Pscychological Warfare

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Mark Stahlman:

"Stimulated by Hitler's rise to power, the Rockefeller Foundation launched its famous “Radio Research Project” in the late 1930s, initially headed by Paul Lazarsfeld, the “father of empirical sociology,” first at Princeton and then at Columbia University (1901-1976). Lazarsfeld hired Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) for the “Project” to work on the psycho-social impact of popular music (Adorno was also a composer). They fought over the application of “statistics” to the problem and Adorno left. But he soon returned at the head of a new effort, resulting in the publishing of The Authoritarian Personality in 1952,15 long treated as the “handbook” of the burgeoning field of Social Psychology, which had absorbed many engaged in psy-war in WWII. In it, Adorno & al proposed an “F-scale” (named after “fascism,” understandable since Adorno was affiliated with the Marxist/Freudian Frankfurt School). Adorno's 1927 habilitation thesis had been titled “The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of the Psyche.”

Christopher Simpson skillfully traced the history of psychological warfare transitioning into academia in his Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960. The dust-jacket introduces the volume by saying, “In this provocative study, Christopher Simpson demonstrates how the government-funded psychological warfare programs of the Cold War years underwrote the academic studies that formed the basis for much modern communications research.” Like the work of Frances Stonor Saunders with her The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (originally titled Who Paid the Piper?, as well as her other books, plus Simpson's and others), the focus has been on trying to find someone to blame. But, given the context that produced psy-war, tracing back to the origins of experimental psychology a century earlier, a wider view might well consider these developments to be far more “systematic.” Many more were implicated. In 1953, the Ford Foundation, which by then had taken over many of the research topics previously paid for by the Rockefeller agencies, funded an extension to the earlier Radio Research Project by awarding a $43,000 grant (roughly $400,000 in today's money) to Marshall McLuhan and the Inuit-studying anthropologist Edmund “Ted” Carpenter to research “The Changing Patterns of Language and Behavior and the New Media of Communications.” This was the television update to the previous study on radio and it launched McLuhan's career as a “media guru.”

McLuhan was no “statistician,” like Lazarsfeld had been. He described himself as a “grammarian” (with expertise in rhetoric) and he took an expansive view of the effects of the media itself on people. Thus, “The Medium is the Message.”19 An English professor, with significant knowledge of the artistic movements which paralleled the rise of experimental psychology, beginning with French Symbolism, McLuhan had been clipping into, analyzing and lecturing on the effects of advertising for years. What would later be captured in the Mad Men television series reflected what McLuhan considered to be the greatest “art” of his times. It was a quite manipulative art, to be sure.


In 1921, Alfred Zorzybski (1879-1950) published his inaugural volume, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering. A Polish aristocrat who had studied engineering at Warsaw University of Technology, Korzybski served as an intelligence officer in the Russian army in WWI, later moving to Canada and settling in the U.S. Eventually he dropped the potentially offensive label “human engineering” and transformed it into what he termed “general semantics.” Based on his notion that humans cannot “directly” experience reality, he proposed that we needed to train our awareness of the “abstracting” process through which we understand the world. He linked this to the structure of language and traced the origins of our linguistic debilitation to Aristotle. His followers included S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992) and Neil Postman (1931-2003).


The manipulation of language to manipulate the psyche has had a long history. Esperanto was invented, following the 1893 “World Parliament of Religions” with the intent of instilling a one-world sensibility. The British Empire's response and, for a time, a serious rival to the romance-language oriented Esperanto (until all these efforts collapsed) was called “Basic English.” Often focused narrowly on spoken languages and associated with anthropology, linguistics expanded into philosophy and other domains. However, attempts to expand the focus of the inquiry, such as McLuhan and Carpenter's 1956 essay “The New Languages,” failed to gain traction. The collected essays of Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) were also published in 1956, leading to the widespread adoption of the mislabeled “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis (now termed “linguistic relativity”), which holds that language determines/influences thought, cognitive categories and, ultimately, our decisions. Perhaps the most famous of the linguists from that period (largely because of his ongoing political proclamations) is Noam Chomsky. An aggressive protagonist, as discussed in Randy Harris' 1993 The Linguistics Wars, Chomsky came to dominate the field. His tenure at MIT and his argumentative style, however, were not matched with decisive victory for his theories. His “genetic” theory termed “universal grammar” has been described as a “certain set of structural rules [that] are innate to humans, independent of sensory experience.” If true, which current research largely discounts, one can imagine the use of such a grammar to “program” humans. Accompanied with “cognitive” psychology, where Chomsky was a pioneer in patterning humans on computing devices, Universal grammar would point towards an underlying “microcode” upon which human activity rests.28 The engineering hope remains, while the results remain meager. Even the non-behaviorist “speculative” approaches to psychology were caught up in the “new human, new society” enthusiasm. In 1909, G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924), a student of William James at Harvard (and the first to gain a psychology doctorate in the U.S.), invited both Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) to lecture at Clark University (along with 27 others), where he had been named as its first president in 1889. In the U.S., Hall's influence was considerable, having founded the American Psychological Association, he was called “King Maker” by Saul Rosenzweig in his 1992 Freud, Jung and Hall the King-Maker. Clark, located in Worchester, MA, was founded as an all graduate research university. This was a period in which many universities were joining together to radically reform higher education – with a particular focus on training other teachers – as reflected in the founding, by Hall, of the Association of American Universities. Aspects of this shift away from a more traditional approach are captured in Paolo Lioni's The Leizig Connection: The Systematic Destruction of American Education. Psychology was at the center of this effort. Many believed that society's ills could be cured if the proper psychology was applied. Starting with the misbehaving children. "