Military History Propaganda
Katy Doll
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0194


Propaganda has a rich history and an equally rich literature. Scholars do not always agree on a single definition of propaganda, but Jowett and O’Donnell’s 2019 book, Propaganda and Persuasion (Los Angeles: SAGE), defines it as a “deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” Persuasive communication itself has been used since the beginning of communication. The term “propaganda,” however, did not come into use until the 1600s and was first associated with disseminating or promoting particular ideas, such as propagating religious faith. Historical analysis of propaganda has focused on the 20th and 21st century when propaganda was considered a widespread issue and has increasingly become an accepted area of study. Given the widespread use of atrocity propaganda in World War I and the power of the Nazi propaganda machine in World War II, 20th-century wars generally receive the most attention from scholars. Historians and communications scholars have attempted to remedy this more modern focus with major anthologies spanning earlier periods. However, as propaganda can often take a host of forms and did not come into the general modern meaning of the word until the 20th century, studies of earlier periods often focus on communication or iconography. Much of the English-language work done on propaganda also skews extremely toward the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of the earliest works on propaganda came from those who worked in propaganda in some capacity. These early works have gradually been supplemented with rigorous historical and communication analyses. The two fields are the most prolific in their study of propaganda, but art historians have also added to the understanding of the visual culture of propaganda and scholars in other fields such as sociology, politics, and rhetoric have also added to the literature on propaganda. Scholars also have devoted attention to the close relationship between propaganda and technology. Together these efforts make for a diverse field that examines propaganda products, their creation, their dissemination, and their purpose. Because of the ephemeral nature of most propaganda and the way various archives have or have not been available to scholars, propaganda can be a challenging topic of study. Some works attempt to study the reception of propaganda while others focus on the creation and dissemination process. Monographs focusing on a single country or conflict outnumber those works spanning conflicts and continents. Several notable exceptions have comparative analysis or bring together works from multiple perspectives. Propaganda will continue to be of vital interest to scholars and hopefully will include works from scholars with increasing language skills and access to diverse archives.


Authors have created works aimed at providing general information on propaganda, particularly since World War I and fears of the power of propaganda. A central focus of many general books on propaganda is the need to understand the process and meaning of propaganda. Some later works attempted to rehabilitate the term and make propaganda a value-neutral topic of study, not an item to be feared. Many of these works stem from the fields of communication, rhetoric, and history. Though not usually tied directly to wartime propaganda, these works provide helpful understandings of different ideas of propaganda and persuasion. For scholars examining different governmental uses of propaganda, particularly whether democracy and propaganda can coexist, these works provide some helpful beginnings to a broad concept of propaganda, its potential, and its pitfalls. Some of these works, such as Herman and Chomsky 1988, have greatly influenced those studying propaganda in the last thirty years and these works provide definitions and structures that many scholars use when beginning their study of propaganda. Doob 1935 and Lippmann 1922 both represent early American propaganda scholarship that directly spoke to concerns about media and propaganda after World War I. French author Jacques Ellul helped expand earlier studies of propaganda to encompass propaganda as a broad ranging social phenomenon (Ellul 1965). Scholars who are new to the field should consult Jowett and O’Donnell 2019 for its clear, concise approach to the history and definition of propaganda.

  • Doob, Leonard W. Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1935.

    A major contributor to the early field of propaganda scholarship and himself involved in the US Office of Wartime Information during World War II, Doob’s earliest work attempted to demonstrate the mechanisms of propaganda. His later writings on propaganda also deserve attention and could easily be featured in this bibliography.

  • Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

    A classic work that helped advocate for studying propaganda in a broad sense to understand how it can influence individuals or groups. Ellul also focused on ways propaganda can work in levels of truth, how it may speak to those already in agreement with its point and sharpen their belief, and how propaganda can be a social phenomenon.

  • Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

    Manufacturing Consent looms large in the study of propaganda, particularly in media and communication studies approaches to the field. Whether you plan to use this approach or not, it is important to understand the model and its focus on the idea of manipulating the public through the media. Reprint 2002.

  • Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. 7th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2019.

    Another oft-cited work, Jowett and O’Donnell’s Propaganda and Persuasion provides an excellent starting point for any exploration of propaganda. Now in its seventh edition, the book is clear and devotes time to definitions, process, case studies, and history. This also would be useful in the undergraduate classroom.

  • Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace., 1922.

    Originally published in 1922 and reissued in various forms since, Lippmann’s classic exploration of democracy and information still influences understanding of public opinion, information transmission, and propaganda studies. Lippmann also represents some of the early works on propaganda and public opinion that were written in response to the way World War I exposed people to seemingly new, shocking propaganda and manipulation.

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