- Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present
The editors of this encyclopedia have produced a comprehensive one-volume work containing more than 280 entries and over 100 photographs and illustrations. The A to Z entries are written by 85 authorities and cover a broad range of "propaganda" topics, including essays on concepts and techniques as well as those covering significant individuals, institutions, geographic areas, and time periods. Each entry contains a list of sources and is cross-referenced to other articles. Generally, the entries in period propaganda are more detailed and analytical than the biographical ones. As a source for definitions and the historiography of the subject, the work is valuable.
Perhaps one of the most valuable entries in the book is the essay on the evolving definition of propaganda. Taken together with the encyclopedia's introduction, the article demonstrates the ever broadening nature of the concept. For instance, in the pre-1918 era, many considered propaganda as a product of an agitator "who present[ed] one or a few ideas to a mass of people" (p. 319). During the mid-1920s, propaganda became associated with the manipulation of symbols by the hand of an "invisible government;" while during World War II, the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels defined it as the use of symbols to stir sentiment in an atmosphere of stress in order to conquer [End Page 568] the masses (p. 321). Today, the article's author David Welch points out, the term has expanded to include any dissemination of ideas meant to "convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular purpose" (p. xix). Obviously, this definition can be stretched to encompass almost anything voiced, written, or advertised. Consequently, under the umbrella of such a definition, a number of interesting topics begin to emerge and make their way into the book, such as Environmentalism, Abolitionism, Poetry, and Mohandas Gandhi. Such is the strength of a permeable definition.
A plethora of new topics can also prove problematic, however, as editors may find few scholars willing to write on them. It appears that this is the case here. Of the 280 entries, the editors contributed over 50 percent of the articles. Nicholas Cull alone wrote 20 percent of them. Thankfully he is a fine, balanced scholar and one of the most analytical of the contributors. David Welch does an excellent job when discussing German propaganda and is particularly good when articulating the various definitions and concepts of the field.
Entries by historian David Culbert, well-known for his work on the propagandistic aspects of film, are good when discussing that medium, but come across as biased in some of his biographical entries. For instance, his article on Richard Nixon makes one reference to the Watergate cover-up and Nixon's smear tactics, and elaborates on the famous "Checkers Speech," finally concluding that the President was a "prime example of the survivor in politics as well as a pioneer in the use of television as a medium of political persuasion" (p. 271). Compare this to his essay on William Clinton, whose entire administration, according to Culbert, demonstrated failed programs, Clinton's "adulterous ways," and the President's desire to pardon "notorious felons" (pp. 90–91). The only significant contribution he attributes to the beleaguered president is that Clinton's name may be remembered as "a synonym for an elegant and well-crafted lie" (p. 91). Surely in this case, the editor attempts to foist upon us some propaganda of his own. Consequently, and because of some interpretational issues and factual inaccuracies, I cautiously recommend this encyclopedia and suggest that readers also reference Robert Cole's three-volume Encyclopedia of Propaganda (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe Reference, 1998) when researching the subject.