FDR’s Propaganda Programs

A few days ago I posted some thoughts on recent attempts of government bodies to force social change on the people of this country. In that post I mentioned in passing that President Franklin Roosevelt used to spend large amounts of the taxpayers’ money on propaganda in support of his administration.

Someone posted a comment asking for more detail on Roosevelt’s programs, and I’m happy to oblige.

The best source I’ve found for info on FDR’s misuse of public funds to persuade the public to keep voting for him is Amity Shlaes’ excellent book The Forgotten Man. Shlaes details all the “arts” programs of  the New Deal, all of which were focused on pro-Roosevelt propaganda.

The Federal Writers’ Project employed over six thousand writers was part of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), under the direction of Presidential crony Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had such a close personal relationship with Roosevelt that he actually lived in the residential part of the White House for a while, although his first loyalty was apparently to the Soviet Union.

 As the Shlaes book details, Hopkins also “picked Hallie Flanagan of Vasser to create a theater that would air plays about the social conditions in the country – and again, spotlight New Deal progress.” Her agency was called the Federal Theater Project, or FTP.

During Roosevelt’s 1940 reelection campaign the FTP staged a play called Power, in which it portrayed FDR’s Republican opponent as an evil and foolish old capitalist. Harry Hopkins went backstage to complement the people involved. “People will say it’s propaganda,” said Hopkins. “Well, I say, what of it? It’s propaganda to educate the consumer.”

In August of 1935 the WPA announced that it would employ 26,000 artists, musicians, and actors, many of them for Flanagan’s FTP.

Hopkins’ WPA also hired an army of photographers to travel around the country and take pictures showing how desperate people were for more government assistance, and how happy the recipients of such assistance were. The idea came from Rex Tugwell, one of Roosevelt’s original Columbia University “brain trust.” The head of the department was Tugwell’s friend Roy Stryker.

(Tugwell was a leftist radical who once travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin, but he was not one of the Communists at Columbia University in that era.)

Stryker said the purpose of his photography department was to “hammer home” the message that “federal money was desperately needed for relief programs,” and to “show what a good job the agencies were doing out in the field.”  

The most famous visual image of the Depression Era is the photograph Migrant Mother, taking by government-employed propgaganda photographer Dorothea Lange.

Thirty years later President Johnson would create the National Endowment for the Arts, which spends taxpayers’ money on all kinds of avant garde (and sometimes obscene) art that doesn’t have enough popular appeal to succeed in the private sector. FDR’s approach to government-funded art was  much more focused.

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