The axiom that ‘when war breaks out, the first casualty is truth’1 belies the significant role played by propaganda before the outbreak of World War Two. Although more commonly associated during the inter-war years with the dictatorships,2 recent research has uncovered significant propaganda activity, both at home and abroad, on the part of the democracies.3 Many studies focus on domestic campaigns that served to forge national identities at a time when governments were just beginning to regard propaganda, defined in various ways, as an essential function of the peacetime state, although the difficulties of evaluating the impact of this propaganda are compounded by the absence of statistical or attitudinal data relating to public opinion. For example, the American Institute of Public Opinion Research was only founded in 1936 and the nearest British equivalent, Mass Observation, was not formed until 1937.4 Research on propaganda has therefore tended to be top-down, with major areas of controversy forming around speculation, of necessity, about its effects or impact. None the less, it was between the wars that state propaganda conducted at both the national and international levels came to be a fact of everyday political and diplomatic life. Obviously the dictatorships embraced it more readily — and more visibly — as an essential element of their power. But the democracies also engaged in it, more reluctantly, slower and in less obvious, but in many respects more intriguing ways.5 The degree to which this peacetime propaganda conflict contributed towards heightened international tension and misperception, and thereby to the outbreak of war in 1939, is the subject of this chapter.
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Philip M. Taylor
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