A Few Words on Independence Day

Noam Chomsky

Covert Action Quarterly, 1995

… Independence Day was designed by the first state propaganda agency, Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), created during World War I to whip a pacifist country into anti-German frenzy and, incidentally, to beat down the threat of labor which frightened respectable people after such events as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) victory in the Lawrence, Mass., strike of 1912. The CPI’s successes greatly impressed the business world; one of its members, Edward Bernays, became the leading figure in the vastly expanding public relations industry. Also much impressed was Adolf Hitler, who attributed Germany’s failure in World War I to the ideological victories of the British and U.S. propaganda agencies, which overwhelmed Germany’s efforts. Next time, Germany would be in the competition, he vowed. The influence of the great generalissimo on the propaganda front, as Wilson was described by political scientist Harold Lasswell, was not slight. Independence Day was one contribution.

This particular propaganda exercise began with business-government initiatives to Americanize immigrants, to inculcate loyalty and obedience and expel from their minds alien notions about the rights of working people. Such programs would turn immigrants into the natural foe of the IWW and other destructive forces that undermine the country’s ideals and institutions, the CPI founding document read. At a major conference of civic organizations (organized labor excluded), government and private organizations of all kinds and creeds had pledged themselves to cooperate in carrying out Americanization as a national endeavor, the organizers reported, while issuing plans for a successful Americanization program for the coming Fourth of July. The CPI took up the cudgels, now using the wartime fanaticism it had helped engender as another weapon against pacifists, agitators and other anti-American groups, notably the hated Wobblies. The Generalissimo joined in with a May 1918 endorsement. The title of the indoctrination ceremonies was to be Americanization Day; on reflection, Independence Day seemed preferable.

Labor leaders were aware of what was happening. A United Mine Workers (UMW) official objected that the business-government project was


attempting to set up a paternalism that will bring the workers of this country even more absolutely under the control of the employers, … strengthening the chain of industrial tyranny in this country. … [That is what lies behind these efforts] to sanctify and confirm oppression by waving the American flag in the face of its victims and by insidiously stigmatizing as unpatriotic any attempts they may make to throw off the yoke of the exploiting interests [that the organizers] represent.

But labor could not compete with state-corporate power, and lost this battle just as it failed to save May Day. (A jingoist holiday in the U.S., it is celebrated elsewhere as a labor festival which was begun in solidarity with the struggles of brutalized American workers.) …