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The Best Kind of Propaganda

(This post owes much to Donald V. Coers Introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition)

Prior to World War II, the OSS hired John Steinbeck to write propaganda and the resulting novelette was The Moon is Down. Last week, I analyzed whether it is propaganda (it isn’t) but did not answer the most important question of any piece of propaganda, did it work?

Released a few months after Pearl Harbor, when America was at its lowest, most demoralized point, it sparked, according to Coers, “the fiercest literary debate of the second World War.” Critics, including James Thurber, decried Steinbeck’s soft, realistic portrayal of the German occupiers and the novelette’s fuzzy “fairy tale” plot. Critics,  called into question “[Steinbeck’s] artistic instincts, but, far worse, his political acumen.” In short, Steinbeck wrote art and intellectuals, commentators, and book reviewers blasted him for doing so.

But the book wasn’t meant for Americans, it was meant for the occupied. Did it work for them? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. The Germans, of course, banned it almost immediately in any of the countries they occupied. Meanwhile, the occupied peoples “regarded [The moon is down] as far more effective than the prevailing formula propaganda, which struck them as comical because it was so absurdly exaggerated.”

The numbers behind the book prove its effectiveness. “Hundreds of thousands” of copies circulated behind enemy lines. Dissidents illegally printed and distributed translated copies by the thousands in every occupied country. So popular, they were sold to fund resistance efforts. Weeks after Norway was liberated, the official version of the book was released and sold out two massive printings. The little book spanned the globe; translated copies reached occupied China.

What are we to take from this? As a fitting conclusion to our Propaganda week, it shows that dumbing down any work of art, even to create propaganda, is useless and ineffective. People aren’t dumb, and recognize reality. “Crude oversimplifications of most propaganda are, after all, patronizing.” For the people of the resistance who had daily contact with the Germans, they wanted reality. Steinbeck gave it to them, and they loved it.

Ironically, appropriately, truth is the best propaganda.

three comments

- thanks for the excellant history lesson!

Do you really think it resonated with audiences because it was the truth?

I would argue that “The Moon is Down” was effective first and foremost because it is a good story. Maoist rebels in Nepal today and Vietnam and Peru in the past often visit bored villages and essentially tell entertaining stories to spread their message and gain support. Is what they were offering the truth? Probably not, but it has been very effective and the message stuck. Indeed Maoism has been unequivocally bad for Nepal and the promises offered by the Maoists have largely been unimplemented even as they hold national office. I imagine there were truthful parts to the Maoist message and the incumbent Nepalese monarchy was far from an effective government for the people. Regardless, I highly doubt that the delivery of the same message in a cold press release or poster would have had a similar effect, no matter how true.

The Steinbeck experience suggests that well told stories, molded for the cultural audience and imbued with the truth can reach and more importantly influence vastly more people than other medium. While I’m not arguing for anything other than the truth, I think the medium of delivery trumps the message almost everytime.

Thanks for telling the story of the book, I’ve ordered it and I look forward to reading it in the near future.


@ ND – Thanks for the comment. I think when you read the book you’ll find that the story isn’t very good, at least not very exciting. There is very little action, and there is no gripping plot. What there is instead is genuine character development. (As I wrote about last week, Steinbeck spends the entire second chapter describing characters.) And because you care about the characters, you care about what happens to them. This is something you don’t find in most propaganda, and I doubt the Maoists used character development.

I think you point at something that I hadn’t considered , but need to, and that is just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is “truth”. And some propaganda is really popular, because it plays to people’s basest impulses. In this case, I don’t think Steinbeck did that.