The propaganda machine-6: The Powell memo and its aftermath

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Lewis Powell’s confidential 1971 memo to the US Chamber of Commerce laid out the framework that was largely followed by the business community in the subsequent decades. In it he admits quite frankly that the media and academia are already owned or controlled by big business interests and expresses puzzlement as to why they are not using that power more overtly to serve their own interests.

Here are some excerpts from the memo:

No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack . . . We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts . . . .The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.
. . .
One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

Most of the media, including the national TV systems, are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive.

He then argues that the business community should organize and take specific action to control the discourse in its favor, based on a carefully thought out, long range strategy, and be willing to pour considerable financial resources into it.

What specifically should be done? The first essential — a prerequisite to any effective action — is for businessmen to confront this problem as a primary responsibility of corporate management.

The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival — survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.
. . .
Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

Powell went on to outline what should be done on campuses, in secondary schools, in the media, and in the courts to combat what he clearly viewed as a menace. Among other things, he recommended the creation of a ‘staff of scholars’ sympathetic to business interests who would be prolific in writing articles and books and thus flood the market with that point of view. He also recommended creating a pro-business ‘staff of speakers’ and ‘speakers bureaus’ that would be able to similarly flood campuses and the media with their point of view.

The Powell memo became the basis on which we saw the rapid proliferation in the 1970s of so-called ‘think tanks’ (i.e., the ‘staff of scholars’). Right-wing business leaders and foundations started pouring money into this kind of activity to support the activities of an increasingly large number of people to enable them to eventually have an impact on policy and the media. What has become apparent in the decades following the Powell memo is that there are a large number of very wealthy very right-wing people who are willing to spend large sums of money to support mouthpieces who will espouse the kinds of views they want to be disseminated.

Before long, there was an alphabet soup of right wing foundations, think tanks, and institutes, all dedicated to flooding college campuses and the media with right-wing views, while all the while complaining that those institutions had a pervasive left-wing bias. Before the Powell memo, only the Hoover Institute at Stanford (1919) and the American Enterprise Institute (1943) played that role in a significant way. After the Powell memo, businesses and wealthy right-wing interests started pouring money into creating an alternative to academic scholarship and as a result, the 1970s saw the explosion of right-wing so-called ‘think tanks’. The Heritage Foundation was set up in 1973, the Cato Institute in 1977, the Manhattan Institute in 1978, and many more later.

It was necessary, though, to create a cadre of intellectuals who would understand that their role was to propagate this pro-business message and who could occupy all these new positions that were being created and to do all the writing and speaking that were called for. So business groups poured money into privately funded right-wing campus newspapers and other publications to serve as kind of a farm system to develop the skills in selected young people so that they could play the roles assigned to them. These people were supported as they obtained advanced degrees and started working in the think tanks that began sprouting like mushrooms.

One could think of the whole project as essentially a privately funded welfare program for right-wingers.

An article in the National Review describes the early days of this process that shows how this policy was carried out on campuses. In 1978 William Simon, who had been President Ford’s Treasury secretary, and Irving Kristol, a founder of neo-conservatism, established the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA).

The institute would “seek out promising Ph.D. candidates and undergraduate leaders, help them establish themselves through grants and fellowships and then help them get jobs with activist organizations, research projects, student publications, federal agencies or leading periodicals.”
. . .
The IEA received significant start-up funds from corporations such as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, and General Electric.
. . .
The IEA ended up playing a pivotal role in the rise of conservative college papers founded in the early Eighties. The new decade saw the founding of, to name just a few, The Dartmouth Review, The Michigan Review, The Primary Source at Tufts, The Harvard Salient, The Princeton Tory, The Oregon Commentator, and The Virginia Advocate. IEA also organized conferences where the editors of these new papers could connect, as well as learn more about journalism.

This was just one of the early efforts. But because of the farm system established by identifying and funding and grooming young people on college campuses, there are now enough people who are both able and willing to play that role, and are well-rewarded for doing so. It is precisely within this framework that the third-tier pundits have found their niche. But in a sense they are just the entertainers while the people in the think tanks are the ones who really develop the conservative and neo-conservative pro-business agenda. These people and places became the sources of targeted attacks on the media and the universities.

Next: What is a think tank and how do they function?

POST SCRIPT: The ‘good’ war reexamined

World War II grows in misty memory as the last major ‘good war’. As such, it has served a valuable role in justifying other wars. Each new enemy of the US is now routinely identified as the new Hitler driven by the desire to control the whole world. This was the rhetoric used against Saddam Hussein and Iraq and is now being used against Ahmadinejad and Iran.

A recent review by Mark Kurlansky of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization says that the book debunks the myth that World War II was a ‘good’ war.

According to the myth, British and American statesmen naively thought they could reason with such brutal fascists as Germany’s Hitler and Japan’s Tojo. Faced with this weakness, Hitler and Tojo tried to take over the world, and the United States and Britain were forced to use military might to stop them.

Rather than Roosevelt and Churchill being doughty fighters against fascism reluctantly drawn into a major war, the book argues that they were a rabid warmongers and anti-Semites who until very late in the game were quite friendly towards Hitler and the fascists. What Roosevelt and Churchill were really concerned about was defeating communism.

Kurlansky ends his review:

Read Human Smoke. It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war — and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare.

You can read an interview with Baker here and an except from his book here.

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