies is the schoolteacher corps all over the Islands. They teach the principles of democracy to children and their parents (at the little village level as well as in the cities). They are spreading the fact that Magsaysay has the gun poised against corruption, that he intends to force political bosses to give way to honest elections (a prospect that once seemed to most Filipinos to require a miracle). He promises that land reform will be increasingly enforced. There — in a mass of thousands of dedicated schoolteachers— is a propaganda corps our information experts ought to embrace. I hope we do.
GOOD many years of my life were spent in advertising before I entered publishing. I respect its power and salesmanship and its influence on our lives. Therefore, I looked with an advertising woman’s as well as an editor’s eye on our propaganda efforts in Asia. I was disappointed to see our familiar advertising devices used there, where they neither fit nor fare well against the Asian backdrop. I want to see our advertising talent harnessed to meet the needs of the cold propaganda war, but I seriously question transplanting our sophisticated approaches.
Comic books sell many products and have explained many an idea to Americans (including such diverse items as Christianity and space cadets), but what can we expect to accomplish when we distribute comic strips in India? Another instance of transplanting rather than reinterpreting for the market is the use of American-made films in backward places in the interior. We should be using native films with native actors who not only speak the language of the localities but look familiar to their audiences.
We should use each country’s own techniques (improving them as we do) to repeal and repeat our attitude toward the problems which beset the wretched millions who are prey to Communist promises. The first job in using each country’s familiar symbols must be to make it clear we want to see land reforms take place — and promptly. The sooner we do this, the more effective we shall be in preventing a disproportionate share of farmers efforts from falling info the hands of landlords.
Everywhere I went, I got the impression that the Eastern world mistakes our interest as a new imperialism which has merely shifted from “old power” to “new power.” The conflict is tense between the desperate need of us and the fear of us — the suspicion of our motives. To overcome this, deeds are the finest form of propaganda.
In addition to land reform, the other big propaganda need is to make it clear that we Americans can, and will, support the Asiatics’ own efforts to produce more for themselves. We can show the peoples of the Far East, how to help themselves, but we must show them how in their own terms. I repeat: we’ve got to start using their media instead of “shotgunning” our misunderstood ones. The Asiatics have fascinating propaganda instruments; they love their shadow plays, storytellers, and mystical soothsayers. Even if we are not enthusiastic about them, we should employ them; and we should use their local artists instead of our unfamiliar ones. Wherever we can we should teach illiterates to read simple truths in their own devices and dialects.
In Asia, where the color question makes the population look on all whites with suspicion, we must learn to give our help a better complexion. We must work with people, and not give any impression of seeming to order them to graft our technological efficiency upon their culture from the outside. Our technical assistance must be proffered without the slightest condescension. With it must be linked patient, long-range projects like universities, laboratories, hospitals, plans for exchange students. We must promote vocational training to turn out teachers for the millions who cannot earn a living. We must make reference material available to those who can read (320 millions out of a billion in the Orient cannot). And all this help must be so firmly planned as not to collapse with each, new problem, which it now tends to do.
The Indians, by the way, have demonstrated, in one dramatic example in Faridabad, that they can make their own rehabilitation programs work. Faridabad borrowed 5 million dollars from the central government and turned a desolate rural village of poverty and squalor outside New Delhi into a suburban industrial center in four years — a quite perfect modern town for 50,000 penniless refugees. They now live and work there with social and productive amenities of the sort to which most of Western Europe would aspire. And they’re repaying the government already.
We should continue to back this sort of thing — do it jointly and as cheaply as possible, so that the Asians can maintain for themselves what we help them to start. These projects should be duplicated (and then skillfully exploited) in other pivotal communities — to let productive democracy be openly measured against Communism.
We have succeeded in our efforts on the island of Formosa (or Taiwan, as the natives prefer it be called). I came away convinced we were at least getting credit among the Taiwanese for the reversal in their welfare. Land reform (helped by the warm breath of the American Joint Commission down the backs of island officials) gave the Formosan farmer 62.5 per cent of his crop. He formerly got about 30 per cent. American fertilizer was distributed to make the land more productive. We also helped to rehabilitate the island’s war-ravaged fertilizer plants. The result is the largest crop in Formosa’s history.
Somehow we must make it clear all over Asia that this is our idea of justice — that we are not supporting policies in Asia which we disapprove of for ourselves. Otherwise, the Reds will continue to class us as silent partners of the ghosts of the former Empires, which still haunt the people of Asia.
RECENTLY Dr. Wilson M. Compton, Staff Director of the State Department’s Advisory Commission on Information, wrote me that he considered his job in terms of good distribution. He meant getting the right product to the right place at the right time. To him, that product is TRUTH —the truth about Americans. I hope he succeeds, for each time he does, he cuts down the disbelief and even the fear many backward people have for us.
I think we can do this only if we stop distributing “big phrases” about the specific wonders of our capitalistic world as against their peonage —and abandon the dream of transplanting, overnight, any glorified notion of our twentieth-century civilization. The one thing hungry millions yearn for is the certainty of their next meal, and we must stop talking about the distant golden wheat fields of Kansas and tall corn of Iowa as if they were any immediate answer.
Do we really expect a deeply wounded and hungry mass of people, living in dirt-floor shacks, to cheer about our skyscrapers or our giant tractors or our toilets, soft drinks, chewing gum, cars, and telephones, none of which they have ever seen?
In one Indian community no one had ever seen our common garden-variety hoe until we gave a bundle of them to some farmers who had been using primitive sticks. Hoes promptly raised the crop output. Imagine what motorized tractors would do. If India can raise her production just 10 per cent she can eat.
Instead of vast projects based on our own needs and standards, we ought to continue with simple tools like those hoes, with crop-rotation aids, new roads, and practical agricultural demonstrations of better techniques and new practices. And they ought to be carried on by a foreign-service infantry force really willing to dirty their hands.
Everywhere I found the Communists working “close to the soil.” They scatter and distribute leaflets, canvass peasants’ houses, penetrate inoffensively into unions and religious societies, meet the common people in everyday situations. They play down any obvious politics and are less under suspicion and less irritating as a result, and more dangerous.
The Soviets have also launched a giant “book campaign.” All over India, the Communists use party membership as a distribution chain to pass out literature which emanates from Moscow. The books sell for less than they cost. They are cleverly printed — by Indian standards. They are given over to the glorification of Russia and of the blessings of Communism and they are written on an almost childishly readable level. The very nature of their contents makes it difficult for Indian government officials to ban the books, since they cannot term the material subversive.
Even in Japan, Soviet-published books written in Japanese flood the bookstalls in the vulnerable student university areas. I visited shop after shop in Tokyo where brand-new bargain books were selling like hot cakes at two-thirds off their list price. Biographies of “Uncle Joe” were best sellers.
Not all the cultural offensive is waged through books; the Soviets have unleashed a flood of films, too — The Fall of Berlin is the most notable one. And the most diabolic success of all has been their “ leaflet penetration” of Asia. We really stand convicted today on the “germ warfare” we never conducted. Cultural missions” are constantly invited to China — to tour and see for themselves the contagious renaissance” there (as they put it); to see the so-called agrarian reform and proof of the so-called “benevolent yearning for peace” among Chinese Communists. These they are expected to dramatize when they return to off-Communist bases. And they do dramatize them so effectively that many natives ask themselves which type of democracy, the Western or the Eastern type, they prefer.
The Reds are skillful in other ways. They train their agents to eat the same food, talk the same language, wear the same clothes, and endure the same hardships as the people they promise to rescue. We, on the other hand, attempt to permeate Asiatic countries with ideas we think important by using Americans who don’t know the country they’re in, can’t speak the language, and never leave the major cities. This difference symbolizes the truth of our comparative failure. I found our information people too often using psychologically unsound, beautifully elaborate brochures to make arguments above the ken of the natives.
I am sorry to sound so critical. So many of our propaganda efforts are carried out by dedicated young men who really deserve our applause for their efforts. They live (with their long-suffering wives and often their children) under conditions which the average American would find cruelly primitive and difficult. Their will and willingness and their ardor are beyond question; but the direction they are given is quite another thing.
Propaganda and information should be two-way streets. I think we are far too prone to want to make the world over in our own image; and most of the world resents it. When we learn to have genuine respect for and appreciation of many other cultures (and, may I add, when these people know we do) we will understand how to carry on information and propaganda programs which will be effective.