Meet MythAmerica

columbiaMany recent Prophecy Panic Button entries have featured examinations of factors in US history. If you have found those entries interesting, you are invited to check out my new blog, Meet MythAmerica.

This Panic Button blog was originally planned to feature material more closely related to prophetic speculation in modern America. Although the history topics have been relevant to prophecy in general, I’d like to return this blog to a more narrow focus. And thus I have created the new blog as a place to host my research and observations regarding American History.

The aim of the Meet MythAmerica blog is “dispelling mythperceptions about American history.”

Read the introductory blog entry to this new blog at the link below.

The Myth of Miss America

If you enjoy what you read, be sure to sign up on that page to receive email notifications each time a new entry is added.

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 11

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 11:

Eddie’s War

(This is the 11th entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 Eddie Bernays, the originator of the term “Public Relations” and the field’s most prolific and successful early practitioner, a man dubbed “The Father of Spin,” had been the primary PR man for the international conglomerate/octopus United Fruit Company in the 1940s, and its president, Sam the Banana Man.



Up until 1944 UFC was able to control Guatemala, one of its “Banana Republics,” with the clout of its dominance of the society and economics of the country. It owned the lion’s share of the productive land (some of it used to produce bananas for export, much of it just “kept in reserve” by UFC for possible future use.) It owned the only railroad in the country, successfully resisted the building of roads that might compete with its railroad, ran the telegraph service, owned the main port…out of which it shipped its bananas.


UFC was very happy with the succession of dictators who had ruled the country for many years. They had an “understanding” with them on many issues of significance to the Banana company. But in 1944 there was a popular uprising that expelled the military strongman in power, and the citizens of Guatemala succeeded in electing Juan José Arévalo, an independent leader for the country who began making gradual changes to the status quo—including allowing unions and strikes.

This was mildly threatening to UFC, but they remained calm until 1951.

In March 1951 Arévalo was succeeded by his defense minister, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Arbenz picked up the pace of change, enacting a modest income tax, upgrading roads and ports, and, most significantly, implementing a plan to redistribute uncultivated lands of large plantations, paying the old owners with government bonds. Between 1952 and 1954 the Arbenz government confiscated and turned over to 100,000 poor families 1.5 million acres— including, in March of 1953, some 210,000 acres of United Fruit Company holdings.  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations.  Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

Things went downhill for The Octopus at that point, and Eddie Bernays sprang into action. For the details of some of his efforts, see the previous entry in this series.

The bottom line of those efforts was to establish in the minds of the American public and its leaders that Arbenz and his regime were closet Communists, bent on giving the Reds a toe-hold in South America.

In other words, according to The Spin, the reforms going on had nothing to do with an honest effort to improve the lot of the impoverished citizens of Guatemala, they were just political moves to establish Guatemala as a puppet of Soviet Russia. This Spin was done through a concerted PR effort targeting the reporters and editors of the main media outlets in the USA. Of course Bernays never allowed the efforts to put the spotlight on just HOW much “getting rid of” Arbenz was in the vital interests of the United Fruit Company. As noted in the previous entry in this series:

He had picked out ten widely circulated magazines, including Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s, and said each could be persuaded to run a slightly different story on the brewing Guatemalan crisis much the way they were covering the ongoing battle between the railroads and truckers. “In certain cases, stories would be written by staff men,” Bernays wrote. “In certain other cases, the magazine might ask us to supply the story, and we, in turn, would engage a most suitable writer to handle the matter.”

But Eddie’s efforts were never half-hearted. He went on to turn this minor flurry into a major blitz.

He was also aware of the clout the New York Times carried with the public and the press, and he prodded the paper to publish more stories favorable to his client. He accomplished this by skillfully exploiting his ties to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a relative of Bernays’s wife, Doris.

He tried to influence the assignment of reporters, ensuring they were sympathetic to his cause and complaining when they weren’t. He even weighed in on letters to the editor, writing Sulzberger in the summer of 1951 to complain about a letter the Times had run on “Guatemala Labor Democracy” written by the artist Rockwell Kent, who Bernays said “has been a fellow traveler [Communist sympathizer] over a period of years, which would appear to label the letter as covert propaganda of the Party.”

“Propaganda” was a word Bernays seldom used in a pejorative sense. And propaganda was precisely what he was promoting with the press here and abroad, pushing sympathetic publications to print sympathetic stories, then urging them to mail the stories to colleagues in the hope of getting even more such stories.

People complain in the 21st century how pliable the “mainstream media” are to outside influences, from Big Government to Big Business. NAH, they can’t hold a candle to their brother reporters of a 60 years ago.

A surprising number of respected reporters seemed not to know or care about that orchestration or about the fact that Bernays worked for a firm with huge economic interests at stake. What mattered was that his releases were filled with facts they could quickly transform into stories. Some journalists even forged personal bonds with him and began sharing information they’d collected. New York Times reporter Will Lissner offered Bernays this friendly advice: “I notice a somewhat unusual pre-occupation with the affairs of the United Fruit Co. in the Communist press. Note the two clippings enclosed. There were several other references in the period. I shall watch to see how the Moscow press handles these dispatches.”

Columnist Walter Winchell was someone else the PR man felt he could count on.

Walter Winchell? THIS Walter Winchell? The infamous Hollywood gossip columnist?


Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio gossip commentator.

…Using connections in the entertainment, social, and governmental realms, he would expose exciting or embarrassing information about celebrities in those industries. This caused him to become very feared, as a journalist, because he would routinely impact the lives of famous or powerful people, exposing alleged information and rumors about them, using this as ammunition to attack his enemies, and to blackmail influential people. He used this power, trading positive mention in his column (and later, his radio show) for more rumors and secrets.

… His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday-night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s.

… The most controversial part of Winchell’s career were his attempts, especially after World War II, to destroy the careers of personal or political enemies. A favorite tactic was to accuse them of being communists or of sexual impropriety…

…For most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel.Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, “I know — I’m just a son of a bitch.”

By the mid-1950s he was widely believed to be arrogant, cruel, and ruthless.

Yeah. That Walter Winchell. Eddie knew who the power brokers were in America. The issue wasn’t needing someone to help spread actual, factual “news.” It was spreading gossip, innuendo, doubt. Even about a democratically-elected president of a poor country 3000 miles from Hollywood. Walter fit the bill perfectly.

He cabled Winchell at Hollywood’s Beverly Wilshire Hotel, telling him about a Manhattan rally that Paul Robeson, Florentine Luis, and other prominent leftists were planning “in defense of Guatemala.” “You may care to deflate in your Sunday broadcast suggesting rally might discuss false accusations against United States made by Communists,” the cable said.

Just how secure United Fruit was about Winchell’s support became clear nine days later when Whitman [head of UFC’s PR department] wrote Bernays expressing doubts about columnist Drew Pearson and suggesting that “if we decided to try to straighten him out, perhaps Walter Winchell could do this job. What do you think?”

This shameless courting of the “makers of public opinion” in the US at the time went to even greater lengths.

Reporters and columnists weren’t the only ones willing to see the Tropics through Bernays’s lens. In January 1952 he took a group of journalists on a two-week tour of the region. With him were the publishers of Newsweek, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Nashville Banner, and the New Orleans Item; a contributing editor from Time; the foreign editor of Scripps-Howard; and high-ranking officials from the United Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Bernays insisted in his memoirs that the journalists were free “to go where they wanted, talk to whomever they wanted, and report their findings freely,” and he reacted angrily to suggestions in later years that the trip was manipulative.

But Thomas McCann, who in the 1950s was a young public relations official with United Fruit, wrote in his memoirs that that trip and others like it were “under the Company’s careful guidance and, of course, at company expense.… The trips were ostensibly to gather information, but what the press would hear and see was carefully staged and regulated by the host. The plan represented a serious attempt to compromise objectivity. Moreover, it was a compromise implicit in the invitation— only underscored by Bernays’ and the Company’s repeated claims to the contrary.”

But surely the top reporters and journalists in the nation at the time weren’t THAT easily led around by the nose…were they?

Both are right, at least in part. The editors involved were too sophisticated to be taken in by overt propaganda and too seasoned not to insist on seeing things for themselves, as Bernays suggested. Yet his own memos make clear that he used all of his PR wiles to make sure those editors came away concurring with United Fruit’s stand on the conflict. Compromising objectivity, after all, was what he did for a living.

By whatever route he got there, the results of his trips to the Tropics were beyond dispute: more and more stories sounding an alarm about Guatemala. As Bernays recalled of the editors and publishers who traveled with him, “after their return, as I had anticipated, public interest in the Caribbean skyrocketed in this country. Ludwell Denny’s stories in the Scripps-Howard newspapers told of efforts in Guatemala to ‘engender hatred of Yankee monopoly capital and imperialism.’”

How do we know all this “stuff” about Eddie’s manipulations in his UFC v Guatemala propaganda campaign? Can historians really dig out that much from a few old news clippings in the vaults of the New York Times or Newsweek magazine? No, probably not that much—but they didn’t need to. The author of the Father of Spin book had a much more effective resource:

Historians have written extensively about that propaganda campaign, but they have always relied on the sketchy account Bernays provided in his autobiography and on the limited materials available from the American and Guatemalan governments, the fruit company, and others. Upon Bernays’s death in 1995, however, the Library of Congress made public fifty-three boxes of his papers concerning United Fruit. Those documents paint in vivid detail his behind-the-scenes maneuvering and show how, in 1954, he helped topple Guatemala’s left-leaning regime. The papers also offer insights into the foreign policies of U.S. corporations and the U.S. diplomatic corps during the turbulent 1950s. And they make clear how the United States viewed its Latin neighbors as ripe for economic exploitation and political manipulation— and how the propaganda war Bernays waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future U.S.-led campaigns in Cuba and, much later, Vietnam.

Yes, Eddie’s efforts didn’t just stop with giving a bad rep in the US to Arbenz. They actually made possible the violent overthrow of his government, with the direct assistance of the US CIA.

Bernays was gaining ground with the press, but like a relentless general, with each step forward he became more determined to press ahead. In March 1952, for instance, Guatemala offered United Fruit the labor contract it had long sought. While company officials saw that as a major triumph, Bernays insisted it was a “tactical retreat” by the Communists and “does not mean in any sense that their power has been eliminated.” The appropriate response, he added in a letter to company president Kenneth H. Redmond, would be “to carry forward the strong aggressive tactics of the United Fruit Company in pointing the finger at Communism in Guatemala.… One other element it seems to me is important, too— that is, that the people of the United States be not permitted to get the impression that all the hue and cry about Guatemala was raised in terms of self-interest. It becomes necessary, therefore, to continue to make visible to the American people what the Communist penetration of Guatemala really is.”

So he intensified his efforts.

Even as he pushed ahead on other fronts, Bernays always kept a close eye on his press and other propaganda contacts, which he and United Fruit saw as his most effective weapons. In April 1954 he wrote to the Saturday Evening Post complimenting it on an article about communism in Latin America and offering to provide—” at no expense, of course”— lists of those who might want reprints, including members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, the “one hundred special writers,” and key officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Defense Department. “We also believe,” Bernays wrote, “we can be helpful in possibly arranging for some member of Congress to reprint the article, in whole or in part, in the Congressional Record, with a possibility of mailings from the Congressional Record to a larger list of opinion molders and group leaders.”

Bernays was tireless.

At the same time, plans were under way to mail to American Legion posts and auxiliaries 300,000 copies of a brochure entitled “Communism in Guatemala— 22 Facts.” Bernays’s schedule for May 1954 reflects the frenetic pace of his activities concerning Guatemala and of the close ties he’d forged with the New York Times. On May 1 he talked to Freedman, the Times foreign editor. Two days later he spoke to Yarmon, on the Times foreign desk, and two days after that he talked again with Freedman. On May 6 he called Freedman and “supplied him with additional information” and spoke with Lissner. The next day he spoke with Lissner twice “regarding Honduras. Passed information on to Mr. Whitman.” Bernays was in contact with the Times at least once a day nearly every day, also finding time to talk to journalists at the Associated Press, Meet the Press, the New York Herald Tribune, and other influential media outlets.

And finally Eddie got his “war.”

Events in Guatemala, meanwhile, were firing up. The Eisenhower administration, which assumed office in 1953, stepped up the pressure on Arbenz. The Guatemalan president responded by hardening his stance, and month by month the situation edged toward confrontation. The final showdown began on June 18, 1954, when Carlos Castillo Armas, an army officer living in exile, crossed the border from Honduras with two hundred men recruited and trained by the CIA— a band Bernays referred to as an “army of liberation.”

You can see UFC’s Chiquita honoring the memory of those mercenaries…er, uh, “dedicated members of the army of liberation” below.


This “invasion,” supported by a CIA air attack, quickly achieved its goal, and on June 27 a military junta took control of Guatemala. Armas was named president a week later. How much of a role did Bernays play in undermining the Arbenz government and in the final assault? His Library of Congress files show he remained a key source of information for the press, especially the liberal press, right through the takeover. In fact, as the invasion was commencing on June 18, his papers indicate he was giving the “first news anyone received on the situation” to the Associated Press, United Press, the International News Service, and the New York Times, with contacts intensifying over the next several days.

After his ouster and exile, Arbenz made a public statement about the events.

arbenzIn a radio broadcast in July 1954, Arbenz said:

They have used the pretext of anti-communism. The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company [United Fruit] and the other U.S. monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin countries… I was elected by a majority of the people of Guatemala [he got 85% of the popular vote in 1951], but I have had to fight under difficult conditions. The truth is that the sovereignty of a people cannot be maintained without the material elements to defend it…. I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity.

Eddie’s boxes of personal records are not the only “long lost” details of the Guatamalan situation. A WHOLE lot more was made available many years later through The National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The National Security Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-governmental, non-profit research and archival institution located on the seventh floor of the Gelman Library building at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. Founded in 1985 by Scott Armstrong, it archives and publishes declassified U.S. government files concerning selected topics of US foreign policy. The Archive collects and analyzes the documents of many various government institutions obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive then selects documents to be published in the form of manuscripts and microfiche as well as made available through their website, which receives a half-million downloads daily. According to a Washington Post feature story, the Archive files roughly 2,000 FOIA requests annually, collecting about 75,000 documents. [Wiki]

In other words, these people sort of do legally what the recent whistle blowers like Manning and Snowden have done illegally, by just focusing on “declassified” materials… but declassified materials that have been quickly swept under the carpet after declassification. In 1997 the Archive made available the following, which is extremely relevant to this blog series. I have bolded some phrases in the text below that are particularly relevant.

From the National Security Archive at George Washington University

CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents

Edited by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4

Washington, D.C. – These documents, including an instructional guide on assassination found among the training files of the CIA’s covert “Operation PBSUCCESS,” were among several hundred records released by the Agency on May 23, 1997 on its involvement in the infamous 1954 coup in Guatemala. After years of answering Freedom of Information Act requests with its standard “we can neither confirm nor deny that such records exist,” the CIA has finally declassified some 1400 pages of over 100,000 estimated to be in its secret archives on the Guatemalan destabilization program. (The Agency’s press release stated that more records would be released before the end of the year.) An excerpt from the assassination manual appears on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times on Saturday, May 31, 1997.

…Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 to continue a process of socio- economic reforms that the CIA disdainfully refers to in its memoranda as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’” The first CIA effort to overthrow the Guatemalan president—a CIA collaboration with Nicaraguan dictator Anastacio Somoza to support a disgruntled general named Carlos Castillo Armas and codenamed Operation PBFORTUNE–was authorized by President Truman in 1952. As early as February of that year, CIA Headquarters began generating memos with subject titles such as “Guatemalan Communist Personel to be disposed of during Military Operations,” outlining categories of persons to be neutralized “through Executive Action”–murder–or through imprisonment and exile. The “A” list of those to be assassinated contained 58 names–all of which the CIA has excised from the declassified documents.

PBSUCCESS, authorized by President Eisenhower in August 1953, carried a $2.7 million budget for “psychological warfare and political action” and “subversion,” among the other components of a small paramilitary war. But, according to the CIA’s own internal study of the agency’s so-called “K program,” up until the day Arbenz resigned on June 27, 1954, “the option of assassination was still being considered.” While the power of the CIA’s psychological-war, codenamed “Operation Sherwood,” against Arbenz rendered that option unnecessary, the last stage of PBSUCCESS called for “roll-up of Communists and collaborators.” Although Arbenz and his top aides were able to flee the country, after the CIA installed Castillo Armas in power, hundreds of Guatemalans were rounded up and killed. Between 1954 and 1990, human rights groups estimate, the repressive operatives of sucessive military regimes murdered more than 100,000 civilians.

Just in case you are not picking up on the full import of all of this…the citizens of Guatemala freely elected by an 85% majority, in 1950, a president. In 1953, the US president authorized a project by the CIA that had the goal of ousting…and evidently “offing” if necessary…this democratically-elected foreign president of a poverty-stricken nation 3,000 miles from Washington DC. And “offing” as many of his associates as necessary to make this happen…the “hit list” found in the declassified archival materials contained 58 names (although all were whited out in the released document, so no one is sure exactly who they were.)

What is wrong with this picture?

Document 2: “A Study of Assassination”, Unsigned, Undated.


Among the documents found in the training files of Operation PBSUCCESS and declassified by the Agency is a “Study of Assassination.” A how-to guide book in the art of political killing, the 19-page manual offers detailed descriptions of the procedures, instruments, and implementation of assassination. “The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination,” counsels the study. “A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” For an assassin using “edge weapons,” the manual notes in cold clinical terms, “puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached….Absolute reliability is obtained by severing the spinal cord in the cervical region.” The manual also notes that to provide plausible denial, “no assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded.” Murder, the drafters state, “is not morally justifiable,” and “persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.”

Click on the “Document 2”  link above to see the ASTONISHING text of this little “manual.” It includes such snappy suggestions as:

For secret assassination, either simple or chase, the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated.

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve. Bridge falls into water are not reliable.

The Archive also contains this document that made clear numerous details of the US role in the Guatemalan coup.

Document 5: “Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954”, CIA History Staff document by Nicholas Cullather, 1994. Excerpt.

A narrative history of the CIA’s role in planning, organizing and executing the coup that toppled Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954. Cullather, now a diplomatic historian at the University of Indiana, worked on contract for one year with the CIA, where he was given access to thousands of agency records and secret operational files in order to produce this overview. The result is a surprisingly critical study of the agency’s first covert operation in Latin America.

Beginning with a review of the political, economic and social forces that led to Arbenz’s presidency in 1951, the document is an intimate account of how cold war concerns convinced President Eisenhower to order the removal of the democratically-elected leader by force. It also provides countless new details of a covert mission plagued by disastrous military planning and failed security measures: according to Cullather, “Operation Success” barely succeeded.

The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that it was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory, however. After Arbenz resigned, Eisenhower called the Director of Central Intelligence, Allan W. Dulles, and his senior covert planners into a formal briefing of the operation. Cullather’s account now reveals that the agency lied to the president, telling him that only one of the rebels it had backed was killed. “Incredible,” said the president. And it was. At least four dozen were dead, according to the CIA’s own records. Thus did the Guatemala coup enter agency lore as an “unblemished triumph,” Cullather explains, and become the model for future CIA activities in Latin America.

And the story doesn’t by any means end with the ouster of Arbenz. It drug on for decades.

In Guatemala, of course, “Operation Success” had a deadly aftermath. After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala’s military leaders developed and refined, with U.S. assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing.

Learn more about this decades-long, violent, and ignominious legacy of Eddie’s War in the final entry in this series, coming soon.

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 10

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 10:

Steaming Toward War

(This is the tenth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)


My daughter and her husband have been on several short Caribbean cruises on ships of the Carnival Cruise Lines because her father in law is employed as a musical entertainer on Carnival Cruise ships like the Ecstasy:

carnivalIn fact, they took our granddaughter on such a cruise this spring as a high school graduation present.  Embarking from Port Canaveral, Florida, a five day cruise takes passengers for short stops at two or three ports in the Caribbean to do a little sightseeing and shopping, along with a day or two on “the high seas” where they can just enjoy the view—or the many onboard amenities. These huge pleasure ships feature a variety of musical shows, a casino, swimming pools, spas, game rooms, special activities for children and teens, and more.

waterslideIt’s a “self-contained” vacation, with the price of all meals included, onboard motel-style rooms—and the famous unlimited eating opportunities.

buffet bistroWhile doing some research for this series of blog entries, I was surprised to find that such “pleasure cruises” are a relatively recent phenomenon, unknown much more than 100 years ago. I guess because of knowing about the Titanic and other luxury liner steamships of its time, I thought that cruise vacations were common back then.

titanicThe Titanic wasn’t the first of its kind, only the biggest. Such luxury liner steamships had been taking people across the Atlantic since the 1830s. But it didn’t dawn on me until I read the details, that the Titanic (and its smaller predecessors) wasn’t a “luxury cruise” ship at all. Oh, don’t get me wrong… it was certainly luxurious enough to compete, and surpass in some ways, the Carnival Cruise Line of today!

It had splendiferous surroundings…

titanic staircaseSprawling dining rooms with first-class cuisine…

titanic dining roomA heated indoor pool (with sea water)…

titanic heated poolAnd a first-class gymnasium open to men and women.

titanic gym titanic gym2It even had a Turkish Bath/Spa room…

titanic spaUndersea explorations of the Titanic wreckage in 2005 even gave us an amazing glimpse of what that spa originally looked like. In a black and white picture, it looks quite drab. But look at this ACTUAL photo of the incredibly well-preserved spa room as it looks now at the bottom of the ocean. You can see the ceramic tiled walls with colors still almost as bright as when they were brand new in 1912.

titanic sunken spaBut in spite of all this, Titanic wasn’t a cruise ship. A cruise ship’s goal is to be the “home away from home” of a vacationer, picking them up from a central port, entertaining them for a while on water (with a few on-shore junkets along the way), and then returning them to where they embarked. The Titanic was a passenger liner that had as its main goal being a “mode of transportation” for people traveling between Europe and the United States. Yes, it provided them luxury and entertainment along the way, but that was a side benefit of using it as their mode of transportation. Once they got to the United States or to Europe, they would disembark and go about other business.

No, actual “vacation cruising” was only getting started around the time of the Titanic. The very first vacation/cruising ships were…banana boats!

banana boatNo, no. Not that kind of banana boat shown above. That kind of boat was only for bananas. Here is the kind of banana boat that first introduced the world to “pleasure cruising.”

ufcboatSee the caption? Yes, these “cruise line” ships were owned by the United Fruit Company, employer in the 30s, 40s, and 50s of the Father of Spin, Eddie L Bernays. As explained in the previous entry in this series, Eddie helped the UFC with its “public relations.” And a whole lot more.

Starting in the late 1800s, big steam ships owned by fruit companies began regularly shuttling back and forth between the US mainland and the tropical fruit-producing countries of the  Caribbean and Central and South America, bringing fruit (probably the “lion’s share” of it bananas) to American markets. Some time around 1900 it occurred to someone in the UFC management that their ships weren’t really making any money on the portion of their trips headed south empty—so why not offer to take passengers along to help defray expenses, then return with passengers and bananas? Although I don’t doubt that some of the time these banana boats were carrying passengers on their way to do business in the Latin American countries, it didn’t take long for the company to realize that there was a market for providing a luxurious two and three week “vacation cruise” experience for a middle and upper class clientele.

From an early advertisement for UFC cruises:

The “Admiral” steamships operated by this company are American built twin-screw vessels, and are especially adapted to tropical travel. They have commodious promenade decks, cool and airy, well-ventilated staterooms situated on the main and hurricane decks amidships, thus insuring a minimum of sea motion. The dining saloon is located on the main deck well forward of the engine room, and removed from all disagreeable odors incident. Bathrooms are supplied with fresh or sea water and are at the disposal of passengers at all times. The table is made an especial feature of these boats, and is supplied with every delicacy the northern and tropical markets afford.
The ships are furnished throughout with a perfect system of electric lighting and steam heating.The stewards and waiters are unremitting in their duties and everything is done for the comfort and convenience of the passengers.

Yes, sounds pretty much just like a Carnival Cruise now! And as it turned out, there was a large market for such luxury vacations among the pre-jet-set of the time.


1914 gwf1915:

1915 gwf1916:

1916 gwf1919:



1927gwfYou’ll notice the ads above call the United Fruit Company’s steam ships the “Great White Fleet.” They started applying this name for their ships shortly after 1910:

In the twilight of United States President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, Roosevelt dispatched sixteen U.S. Navy battleships of the Atlantic Fleet [along with lots of other smaller accompanying vessels] on a worldwide voyage of circumnavigation from 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909. The hulls were painted white, the Navy’s peacetime color scheme, decorated with gilded scrollwork with a red, white, and blue banner on their bows. These ships would later come to be known as the Great White Fleet.

usnavyThe purpose of the fleet deployment was multifaceted. Ostensibly, it served as a showpiece of American goodwill as the fleet visited numerous countries and harbors. … Additionally, the voyage of the Great White Fleet demonstrated both at home and on the world stage that the US had become a major sea power in the years after its triumph in the Spanish-American War, with possessions that included Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

… The Great White Fleet showed that, without having to fire a shot, the US Navy could take control of the seas with an overwhelming display of naval might, and it demonstrated the practical import of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theories on the use of sea power to project global power. Since Japan had arisen as a major sea power with the 1905 annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, the deployment of the Great White Fleet was therefore intended, at least in part, to send a message to Tokyo that the American fleet could be deployed anywhere, even from its Atlantic ports, and would be able to defend American interests in the Philippines and the Pacific.

This “publicity campaign” was very impressive to a lot of Americans, and it had a high popularity rating.

navy3 postcardBut there were some skeptics. Not everyone in the US was ALL that impressed with this sabre rattling.

navy2 puckIn any event, soon after the completion of this “Speak softly and carry a big stick” demonstration by Roosevelt, the UFC decided to nickname its own brightly-white-painted fleet the same way. No doubt to take advantage of the built-in publicity factor. And, in fact, after WW1 it eventually bought a number of decommissioned US Navy vessels and pressed them into Banana Boat service. The Great White Fleet eventually became the largest privately-owned fleet of ships in the world. During WW2, the services of the UFC’s Great White Fleet were put at the disposal of the US military to transport troops and war supplies.

Yes, the United Fruit Company was not only one of the most profitable companies in America by the 1940s, through its “service to the nation” it also had influence and “connections”…direct and indirect…with the US government—and many US politicians, military leaders, and other governmental officials. And thus the financial interests of the UFC were intertwined with the political interests and finances of the US—and of US officials.

This reality was to be put to great use later by the corporation—and its Public Relations consultant, Eddie Bernays.

At the same time, as noted in the previous entry in this series, the UFC also had extensive dealings with and influence over the governments of a number of Caribbean, Central, and South American nations. They weren’t called “Banana Republics” for nothin’! This had been going on since the earliest years of the century. For instance, here is a news item from Time Magazine, November 25,1929:

Costa Rica. Limón is the chief Costa Rican port on the Caribbean. And Port Limón is the creation of U. F. C. The docks are owned by U. F. C.; the railroad from the port to the capital (San Jose) is operated by U. F. C.; of the townspeople of Port Limón, 95% are employees of U. F. C. And only U. F. C. ships touch at Port Limón. Hence last week, when U. F. C. threatened to suspend trade with Costa Rica, Port Limón had reason to feel that life itself was being threatened.

Cause of United Fruit Co.’s drastic threats was Costa Rica’s new law placing a tax of 3% a bunch upon bananas, second only to coffee in Costa Rican economics. Angry, the U. F. C. declared it would be cheaper to open new plantations in other countries, showed its annoyance by stopping new planting in Costa Rica, refusing to renew contracts with independent growers. United Fruit Co. trade is essential to Costa Rica. Last year Costa Rica’s revenues came to $33,318,699, those of the fruit company to $20,606,393. Observers last week believed the law would be repealed.

Yes, Costa Rica was a Banana Republic.

As was Honduras. As noted in the last blog entry, UFC president Sam Zemurray once had the chutzpah to remark, braggingly: “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” And Eddie Bernays, a king of chutzpah in his own way, admired Zemmuray’s chutzpah in the area of politics/corporate leadership:

Bernays admiringly related this anecdote of Samuel Zemurray, the Chairman of United Fruit’s board, from one of their many conversations. “A man who could concentrate on his conversation while reports were brought to him of three disasters at sea involving loss of lives, cargoes and money, was fitted by temperament to direct an American industrial and agricultural complex in the Middle American jungles.” Zemurray would “glance at each” disastrous report handed him then offhandedly “toss it into the trash.” Now that’s Leadership!

This kind of chutzpah did them both well when they arrived at a need to start a war to “protect the interests” of UFC in another of its Banana Republics, Guatemala.

mapOther than bananas, Guatemala is most famous for its beautiful ruins of the ancient Mayan culture. Yes, the Mayans with that famous calendar that got so many people excited in 2012!

ancient mayaMost US children study the ancient cultures of the Aztecs and Mayans of Middle America when they are in grade school. I know I did. What I didn’t realize, and I don’t think many other people realize either, is that while the Aztec civilization disappeared totally (except for ruins now) and its people were either destroyed or totally absorbed into populations around them, the Mayan people still exist as a recognizable group today. The largest concentration of them is in Guatemala. Guatemala’s population is about 13 million, and over 40% are people of direct Mayan descent. Most speak Mayan language dialects too, totally unrelated to the Spanish-based dialects around them.

mayanold mayanyoungThe UFC had been busy in Guatemala since its earliest days—the government of Guatemala in 1901 had hired the UFC to manage the country’s postal service, and it had been intimately enmeshed in the affairs of the country since then.

By the mid-1950s … Guatemala was a hot spot and had been since 1944, when a mass uprising ended the fourteen-year rule of military strongman General Jorge Ubico Castañeda. Juan José Arévalo, a professor living in exile in Argentina, returned home and was swept into office in 1945 with more than 85 percent of the vote.

Arévalo faced overwhelming obstacles, from 70 percent illiteracy to more than 70 percent of the land being held by just 2 percent of the population. But he began to make changes, introducing a democratic political system, overseeing construction of new schools and hospitals, establishing a limited social security network, and giving workers the right to organize and strike. He also pursued limited land reform and distributed property confiscated from Germans and Nazi sympathizers. And he managed to survive more than two dozen plots to unseat him.

In March 1951 Arévalo was succeeded by his defense minister, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán.

arbenzArbenz picked up the pace of change, enacting a modest income tax, upgrading roads and ports, and, most significantly, implementing a plan to redistribute uncultivated lands of large plantations, paying the old owners with government bonds. Between 1952 and 1954 the Arbenz government confiscated and turned over to 100,000 poor families 1.5 million acres— including, in March of 1953, some 210,000 acres of United Fruit Company holdings.  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations.  Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

Now mind you, what Arbenz did wasn’t just “grab” those lands from UFC. It arranged to PAY the company for them. And they weren’t lands that the UFC was actually using. The land was “fallow”—not being used for crop production at all. It was part of the vast amount of “reserve” land that UFC had received practically free from earlier regimes, and claimed to be holding “just in case” some future problem—say a hurricane—wiped out some of its productive land and it needed to replace it. While it held this land in an unproductive state for decades, vast numbers of the huge population of peasants in Guatemala had NO farming land, and many if not most of them in banana producing areas eked out a near-starvation living for their families through employment with UFC.

The fruit company had chosen Guatemala half a century earlier in large part because of its cooperative government. That choice had been reinforced over the years as Guatemalan leaders exempted the company from internal taxation, let it import goods duty-free, helped it maintain control of the country’s only Atlantic seaport and virtually every mile of railroad, and guaranteed that workers would earn no more than fifty cents a day. It was a capitalist’s dream.

By the time Arévalo took over, United Fruit was Guatemala’s number one landowner, employer, and exporter. The Arévalo reign raised a red flag for the company. Workers went on strike at its banana plantation and seaport, forcing it for the first time to make concessions in a labor contract, and the fruit company was targeted as Guatemala’s most glaring symbol of hated Yankee imperialism. If Arévalo was a portent, Arbenz was the realization of the dreaded prophecy. He wanted to build a highway to the Atlantic to break United Fruit’s stranglehold on inland transport, a second port to compete with United’s facilities at Puerto Barrios, and a hydroelectric plant to end the near-monopoly of U.S.-backed power suppliers.

This Banana Republic was fast becoming a Banana Nightmare for UFC! Earlier dictators had been UFC lap-dogs, tucking tail and giving in to their every wish. This new top dog …

…wanted to take another 177,000 acres of the fruit company’s land, bringing the total to nearly 400,000 acres. The company would be reimbursed at about $ 3 an acre. That was what United Fruit said in its tax statements the fallow land was worth— far less than the $ 75 an acre it claimed once the land was expropriated.

Expropriated. That’s the fancy word describing a process where a government claims the right to acquire the land of some entity within its boundaries, even if the entity doesn’t want to sell it, usually in order to accomplish some purpose in the public interest—often distributing it to the poor. It is typical to compensate the previous owners according to the actual value of the property. You’d think that the “actual value” would be agreed upon by the previous owner when they stated “how much it is worth” in establishing how much tax they owed on it …in this case, $3 an acre. But of course, I’m pretty sure that UFC’s reaction is a typical reaction in such cases. The “value of the land” miraculously increases the day they are in danger of losing it.

Many folks are totally against the whole idea of “expropriation of land” because it seems so “unfair.” But of course in this instance, as in many instances of international expropriation, the way the land was “appropriated” by the owners in question in the first place was never “fair.”

But the purpose of this blog story isn’t to debate the fairness or propriety of Arbenz’s actions. I’ll leave that to folks on politically-charged forums to debate. My purpose here is to just chronicle what happened next.

And what happened next is that it thus came time for the Father of Spin to beginning spinning the wheels of Public Relations to counter this threat.

All of this reinforced alarms Bernays had been sounding since he visited the region early in the Arévalo regime. He now warned that Guatemala was ripe for revolution and that the Communists were gaining increasing influence over Guatemala’s leaders. And he counseled the company to scream so loud that the United States would step in to check this threat so near its border. Company officials were unconvinced at first but Bernays pushed ahead and, as the political situation in Guatemala heated up, he ratcheted up his counteroffensive.

Notice that Eddie didn’t suggest that they complain to the US government that their financial interests were being threatened. No, Eddie always used the back door. Couch what was ultimately in the best interests of UFC—getting rid of Arbenz and his reforms—in terms of the national interests of the US in its Cold War conflict with Russia.

Also as usual, Eddie decided to start his campaign by creating a network of people in the public media who could churn out positive PR for his goal. Not writing about the woes of the UFC trying to keep control of its Banana Republic so it could keep its fantastic profit margins. No, writing about the threat to the interests of every red-blooded American in keeping the Red Menace in check.

In fact, he’d begun planning such a blitz months before, as he told Whitman in a November 1950 letter. He had picked out ten widely circulated magazines, including Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s, and said each could be persuaded to run a slightly different story on the brewing Guatemalan crisis much the way they were covering the ongoing battle between the railroads and truckers. “In certain cases, stories would be written by staff men,” Bernays wrote. “In certain other cases, the magazine might ask us to supply the story, and we, in turn, would engage a most suitable writer to handle the matter.”

While the United Fruit Company didn’t move as quickly as Bernays wished, it did move, and articles began appearing in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, the New Leader, and other publications, all discussing the growing influence of Guatemala’s Communists. The fact that liberal journals like The Nation were also coming around was especially satisfying to Bernays, who believed that winning the liberals over was essential to winning America over.

Eddie had been for decades the master of nationwide publicity campaigns.  As chronicled in earlier posts in this series, he had induced the media of America to unwittingly participate in making street-smokers of young women, in persuading architects to design new homes with built in bookcases, and in convincing virtually everyone in the land to demand a big breakfast of bacon and eggs—because it was “good for their health.” How much harder could it be to enlist that same media to unwittingly participate in a campaign to create a grass-roots demand for the US government to get involved in the overthrow of a democratically-elected leader of a foreign country over a thousand miles from America? Piece o’ cake.

He was pleased but not content. “As a result of many recent articles and editorials on this situation, a point of high visibility has now been temporarily achieved in this country as regards the deplorable pro-Communist conditions prevailing there and the potential dangers stemming there from, both to the United States and the United Fruit Company,” Bernays wrote to Whitman.

Whitman? That’s Edmund Whitman, head of UFC’s Public Relations Department.

But “it is an axiom in government and politics that for publicity to be effective, it should be translated into an action program of platform planks. Words must lead to prompt action.”

What did he have in mind? The fruit company should think boldly, he wrote, considering, among other things, “(a) a change in present U.S. ambassadorial and consular representation, (b) the imposition of congressional sanctions in this country against government aid to pro-Communist regimes, (c) U.S. government subsidizing of research by disinterested groups like the Brookings Institute into various phases of the problem.”

Wait a minute! What business did Chiquita Banana have in attempting to affect US governmental decisions right down to the level of appointment of ambassadors and imposing official congressional sanctions? And could she really expect to have that kind of clout?

oldchiquitaIndeed she could, considering the fact that John Foster Dulles was the corporate counsel for the UFC in the 1930s and had negotiated with the Guatemalan dictatorship for the land giveaways it had received in the 1930s.

Yes, THAT John Foster Dulles. The Secretary of State of the United States under Eisenhower. He was also a major shareholder in UFC. As was Allen Dulles, his brother (CIA Director 1953-1956).

And the CIA director before Dulles? That was Walter Bedell Smith…who was given a seat on the board of directors of UFC after he retired.

Oh. And incidentally, Edmund Whitman, UFC Public Relations Director? He was married to Anne Whitman the private secretary of … Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Chiquita had lots of friends in High Places.


Find out more about Eddie and his blitzes—both in the press and in the air—in the next entry in this series, coming soon.

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way, Pt. 9

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 9:

Yes, We Have No Bananas

(This is the ninth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

My earliest exposure to the United Fruit Company (UFC) was in the form of an anthropomorphic singing female banana decked out like Brazilian movie musical bombshell Carmen Miranda, warning me melodically not to put bananas in the re-fridge-er-a-tor.

Carmen’s get-up with the fruitbasket hat had been introduced to the world in the Hollywood musical The Gang’s All Here in 1943, three years before I was born.


Later movies and personal appearances, including on TV in the early 1950s, found Carmen’s hats becoming progressively more outlandish!


In 1944, cartoonist Dik Browne (a prolific artist whose most memorable claim to fame is probably his cartoon strip “Hagar the Horrible”) was hired by the United Fruit Company to put a friendly face on their corporation. Obviously riffing off Carmen’s look from the 1943 movie, Browne came up with a bubbly, cheerful cartoon persona for UFC. Thus was born Chiquita Banana.

chiquita1Chiquita Banana ads (see one on Youtube linked at the end of this blog entry) were played in movie theaters, so I probably first saw one in the early 1950s. The catchy jingle is one of those that stay with you your whole life…like Dinah Shore’s “See the USA in your Chevrolet” from the mid-50s.  Chiquita stayed pretty much the same up until 1987, when the UFC decided to de-anthropomorphize her, sort of like Pinocchio at the end of the Disney movie! She became a human instead of a banana, from then on known as Miss Chiquita, rather than Chiquita Banana. Well, she was a cartoon human, at first, drawn by Oscar Grillo, creator of the Pink Panther.

chiquita2Starting in 1994 a series of young women “lookalikes” have been chosen to “embody” that iconic symbol, most recently Jenny Canales of California. Grillo’s Chiquita shows up in print advertising, the “live” Chiquita shows up for personal appearances to promote UFC’s interests.

canalesWise move, UFC! Because before they superimposed Chiquita’s happy face on their corporation, here’s the face that was given them by many media outlets…

octopusYes, particularly among journalists in South America, the UFC has been known as “El Pulpo”…The Octopus…since the early years of the 20th century. And for much the same reason that the monolithic Standard Oil of the early 1900s was also satirized as The Octopus.

standardoiloctopusWhy an octopus? Because, like Standard Oil in the US in the days of the Robber Barons around the turn of the last century, UFC had its tentacles in every aspect of society, government, infrastructure, and finances of the many countries where it had vast land holdings in the Caribbean, Central America, and tropical South America.

You’ve probably heard of a “Banana Republic.” No, not those upscale clothing shops in malls these days, that started out selling pseudo-safari type clothing to couch potato middle class Americans. The term “banana republic” long predates those shops.

The United Fruit Company (UFCO) owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It also dominated regional transportation networks through its International Railways of Central America and its Great White Fleet of steamships. In addition, UFCO branched out in 1913 by creating the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. UFCO’s policies of acquiring tax breaks and other benefits from host governments led to it building enclave economies in the regions, in which a company’s investment is largely self-contained for its employees and overseas investors and the benefits of the export earnings are not shared with the host country.

One of the company’s primary tactics for maintaining market dominance was to control the distribution of banana lands. UFCO claimed that hurricanes, blight and other natural threats required them to hold extra land or reserve land. In practice, what this meant was that UFCO was able to prevent the government from distributing banana lands to peasants who wanted a share of the banana trade. The fact that the UFCO relied so heavily on manipulation of land use rights in order to maintain their market dominance had a number of long-term consequences for the region. For the company to maintain its unequal land holdings it often required government concessions. And this in turn meant that the company had to be politically involved in the region even though it was an American company. In fact, the heavy-handed involvement of the company in governments which often were or became corrupt created the term “Banana republic” representing a “servile dictatorship”. The term “Banana Republic” was coined by American writer O. Henry. [Wiki: United Fruit Company]

O. Henry (real name: William Sydney Porter) spent 1896-97 in the Central American nation of Honduras, in exile to escape prosecution in the US for bank embezzlement. He finally came back to the US and served a prison sentence. But while in prison, he began his serious writing. And he later turned those Honduran experiences into a series of fictional stories, eventually compiled into a book titled Cabbages and Kings. In these, he describes the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” (modeled after Honduras) as being a “banana republic.”

To bottom-line it…a banana republic is a country with a corrupt government “owned” by foreign business interests. And where wealth—and land ownership—is consolidated among those foreign businesses and a small group of local elites. And where the landless peasants, the vast majority of the population, are thus forced to subsist by employment with those foreign businesses at slave-labor wages.

And as you may have guessed by now, who “owned” most of these banana republics was the United Fruit Company. (The Standard Fruit Co.—now called Dole—also played a role, but in this part of the world, UFC had the lion’s share of the fruit—primarily banana—market.)

Samuel Zemurray [known as Sam the Banana Man], later to become president of United Fruit, was an American banana plantation owner in Honduras.


Unhappy with the US-Honduran agreement governing customs tax at that time, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He contacted a former president of the country, Manuel Bonilla, and enlisted the help of two mercenaries, who brought with them rifles, ammunition and a machine gun, in those days a rare and powerful weapon. They attacked Honduras and overthrew the government in six weeks.

Following the election of Bonilla as president, Zemurray was awarded a large tract of land by the new Honduran Congress, which also waived his obligation to pay taxes for the next 25 years.

Zemurray once famously remarked: “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” [Source ]

Zemurray eventually built UFC into a powerhouse corporation, one of America’s biggest by 1940.

And if you were head of a big corporation in America in the 1940s and wanted someone to handle your company’s public relations program, who might be your first choice?

Right. Edward L. Bernays, the force behind “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet” and so many other public relations campaigns. And Eddie started in right away on one of his elaborate schemes.

Zemurray was always looking to sell more fruit, especially during the winter, when frosts made shipment and storage more difficult. That was why, in the early 1940s, he hired Bernays as his public relations counsel. [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes below are from this source.]

First prong of the plan… the usual “expert opinion” related to “health.”

Bernays showed him that one way to boost sales was to link bananas to good health. Dr. Sidney Haas, a New York pediatrician, had proved years before that the tropical fruit helped cure celiac disease, a chronic digestive disorder. The public relations man decided to use a celebration of Haas’s fiftieth anniversary as a doctor to get out the word that bananas helped digestion.

He printed 100,000 copies of a thin hardcover book on the topic and mailed them to editors, librarians, dieticians, home economists, pediatricians, and doctors specializing in digestive troubles. And he got United Fruit to sponsor Haas’s research, although there was no mention of its sponsorship in such Haas publications as “The Value of the Banana in the Treatment of Celiac Disease.”

bookchildrenNext, since this was during war time, a surefire connection between bananas and national defense!

Bernays also linked bananas to national defense, a connection less obtuse than it seems since United Fruit’s “Great White Fleet” was used in both world wars to ferry supplies and troops. A 1942 memo outlined his three-part approach to demonstrating “that the maintenance of the banana import trade is basic to the United States (a) because it maintains the stability of the Central American republics, (b) because it provides an economic basis for taking defense material, vital to the United States, to the Panama Canal, [and] (c) because it is logical that the boats that take the material there should not come back unloaded, but that they should help to further hemispheric solidarity and the Good Neighbor Policy by bringing loads of bananas to this country.”

The strategy, he concluded, “is a political, economic, defense, and practical one.” In Big Think terms, it amounted to couching his client’s private interests behind America’s public interests.


And then there was an attention to target-marketing to niche markets:

On top of that he campaigned to get bananas into hotels, railroad dining cars, airplanes, and steamers; to feed them to professional and college football teams, summer campers, YMCA and YWCA members, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and students of all ages; to promote them among cake, cookie, ice cream, and candy makers; and to secure a place for them in movie studio cafeterias and at top-of-the-line resorts in places like Palm Beach and Sun Valley.


But with his usual grandiose chutzpah, he decided this wasn’t enough. UFC didn’t need to just sell bananas…why not go the whole nine yards and …

sell an entire region of the hemisphere. So he set up one of his trademark front groups, the Middle America Information Bureau, which churned out brochures and press releases with titles like “How about Tomato Lamburgers?” “Okra Is Decorative as well as Delicious,” and “Middle America in Tomorrow’s America: A Program of Activities for Men’s Civic and Social Organizations.”

The bureau even renamed the region, explaining that “Middle America” was “a rational and timely expansion of the phrase ‘Central America,’ which by long usage includes only the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and the colony of British Honduras.” Middle America would include those countries, along with Mexico and the Caribbean island republics of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

middle america

For of course, the interests of United Fruit included Mexico and the Caribbean countries.

And also of course, the “Information Bureau” wasn’t truly a neutral organization. It was an arm of UFC, which Eddie made clear.

But Bernays noted in a memo to bureau writers and researchers that “all material released by this office must be approved by responsible executives of the United Fruit Company,” and that “in view of the widely known constructive activities of the company, mention of United Fruit will enhance the value of the story to editor and readers and should be made.”

The Information Bureau did distribute “fresh” research about “Middle America.” But not done by academic scholars in some university somewhere.

Where did the bureau get its material on the region? From United Fruit, of course. “I wrote articles, one after another. I ground them out, and they were sent to newspapers throughout the country,” recalled Samuel Rovner, who went to work for Bernays right after graduating from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1943. “I didn’t know much about Latin America. I did some research now and then, but for the most part [the articles were] based on material that came from the United Fruit Company.”

But lurking behind the scenes was an issue that was a thorny problem even for a PR expert like Eddie.

Even as he was trying to teach North America about Middle America, Bernays urged United Fruit to reform its Latin American operations as a way of proving it cared about the countries in which it was making money. He made sure everyone knew that Zemurray had restored an ancient Mayan ball court, and he got a stamp issued to commemorate the ruins. And when he returned from a monthlong company-sponsored trip to Guatemala and Honduras in September 1947, Bernays wrote his fruit company clients a long memo warning them about low worker morale and substandard living conditions. “Good will of all groups towards fruit company is poor,” he said. “Ignorance, conscious and unconscious distortion by politicos in power or seeking power, by fellow traveler[ s] and Communist influences all contribute their part. Guatemala is in a state of transition.… All these situations complicate [the] issue and make the company vulnerable unless certain things happen.

In a move uncharacteristic of Eddie, he actually suggested to UFC leadership a series of honest-to-goodness reforms UFC could institute that would improve its public image.

… as always, Bernays believed most of United’s problems could be resolved through aggressive public relations. As had happened when he tried to get Procter and Gamble to address racism within its ranks, however, even his modest bid for change was too drastic for his client. “A company does not break with tradition easily,” Bernays wrote nearly twenty years later. “The people in the Tropics were remote from Boston; they produced their banana quotas, and that was what counted. Fruit Company executives in the Tropics were tough characters who had come up through the ranks; they were action-related men. What I proposed must have seemed like mollycoddling. I got no reaction to my voluminous report.”

No, instead of instituting reforms, the new leader of the UFC, who had recently succeeded the aging Sam Zemurray, disbanded the Information Bureau.

So what could Eddie do? Was it time to stand on principle and look for more business elsewhere?

United Fruit’s shutdown of the information bureau and its refusal to redress what Bernays felt were deep-seated problems in its Latin American operations seemed like compelling reasons for Bernays to terminate his ties to the company. After all, he’d repeatedly admonished his PR colleagues not to represent unsavory clients and not to stick around when their advice was ignored. But leaving United Fruit would have meant giving up annual fees that reportedly reached $ 100,000. Instead, he resolved to stay on and work for change from the inside, however slowly that might come.

And thus history led Eddie inexorably on to his most ambitious PR job ever…doing PR for a war.

Well, not exactly a “war.” You could say it was more like a “military action,” I guess. A mini-war, you might call it. Although way out the other end of history it is clear that the events involved led, in the coming decades,  to the deaths of over 100,000 people, including a virtual near-genocide of one race of people, and left over a million people homeless. Not bad for a mini-war.

It was a war in which few shots would be fired but upon which the very safety of the free world was said to hang. It was a war where words and symbols were the primary weapons, and Eddie Bernays was the principal source of ammunition. And in 1954 Bernays’s arsenal was as well stocked as it would ever be.

He had a plan for spying, one that involved putting in place a network of moles and flying in from Egypt a high-powered intelligence expert to survey enemy strengths and vulnerabilities.

He had a plan for waging psychological warfare, gathering for his side “authoritative information that will enable it to appraise the personality of the key men it has to deal with in order to survive.”

And another plan for wooing the press, acting as the eyes and ears of the New York Times, courting columnists like Drew Pearson, making life tough for critical journalists and rallying around friendly ones.

He even had a plan for contrasting his godless enemy’s outlook with that of Christianity on twenty-two vital issues. Under the enemy, for instance, “the ideal ruler is the efficient, ruthless tyrant,” whereas for the other side “the ideal ruler is Christ, the Good Shepherd, and those having authority from Him, who imitate Him.”

Eddie, of course, was a non-practicing Jew and basically an atheist…but no matter. Whatever works to sell your “product” and promote your client should be a tool in your arsenal, I guess.

Check the next entry in this series coming soon, which will examine some of the fascinating details of how Eddie waged his war…a war aimed at keeping bananas on your breakfast cereal at a “reasonable price.”

Oh. No. Wait. It was to Keep the World Safe for Democracy. Yeah. That’s it. For after all, we knew what True Patriots the owners of the United Fruit Company were. Indeed, they let the US government use their massive armada of ships to transport arms and such during both of the World Wars! So Eddie was just helping them to do their part again for Old Glory.

Yeah. That’s it. Hurrah for the red, white, and blue.

Oh, and while you’re waiting, you can have a look at
the Happy Face of United Fruit Company, Ms. Chiquita Banana,
singing her famous Number One Hit.

Posted in Oh say can you see? series | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 8

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 8:

Bacon, Breakfast, Bookshelves, and Beer

(This is the eighth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 I was a child back in the 1950s. Up until I was about seven, my maternal grandparents still lived on a farm in rural northern Michigan, although they later became city folk. Back in his younger days in the ‘20s, Grandpa Frank had been a cowboy out west, herding cattle on horseback. He didn’t have any cattle in Michigan, just wheat fields and a big vegetable garden. (He did still have a horse, a spirited black stallion with a white streak on its forehead from which it got the name Lightning. In later years, my father told me about one time when the neighbor’s small herd of cows got out and were wandering the neighborhood, and Dad was amazed to watch Grandpa Frank saddle up Lightning and round ‘em up, just like in the movies!)

Although it was not a very big farm, there were occasionally hired hands, and Granny Irene made “farmhouse meals” for everyone. Back in the city, my family’s breakfast usually consisted of oatmeal or cornflakes, and orange juice. No sissy breakfast like that when we visited the farm. Breakfast was intended to fortify the menfolk to go out and do hard work. So before dawn Granny would be up getting a big spread ready. Typically it would have platters of bacon and fried ham, eggs (almost “deep fried” in the bacon fat), fried sliced potatoes, big fluffy biscuits hot out of the oven, with pan gravy (made out of the bacon drippings) to pour over the biscuits.

I’m guessing hearty breakfasts like this had been typical for hardworking farm families going clear back to the early 1800s, when the majority of the population of the US lived on farms.

But by the late 1800s, industrialization, “factory farming” by mega-corporations, and other trends had driven more and more families out of the country into the cities. And by the early 1900s, the increasingly urban population of the country was developing new eating habits. By the 1920s, breakfast for a large proportion of the population meant gulping down a piece of toast, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee before dashing off to the office or factory.


Enter Eddie Bernays, the “Father of Spin,” the inventor of “Public Relations,” the master at changing “habits” and “styles” and “preferences.”  (See the previous entry in this series, where Eddie pulled just the right strings to convince much of the female population of the US to “prefer” the color green for a season.)

In the mid-1920s a huge bacon producer, Beechnut Packing Company, hired Bernays to help restore sales that had sagged as a country on the run trimmed its morning meal to juice, toast, and coffee.

bacon factoryYes, that Beech-Nut company, the one that eventually extended its product line to include gum, candy, canned goods like pork and beans, baby food, and lots of other items.gumbabyfood

In the 1920s, though, it was still primarily a meat-packing company featuring, of all things, “canned bacon.”


Ladies Home Journal, 1916

Since all the bacon producers were in lean times, Eddie saw no sense in trying to just “steal” business from other struggling bacon producers to Beech-Nut. No, what was needed was something bigger. And Eddie’s legendary chutzpah kicked in. He was convinced all that was needed was to … “transform America’s eating habits”! In other words, convince more people to eat more bacon.

He started by commissioning a research study of the eating habits of Americans, and then found a doctor who concluded that, since the body loses energy during the night, a robust breakfast was preferable to a light breakfast. Bernays then sent the survey and the doctor’s recommendations to 5,000 physicians, along with a publicity packet touting Beech-Nut bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast.

baconandeggsSoon physicians were recommending bacon and eggs to their patients, and word of mouth, the most coveted form of advertising in the world, spread throughout the United States. And just like that, Beech-Nut’s profits soared and the all-American breakfast of bacon and eggs was born.  [Source]

Actually, bacon and other cured meats had not traditionally been a “breakfast” item, but were eaten at other times of the day. Eddie’s behind-the-scenes manipulation changed all that from the 1920s on to today.

Today, 70 percent of bacon eaten in the US is eaten at breakfast. The vast majority of people who feel they must have bacon and eggs for breakfast have no idea that they are actually victims of propaganda. [Source]

Unfortunately, the average person loading up on a hearty breakfast these days isn’t doing so to fortify themselves for a day of hard physical labor. So this ends up contributing to the epidemic of obesity in America. With the “persuasion industry” continuing to feed that epidemic…


Eddie bragged about his part in establishing the bacon and eggs/hearty breakfast habit right up to his death.

He also bragged his whole life about another habit he helped establish.

It has to do with books. And bookshelves.

You would think that bookshelves have been around as long as books, but in many ways the modern personal bookshelf was an invention of the book publishing industry in the 1930′s.

Public libraries have been around as early as the 1400s.  Since then, books that happened to be individually owned were often chained to desks or stored in trunks or armoires. [The Story of Bookshelves]

Yes, a limited number of rich people throughout history used their possession of large numbers of books to advertise their upper crust status. They might have had their own “room full of shelves,” a private library in their mansion, to display these status symbols for the admiration of others. But it was clear up into the late 1800s before books became inexpensive enough for the “average” person to own many. I don’t doubt that there was a small sub-set of “avid readers” in earlier times, even among the relatively poor, and they may have constructed some shelves to hold their collection, but they were a minority. The reality is, both then and now, most people aren’t avid readers.

One survey out of the UK suggests that the average bookshelf is filled with 80 books we haven’t read. Furthermore, an Ipsos public affairs survey states that 27% of American’s haven’t read a book in the past year.  And yet, Ikea continues to churn out 130,000 bookshelves every single week for us to store these books we don’t read. [ibid.]

Why do we have bookshelves for books we don’t read?  Enter, stage left, Eddie Bernays.

In 1930 Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, and several other major New York publishers contacted public relations doyen Edward Bernays, the ‘father of spin,’ to strategize how best to inject life into the faltering U.S. book industry. In addition to attacking the industry’s price structure, which at the time relied heavily on a volatile low price/high volume formula, Bernays proposed a novel idea for inspiring people to buy more books despite economic downturn.

As Bernays biographer Larry Tye has written: ‘“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.”

lagerfield librarySo he got respected figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

I did a Google search just now on  architecture of the 1930s and was surprised to see how many pics of living rooms from that period in “House and Garden” type magazines showed “built in” bookshelves. Typically there would be one on each side of a fireplace. A startling number had whole walls of them.

Today accumulating printed books and shelving them in one’s home may seem like mundane facts of life, at least among those economically enfranchised enough to do so. In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, those activities couldn’t be assumed and needed to be learned.

…Since then, the number of books one owned became a form of cultural capital.  Statements such as ”A house is not a home without at least one bookcase full of books” or ”Nothing furnishes a room like books” have become common. [ibid.]

By the way, go back and look at the picture above behind the words “Where there are bookshelves…”  Looks like a library or bookstore, doesn’t it?  It’s not.

That is the personal library of controversial and quirky fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.


I’m suspicious that Karl hasn’t read all those books. If you do a Google image search on his name, you will find that he just seems to really like posing with the books for effect.


And his cat. He really likes posing with his cat Choupette. (Who has two maids and her own chauffeur.)

choupette (He mentioned to reporters recently that he was sad it was not possible to marry your cat. If it were, he would marry Choupette. Did I mention he was quirky?)

But I digress. Back to Lucky Eddie Bernays.

After Eddie convinced the country that Lucky Strikes were good for one’s figure and bacon was good for breakfast, he tackled an equally knotty problem: Beer. No, not beer bellies. He tackled the problem of the post-prohibition slump in beer sales.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but it wasn’t long before thousands of communities declared themselves dry, and the temperance movement picked up steam. So in 1935 the brewers picked up Bernays.

His strategy was familiar to every student of war, and of baseball: carefully analyze your opponent’s game plan, and if you can’t overcome it, co-opt it. That meant promoting beer as “the beverage of moderation” in a way that would distance it from distilled liquors and inoculate it against the temperance movement’s argument that all alcohol posed the danger of overindulgence.

He persuaded beer retailers to cooperate with law enforcement to ensure that their product was used responsibly, and he published “evidence” that beer was not fattening and had a caloric value equal to that of milk.

He told homemakers that beer would make for a richer chocolate cake; told farmers that brewers were major buyers of their barley, corn, and rice; and told laborers that beer was the one alcoholic beverage they could afford.

And he published booklets and wrote letters claiming that beer was the favorite drink of the ancient Babylonians and the monks of the Middle Ages as well as of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the Pilgrims.

“Beer is a sort of vaccination against intemperance,” argued a typical Bernays campaign brochure, this one urging people to vote for a Texas ordinance legalizing the sale of beer. “The ‘bootleggers’ thrive upon the stronger beverages, distilled spirits, those that carry the ‘kick’ in concentrated form, in small packages easy to conceal.… Where beer is accessible the liquor bottle ‘on the hip’ is not so much in evidence, whether that be in the home or at a public place, or— most important of all— in an automobile. Many sincere temperance workers believe that the best way to fight intemperance is to legalize the sale of beer everywhere.”  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. ]

And once again, Eddie’s string-pulling from behind the curtain did the trick. These methods of persuasion were so effective that the beer industry continued to use them in various ways clear up into the 1950s!








Yes, Eddie Bernays was very effective at promoting cigarettes, beer, bacon, big breakfasts, bookshelves, and much more for big corporations in America over the decades.

But he didn’t stop there. Continue on to the next entry in this series and learn how Eddie was even able to put his inimitable spin tactics to use in promoting…war:

Yes, We Have No Bananas

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 7

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 7:

It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green

(This is the seventh entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1 in order to understand the following material in context.)

 green eddie

The previous two entries in this blog series revealed how “The Father of Spin,” Public Relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays, helped the American Tobacco Company in the late 1920s convince women to Reach for a Lucky Instead of A Sweet, and then choreographed a publicity stunt that went a long way toward convincing women across the whole country to flout the taboo of that era against women smoking in public.

But in spite of the fact that both of these PR campaigns seemed successful in increasing the percentage of women smoking Luckies—and smoking them in public—ATC head honcho George Washington Hill still wasn’t satisfied with Lucky Strikes’ share of the cigarette sales in America. So in 1934 he was back nagging Eddie to spin his behind-the-scenes magic again. But the problem this time was much more complex. Could Eddie pull it off?

Hill remained determined to win over women smokers, but company surveys showed that many women wouldn’t smoke Luckies because its green package with the red bull’s-eye clashed with their favorite clothing.

lucky“What do you suggest?” Bernays remembered Hill asking. The PR man replied, “Change the Lucky package to a neutral color that will match anything they wear.” That was all Hill needed to set him off: “I’ve spent millions of dollars advertising the package. Now you ask me to change it. That’s lousy advice.” At which point Bernays offered advice that kicked off a campaign almost as legendary as the Torches of Freedom parade. “If you won’t change the color of the package,” he reasoned, “change the color of fashion— to green.”  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations.  Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

Have you heard the Yiddish term “chutzpah” before?

Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.’ [Wiki: Chutzpah]

Merriam-Webster online defines it as “supreme self-confidence.”

You’d have to have “supreme self-confidence” in order to tackle the task Eddie set for himself.

Change an entire nation’s taste in colors? This was an idea so egocentric and eccentric that few public relations executives then or now would suggest it and fewer still would have any notion how to make it work. But Bernays’s specialty was determining why the public preferred certain things, then reengineering those preferences to coincide with his clients’ needs, and he set off on his six-month task with supreme confidence.

First he analyzed the color itself, much as his uncle Sigmund might have done. A book entitled The Language of Color told him that green was “an emblem of hope, victory, and plenty” and “symbolical of solitude and peace.” Those were upbeat themes to build on. Even more encouraging were statistics showing that green already made up about 20 percent of the current lines being turned out by French fashion houses.

This time around, instead of latching on to a ready-made “event” (as he did by placing his “torches of liberty” girls at the famous New York Easter Parade), Eddie set about creating his own grand spectacle as the centerpiece of his plan to “change an entire nation’s taste in colors.”

He settled on a Green Ball, to be held at the stately Waldorf-Astoria and attended by New York’s leading debutantes, with proceeds going to some deserving charity. And he found the ideal hostess: Mrs. Frank A. Vanderlip, chairwoman of the Women’s Infirmary of New York and wife of the former chairman of the National City Bank. [That’s her on the left below, at some prestigious event during the same era.]


All Mrs. Vanderlip needed to know, Bernays decided, was that proceeds would buy milk for undernourished kids, furnish clothing to cardiac patients, and support other projects at the infirmary. “I explained,” he wrote later, “that a nameless sponsor would defray the costs up to $ 25,000; our client would donate our services to promote the ball; the color green would be the ball’s motif and the obligatory color of all the gowns worn at the ball. “I added, ‘I can assure you the cause is not Paris green, a poison.’”

But just because a woman bought a special ball gown for a special event doesn’t mean its color would predominate her taste. Eddie thought of that.

The fashion and accessories industries were his next target. A Green Ball would require not just green gowns but also, Bernays insisted, green gloves and green shoes, green handkerchiefs, green bandeaux, and, yes, green jewelry. [Below… green watch from the same era]

watchHe began by approaching the Onondaga Silk Company, filling in its enterprising president, Philip Vogelman, on plans for the ball and suggesting he could be at the leading edge of the move to green— if he moved fast. Vogelman signed up and invited fashion editors to the Waldorf for a Green Fashions Fall Luncheon with, of course, green menus featuring green beans, asparagus-tip salad, broiled French lamb chops with haricots verts and olivette potatoes, pistachio mousse glacé, green mints, and crème de menthe.


The head of the Hunter College art department gave a talk entitled “Green in the Work of Great Artists,” … [such as this by Renoir]

renoir…and a noted psychologist enlightened guests on the psychological implications of the color green. The press took note, with the New York Sun headline reading, “It Looks Like a Green Winter.” The Post predicted a “Green Autumn,” and one of the wire services wrote about “fall fashions stalking the forests for their color note, picking green as the modish fall wear.”

Oh, but if milady started wearing mostly green frocks, wouldn’t they clash with the décor in her home, and lead her to quickly resort to other colors for  her wardrobe as soon as she realized green wasn’t “working out”? Not to worry. Eddie was one step ahead of her dilemma.

But what if the new green clothing clashed with people’s drapes, curtains, or other house decor? A Color Fashion Bureau, organized under the auspices of Onondaga Silk, was there with advice, sending 1,500 letters on the up-and-coming color to interior decorators, home-furnishings buyers, art industry groups, and clubwomen. The bureau also sent 5,000 announcements to department stores and merchandise managers.

Wouldn’t green clash with people’s summertime skin color? Not at all, according to this campaign advisory: Green “is most becoming to all degrees of burns— from the first strawberry flush to the last Indian brown. Since beach life provides the highest degree of visibility for (and of) ladies, green is naturally highly successful for bathing suits and beach ensembles.”

And as usual with Eddie’s machinations, the Spin very quickly began spinning…or rolling…under its own steam!

By now the bandwagon seemed to be rolling on its own. Mrs. Vanderlip enlisted for her invitation committee luminaries like Mrs. James Roosevelt, Mrs. Walter Chrysler, Mrs. Irving Berlin, and Mrs. Averell Harriman. Altman’s and Bonwit Teller filled their Fifth Avenue windows with green gowns, suits, and accessories, and Vogue ran two pages of sketches of the green dresses to be brought to New York from Paris.

That may have included this fashionable French gown (or one much like it) from the period:

gownAnd also as usual, Eddie was so far back in the shadows even the rest of the cigarette industry didn’t catch on that all this had ANYTHING to do with Lucky Strikes.

Bernays was particularly delighted when “the unsuspecting opposition gave us a boost: the November magazine advertisements for Camel cigarettes [shown below] showed a girl wearing a green dress with red trimmings, the colors of the Lucky Strike package. The advertising agency had chosen green because it was now the fashionable color.”

camel 1934In particular, no one seemed to suspect that the “Color Fashion Bureau” wasn’t just a disinterested neutral party.

Just months after opening, the Color Fashion Bureau was besieged with requests for information— from 77 newspapers, 95 magazines, 29 syndicates, 301 department stores, 145 women’s clubs, 175 radio stations, 83 manufacturers of furniture and home decorations, 64 interior decorators, 10 costumers, and 49 photographers and illustrators. The lesson, Bernays wrote years afterward, is that “emphasis by repetition gains acceptance for an idea, particularly if the repetition comes from different sources.”

When I first read about this, I was convinced that the source of this level of chutzpah would surely be easy to spot by the sophisticated circles of the metropolitan media. I was wrong.

Another lesson seemed to be that if you trod softly you could keep a secret this big. The official ball program danced around the issue of who was behind it by saying, “Since the fashion trend seemed to point toward green and since green is a gay color for a fete, this ball is called The Green Ball.” A woman’s page editor in Philadelphia tried to learn more about where all the greenery was coming from; when she couldn’t, she sent in this good-natured plea: “Let me know what you are plugging. It is so adroit that even I, hard-boiled old she-dragon, can’t detect it. If, as I suspect, it is glazed chintz, I will add a description with place to buy, including prices.”

The Green Ball came off just as Eddie had choreographed it to.

It was “a gay, vivid night, something to remember,” Vogue reported. Later in the same issue: “We thought the lovely ladies who were all done up in green to take part in the pageant of paintings looked unusually lovely. ‘Green,’ we were murmuring to ourselves, ‘is a pretty difficult colour to wear, taken by and large,’ when we discovered that each lady, before she went out into the limelight, had been made up by Marie Earle so that her face and her dress made a beautiful harmony.”

And then this: “The Waldorf did the graceful thing, as usual, and put a flourishing finish on The Green Ball last week by setting a Continental boîte de nuit. [nightclub] They called it the Casino Vert [“green”] and carried out the colour motif of the ball by flooding the crystal chandeliers and the mirrored walls with a green-blue light.”

And whether the bottom line was that more Lucky Strikes were sold across the nation or not as a result of this specific campaign (it was no doubt statistically difficult to tell), there is no question in the minds of many historians that indeed, “Green did become the ‘in color’ that year.” Largely as a result of the hidden persuasion of the real world “Man Behind the (Green) Curtain.”


Continue on to the next entry in this series, that will expose a few more of that man’s startling and unusual tactics:

Bacon, Breakfast, Bookshelves, and Beer

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 6

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 6:

You’ll Find That You’re in the Rotogravure

(This is the sixth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1 in order to understand the following material in context.)

 Earlier entries in this series introduced “The Father of Spin,” Edward L. Bernays.

eddieEddie was the man who coined—and embodied himself—the title of Public Relations Expert early in the last century for well-paid consultants to businesses, who go far beyond just “advertising” a specific widget. They use methods of persuasion (often hidden) to “sell” industries, companies, product lines, ideas…even politicians and wars…to the public.

In the most recent entry, we saw how Eddie crafted a campaign in 1928 for the American Tobacco Company (ATC) to most effectively convince the public to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

reachWith that campaign, he didn’t just sell the Lucky Strike cigarette, he sold the whole idea of smoking being useful to women in particular to keep a “healthy, attractive figure.” And this wasn’t done just through ads showing skinny ladies smoking—Eddie always went above and beyond. For that campaign, he persuaded hotels to add cigarettes to their dessert lists. He had a series of menus widely distributed that had been prepared by an editor of House and Garden magazine. It included the advice to “reach for a cigarette instead of dessert.” He solicited testimonials from doctors, debutantes, actors, athletes…even aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

But Eddie wasn’t through helping the ATC. George Washington Hill, head of the ATC, had hired Eddie to spin that particular idea. When it succeeded even beyond expectations, Hill was ready for more of Eddie’s wizardry.

Hill loved the way Bernays used the anti-sweets campaign to promote Luckies, but that only whetted his appetite to crack the female market. So early in 1929 he summoned Bernays and demanded, “How can we get women to smoke on the street? They’re smoking indoors. But, damn it, if they spend half the time outdoors and we can get ‘em to smoke outdoors, we’ll damn near double our female market. Do something. Act!”

Bernays understood they were up against a social taboo that cast doubt on the character of women who smoked, but he wasn’t sure of the basis of the inhibition or how it could be overcome. So he got Hill to agree to pay for a consultation with Dr. A. A. Brill, a psychoanalyst and disciple of Bernays’s uncle, Dr. Sigmund Freud. “It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes,” Brill advised. “The emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”  [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations.  Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

It had taken women almost 150 years from the time of the Declaration of Independence to even get the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, less than a decade before this current story about Eddie begins. Women’s rights and equality of opportunity with men were still very hot topics in US society. And Eddie was always ready to use the latest trends and hot topics to bolster sales for his clients. He was also always ready to use the insights of his Uncle Siggy’s psychoanalytic theories.

And thus Eddie began his scheming.

Eddie particularly favored choreographing public spectacles as part of his methods. And he came up with a splendiferous one for this project. He would insert his own sideshow into the wildly popular New York Easter Parade.

From the 1880s through the 1950s, New York’s Easter parade was one of the main cultural expressions of Easter in the United States. It was one of the fundamental ways that Easter was identified and celebrated.

The seeds of the parade were sown in New York’s highly ornamented churches—Gothic buildings such as Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. In the mid-19th century, these and other churches began decorating their sanctuaries with Easter flowers. The new practice was resisted by traditionalists, but was generally well received. As the practice expanded, the floral displays grew ever more elaborate, and soon became defining examples of style, taste, abundance, and novelty.

Those who attended the churches incorporated these values into their dress. In 1873, a newspaper report about Easter at Christ Church said “More than half the congregation were ladies, who displayed all the gorgeous and marvelous articles of dress,… and the appearance of the body of the church thus vied in effect and magnificence with the pleasant and tasteful array of flowers which decorated the chancel.”

…By the 1880s, the Easter parade had become a vast spectacle of fashion and religious observance, famous in New York and around the country. It was an after-church cultural event for the well-to-do—decked out in new and fashionable clothing, they would stroll from their own church to others to see the impressive flowers (and to be seen by their fellow strollers). People from the poorer and middle classes would observe the parade to learn the latest trends in fashion.

By 1890, the annual procession held an important place on New York’s calendar of festivities and had taken on its enduring designation as “the Easter parade.”

As the parade and the holiday together became more important, dry goods merchants and milliners publicized them in the promotion of their wares. Advertisements of the day linked an endless array of merchandise to Easter and the Easter parade. In 1875, Easter had been invisible on the commercial scene. By 1900, it was as important in retailing as the Christmas season is today. [Wiki: Easter Parade]

It was estimated in 1947 that over a million people gathered to gawk at the finery of those in the parade. (The parade’s popularity is almost gone now…in 2008, there were about 30,000.) Here are a few pics to help you get a feel for how influential this parade was.


easter 1900


easter 1912


easter 19141941

easter 1941Eddie Bernays was a resident of New York City, and intimately familiar with the popularity of the Parade. He was also intimately familiar with the popularity and power of the rotogravure, the pictorial “Sunday  Supplement” of newspapers of the time. (The term rotogravure refers to a certain type of printing process that uses a rotary printing press.)

Once a staple of newspaper photo features, the rotogravure process is still used for commercial printing of magazines, postcards, and corrugated (cardboard) product packaging.

…In the 1930s–1960s, newspapers published relatively few photographs and instead many newspapers published separate rotogravure sections in their Sunday editions. These sections were devoted to photographs and identifying captions, not news stories.

Here’s a sample page of a rotogravure section from a Syracuse, NY, paper in 1930. That’s NY Governor Franklin Roosevelt—a paraplegic polio victim himself—visiting young polio victims.

roto 1930Irving Berlin’s song “Easter Parade” specifically refers to these sections in the lines “the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure”.

Here are Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in a fictionalized version of the 1912 New York Easter Parade, from the 1948 movie Easter Parade. Their movie had actually been constructed around the song, which Berlin had originally written for a 1933 Broadway musical revue, As Thousands Cheer. It had also been sung earlier by Bing Crosby in his 1942 movie, Holiday Inn.

movie paradeAnd the song “Hooray for Hollywood” contains the line “…armed with photos from local rotos” referring to young actresses hoping to make it in the movie industry.

In 1932 a George Gallup “Survey of Reader Interest in Various Sections of Sunday Newspapers to Determine the Relative Value of Rotogravure as an Advertising Medium” found that these special rotogravures were the most widely read sections of the paper and that advertisements there were three times more likely to be seen by readers than in any other section. [Wiki: Rotogravure ]

If Bernays wanted to spread his message widely, the New York Easter Parade was the place to stage a “scene” to attract reporters and photographers, and the rotogravures of the American press would provide the avenue to spread those photos from coast to coast.

As usual, Eddie hid in the shadows while pulling the strings, providing himself plausible deniability. These staged events were always supposed to “appear” to be grass-roots, virtually spontaneous activities springing from the intentions of just “common folks.” In this case, Eddie contacted a friend who worked at Vogue magazine and got addresses for thirty debutantes. He then sent a telegram to each, signed by his secretary Bertha Hunt. The telegram read, “In the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo I and other young women will light another torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue Easter Sunday.We are doing this to combat the silly prejudice that the cigarette is suitable for the home, the restaurant, the taxicab, the theater lobby but never, no, never for the sidewalk. Women smokers and their escorts will stroll from Forty-Eighth Street to Fifty-Fourth Street on Fifth Avenue between Eleven-Thirty and One O’Clock.”

Eddie also placed an ad with similar wording in New York newspapers, signed by Ruth Hale, “a leading feminist and wife of New York World columnist Heywood Broun,” announcing what sounded like just the jolly plan of some free-spirited young women. But of course, it was anything but a casual whim.

The script for the parade was outlined in revealing detail in a memo from Bernays’s office. The object of the event, it explained, would be to generate “stories that for the first time women have smoked openly on the street. These will take care of themselves, as legitimate news, if the staging is rightly done.

Undoubtedly after the stories and pictures have appeared, there will be protests from non-smokers and believers in ‘Heaven, home and mother.’ These should be watched for and answered in the same papers.”

The memo also discussed prominent churches the parade would pass, and from which it would like marchers to join up, including Saint Thomas’s, Saint Patrick’s, and “the Baptist church where John D. Rockefeller attends.” What kind of marchers would be best? “Because it should appear as news with no division of the publicity, actresses should be definitely out. On the other hand, if young women who stand for feminism— someone from the Women’s Party, say— could be secured, the fact that the movement would be advertised too, would not be bad.… While they should be goodlooking, they should not look too ‘model-y.’ Three for each church covered should be sufficient. Of course they are not to smoke simply as they come down the church steps. They are to join in the Easter parade, puffing away.”

As usual, Eddie managed all this behind the scenes as if it was a military campaign!

The memo made it clear that not much would be left to chance: “On Monday of Holy Week, the women should be definitely decided upon. On the afternoon of Good Friday, they should be in this office, by appointment, and given their final instructions. They should [be] told where and when they are to be on duty Easter morning and furnished with Lucky Strikes. As the fashionable churches are crowded on Easter, they must be impressed with the necessity of going early. ‘Business’ must be worked out as if by a theatrical director, as for example: one woman seeing another smoke, opens her purse, finds cigs but no matches, asks the other for a light. At least some of the women should have men with them.”

But what if all this took the newspaper reporters of New York by surprise so much that they couldn’t get news photographers in place in time to get good pics of all the scandalous activity?

Finally, there was the matter of ensuring that the march would be preserved for posterity: “We should have a photographer to take pictures for use later in the roto sections, to guard against the possibility that the news photographers do not get good pictures for this purpose.”

And all of the meticulous planning paid off.

The actual march went off more smoothly than even its scriptwriters imagined. Ten young women turned out, marching down Fifth Avenue with their lighted “torches of freedom,” and the newspapers loved it. Two-column pictures showed elegant ladies, with floppy hats and fur-trimmed coats, cigarettes held self-consciously by their sides, as they paraded down the wide boulevard.

torches2 torches3

And indeed the press all across the country took gleeful interest in the spectacle.

Dispatches ran the next day, generally on page one, in papers from Fremont, Nebraska, to Portland, Oregon, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Typical was this one from the United Press: “Just as Miss Federica Freylinghusen, conspicuous in a tailored outfit of dark grey, pushed her way thru the jam in front of St. Patrick’s, Miss Bertha Hunt and six colleagues struck another blow in behalf of the liberty of women. Down Fifth Avenue they strolled, puffing at cigarettes.

torchesMiss Hunt issued the following communiqué from the smoke-clouded battlefield: ‘I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.’”

But was it just a gimmick for people to gawk at? Did it actually affect the actions of others?

Go on they did. During the following days women were reported to be taking to the streets, lighted cigarettes in hand, in Boston and Detroit, Wheeling and San Francisco. Women’s clubs, meanwhile, were enraged by the spectacle, and for weeks afterward editorial writers churned out withering prose, pro and con. “Thumbs down,” said the News in Everett, Massachusetts, while John A. Schaffer, editor and publisher of the Chicago Evening Post, the Indianapolis Star, the Terre Haute Star, and the Muncie Star, agreed that “it is always a regret to me to see women adopt the coarser attitudes and habits of men.” But the headline in the Ventura, California, Star, “Swats Another Taboo,” suggested the march may have achieved its aim, and a few weeks later Broadway theaters created a stir by admitting women to what had been men-only smoking rooms.

Eddie’s ego was big enough that he no doubt expected to get good results from his efforts. But perhaps even he was surprised at just how easily it could be pulled off, and how widely and quickly it could spread.

The uproar he’d touched off proved enlightening to Bernays. “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Of course the taboo was not destroyed completely. But a beginning had been made.”

Never underestimate the powers of the Hidden Persuaders! Nor how long ago they were already busily at work playing with people’s emotions. I remind you…this wasn’t done in 2013, with the aid of the millions of ever-vigilant cell-phone-camera-equipped, man-on-the-street i-Reporters of the nation, and with computers and the Internet Superhighway as the avenue through which to spread a story instantaneously throughout the land. It was done “Old School,” with telegrams, hardcopy paper pages, and reporters …using rotary dial phones to call in their stories…


…which a secretary would then peck out on a clunky old typewriter like this 1929 Underwood…


And yet the strange little project, master-minded by one timid-looking little fellow behind a curtain, literally did catch the imagination of the nation overnight. People worry these days that the era of “Big Brother” and his persuasive methods are upon us. Nah…they’ve been around for over a century.

The Torches of Freedom campaign remains a classic in the world of public relations, one still cited in classrooms and boardrooms as an example of ballyhoo at its most brilliant and, more important, of creative analysis of social symbols and how they can be manipulated.

Continue on to the next entry in this series for another peek behind the curtain of the manipulators and intimidators:

It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 5

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 5:

Lucky Eddie

(This is the fifth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 “You ask me what we need to win this war.
I answer tobacco, as much as bullets.”

Guess who said that, and when.

It’s a World War 1 quote, from General John J Pershing, leader of the US Expeditionary Force. And he wasn’t exaggerating.

Obviously, the boys in the trenches needed bullets. And food—here is a description of the rations they received:

The reserve ration was first issued during the latter part of World War I to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen. It originally consisted of 12 ounces of fresh bacon or one pound of canned meat known as the Meat Ration – usually, corned beef. Additionally, two 8-ounce cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, a packet of 1.16 ounces of pre-ground coffee, a packet of 2.4 ounces of granulated sugar, and a packet of 0.16 ounces of salt were issued.

But Uncle Sam decided early on that bacon, bread, and coffee wasn’t enough to fortify the troops for battle.

There was also a separate “tobacco ration” of 0.4 ounces of tobacco and 10 cigarette rolling papers, later replaced by brand-name machine-rolled cigarettes.

And thus by the end of the war 14 million cigarettes a day were being distributed to the “doughboys.”

Before the Great War, men in America had been partial to pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Smoking cigarettes was considered in many circles to be a sign of effeminacy. It was a habit affected by “dandies” maybe, but not “real men.” Still, tobacco—and its nicotine kick—was considered valuable in helping to calm nerves, and psychologically lighten hardships. With our men facing trench warfare, gas attacks, tanks, suffering, serious injury, and possible death, Uncle Sam considered the least he could do was provide them with the comfort of tobacco. As it turned out, the easiest and most convenient form in which to distribute it and use it in the trenches was the cigarette. Thus the cigarette quickly lost its reputation as being for sissies.


I didn’t understand until I looked it up recently that the smoke from pipe tobacco and cigars had not traditionally been inhaled into the lungs. The type of tobacco used in cigars and pipes was (and evidently still is) very harsh on delicate tissue, and would immediately lead to coughing and gagging. The idea I guess is to kind of “roll around” the smoke in your mouth and then poof it out. (I found both “cigar smokers’ forums” and “pipe smokers’ forums” on the Internet where guys were discussing the process, and warning newbies not to inhale, but instead just “savor” the “flavors” of the tobacco in the mouth.) Thus nicotine would be absorbed primarily from the lining of the mouth.

But in 1913, just shortly before WW1, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company introduced the Camel cigarette.

The new Camels were made from a blend of different tobaccos, cured in a way which made them mild enough to allow the smoke to be deeply inhaled. This 1915 ad explained how different this “new” kind of cigarette was.

camelsInhalation results in nicotine “speeding” to the brain. It wasn’t long before regular daily use became the norm for many cigarette smokers, as more and more became addicted.

And as you can imagine, with smoking being just about the only “recreation” for the soldiers in the trenches during the War, millions of them came home from that war addicted to cigarette smoking. In fact, many of them came home with a preference for one or another of the brands of cigarettes. You see, the tobacco companies were more than happy to do their “patriotic duty” and provide cigarettes to the troops at or below cost … as long as they were distributed in their branded packages.

The government provided 50 cigarettes per week in the actual ration kits. And canteens across Europe also allowed soldiers to buy as many more cigarettes as they “needed” at or below their wholesale price. Evidently, the government agreed with the tobacco companies to distribute the various brands in the same “proportion” as their place in the market back in the United States.

chesterfieldBy the way, it wasn’t just the American soldier who “needed” tobacco. The other Allies made sure their boys’ nicotine needs were taken care of too. And those boys made sure the folks back home knew that they’d be even happier to receive a care package with extra smokes than to get a box of Mom’s homemade cookies—as you can see from this New Zealand postcard of the time.

nz smoker“Woodbines” were a popular UK brand of cigarettes at the time.


Yes, as General Pershing said, smokes were recognized as being as vital as bullets to the war effort.


smokes posterAnd the American tobacco companies were happy to oblige.

… while the boys went to war to serve our country, the tobacco industry supplied the soldiers with free tobacco so as to do their part to “help” the war efforts.  Soldiers came home addicted to nicotine from all the free cigarettes generously supplied by the tobacco companies, and the industry had customers for life.

Which brings us back to the hero of our story, who was introduced in the previous entry in this series, Eddie Bernays.

 …. Cigarettes were manly things now, the stuff of warriors. And as their use among men soared, so did the profits of the companies making them.

All of which convinced cigarette makers that the time was ripe to open a second front, this time targeting females. In 1928, just as they were beginning that push, Edward L. Bernays began working for George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, which made America’s fastest-growing brand of cigarettes, Lucky Strikes.

“Hill,” Bernays recalled later, “became obsessed by the prospect of winning over the large potential female market for Luckies. ‘If I can crack that market, I’ll get more than my share of it,’ he said to me one day. ‘It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.’”  The war and changing social mores already were helping Hill tap that lode. Many women who’d replaced men in factories or served abroad had taken up the habit, defying the taboo against female smoking, and college coeds were trying to tear down barriers against women smoking in public places. The share of cigarettes consumed by women more than doubled from 1923 to 1929, but it still was just 12 percent, far lower than Hill had hoped. [The Father of Spin, Larry Tye: unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

But of course, most middle class women of the time did not live lives of adventure and high risk. Offering them a smoke to calm their frazzled nerves wouldn’t be smart psychology. Hill decided that the biggest lure he could use for women would be to promise them that smoking Luckies would help them be attractive. In the “flapper” era of the 1920s, the “slim” figure for women was becoming the standard of beauty. And women were becoming conscious of the role over-eating played in stretching their waistlines. So Hill decided to sell the idea that smoking a cigarette was the most effective way to curb appetite.

 He’d already settled on a slogan—” Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”—

reach…and to bring it to life he turned to the thirty-six-year-old Bernays, whom he’d been paying $ 25,000 a year just to be available.

It was a wise choice. Bernays didn’t invent fashions like the pursuit of a svelte figure, but he was becoming the acknowledged master of accentuating such trends and capitalizing on them for his clients, a process he termed “crystallizing public opinion.” And during his eight-year association with the tobacco tycoon he would make clear his willingness to employ whatever antics or deceptions it took to do that crystallizing, including trying to discredit new research linking smoking to deadly diseases.

In earlier ad campaigns for other clients, Bernays had discovered the power of enlisting “experts” to endorse ideas that would be beneficial in promoting a product. So his first tactic to help promote Lucky Strikes was to start a buzz among experts who could “endorse” the idea that “slim is in.” His photographer friend Nickolaus Muray was persuaded to write to other photographers and artists and “solicit their opinions” on the new, more slender woman as the modern feminine ideal:

  “I have come to the conclusion,” Muray wrote, “that the slender woman who, combining suppleness and grace with slenderness, who instead of overeating sweets and desserts, lights a cigarette, as the advertisements say, has created a new standard of female loveliness.… I am interested in knowing if my own judgment concurs with that of others, and should be most happy to have your opinion on this subject.”  Who could argue that thin wasn’t better than fat? Few did, and the results were forwarded to newspapers, with similar “surveys” readied for actors, athletes, “beautiful girls,” society women, and male dancers.

Eddie hit the topic from many angles. He concocted news releases to send to fashion editors of magazines and newspapers that featured slender Parisian models in all the latest high fashion dresses. He circulated to news editors a testimonial from…

 … the former chief of the British Association of Medical Officers of Health warning that sweets caused tooth decay and advising that “the correct way to finish a meal is with fruit, coffee and a cigarette. The fruit,” Dr. George F. Buchan continued, “hardens the gums and cleans the teeth; the coffee stimulates the flow of saliva in the mouth and acts as a mouth wash; while finally the cigarette disinfects the mouth and soothes the nerves.”

And then there was the testimonial from Moses Teichman. You don’t remember Moses? Here he is, in a photo from about that time, doing the Charleston with a slim young woman.


Born to Jewish parents in 1895 in Austria-Hungary, Moses and family emigrated to the US in 1897. Anti-German pressure at the beginning of WW1 prompted him to change his name because the anti-German sentiments abroad in the land made things difficult for people with German-sounding names like Teichman. So instead of Moses Teichman, he chose to live the rest of his life as…

Arthur Murray.

If you are old enough, you may remember Murray for his “Arthur Murray Party” TV show in the ‘50s. If you are older than that, you may remember him for the mail-order dance lessons he sent out that used footprint diagrams to teach folks to do the fox trot or waltz.

murray 1922

But he was most famous for a chain of dance studios he started in the 1920s, and that continue to this day. The business…

…launched in 1925, involved selling branded dance lessons through franchising. He trained dance instructors for the Statler Hotel chain, who then went to various hotels and gave lessons; Murray kept some of the profits from each franchise. [Wiki]

By the 1930s, he expanded even more, to free-standing, franchised dance studios. But in 1928, when Eddie approached him, he was already a nationally-known dance instructor, in a time when new “dance crazes” like the Charleston and Jitterbug were all the rage, and being able to look good on the dance floor was viewed by young women as a quick road to popularity.

Bernays even persuaded dancing-school entrepreneur Arthur Murray to sign a letter testifying that “on the dance floor, results of over-indulgence are quickly revealed— causing embarrassment not only to one’s dancing partner but also to other dancers by encroaching on more than a fair share of space on a crowded or, as is often the case, on a dance floor of limited proportions. Dancers today, when tempted to overindulge at the punch bowl or the buffet, reach for a cigarette instead.”

Eddie also embarked on less direct approaches, aimed at “changing the culture” even more than changing the habits of one potential Lucky Strike buyer at a time:

 Hotels were urged to add cigarettes to their dessert lists, while the Bernays office widely distributed a series of menus, prepared by an editor of House and Garden, designed to “save you from the dangers of overeating.” For lunch and dinner they suggested a sensible mix of vegetables, meats, and carbohydrates, followed by the advice to “reach for a cigarette instead of dessert.

And he proposed that homemakers hire kitchen cabinetmakers to provide special spaces to hold cigarettes the same as they did for flour and sugar, urged container makers to provide labeled tins for smokes just as they did for tea and coffee, and encouraged home economics writers to “stress the importance of cigarettes in home-making.… Just as the young and inexperienced housewife is cautioned not to let her supplies of sugar or salt or tea or coffee run low, so she should be advised that the same holds true of cigarettes.”

The “reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” ads had been around for about a month when a new wave of ads came out…

 … this time stressing moderation. The “moderation” he had in mind, of course, meant consuming fewer sweets and more cigarettes.

The slogan for this wave of the sales campaign was “When tempted to over-indulge, Reach for a Lucky instead.”


reach2As you can see, the kicker in these ads was the “Future Shadow.”

And as usual, Eddie outdid himself brainstorming on ways to expand the plan.

 Bernays responded with an intricate proposal for a Moderation League, one that, ironically, he wanted to model on the “the Anti-Tuberculosis Association, Anti-Cancer Associations, Cardiac Associations etc.”  Hill balked at the long-range program, but loved Bernays’s proposal to sign up the glamorous Ziegfeld Girls. Six of the dancers formed the Ziegfeld Contour, Curve and Charm Club, signing a pledge to “renounce the false pleasure of the table— fattening foods, drinks, and cloying sweets. But I make no sacrifices: I shall smoke cigarettes.”

 And it wasn’t all just “glamour girls” who were enlisted in the sales blitz. One of the most popular female celebrities of the time was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Charles Lindbergh had recently completed his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 when Earhart was invited to take part in a June 1928 flight that also became a “first”…the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. No, she wasn’t the pilot, just along for the ride on the plane Friendship. (The flight was almost totally on “instruments,” and she hadn’t yet been trained for that type of flying.) But it was known that she was an accomplished pilot, and she went on to fame in her own right.

Conveniently for Lucky Eddie and Lucky Strikes, Amelia had a slim, trim figure.  Here she is in flight gear in 1928, and more demure in formal attire in 1932.

amelia 1928

amelia1932So they could easily capitalize on her Friendship trip, that came right in the middle of their Lucky campaign.

ameliaYes, Amelia gave testimony that Lucky Strikes were the cigarette of choice on the famous flight, and that she, the pilot, and co-pilot basically chain-smoked them for most of the 20 hour trip. As she was quoted saying in another Lucky ad of the time, “I think nothing helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.”

 So…how successful were all these hidden and not-so-hidden methods of persuasion in actually selling the product?

 Hill exulted in a December 1928 letter to Bernays, American Tobacco’s revenues rose by $ 32 million that year, and Luckies “show a greater increase than all other Cigarettes combined.”

By the way, how did the author of the Father of Spin book ferret out so many details and quotes about this and many other Bernays campaigns of persuasion? Because Eddie Bernays was both egotistical and obsessive-compulsive enough to keep originals or copies of practically every slip of paper that he ever wrote or received. And with a career that spanned over 80 years, that’s a LOT of paper. Eddie was literally sure that his would be an undying legacy, and he wanted to make sure future biographers “got it right.” So before his death, he boxed up all of that voluminous material and arranged for it to be left to the Library of Congress—more than 800 boxes.

He also wrote his own 849-page autobiography, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays.

But even that wasn’t enough:

 Still, he wasn’t content. Posterity would have all his papers and his personal perspective on his life story. But he felt it was important that biographers and historians also have a road map to everything he’d written and everything that had been written about him over his long career, one that included capsule versions of the writings, since he’d learned long before that busy authors had limited attention spans. So, in a truly unusual move, he hired a doctoral student to compile a 774-page annotated bibliography on him and his wife Doris. This work— Public Relations, the Edward L. Bernayses and the American Scene: A Bibliography— included 24 pages and 185 entries just on things the New York Times had said about him. There were hundreds of pages more of long excerpts from each book, periodical, and film that mentioned him, or that he contributed to. And there were references to nearly every speech he delivered and letter to the editor he wrote.

… Roscoe Ellard, a Columbia Journalism School professor who reviewed an earlier, ninety-two-page version of the bibliography for Editor and Publisher, said it usefully sketched the history of PR in America. Still, he couldn’t help observing how odd it was for such a work to be commissioned, noting wryly that it had happened only twice before that he knew of— with Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. PR veteran Bill Riis also thought it odd, although not for Eddie, as he wrote, “No one but Bernays would think of selling his own personal clipping book. The trick is, it won’t sell.” Riss was right: Eddie was stuck with twenty-five cases of copies, which he kept in his basement. But the bibliography found its way to scores of libraries and other research centers and is available to anyone interested in reading or writing about him.

Yes, Lucky Eddie was close to one of a kind. Which is why we know so much about the Lucky Strike campaign.

 Seldom if ever had a publicity campaign been carried out on so many fronts, and seldom if ever again will those responsible save, and make public, the details of their orchestrations the way Bernays did when he left to the Library of Congress twenty-four boxes of records pertaining to the American Tobacco Company.

That leaves close to 800 boxes we can dip into to find out more about Eddie’s brand of Hidden Persuasion.

The upcoming blog entries that will explore just a few more examples, making it very clear that using hidden methods of persuasion to get the public to buy your product, your cause, your candidate…or your war…didn’t start with the Mad Men of the 1950s. Up next:

You’ll Find That You’re In the Rotogravure

 PS… but first, just for fun, have a look at a 1957 episode
of the Arthur Murray Party show.
You don’t get to see Arthur, but it’s introduced by his wife Kathryn,
and features a VERY unexpected guest.


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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 4

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 4:

The Wizard of AdZ

(This is the fourth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”


As a young college student in the mid-1960s, I was very impressed with the writings of journalist/social commentator/social critic Vance Packard. I had several of his books, including The Waste Makers, The People Shapers, and Nation of Strangers. But like most people, his first biting commentary I read was his first best seller, from 1957, The Hidden Persuaders.


His introduction explained what he meant by the title:

This book is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic new area of American life. It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, “hidden.” The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

Some of the manipulating being attempted is simply amusing. Some of it is disquieting, particularly when viewed as a portent of what may be ahead on a more intensive and effective scale for us all. Cooperative scientists have come along providentially to furnish some awesome tools. The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares—whether products, ideas, attitudes, candidates, goals, or states of mind. This depth approach to influencing our behavior is being used in many fields and is employing a variety of ingenious techniques. It is being used most extensively to affect our daily acts of consumption.

The rest of the book explained how central understanding “the subconscious” was to the methods used by these hidden persuaders.

The findings of the depth probers provide starling explanations for many of our daily habits and perversities. It seems that our subconscious can be pretty wild and unruly. What the probers are looking for, of course, are the whys of our behavior, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favor. This has led them to probe why we are afraid of banks; why we love those big fat cars; why we really buy homes; why men smoke cigars; why the kind of car we drive reveals the brand of gasoline we will buy; why housewives typically fall into a hypnoidal trance when they get into a supermarket; why men are drawn into auto showrooms by convertibles but end up buying sedans; why junior loves cereal that pops, snaps, and crackles.

And it gave numerous explanations of specific “tricks of the trade” contemporary advertising experts of the mid-1950s were using to affect the buying habits of the American public. For instance, they had noticed that “impulse buying” of groceries had grown by leaps and bounds for nearly two decades. Housewives (and husbands, and kids) seldom went to the store with a complete list of groceries they “needed.” And they seldom came home without a significant collection of items they had not intended to buy.

A “motivational analyst” named James Vicary wondered why. He …

…suspected that some special psychology must be going on inside the women as they shopped in supermarkets. His suspicion was that perhaps they underwent such an increase in tension when confronted with so many possibilities that they were forced into making quick purchases. He set out to find out if this was true.

The best way to detect what was going on inside the shopper was a galvanometer or lie detector. That obviously was impractical. The next best thing was to use a hidden motion-picture camera and record the eye-blink rate of the women as they shopped.

Blinking eyes? What on earth does that have to do with buying groceries?

How fast a person blinks his eyes is a pretty good index of his state of inner tension. The average person, according to Mr. Vicary, normally blinks his eyes about thirty-two times a minute. If he is tense he blinks them more frequently, under extreme tension up to fifty or sixty times a minute. If he is notably relaxed on the other hand his eye-blink rate may drop to a subnormal twenty or less.

Mr. Vicary set up his cameras and started following the ladies as they entered the store. The results were startling, even to him. Their eye-blink rate, instead of going up to indicate mounting tension, went down and down, to a very subnormal fourteen blinks a minute. The ladies fell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a light kind of trance that, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis.

… Interestingly many of these women were in such a trance that they passed by neighbors and old friends without noticing or greeting them. Some had a sort of glassy stare. They were so entranced as they wandered about the store plucking things off shelves at random that they would bump into boxes without seeing them and did not even notice the camera although in some cases their face would pass within a foot and a half of the spot where the hidden camera was clicking away.

So what happened at the end of this sleep-walking shopping excursion?

When the wives had filled their carts (or satisfied themselves) and started toward the check-out counter their eye-blink rate would start rising up to a slightly subnormal twenty-five blinks per minute. Then, at the sound of the cash-register bell and the voice of the clerk asking for money, the eye-blink rate would race up past normal to a high abnormal of forty-five blinks per minute. In many cases it turned out that the women did not have enough money to pay for all the nice things they had put in the cart.

junk food

In this beckoning field of impulse buying psychologists have teamed up with merchandising experts to persuade the wife to buy products she may not particularly need or even want until she happens to see them invitingly presented. The 60 million American women who go into supermarkets every week are getting “help” in their purchases and “splurchases” from psychologists and psychiatrists hired by the food merchandisers. On May 18, 1956, The New York Times printed a remarkable interview with a young man named Gerald Stahl, executive vice-president of the Package Designers Council. He stated: “Psychiatrists say that people have so much to choose from that they want help—they will like the package that hypnotizes them into picking it.”

He urged food packers to put more hypnosis into their package designing, so that the housewife will stick out her hand for it rather than one of many rivals.

Packard went on to describe numerous methods the advertisers used to “put more hypnosis” in their package designs.

hypnotismAnd the rest of the book added many more inside insights into other methods used by the hidden persuaders. I was surprised and amazed by the information at the time.

Fast forward 45 years. I’m now in my 60s. I long ago forgot almost everything I read in Packard’s books, including The Hidden Persuaders. Maybe I internalized a tiny bit of it and it fortified my resistance to the persuasive methods…for many years I really have had a complete shopping list almost every time I go to the grocery store, and almost never buy anything on impulse.

But in general I went on to having interests in a wide variety of other topics over the years, and didn’t spend much time ever on thinking about those hidden persuaders lurking out there. I do however remember assuming at the time back in the 60s that this was a thoroughly “modern” phenomenon. Probably developed by MadMen on Madison Avenue starting some time in the late 40s or early 50s. Packard implies as much in his book, even starting his introduction with the term “exotic new” when speaking of tactics aimed at our subconscious.

So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I discovered that this was a misperception on Packard’s part. Either he just hadn’t done much historical study on advertising, or there were limited resources available for such study in the mid-1950s. This is certainly understandable. In the past decade the Internet has created an explosion of easily accessible information in vast quantities regarding just about any historical subject imaginable. Information that might have taken years, even decades, to ferret out from the book stacks and periodical collections in musty libraries fifty years ago is just a google search away now.

Oh, there may be a few tricks of the trade that are fairly new in recent times. But there was an astonishing amount of hidden persuasion going on in America a century and more ago, much of it perpetrated by the advertising industry and used to get people to spend money they couldn’t really afford on things they didn’t need, and to hypnotize people into choosing one brand over another for totally subconscious, even completely irrational, reasons. And people back then were little the wiser about how they were being manipulated than most people are now.

Let me take you behind that long-ago curtain, and meet the Wizard… of AdZ.

In the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, “Oz the Great and Powerful” was just an illusion made with the proverbial smoke and mirrors.


When he was separated from all his methods of illusion, the character played by Frank Morgan wasn’t imposing and fearful at all.


In the same way, Edward L. Bernays didn’t look powerful. He was short, plain.  In fact, some might say he appeared rather wimpy and ineffectual in person.


Don’t let appearances fool you. Eddie Bernays, as he was sometimes called by friend and foe alike, manipulated masses of people more powerfully than most men before or since. Obviously, we know that looks can be deceiving.

eddie adolph

After studying his life and accomplishments, I have come to realize that Eddie Bernays is one of those “most influential people you’ve never heard of.” In fact, although I don’t remember ever hearing or reading his name before a few months ago, since the first time I noticed it I seem to see it everywhere in my reading now. He’s a little like the fictional “Forrest Gump” character, showing up unexpectedly in all sorts of settings.


Back in his heyday Bernays was somewhere around the fringes when all sorts of big things were happening…pulling strings but choosing to stay out of the public eye personally. You can see him in a pic at age 26 in France at the end of a line of people at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WW1. Or here he is on the right at 50 at an event with Eleanor Roosevelt.

1941 eleanorAnd it was indeed a long heyday—born in 1891, he died in 1995 at age 103!  Here he is in 1990 at about 99. Even then he was still giving interviews and talking about his career.

1990 eddieSo what did Eddie DO? He was, as one of his biographers called him, “The Father of Spin.”


He is considered by many to have had the most historical influence of any one person in the creation of the modern role of the “Public Relations man.”

Eddie did P.R. (Some claim he personally even coined the popular use of the term “public relations.”)

Not just “advertising,” he would be very quick to point out if you called him an “Ad man.” The typical ad man, from Eddie’s point of view, was a fellow who badgered people into buying a product, usually with methods that emphasized, either truthfully or deceptively, the details of the alleged fine qualities of the product that made it superior to similar products, and what a great value it was for the price. This is what “advertising” typically meant at the turn of the last century. Like this information from a Sears Roebuck catalog of 1908 on rocking chairs.


This kind of “ad” was purely informational. Catalogs of the time were typically full of this type of advertising. It emphasized paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of teeny print describing every excruciating detail of the bargain you were being offered, along with close-up photos or artist renderings of the item showing its every feature. Why?

Because the typical advertising man of the time was convinced that what people really wanted in order to make buying decisions was practical information, information they could use to make rational purchasing choices.

But you see—Eddie Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud! He had studied his uncle’s writings, and even arranged to have Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” notes from 1915-1917 translated into English and published as a book in America, the first popular exposure American readers had to Freud’s theories.

Yes, Eddie knew all about the unconscious. He knew better than to think that the mass of humankind are coolly “rational beings.” In addition to the theories of his Austrian “Uncle Siggie,” Eddie was strongly influenced by the writings of the French author Gustave LeBron (who popularized the theory of “crowd psychology” with his 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind ) and the British pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter (who wrote a famous book in 1916 titled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.)

As a result of these influences, Eddie had been one of the first of his generation to realize—and act upon—the understanding that “persuading” people…to buy a product, to support a cause, to vote for a candidate…was much more effectively done by applying principles from psychology and psychiatry than by trying to “sell” it to them with a frontal assault on their “rational mind.”

Bernays had been acting on this understanding in his business career for barely a decade by 1923 when he wrote the very first book on the topic of Public Relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Listen to his opinion from that book about the ability for rational thinking of the common man:

The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.

Five years later, in 1928, he wrote another book on the topic, titled Propaganda.


Listen to the “underpinnings” of his PR efforts on behalf of American businesses (as well as his role in “selling” more than one president to the public, the “selling” of more than one war to the public, the “selling” of much more…):

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.

He went on to pontificate:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic [!!] society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

He meant this to be encouraging! Otherwise, he insisted, there would be chaos and anarchy.

Does this sound all a bit creepily familiar? Perhaps that is because it was a well-known fact that Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, was an admirer of Eddie’s writings. Yes, Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda were in Goebbel’s personal library.

I remember a book I read called PR: A Social History of Spin. The author discussed how the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays, despite the fact that Mr. Bernays was Jewish. Goebbels desperately wanted to meet Mr. Bernays and apparantly sent numerous books to him to be autographed. We don’t know if Mr. Bernays autographed them, but Goebbels claimed that he did. Goebbels, who had a PhD in philosophy (which is crucial in terms of understanding how he was able to understand Bernays and apply his writings in the way that he did), apparantly had an even larger library on propaganda than Mr. Bernays and had not only read all of his books, but had largely memorized a good deal of them as well. Goebbels was able to utilize Bernays’ ideas on propaganda in a manner that was the most malicious and homicidal ever seen in the 20th century: to support the Final Solution. [Source]

Eddie regretted this unwelcome connection when its significance became clear in later years, but didn’t take it as “criticism” of his theories—just an example of how they could be used by unscrupulous people. In the right hands … they were the “tools of democracy”!

In Eddie’s own hands they were tools over the years to promote a wide variety of products, ideas, people, causes, and even wars. His corporate clients had included, among many others, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, the United Fruit Company (remember Chiquita Banana?), General Electric, Dodge Motors, and Knox Gelatin. Causes he had helped promote included the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation (he was the one who encouraged them in about 1949 to shorten the name of the disease in their promotional materials to simply MS), the NAACP, and the fluoridation of water. He helped with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. He helped promote US entry into World War 1, the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in 1954, the interests of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. And he was the publicity director for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

worlds fair

Eddie was SO influential in so many areas that he and his tactics are going to deserve several entries in this blog series. In the next entry, we’ll watch the Wizard of AdZ as he orchestrates and choreographs one of his early elaborate PR schemes of Hidden Persuasion:

Lucky Eddie

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 3

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 3:

Plausible Deniability

(This is the third entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

Perhaps you saw the news stories last year about the event described in this NY Times article:

New York Times, 12/6/2012

…ASHULIA, Bangladesh — The fire alarm shattered the monotony of the Tazreen Fashions factory. Hundreds of seamstresses looked up from their machines, startled. On the third floor, Shima Akhter Pakhi had been stitching hoods onto fleece jackets. Now she ran to a staircase.

But two managers were blocking the way. Ignore the alarm, they ordered. It was just a test. Back to work. A few women laughed nervously. Ms. Pakhi and other workers returned to their sewing tables. She could stitch a hood to a jacket in about 90 seconds. She arranged the fabric under her machine. Ninety seconds. Again. Ninety more seconds. She sewed six pieces, maybe seven.

Then she looked up.

Smoke was filtering up through the three staircases. Screams rose from below. The two managers had vanished. Power suddenly went out throughout the eight-story building. There was nowhere to escape. The staircases led down into the fire. Iron grilles blocked the windows. A man cowering in a fifth-floor bathroom called his mother to tell her he was about to die.

“We all panicked,” Ms. Pakhi said. “It spread so quickly. And there was no electricity. It was totally dark.”

The fire started about 7 PM, and it took area firefighters until almost noon the next day to finally extinguish it.


bang fire22012novbang

By then at least 112 people had been found dead and scores more were in hospitals being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.

Though most workers had left for the day when the fire started, the industry official said, as many as 600 workers were still inside working overtime.

The factory, which opened in May 2010, employed about 1,500 workers and had sales of $35 million a year, according to a document on the company’s Web site. It made T-shirts, polo shirts and fleece jackets.

Most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors, fire officials said, and were killed because there were not enough exits.

The fire started on the first floor, probably in cluttered piles of yarn and fabric stored near electrical generators, instead of inside fireproof storage rooms as the (seldom obeyed) law required. Narrow exits on that floor became quickly blocked by panicking workers, and for those on upper floors—all three staircases leading down led through the ground floor. If they tried to descend, they were pushed back by smoke and deadly fumes.

stairsThere were no fire escapes—a dozen jumped to their deaths from windows on upper floors.

When the November fire broke out, [survivor Sumi] Abedin was working on the factory’s fourth floor. When a co-worker smelled smoke and she and some co-workers first tried to escape, said Abedin, managers “shouted at us, ‘There is no fire. This is a lie. Go and work.’” Five minutes later, when the smell had grown stronger, Abedin ran to a door but it was padlocked shut. “I was crying and running around the floors,” she said. Abedin took a different stairway down to the second floor, but found fire blocking any exit there. “Meanwhile,” she said, “power had gone out, and it was dark.” Following co-workers who were lighting the way with a cell phone, she made it back up to the third floor. “I saw many workers fallen in the production area,” she said, “and they had suffocated, and I was crying.”

A few workers forced open a window, and Abedin jumped out. “I jumped not to save my life,” she said. “I jumped to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”

Abedin said she woke up outside with a broken leg and a broken arm. When she turned to help the co-worker who had jumped just before her, he was dead. [The Nation]

Abedin was correct in her concern. Many bodies from inside the building could not be identified.

bodiesAs you can guess, this factory was not making sari dresses for Indian shoppers. It was part of the global supply chain that feeds western megastores such as Walmart and Sears.

Yet Tazreen was making clothing destined for some of the world’s top retailers. On the third floor, where firefighters later recovered 69 bodies, Ms. Pakhi was stitching sweater jackets for C&A, a European chain. On the fifth floor, workers were making Faded Glory shorts for Walmart. Ten bodies were recovered there. On the sixth floor, a man named Hashinur Rahman put down his work making True Desire lingerie for Sears and eventually helped save scores of others. Inside one factory office, labor activists found order forms and drawings for a licensee of the United States Marine Corps that makes commercial apparel with the Marines’ logo.

… Amid the blackened tables and melted sewing machines…an Associated Press reporter discovered clothes and account books Wednesday that indicated the factory was used by a host of U.S. and European retailers.

Among the items discovered: children’s shorts with Wal-Mart’s Faded Glory label, hooded sweaters marked “Disney Pixar,” shorts with hip-hop star Sean Combs’ ENYCE tag, and sweaters from the French company Teddy Smith and the Scottish company Edinburgh Woollen Mill. Sears was among the companies listed in the account books.

And American “Dickies.”

faded2faded glorydickiesIf you were aware of this story, you may have read some of the editorial commentary that questioned what, if any, legal—or moral—liability these businesses had in regard to this tragedy. For of course, this was not some isolated situation. Bangladesh is notorious for a lack of oversight of the safety and rights of sweat shop workers in the thousands of factories that hire millions of workers in this poverty-stricken nation. Many if not most of them work in rickety fire-traps, under identical conditions to the Tazreen factory. Exit doors are often locked during working hours—supposedly to limit employee “theft.” Plain old common sense fire safety precautions, such as keeping stocks of flammable materials away from machinery that might generate sparks, are typically totally ignored.

Nobody worries about the welfare of the workers, as they are merely cogs in a giant machine.

Bangladesh is now a garment manufacturing giant, the world’s second-leading apparel exporter, behind China, which is no longer the cheapest place to make many basic goods. Bangladesh has the lowest garment wages in the world, and many of the Tazreen factory’s victims were young rural women with little education, who earned as little as $45 a month in an industry that now accounts for $19 billion in exports.

Starvation wages for work in hellish conditions—all in the name of making sure we can buy a Sponge Bob T-shirt at a rock-bottom price at our local Walmart. Because, of course, we have come to expect rock-bottom prices. Even though most Americans will give lip service to wishing there were T-shirts…and every other kind of goods…to buy that were “made in America.” Nah.  Most of us wouldn’t BUY one made in America, because the added cost of paying even American minimum wages to garment workers would boost the price beyond what we’ve become accustomed to paying.

Yes, Walmart and other retail giants have addicted us to prices that can only be kept “that low” by importing goods manufactured in places like Bangladesh.

“We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year,” said Richard M. Locke, deputy dean of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.”

Well, actually there is a way that Walmart and the others could keep their prices low and still sell American made goods produced by workers making at least minimum US wages. They could reduce their corporate profits (and their executive salaries) by some small percent. But see, that wouldn’t be The American Way. After all, “the profit motive” has long been recognized as the fuel that was necessary to propel America to its one-time role as the Most Prosperous Country in the World. You don’t mess with a proven method.

Of course, buying goods from sweat shops where people are burned alive isn’t very good for corporate Public Relations. Which might affect those corporate profits. So the Bangladesh fire was indeed a PR nightmare for Walmart and the others for a while.

After the fire, Walmart, Sears and other retailers made the same startling admission: They say they did not know that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing.

But who, then, is ultimately responsible when things go so wrong?

The global apparel industry aspires to operate with accountability that extends from distant factories to retail stores. Big brands demand that factories be inspected by accredited auditing firms so that the brands can control quality and understand how, where and by whom their goods are made. If a factory does not pass muster, it is not supposed to get orders from Western customers.

Tazreen Fashions was one of many clothing factories that exist on the margins of this system. Factory bosses had been faulted for violations during inspections conducted on behalf of Walmart and at the behest of the Business Social Compliance Initiative, a European organization.

Yet Tazreen Fashions received orders anyway, slipping through the gaps in the system by delivering the low costs and quick turnarounds that buyers — and consumers — demand. C&A, the European retailer, has confirmed ordering 220,000 sweaters from the factory. But much of the factory’s business came through opaque networks of subcontracts with suppliers or local buying houses. Labor activists, combing the site of the disaster, found labels, order forms, design drawings and articles of clothing from many global brands.

Walmart and Sears have since said they fired the suppliers that subcontracted work to Tazreen Fashions. Yet some critics have questioned how a company like Walmart, one of the two biggest buyers in Bangladesh and renowned for its sophisticated global supply system, could have been unaware of the connection.

But of course, the name of the game is Plausible Deniability. “Tsk, tsk! We didn’t know! We would have been aghast if we did!” Yeah. Right.

…David Hasanat, the chairman of the Viyellatex Group, one of the country’s most highly regarded garment manufacturers, pointed out that global apparel retailers often depend on hundreds of factories to fill orders. Given the scale of work, retailers frequently place orders through suppliers and other middlemen who, in turn, steer work to factories that deliver low costs — a practice he said is hardly unknown to Western retailers and clothing brands. The order for Walmart’s Faded Glory shorts, documents show, was subcontracted from Simco Bangladesh Ltd., a local garment maker. “It is an open secret to allow factories to do that,” Mr. Hasanat said. “End of the day, for them it is the price that matters.”

But when the New York Times reporter comes calling, the Escape Clause can be pulled out of the hat. “We had no idea!…”

Tazreen Fashions is part of a larger garment conglomerate, the Tuba Group, which owns at least half a dozen apparel factories in Bangladesh. Mr. Hossain [Tazreen owner] said a team from Walmart’s local office conducted a compliance audit last year and faulted the factory for excessive overtime, while making no mention of fire safety or other issues. Moreover, he said, the local buying houses had also inspected and approved the factory, tantamount, he assumed, to approval from Walmart and the other global brands these middlemen represented.

Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said the company stopped authorizing production at Tazreen “many months before the fire.” But he did not say why.

But of course no one was surprised several months later when Walmart and Sears “avoided even the appearance” of having the slightest connection to “the problem.”

On 15 May 2013, companies whose clothing was manufactured at the Tazreen Design Ltd. factory met in Geneva to discuss compensation payments for the victims of the fire; Walmart and Sears declined to send representatives to the meeting. [Wiki]

Why do I bring all this up in the context of American History? After all, can’t we expect such lack of respect for human life, such carelessness for others, in third world countries like Bangladesh, which don’t live by The American Way? For after all, isn’t The American Way the “Christian” Way? Hasn’t the American Way of Life and doing business always been based on “Biblical Principles”? (Bangladesh is about 90% Islamic, 10% Hindu.)

Maybe in recent decades the modern Walmart corporation and other big American businesses have fallen away from those ideals and become corrupt and greedy. But surely historically The American Way has been greatly superior to the horrid conditions in darkened Bangladesh. Hellish events such as the Tazreen fire and the one described below are tragic, but understandable in uncivilized nations.

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were … aged sixteen to twenty-three…

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice … to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below.

Oh. Wait. That description isn’t from far-flung heathen lands. It’s from Heathen New York City. Yes, once again we are back in the Good Old Days.

good old daysI submit to you a brief overview of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. It was also one of the deadliest disasters that occurred in New York City – after the burning of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904 [over 1,000 people on their way to a German Lutheran church picnic died when that excursion steamship caught fire and sank in the East River] – until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later.

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below.

… Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women’s blouses, known as “shirtwaists.” The factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays, earning between $7 and $12 a week.

As the workday was ending on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire flared up at approximately 4:40 PM in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables at the northeast corner of the eighth floor. The first fire alarm was sent at 4:45 PM by a passerby on Washington Place who saw smoke coming from the eighth floor. Both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.

The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin, which held two months’ worth of accumulated cuttings by the time of the fire. Beneath the table in the wooden bin were hundreds of pounds of scraps which were left over from the several thousand shirtwaist that had been cut at that table. …

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. According to survivor Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself. Although the floor had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Place, flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway, and the door to the Washington Place stairway was locked to prevent theft by the workers; the locked doors allowed managers to check the women’s purses. The foreman who held the stairway door key had already escaped by another route. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they continued to operate.

19110325 triangleWithin three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, which city officials had allowed Asch to erect instead of the required third staircase. It was a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet (30 m) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.

Just as in the Twin Towers inferno, there were heroes of the story that day…

Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo saved many lives by traveling three times up to the ninth floor for passengers, but Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped into the empty shaft, trying to slide down the cables or to land on top of the car. The weight and impacts of these bodies warped the elevator car and made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

A large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, witnessing sixty-two people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building. Louis Waldman, later a New York Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene years later:

“…Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor.

Which also meant there was no way to reach anyone on those floors with a ladder to rescue them.

windows(Picture from the NY Times of that date in 1911 shows x’s on the windows above where the ladder reaches, indicating where victims jumped.)

The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to approach the building.

bodiesonsidewalk(Picture from the NY Times shows forty bodies scattered on the sidewalk next to the building.)

Although early references of the death toll ranged from 141 to 148, almost all modern references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire: 129 women and 17 men. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.

The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

So there you have it. Almost a “script” for the Bangladesh fire. Young women doing exhausting labor at pitifully low wages, in a garment factory sweat shop, a fire started and fed by totally unsafe working conditions, a building ill-equipped for such an emergency, locked exits…a recipe for disaster.

So did anyone end up shouldering responsibility for THIS fire?

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair’s trial began on December 4, 1911.

And quickly ended with an acquittal for both. The defense lawyer convinced the jury that the prosecution needed to prove that the owners specifically KNEW that the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. In spite of the fact that almost everyone knew that this was “standard procedure” for this sweat shop.

There was a subsequent civil trial, and the owners lost that one. The plaintiffs won $75 compensation to the survivors of each victim. Which ended up being no sweat for Blanck and Harris—their insurance company ended up paying them about $60,000 over their reported losses. About $400 per casualty. They came out ahead.

But surely they at least “learned their lesson” and dedicated the rest of their lives to factory safety…

Harris and Blanck were to continue their defiant attitude toward the authorities. Just a few days after the fire, the new premises of their factory had been found not to be fireproof, without fire escapes, and without adequate exits.

In August of 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.

In December of 1913, the interior of his factory was found to be littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. This time, instead of a court appearance and a fine, he was served a stern warning.

The Triangle Waist Company was to cease operations in 1918, but the owners maintained throughout that their factory was a “model of cleanliness and sanitary conditions,” and that it was “second to none in the country.” [Source]

There was indeed some public uproar over the horrific event, and it did eventually lead to some changes in New York law regarding wages, hours, safety, and working conditions. But of course that involved … shudder … government intervention into business. Which from what I understand is frowned upon greatly by many in our society today.

Some actually seem to consider the improvement in industrial conditions brought about by some of the muckrakers and reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century to be an infringement on The American Way. Because their primary definition of The American Way seems to be … “I’m free to do ANYTHING I want to get rich, with no lousy government intervention. Because after all, Businessmen are gentlemen, and can be counted on to Do The Right Thing without any external interference by do-gooders. Yessiree, what’s good for Big Business is Good for America!”

Which puts me in mind of General Bashington T. Bullmoose!


GENERAL BULLMOOSE was created by Al Capp in June 1953 as the epitome of a ruthless capitalist. Bullmoose’s motto “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!” was adapted by Capp from a statement made by Charles E. Wilson, the former head of General Motors, when it was America’s largest corporation. He later served as Secretary of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1952 Wilson told a Senate subcommittee, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Li’l Abner became embroiled in many implausible but hilarious adventures with the cold-hearted Bullmoose over the years. [Source]

Bullmoose had a simple boyhood dream: to possess all the money in the world. He very nearly did. Bullmoose Industries seemed to own or control everything. [Wiki: L’il Abner]

So if Big Business is Good for the Country, any government regulations putting a crimp in the style of any such businesses … are Bad for America. And are thus un-American. And ungodly. And not part of The American Way.

Oh. Yes. I remember that Eternal Law undergirding The American Way. It’s somewhere in the Bible, I think. At least in principle. It must be. Lots of people who call themselves Christian have been saying so for a long time.

What any of this has to do with “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Don’t forget the poor” and “The laborer is worthy of his hire” is beyond me.

I guess I just don’t understand Theonomic economics and business.

But there are more things I’ve recently come to understand about history that I never knew before. We’ll look at some more of them in the next entry in this series:

The Wizard of AdZ

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