Article Review 471- "The Trouble with Propaganda: The Second World War, Franco’s Spain, and the Origins of US Post-War Public Diplomacy"

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H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 471
Published on 11 July 2014

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Pablo León-Aguinaga“The Trouble with Propaganda:  The Second World War, Franco’s Spain, and the Origins of US Post-War Public Diplomacy.  The International History Review (2014) 1-24.  DOI:  10.1080/07075332.2013.879916.


Reviewed by Holly Cowan Shulman, University of Virginia

In his article on U.S. propaganda broadcast from New York City to Spain during the Second World War, Pablo León-Aguinaga takes a fresh look at what it meant to construct a political line, and then articulate it through propaganda, toward a neutral country.  Spain did not fight in World War II, and therefore the attention of most American historians has focused on the United States and the Spanish Civil War and not the United States and Spain in World War II, and not on the problem of forming a policy toward a ‘neutral’ nation. León-Aguinaga asks what propaganda means when it is targeted at a ‘neutral’ audience, or at least to listeners living in a deeply divided country that was officially neutral?

León-Aguinaga states that by 1942 and the inauguration of the U.S. government’s radio broadcasting station, the Voice of America (VOA), American propaganda conflicted with the State Department’s policy toward Spain. The propagandists did not feel it was necessary to tow State Department guidelines; their mission was to reform and transform American policy.  The author faults what he calls “the idealist” propagandists for their independence. He praises their successors, whom he calls the “realists,” (19) for insisting that any policy priorities be set from the top.  In order to articulate and portray this conflict, León-Aguinaga examines the conflict through the stories of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Carleton H. J. Hayes, and a leader of the Office of War Information (OWI), James Warburg.

León-Aguinaga is quite right that at the beginning of World War II the men who led the Overseas Branch of the OWI, and managed the VOA, were left-leaning progressives.  It is also true that over the course of World War II the OWI and the VOA shifted their goals from ‘agit-prop’ support for the popular front democratic liberalism and abhorrence for the Axis nations, to informational broadcasting grounded in the assurance that the Allies were winning the war.  That change took place over the course of 1943. The VOA of 1942 differed from that of 1944 and 1945. Where León-Aguinaga disagrees with previous interpretations is in his attitude toward that shift.  By and large, American historians have identified with the left-leaning New Deal warriors whose opposition to Ambassador Hayes could have been predicted.[1]  Hayes, whom President Franklin Roosevelt appointed in March of 1942, was a choice necessitated by Spanish politics. The Franco regime would not have tolerated either a non-Catholic or a liberal.  Hayes was an active Catholic who believed that Franco’s government should not be ideologically grouped with the Axis countries.[2] Put more bluntly, Hayes believed that Francisco Franco was less repressive and totalitarian than either Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, and that Franco could be converted into an American ally.

Behind this discussion of American foreign policy toward Spain from 1941 to 1945 lies the Spanish Civil War, a war that not only defined Spain for half a century, but also exerted a magnetic force on U.S. domestic politics, further polarizing the American left and the American right.  The men and women who worked at the OWI and the VOA were staunch supporters of the Spanish republicans. They believed as an article of faith that Franco was an unredeemable and despicable fascist, the leader of a brutal fight against a legitimate government.  Thus they could not work with Ambassador Hayes; the divide was too deep and too wide.[3]

In this context, it is especially interesting that while León-Aguinaga personifies the fight between the State Department and the OWI through Hayes and Warburg, he does not identify any single person he thinks exemplifies the realists.  He might have chosen  Louis G. Cowan, who was my father.

Cowan became head of the VOA and Director of the Overseas Branch of the OWI in 1944, after the fight between the progressives in the OWI and the policy makers in the State Department had concluded; after Warburg and his closest colleagues had left. He thus became the leader of what León-Aguinaga calls the ‘realist’ approach.  In part, this is correct.  Under Cowan, the OWI and the VOA became increasingly informational and less overtly ideological (which is not to say that this informational style was without ideology).  There were many reasons for this change, as I detail at length in my book, The Voice of America, Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, not the least of which was that the war itself became the Allies’ best salesman.  Whatever the shift, Cowan and his peers deeply differed from Carleton Hayes in his political viewpoint.  Cowan was a moderate devoted to wiping out Hitler and all he stood for.  He was a Jew who believed that World War II was fought to defend the Jews.  He not only lived in a world where Franco was the enemy, but he married a woman who deeply regretted that she had lacked the courage to go to Spain as a nurse in support of the republicans.  If the Spanish Civil War divided Americans, then Hayes stood on one side of this chasm and Cowan on the other. 

Cowan did, in fact, differ from those whom León-Aguinaga labels ‘idealists:’ James Warburg, Joseph Barnes, Edd Johnson, Percy Winner, and others.   Some of these progressives were fellow travelers (or had been before the purges), more sympathized with the United States’ wartime ally, the Soviet Union.  Cowan never had any illusions about Russian Communism.  He was, by nature, a centrist and a compromiser who wanted to bring sides together and make things work.  Despite his friendship with departing OWI leadership, Cowan decided to stay and lead a new Overseas Branch of the OWI and VOA, and along with Wallace Carroll and Edward Barrett, who had taken over the jobs of James Warburg and Robert Sherwood, to smooth the OWI’s relationship with the State Department.  Cowan and the other new leaders saw their role as expressing, rather than creating, foreign policy.[4]  

Despite the major turnover in leadership, Cowan remained friends with many of those who resigned, men such as Joseph Barnes who had been the Deputy Director of the Overseas Branch of the OWI in charge of Atlantic Operations.  After the war, when Barnes had gone into publishing and Cowan into radio and television production, Barnes published William Shirer’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  In 1960 it was a hard book to publish, but in doing so Barnes – through Shirer -- helped the American public understand the murderous nature of Hitler’s Germany, whether or not the reader accepted the thesis that this was a German tragedy that started with Martin Luther and ended with – but was not caused by -- Adolph Hitler.[5]

To return to León-Aguinaga’s essay, he has written an interesting and admirable essay that is accurate, but only up to a point.  He fails to articulate what the Spanish Civil War, Hitler, and fascism meant to liberal and moderate Americans of all sorts, from a Jimmy Warburg or Joe Barnes on one side, to a Lou Cowan on the other.  Thus, when the author asserts that the ‘realist’ approach to propaganda prevailed in 1943, he is only partly right.  The men who ran the VOA and OWI in 1944 differed in their fundamental view of politics and global security from Carlton Hayes and his colleagues in the State Department.  The new leaders of the VOA accepted the job of carrying on the war, even when it meant changing their broadcasts and their propaganda content. My father and his post-1943 OWI cohorts, men like Carroll and Barrett, never accepted the legitimacy of Franco.  They did understand that propagandists could not dictate foreign policy, not even from the margins.

Holly Cowan Shulman is currently a Research Professor in the History Department at the University of Virginia and the editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition.  She received her BA from the University of Chicago, MA from Columbia University, and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.  She has written about American overseas propaganda, especially her book The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945 (Madison, WI, 1990).

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[1] See not only Holly Cowan Shulman, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945 (Madison, WI, 1990) but also Allan M. Winkler, The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945 (New Haven, CT, 1978); Clayton D. Laurie, The Propaganda Warriors: America’s Crusade against Nazi Germany (Lawrence, KS, 1996); David F. Krugler, The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 1945-1954 (Columbia, MO, 2000); Justin Hart, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy (New York, NY, 2013).

[2] Charles R. Halstead, “Historians in Politics: Carlton J.H. Hayes as American Ambassador to Spain,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (July, 1975), 386.

[3] Shulman, The Voice of America.

[4] See Richard H. S. Crossman, “Psychological Warfare, Part I,” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution 97 (August 1952), 320.

[5] Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “The Reception of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the United States and West Germany, 1960-1962, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 29, (London, 1994); Shirer’s thesis that it all began with Luther was not new.  Readers might, for example, remember W. H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, where he wrote: “Accurate scholarship can/ Unearth the whole offence/ From Luther until now/ That has driven a culture mad”. For a discussion of his trials of getting his book published see William L. Shirer, 20th Century Journey, A Native’s Return, 1945-1988 (Boston, 1990), 209-213.  Not discussed in these pages is the question of whether or not the fact that Shirer had been black-listed had any impact on his difficulties in finding a publisher.


Author’s Response to H-Diplo Article Review No. 471 by Holly Cowan Shulman of Pablo León-Aguinaga’s “The Trouble with Propaganda:  The Second World War, Franco’s Spain, and the Origins of US Post-War Public Diplomacy.  The International History Review (2014) 1-24. 

URL: (June 2014)

Response by Pablo Léon-Aguinaga, Centro Universitario de la Defensa, Zaragoza. Spain.

First things first. I would like to thank the H-Diplo team and Tom Maddux in particular for commissioning a review of my article. Likewise, I want to thank Holly Cowan Shulman for her time and insights. Her study of the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information served as a constant reference and inspiration for my work.[1]

“The Trouble with Propaganda” unveils the endless internecine conflict within American propaganda (both broadcasted and on the field) to Spain in World War II and its singular influence in the design and conception of U.S. postwar public diplomacy. The article engages with several aspects of the history of U.S. foreign relations, although it does so more specifically with respect to Spanish-American Relations and the history of U.S. propaganda and public diplomacy. It is in the latter area where Prof. Shulman concentrates her remarks.

The adjective ‘endless’ used above is important, since the study proves that contrary to what happened in U.S. wartime propaganda to France or Italy, the general change in philosophy that took place in 1943-44 within the Office of War Information (OWI) – referred to by Shulman – did not affect Spain. Indeed, I present several examples of how the conflict over the Iberian country extended well into 1945 (affecting many areas, from the broadcasts of the Voice of America and the contents of the American exhibit at Barcelona’s International Fair of 1944, to the fight for control over the OWI’s Madrid outpost).

Although aware of its problematic nature, I used the realist-idealist dichotomy in the article’s introduction in order to easily identify the two opposing sides in the internecine conflict. As the text progresses, however, both sides are revealed to have behaved in a similarly questionable way (even if for different reasons), leading to my conclusion that the overall U.S. propaganda effort to Spain evinced America’s unpreparedness for the task in 1941-1945. Thus, I think that to interpret my article as  praise for Ambassador Carlton Hayes’s ‘realist’ role as propagandist-in-chief in Spain as opposed to that of the ‘idealist’ propagandists based in New York, as Shulman does, is not an accurate description of it. On the other hand, I never intended to characterize the ‘realists’ as non-ideological. Carlton Hayes’s purportedly aseptic approach to Spanish affairs was by no means neutral.[2] His personal papers, diplomatic correspondence, and, more importantly, many of his acts reveal how he took sides on Spanish internal affairs by favoring the ‘non-Fascist’ version of the Francoist dictatorship that the local regime was selling him. His handling of U.S. wartime propaganda and cultural diplomacy based at the Casa Americana (American House) reflected this. Hayes was genuinely convinced of the necessity of productive postwar relations between that Spanish regime and the United States, and so pursued a propaganda line that, among other things, sought to erode the deep-rooted anti-American feelings of Spanish conservatives by emphasizing the stability of ‘the American form of government’, the non-discrimination of U.S. Catholics, and inter-American solidarity.[3] His opposition to any kind of propagandistic gesture towards the millions of Spaniards who had lost the Spanish Civil War  and clearly sided with the Allies in World War II was but the final proof of the very ideological handling of his wartime mission in Spain.  After the war, Hayes did not stop advocating a closer relationship with the Francoist regime through several of his publications. Interestingly, one of his nemeses at the OWI, Herbert Southworth, would go on to become one of the most influential anti-Franco hispanists in the United States.[4]

Shulman states that I do “not identify any single person” who “exemplifies the realists” apart from Hayes and his subordinates in Madrid. She wants to make clear the differences separating James Warburg and his team from the people who took over the Overseas Branch in February 1944. I entirely agree with those differences when talking about OWI’s attitude toward countries like France or Italy. However, the article documents that the new attitude brought in by the likes of Wallace Carroll and Louis G. Cowan blurred in the case of neutral Spain (Unlike Carroll’s papers, those of Cowan, which I consulted at Columbia University, did not include any references to Spain). The main reasons for this chronic behavior are clear to me: first, the indetermination in the Roosevelt Administration’s postwar plans for Spain, which left a considerable margin of maneuver to be exploited by the propagandists who were opposed to Carlton Hayes’ diplomacy; and second, the high symbolic importance of Spain for the progressives, liberals, and émigrés that populated the ranks of the OWI. For Carroll and almost everybody else at OWI, using the words of Ambassador Claude G. Bowers’ book, the SCW had been the “rehearsal for World War II” and General Franco was not any better than Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.[5] In that sense, Shulman is right to suggest that I should have articulated better what the Spanish Civil War and Fascism meant for many Americans. Nevertheless, I hope that the story told in “The Trouble with Propaganda” represents in itself an original contribution to illuminating the open wounds left in American society by the Spanish Civil War as well as the new ones created by the handling of U.S. wartime foreign relations.

To conclude, I would like to point to one of the main contributions of my article of which Shulman makes no mention: the singular influence that Carlton Hayes’s experience in neutral Spain had in the transition from World War II propaganda to Cold War public diplomacy via the foundational MacMahon Report, which included almost verbatim many remarks the Ambassador had suggested to his Columbia University colleague.[6] I am sure that the more historians dig into the history of American propaganda to territories not occupied by the Axis in World War II, the better we will be able to understand the role that public diplomacy played in the fundamental transformation U.S. foreign relations underwent in the 1940s.[7]

[1] Holly Cowan Shulman, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945 (Madison, WI, 1990).

[2] The historiography of U.S. policy to Spain in World War II has longed been trapped in an endless, passionate, and – I dare to say – not too productive debate about Carlton Hayes’s handling of his wartime mission in Madrid. For a recent example, see H-Diplo Article Review no. 346, Joan-Maria Thomàs’s review of Emmet Kennedy’s “Ambassador Carlton J.H. Hayes’ Wartime Diplomacy: Making Spain a Haven from Hitler,” Diplomatic History 36: 2 (April 2012): 237-260, and the corresponding Author’s Response at See also Pablo León-Aguinaga “Los estudios históricos y las relaciones hispano-norteamericanas durante la Segunda Guerra mundial y la Guerra Fría,” Circusntancia, X, 27 (2012), electronic journal.

[3] On the long tradition of conservative anti-Americanism in Spain, see Daniel Fernández, El enemigo Yanqui. Las raíces conservadoras del antiamericanismo español (Zaragoza, 2012).

[4] See Carlton J.H. Hayes, Wartime Mission in Spain (New York, 1945), and The United States and Spain: An Interpretation (New York, 1951). For Southworth’s legacy, see the renowned Spanish Civil War collection named after him at UC San Diego:

[5] Claude G. Bowers, My Mission to Spain: Watching the Rehearsal for World War II (New York, 1954).

[6] A.W. MacMahon, Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1945).

[7] For two recent studies on the case of Mexico, see Jose A. Montero, ‘El despliegue de la diplomacia pública americana en Mexico: de la Buena Vecindad a la Campaña de la Verdad,’ in Antonio Niño and Jose A. Montero, Eds, Guerra Fría y Propaganda. Estados Unidos y su cruzada cultural en Europa y América Latina (Madrid, 2012): 311-40, and Kornel Chang, ‘Muted Reception: U.S. Propaganda and the Construction of Mexican Popular Popular Opinion during the Second World War’, Diplomatic History (2014): 569-98.