Note: This essay is part I of a II-part series on the Military-Entertainment Industrial Complex.

Note: This essay is part I of a II-part series on the Military-Entertainment Industrial Complex.

The Military-Entertainment Industrial Complex

By Schwab · 2 April 2024

"The Vision Machine", Part I: A History of the Motion Picture as a Weapon of Psychological Warfare
“If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”
The Doolittle Report, 1954
 
On April 23, 1896, Thomas Edison’s new motion projector the Vitascope premiered at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. The program opened with two pretty young girls in the Umbrella Dance before Sea Waves at Dover threatened to immerse the audience in water. A kinetic burlesque boxing match came next, followed by two patriotic messaging films Band Drill and The Monroe Doctrine, which showed the audience images of guns bombarding a shoreline. Finally, the premiere ended with a return to the dancing girls in Serpentine Dance
 
Here already all the elements of the modern ‘militainment’ film — violence, brawling, kinetic effects, patriotic symbolism and sex were present and about to be deployed. Less than two years later, the American military, poised for imperial expansion, began encouraging anti-colonial movements in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The press baron William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, recognized film’s potential for propaganda, and began funding Edison’s cameramen to make films sensationalizing Spanish atrocities. Almost two years to the day of the premier of the Vitascope, on April 21, 1896, the campaign succeeded in pushing the United States into a conflict with Spain.
 
One of the early ads for Edison’s earlier Kinetoscope had called it ‘The Life Producing Marvel’. But in scarcely a decades later it had become a weapon of war, thrilling audiences with martial spectacles and a phantom life of heroism without the risks. The public tasted war as entertainment, and it wanted more.
 
***
 
What is today known as the “Military-Entertainment Complex” has existed in embryo since World War I, but only became fully systemized following World War II and the establishment of the Office of War Information (OWI) on June 13, 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9182 decreed that the OWI would:
 
“Formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion picture, and other facilities, information programs designed to facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the Government…. Review, clear, and approve all proposed radio and motion picture programs sponsored by Federal departments and agencies; and serve as the central point of clearance and contact for the radio broadcasting and motion picture industries, respectively, in their relationships with Federal departments and agencies concerning such Government programs.”
 
The new body amalgamated agencies the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, and the Division of Information from the Office for Emergency Management into one consolidated body, at least in theory: in fact, the new body comprised a sprawling assemblage of objectives and techniques which took the OWI almost a year to untangle. The consolidation of the OWI also reorganized the Office of the Coordinator of Information into the infamous Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency CIA, whose psychological warfare initiatives formed the OWI Overseas Branch foundation.
 
Roosevelt appointed Elmer Davis, a popular liberal radio commentator, to serve as the Director of the OWI. As an advocate of interventionist agitation in the years leading up to the war, Davis understood his role was not to facilitate understanding, but to manipulate public opinion in the service of decided objectives. As he put it himself: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds, is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”
 
Between 1942 and 1945, the OWI reviewed and revised 1,652 film scripts and coordinated the production of hundreds of newsreels and films. Davis was surrounded by an overwhelmingly liberal team at OWI, dominated by interventionist New Dealers including Pulitzer Prize winners Archibald MacLeish and Robert Sherwood, the historians Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Pringle, and former Henry Wallace speechwriter Jack Fleming. Gardner Cowles Jr., a token moderate Republican, was included to create a semblance of bipartisanship. In his diary, OSS Planning Group Chair James Rogers described the group
 
“OWI is the menagerie of the Old Guard of the New Deal — the reformer intellectuals. There is Sherwood, the playwright who does the President’s speeches, lean, ragged, impulsive and a zealot. Archie MacLeish, the poet, Librarian of Congress but really a dreamer. Edgar Mowrer to whom men are black or white, ‘fascists’ or ‘liberals’. Barnes — ‘Joe’ — whom I do not know. A barrel full of Jews, Communists, or as the phrase goes, ‘fellow travelers’. I enjoy nearly all of them. They fight ‘evil’. They are the political guerrillas pricking Satan with words for needles, like the Salem witches but on God’s side. At the head a Hoosier writer and politician, Elmer Davis.”
 
The OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) — led by Lowell Mellett, a former newspaper editor and Roosevelt’s aide — was an especially liberal fortification. According to Mellett himself, the OWI had “one of the highest percentages of interventionist New Dealers of any wartime agency” Upon merging into OWI, Mellett became the liaison between the government and the motion picture industry, a role established in response to Hollywood’s own request for a dedicated federal contact post-Pearl Harbor. Assisting Mellet was Dorothy Jones, a liberal with a background in political science and early film content analysis. 
 
By mid-1942, Mellett had assigned Nelson Poynter to helm the Hollywood liaison office, another New Deal liberal. Mellett would ultimately become extremely influential in Hollywood, wielding power to recommend subjects for scripts, determine which stars would be cast, and delete any content in a script that contravened OWI’s messaging. With a budget of over $1 million in its first year of operations – the equivalent of $19 million today – spread over five divisions, the bureau’s tasks included producing war films, coordinating between Hollywood producers and US military entities including the First Motion Picture Unit and the Army Signal Corps, and ensuring that all war films aligned with the OWI staff’s left-liberal ideology.
 
The OWI took steps to affirm New Deal liberalism globally as a new “one world” ideology. To inculcate wartime propaganda with these specific protocols, Poynter’s team crafted a “Manual for the Motion-Picture Industry” in June 1942. This loose-leaf guide framed World War Two as a “people’s war” against fascism in the cause of a democratic world order promising economic security and political participation for all. Emphasizing “the Four Freedoms” – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear – the manual also identified racism and classism as fascistic traits. “We must emphasize,” the document states, “that this country is a melting pot, a nation of many races and creeds, who have demonstrated that they can live together and progress. We must establish a genuine understanding of alien and minority groups and recognize their great contribution to the building of our nation. In this war for freedom they fight side by side with us.”
 
In 1943, OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures analyzed the depiction of blacks in wartime movies and concluded that “in general, Negroes are presented as basically different from other people, as taking no relevant part in the life of the nation, as offering nothing, contributing nothing, expecting nothing.” Of the movies released in 1942 and early 1943, black people made an appearance in 23% of them, and were shown as “clearly inferior” in 82% of these. To correct this, OWI began making efforts to improve the image of “the Negro.” Films such as Crash Dive (1943) and Sahara (1943) put blacks in heroic combat roles. MGM’s Bataan (1943) treated blacks as near-equals, positive black characters were introduced, and scripts with scenes depicting blacks as servile were “written out,” in the cause of portraying America as a melting pot of the best of all nations, races, and creeds.
 
Another feature film influenced by the OWI team in this period was Keeper of the Flame, a film that focused on the tale of Robert Forrest, an American businessman posing as a patriot while secretly organizing a domestic fascist takeover. The film promoted OWI war goals by fusing Hollywood drama with far-left paranoia in order to warn Americans about the potential fascist menace posed by the wealthy. 

Thomas Edison's The Vitascope poster (1896)

Thomas Edison's The Vitascope poster (1896)

Although the OWI system was prolific and technically competent, many of the films failed to fill seats, leading to friction between studios and military officials. At the heart of this growing resentment was their bureaucrat’s practice of inserting their ideology awkwardly into films. Even Mellet agreed, “You boys and girls have been pretty proud of the job done on Pittsburgh and Keeper of the Flame. Catching both of them cold, as I did, I was shocked by the way the machinery creaked,” he wrote to his staff in a memo.
 
Producer Walter Wanger articulated the point of view that would become central to the military-entertainment complex for the next 80 years: “Hollywood is concerned about more than censorship. The OWI shows a growing desire to write things into scripts. Indeed, there is a mounting urge to dominate production. The officials moving in this direction are not equipped by any past relation to the motion picture industry.” The Bureau of Motion Pictures, Wanger argued, had empowered amateurs lacking industry expertise and misunderstood and underestimated the American public, treating them as “boobs” amenable to ham-fisted propaganda, where in reality the average “gum-chewer” was disenchanted by “clumsy” films. 
 
Wanger advised the government to adopt a more subtle approach: “Change, for the benefit of the results you want, from a take-over attitude to one of cooperation. You will find in your files, from motion picture leaders, suggestions for specific pictures far more powerful, toward the ends of victory and understanding, than any suggestions that have come to Hollywood from Washington. We really do know something about our business. We wish to make an even larger contribution to winning the war and achieving good will on earth than motion pictures already have made. The industry is not jealous of prerogatives, nor of personal standing; it has proved its willingness to waive profits in war-necessary filmmaking. Give the industry the broad lines of policy, and leave the committees within the industry the task of producing results.” This collaborative model, allowing Hollywood more responsibility to manage and direct the “psychological weapon” of cinema, would become the blueprint for the Pentagon-Hollywood nexus for decades.
 
After the OWI was officially defunded in 1945, its remnants were absorbed into the State Department, the United States Information Service, and the CIA. Many of its staffers returned to their respective fields in Hollywood, journalism, academia and politics to disseminate the values of the OWI into post-war American culture, and ultimately the rest of the world. These arrangements came to coalesce in the form of a network of Conservative and liberal philanthropists, political and business elites, academics, think tanks, and media, which ultimately merged with tech companies in the mid-2010s and evolved into the Censorship-NGO complex partially revealed by the “Twitter Files” in 2023.
 
William Benton personified the early model. A founding partner of Benton and Bowles, a prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency that pioneered radio advertising, he became a New Dealer after FDR entered office. Between 1945 and 1948, Benton served as the assistant Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs and in this capacity oversaw the establishment of the Office of Information and Cultural Affairs (OIC).
 
Set up using funds appropriated from the OWI, the OIC was the first permanent government propaganda office to ever exist in America. Ultimately it expanded into a complex global network with 76 branches under Benton’s direction. As he put it himself in a 1953 letter to President Dwight Eisenhower, the vision was a Cold War foreign influence system where the hand of the government was “carefully concealed, and, in some cases I should say, wholly eliminated.” For Benton: “A great deal of this particular type of thing would be done through arrangements with all sorts of privately operated enterprises in the field of entertainment, dramatics, music, and so on. Another part of it would be done through clandestine arrangements with magazines, newspapers and other periodicals, and book publishers.” 
 
After former OWI staff reentered the bloodstream of commercial news industry following the end of the war, Benton carefully cultivated them. News giants like Arthur Krock, Edward Barrett, and C. D. Jackson were kept in the government fold as advisors on press relations and information program assessments. Working closely with the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a networking body which Benton had co-founded in 1942 and which by 1945 included a long roster of presidents and board chairmen from critical American institutions. Benton also hosted lavish dinners where he invited former OWI staffers to keep them informed about recent activities in overseas information operations. 
 
On January 16, 1948, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, was passed by Congress. Benton had been instrumental in campaigning for the act behind the scenes. The legislation gave the Secretary of State permission to gather and distribute data about the United States, its citizens, and its policies via international media and information outlets, although it expressly forbade the dissemination of these propaganda materials inside the borders of the United States. Especially noteworthy is Section 1005, which transformed public diplomacy into a worldwide cultural warfare tool for advancing US interests through “the services and facilities of private agencies, including existing American press, publishing, radio, motion picture, and other agencies through contractual arrangements or otherwise.” 
 
The act stipulated  that “any such press release or radio script […] shall be available in the English language […] for examination by representatives of United States press associations, newspapers, magazines, radio systems, and stations.” Despite the prohibition of domestic propaganda, the act established a loophole that permitted the U.S. government to indirectly spread propaganda to its own citizenry by effectively laundering it through foreign sources. The CIA, for its part, would completely ignore the Act: the famous Operation Mockingbird, launched in the early 1950s, eventually swelled to include more than 3,000 CIA operatives and over 400 journalists. 
 
***
 
During WWII, a film unit under OSS control consisting of 300 Hollywood filmmakers and technicians, created propaganda, surveillance, training films, and captured footage from concentration camps that were used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials. After the war, at the same moment that OWI staff were reentering the press, former OSS operatives and First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) veterans were taking their expertise to the studios. The veterans brought, amongst other things, a favorable view of film as a psychological weapon and suspiciously close contacts with their former employers. Perhaps the best example of this is the 1946 film O.S.S., directed by Irving Pichel.
 
William Donovan, the father of American spycraft, personally approved O.S.S.‘s script, which is filled with eerily familiar memes and talking points still found in more recent CIA-supported content like Reacher or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. In the movie, John Martin plays Alan Ladd, a burglar who is recruited and trained by the OSS for operations in Europe after being jailed for espionage. Ladd had previously collaborated with the government on a number of movies produced by FMPU. The writer, Richard Maibaum, a friend and colleague of Ladd, worked on the Army Air Corps-produced film I Wanted Wings in 1941 and the British Ministry of Defense films Red Beret and The Cockleshell Heroes. He went on to become the principal writer for the James Bond film series, authoring 13 Bond movie scripts by the time of his death, several produced through British and American intelligence support.
 
O.S.S features the first recorded use of the term ‘central intelligence agency’ and progressive sexual politics well ahead of its time. Initially, the main character Martin doesn’t think women can carry out dangerous jobs. “Stop worrying about my sex,” the female spy ‘Elaine Dupree’ reproaches him, “treat me like any other member of the team.” The commanding officer reinforces the message: “Some of the most successful spies in history have been women.” In another scene Dupree is repulsed at being treated like a damsel in distress and rebukes Martin, telling him to “never come back for me again.” Ultimately Martin sacrifices Dupree for the sake of the mission – another spy movie trope in conflict with 1940s’ social convention and human instinct.
 
At the heart of O.S.S is the core formula for the genre of CIA-endorsed spy films and the real-world “amoral justification” of such an agency. The speech is worth quoting in full:
 
“We can’t waste too much time with you. We’re late. Four-hundred years. That’s how long ago the other major powers started their OSS. We’ve only got months, to build the first central intelligence agency in our history. A worldwide organization that’ll beat the enemy at its own game. It’s not your kind of game. You don’t know each other. You’re here under assumed names, but you’re all average decent Americans. And Americans aren’t brought up to fight the way the enemy fights. We can learn to become intelligence agents and saboteurs, if we have to. But we’re too sentimental, too trusting, too easy-going, and what’s worse, too self-centered… Forget everything you’ve ever been told about fair play and sportsmanship.”
 
This “you” is the American public. Your sense of honor is naïve and childish. Your decency is the result of a sheltered existence. We must “beat the enemy at its own game,” we must be even more ruthless, more cunning. This same logic and rhetoric would find its way into the secret report of the Doolittle Committee, chaired by General James H. Doolittle on the future of the OSS which was submitted to President Eisenhower in 1956, and has defined the operating credo of the military-entertainment complex ever since.

Schwab is a writer and researcher. He writes on schwabstack.substack.com and can be followed @realhumanschwab.

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