By Ann Pfau, J.D. / 05.06.2018
In this era of trending tweets and Wikileaks, the unfolding story of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election might seem shockingly new. But there is an old media precedent for this new media phenomenon. Almost eighty years ago, American journalists, politicians, and voters faced many of the same questions we must ask ourselves today.
The story begins in the spring of 1940, during the period popularly known as the “phony war” or “sitzkrieg,” when fighting on the Western Front temporarily stalled, following the fall of Poland. On March 29, the German government released what officials claimed was a set of sixteen captured documents from the archives of the Polish Foreign Office.
The most damning and quoted of these translated documents was purportedly authored by the Polish ambassador to the United States, Jerzy Potocki. Potocki’s alleged report recounted a November 1938 conversation with William Bullitt, the influential U.S. ambassador to France, about the coming war:
In reply to my question whether the United States would take part in such a war, he said, ‘Undoubtedly yes, but only after Great Britain and France had made the first move!’ Feeling in the United States is so tense against Nazism and Hitlerism, he said, that there is today a psychosis among Americans similar to that before America’s declaration of war on Germany in 1917.
The German goal in releasing these documents was to discredit Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt by painting him and his administration as warmongers. Although he had yet to announce his intention, the president appeared poised to run for an unprecedented and controversial third term in office. The German chargé d’affaires in Washington, i Hans Thomsen, believed that Roosevelt’s policy of assisting the Allies to the fullest extent allowable under existing neutrality laws—even calling on Congress to ease those restrictions—would “stand or fall” with the president.
In contrast to Roosevelt’s White House, leading congressional Republicans promoted an isolationist foreign policy. These men, many of them veterans of the First World War, shared with German officials a desire to keep the United States out of another European conflict. Indeed, several isolationist congressmen would, wittingly or unwittingly, become caught up in German plans to promote the captured Polish documents and prevent Roosevelt’s reelection.
Publication of the purported documents, collectively known as “German White Book #3,” ii was a major propaganda coup. The Washington Postdescribed it as a “diplomatic sensation,” the Associated Press as a “paper bombshell.” Just two days after the documents’ release, Thomsen bragged about their impact in a secret report to the Foreign Ministry:
The objective pursued by us with the publication—that of enlightening American public opinion—has been fully achieved. Isolationist congressmen are demanding an investigation in view of the seriousness of the charge. Hamilton Fish will move that Bullitt be put under public indictment.
The Republican ranking member of House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York Rep. Hamilton Fish III demanded a “complete investigation” and threatened to impeach the ambassador, even the president, if warranted. Rep. Jacob Thorkelson of Montana, also a Republican, arranged for several of the documents to be printed in the Congressional Record.
Isolationist sentiment was not restricted to Republicans. Sen. Rush Holt Sr., a Democrat from West Virginia, criticized Bullitt’s alleged comments to Potocki, observing that they “too closely resemble other remarks made elsewhere by him to have the incident brushed aside as ‘propaganda.’”
Continuing to “camouflage” his moves, the German chargé d’affaires quietly paid an American publisher to print tens of thousands of copies of the White Book with an introduction by an American historian, C. Hartley Grattan. Thomsen used “confidential agents” to arrange for the book’s distribution through “appropriate organizations” to “politically influential people, in particular all the Senators, Representatives, and the entire press of the country,” in preparation for the Republican National Convention. He also arranged to underwrite the cost of sending to the convention a group of sympathetic congressmen.
By June 1940, when Republicans met in Philadelphia, events in Europe had come to undermine the German propaganda advantage. In early April, as sitzkrieg gave way to blitzkrieg, Germany invaded and defeated Denmark and Norway, followed in quick succession by Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. It became increasingly difficult to portray America and its allies as the aggressors.
The nomination of Wendell Wilkie as the Republican presidential candidate was a setback for both the isolationists and the German Foreign Ministry. But the party’s platform was a victory. The German chargé d’affaires reported to his superiors, “isolationist Republican congressmen … succeeded in affixing firmly to the party platform the language of an isolationist foreign policy that will not let itself become entangled in a European war.” In addition to the presence of sympathetic congressmen, Thomsen credited the victory to a full-page New York Timesadvertisement by the National Committee to Keep America out of Foreign Wars, which the embassy secretly helped write and finance. (Hamilton Fish was the chairman.)
As the Battle of Britain began in July 1940, German operatives tried to employ the same methods during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But they met with less success. Roosevelt received the nomination, and the party platform included a pledge to assist “peace-loving and liberty-loving peoples wantonly attacked by ruthless aggressors” with “all the material aid at our command, consistent with law and not inconsistent with the interests of our own national self-defense—all to the end that peace and international good faith may yet emerge triumphant.” Even so, isolationist sentiment was strong. The platform also asserted, “We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our army, navy or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack.”
We know how this story ends. In November 1940, FDR won reelection by a large margin, despite the publication of a final Polish document days before American voters went to the polls. Although the New York Enquirer, precursor of the National Enquirer, promoted the story in an expanded and German-subsidized edition of 250,000 copies, the alleged report otherwise got little play in the American press. Publisher William Griffin would soon find himself under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the U.S. Department of Justice for his ties to the German Embassy.
The German campaign to forestall Roosevelt’s reelection—and thereby delay or prevent American participation in the Second World War—failed for numerous reasons. The news from Europe undercut German efforts to portray the president and the Allies as the aggressors in this conflict. The long history of the Anglo-American alliance, as well as the strong personal and political relationship between the president and British Prime Winston Churchill, was a further impediment.
However, the most important check on information warfare was the American tradition of a strong and independent press. The German chargé d’affaires did manage to place material in a couple of sympathetic newspapers, notably the NorristownTimes Heraldin addition to the New York Enquirer. But, he explained to his superiors in Berlin:
[A]rticles cannot be got into the American press as they can, for instance, into the French. Even the English cannot achieve this here on the spot but only from London, if at all. Influential journalists of high repute with whom I am in contact will not lend themselves, even for money, to publishing outside material under their name without alteration or re-editing. Lesser-rated journalists and writers are not accepted by important newspapers, especially if they offer articles in accord with the German point of view.
Before indulging in nostalgia for the bygone heyday of print journalism, keep in mind that the same news outlets published a slew of stories about the Polish documents, despite the White Book’s dubious authenticity and the fact that it was promoted by a hostile foreign power. Of course, these news articles were careful to include American and Polish denials as well as to evaluate German motives. The American press, nevertheless, circulated the documents, thereby furthering German propaganda goals.
Isolationist politicians helped fuel the news cycle. Their calls for investigation and possible impeachment served German interests.
Today, the recent rise of state and non-state hacking operations, combined with the diffusion of authority in the news media, has made developing an effective response to information warfare even more crucial. Document dumps can lead to juicy stories that, like the German White Book, encourage American politicians to score points against their opponents. But this response plays into the hands of foreign entities trying to shape American political discourse and priorities, perhaps even throw an election.
As in 1940, information laundering is key to a successful propaganda campaign. Filmed secretly by Britain’s Channel 4, Mark Turnbull of the political data firm Cambridge Analytica confirms what the German chargéd’affaires knew—that disinformation is best circulated by seemingly neutral proxies, “without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda.’ ” Turnbull explained to an undercover reporter posing as a potential client, “the moment you think, ‘That’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?’ ”
What’s different today is that social media permits propagandists more effectively to camouflage themselves and build audiences for disinformation.
And yet there is still reason for optimism. The recent series by the Guardian/Observer, New York Times, and Channel 4 reveals the continuing strength of investigative journalism. By exposing how Cambridge Analytica harnessed Facebook data to manipulate social media consumers, these stories have sparked government inquiries on two continents and led Cambridge Analytica to declare bankruptcy. (Expectation is that the data firm will re-emerge, possibly under the name Emerdata.)
To protect the American body politic from foreign aggression, exposure alone is inadequate. Congressional action is important, but it is impossible to legislate civic virtue. To be effective, legislative action must be accompanied by a change in American business practices, professional standards, and political culture. We all have a role to play.
i In response to Kristallnacht, President Roosevelt recalled the US Ambassador to Germany. The German government followed suit. As a result, the chargé d’affaires was the German embassy’s highest-ranking official, November 1938-December 1941.
ii The German government published several collections of documents designed to embarrass their opponents. The British and French governments published their own blue and yellow books, but the documents in these books were not captured or stolen.