Culture Wars Feature Article

The Torches of Freedom Campaign:
Behaviorism, Advertising, and the Rise of the American Empire

Part 3 of a 3 part article originally published in the April-June 1999 issues of Culture Wars magazine, and exerpted from Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), available from Fidelity Press.

by E. Michael Jones, Ph.D.

I must speak also of the earthly city—of that city which lusts to dominate the world and which, though nations bend to its yoke, is itself dominated by its passion for dominion.

- St. Augustine, City of God, Book I, preface

“I get rather disgusted sometimes with trying to make the human character amenable to law.”

- John B. Watson in a letter to Robert M. Yerkes

Torches of Freedom

On March 31, 1929, a woman by the name of Bertha Hunt stepped into the throng of pedestrians in their Sunday-best clothing marching down Fifth Avenue in what was known in New York as the Easter Parade, and created a sensation by lighting up a Lucky Strike cigarette. Her action would not have created the reaction it did had not the press already been alerted to what was going to happen in advance. Hunt then told the reporter from the New York Evening World that she “first got the idea for this campaign when a man with her in the street asked her to extinguish her cigarette as it embarrassed him. ‘I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation.’”

Mrs. Taylor-Scott Hardin parades down New York's Fifth Avenue with her husband while smoking "torches of freedom"

The press, of course, had been warned in advance that Bertha and her friends were going to light up. They had received a press release informing them that she and her friends would be lighting “torches of freedom” “in the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo.” Bertha also mentioned that she and her friends would be marching past “the Baptist church where John D. Rockefeller attends” on the off chance that he might want to applaud their efforts. At the end of the day, Bertha and her friends told the press that she hoped they had “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.’”

What Miss Hunt did not tell the reporter is that she was the secretary of a man by the name of Eddie Bernays, nor did she tell him that Mr. Bernays was now a self-styled expert in the new discipline of Public Relations who had just received a handsome retainer from the American Tobacco Company to promote cigarette consumption among women. What billed itself as a feminist promotion of the emancipation of women was in reality a public relations ploy to open a new market for tobacco by getting women addicted to cigarettes.


Years later Eddie Bernays would wax philosophical about the Torches of Freedom campaign. “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Eddie failed to note that he had given the essential definition of public relations and advertising as practiced during the 1920s.

Like the behaviorists, Eddie might have felt that human beings were infinitely malleable when subjected to orchestrated public opinion, but his insight needs its proper historical context to be understood correctly. What he was really talking about was the erosion of custom by the manipulation of passion. Throughout the century, tradition and morals would prove vulnerable to publicity campaigns which gave “scientific” justification for succumbing to passion.

Feminism was no exception to this rule. It entailed the systematic re-engineering of the morals of women as a way of moving them out of the home and into the workforce, thereby lowering wages and weakening the power of organized labor and the working class family.

What Miss Hunt did not tell the reporter is that she was the secretary of a man by the name of Eddie Bernays, nor did she tell him that Mr. Bernays was now a self-styled expert in the new discipline of Public Relations who had just received a handsome retainer from the American Tobacco Company to promote cigarette consumption among women.

Eddie Bernays, whose wife belonged to the Lucy Stone League, which argued that women should be able to keep their own (i.e., their father’s) names after marriage, was a fervent feminist, but his was a feminism with an ulterior motive. Eddie, like the feminists of the ‘70s, wanted to break the woman’s connection with tradition and the home because, once that connection was broken, women were more open to suggestions emanating from the mass media and those who controlled it — the people, in other words, who paid Eddie’s handsome retainers. Eddie promoted smoking among women because he was paid to do so by American Tobacco. But promoting smoking was also a way of breaking tradition’s hold over women’s minds, and this was important because once that hold was broken these women were more amenable to his suggestions.

The Torches of Freedom campaign was a classic instance of using sexual liberation as a form of control. It proposed addiction as a form of freedom.

The Torches of Freedom campaign was a classic instance of using sexual liberation as a form of control. It proposed addiction as a form of freedom. In this, it was an early version of the Virginia Slims, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign, which made repeated reference to the suffragette movement as a way of associating cigarettes with freedom.

In this regard, Eddie’s feminism would be consistent with the feminism of the 1970s, which was orchestrated for similar reasons. The operative word used was, of course, “freedom.” Eddie called his attempt to introduce a whole new market segment, namely, women to the joys of nicotine, the “Torches of Freedom” campaign. Bernays got the term from his Uncle Sigmund’s New York disciple A.A. Brill. Bernays had been hired by George Washington Hill, head of American Tobacco, in 1928 for an annual retainer of $25,000. Hill, according to Bernays, “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 told Bernays. Getting women to smoke cigarettes would be “like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”

Virginia Slims Ad, 1968At Bernays’ suggestion, Hill paid for a consulting session with the Psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, who established the psychological parameters of the campaign. In a manner more Watsonian than Freudian, Brill linked cigarettes with the new woman. Cigarettes stood for liberation from children and child-rearing. Cigarettes were like contraceptives; they were associated with sex without issue. They appealed to women who were willing to neuter themselves sexually in their admiration of masculine qualities. “It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes,” Brill told Hill. “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.”

Since American Tobacco’s revenues jumped by $32 million in 1928 alone after Bernays was hired, Hill was eager to proceed in opening up yet another market, this time women. Perhaps in no campaign were the issues linked more closely than in American Tobacco’s Torches campaign. In order to sell more cigarettes, Bernays intuitively understood that he had to attack traditional sources of authority. Since the taboo against women smoking was largely sexual—women who smoked were seen as sluts and whores—the way to expand the market was to denigrate sexual morality as repressive. All the gullible consumer saw was women wanting to be free, whereas in reality the women who marched in the parade smoking their Luckies were being manipulated by the Tobacco Industry into a sort of bondage that was both literal, in terms of physical addiction, and moral in the sense that it was motivated by a subliminal understanding of sexual liberation.

By 1929, neither advertising nor behaviorism thought of man as completely malleable in the hands of the omnipotent conditioner. Instead, they began to understand man in a sense which was much closer to the understanding of traditional rational psychology, with a heavy dose of Augustinian pessimism. Man may have been a rational animal, but his choices were motivated more often than not by passion and not by reason, and since the vocabulary of passion was nothing if not limited, the advertisers had recourse to the same themes over and over again.

Bernays' uncle, Sigmund Freud“The behavioral approach,” according to Buckley, ignored questions of the rationality of irrationality of mind and emphasized instead the malleability of human behavior. In the emerging field of public relations, no less a figure than Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, underlined this assumption. “The group mind,” he wrote, “ does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits, emotions.” Bernays urged advertisers to “make customers” such as any other commodity is produced by transforming the raw material of emotions into habits of consumption. (p. 139).

The secret was to associate a product in some subliminal way with the consumer’s sexual desires. Just as Freud had learned that he could exploit the sexual desires of his rich patients for financial gain, so Eddie was now learning how to do the same thing to large groups of people through advertising. The contribution behaviorism made was that just about any commodity could be associated with sexual desire, with the correct application of conditioned reflex. Gradually, the idea of infinite malleability gave way to the use of conditioned reflex in associating a particular product with one of the passions that the classical writers had known about all along. Since the advertisers hadn’t and couldn’t create another human being, they were forced to deal with human beings as the Creator had made them and as people like St. Augustine had explicated their weaknesses. Public relations and advertising meant making use of the insights of Augustine about fallen human nature, while at the same time denying his authority in the matter. “A man,” Augustine had written, “has as many masters as he has vices.” Since advertising was not dealing with an infinitely malleable creature, people like Bernays and Watson would eventually have to implement any real form of control on Augustine’s terms and not on their own, and that meant getting involved with sexual passion as a form of control.

Brill’s input figured not only in the "Torches of Freedom" Easter Parade but also in the advertising campaign which followed on its heels. Before the billboards went up advertising Lucky Strikes for women, Brill would have his say. The original idea of two men and one woman was scratched as too confusing. “Two people should appear, one man and one woman. That is life,’” Bernays recalled the psychologist saying. “‘Nor should a woman offer two men a package of cigarettes. The cigarette is a phallic symbol, to be offered by a man to a woman. Every normal man or woman can identify with such a message.’” Brill’s analysis of the cigarette billboards was, according to Bernays, the first instance of Freudian advertising. Brill’s input was a concrete example of what Bernays described in his 1928 book Propaganda, when he claimed that “The use of psychoanalysis as the basis of advertising is common today.” Brill’s “lightning analysis” of the cigarette poster, however, “may have been the first instance of its application to advertising.”

Lucky Strike: Do You Inhale?Bernays clearly had Brill (and himself) in mind when he claimed in his 1928 book Propaganda that “we are dominated by the relatively small number or persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.” These are the people who “pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” These “invisible governors” are necessary “to the orderly functioning of our group life.” Without them there would be no one to “bring order out of chaos.”

Watson goes to Madison Avenue

John B. Watson arrived at the J. Walter Thompson agency in January of 1921, just as advertising was emerging as the key whereby large scale manufacturing enterprises could gain access to national markets by promoting brand name products. Since behaviorists like Watson promised a “science” which would both predict and control behavior, he was precisely the sort of man the advertising agencies were looking for. If Watson had believed in God, he could have seen his firing from Johns Hopkins as providential because it allowed him to arrive on Madison Avenue just as advertising was poised to incorporate both behaviorism and psychological warfare into its assault on the American public.

It is not clear whether Stanley Resor believed in God, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one. Resor graduated from Yale University in 1900 after majoring in history and economics. After reading the historian Thomas Buckle, Resor became convinced that human behavior, in the aggregate, could be described and predicted according to observable statistical laws, and under Resor’s guidance, after he acquired a controlling interest in the company, J. Walter Thompson became a leader in compiling demographic data from census reports.

Liberalism had to come up with a solution to the social chaos its policies created and Watson’s behaviorism, combined with the propaganda techniques evolved during the War, seemed like the answer.

Since Watson had been peddling his theories to big business since 1916, Resor saw an opportunity to integrate behaviorism and advertising as a way of controlling and homogenizing an increasingly unruly population in the interests of the business community. Liberalism had to come up with a solution to the social chaos its policies created and Watson’s behaviorism, combined with the propaganda techniques evolved during the War, seemed like the answer.

But there was another reason Resor found the prospect of hiring Watson appealing. The industry had its own ethos, which was overwhelmingly liberal. Advertising executives were a remarkably homogeneous lot, oftentimes the sons of Protestant ministers, who had the fervor of their fathers without their faith. These were men who believed that science was a better guide in life than morals, and they were enamored of the possibilities it offered for creating a brave new world in the image of their passions. Man was what the conditioners made him. There was no soul, no essence, no human nature. Man was nothing but responses to stimuli, which were increasingly under the scientist’s control, first of all because Watson had discovered the conditioned reflex as the “building block” of personality, but secondly because the instruments for manipulation were now available in the new media, particularly cinema.

The rise of advertising was more than just the exploitation of a new psychological technique. That technique was predicated on a world-view which most advertisers shared, and the rise of advertising corresponded to the rise of that view of the world as ultimately normative. In many ways the connection was causal because the rise of advertising meant, above all else, supplanting traditional authority. The traditional criteria according to which one made choices—parents, ethnicity, tradition, religion—had to be supplanted on a massive, pan-cultural scale before mass advertising would work. Advertising was a form of social engineering which required the creation of a new man if it were to be successful. Unlike 19th century man, who was frugal, bound by the traditional constraints of the local community and willing to deny himself certain things in the interest of a greater good, the new man envisioned by advertising was to be, in Pope’s words, "reactive, suggestible, and impulsive."

1924 Coke AdBy about 1920, the institutional arrangements that still characterize American advertising were already set in place. By then, too, an ideology of advertising had appeared. Its exponents portrayed advertising as a force that would reconcile social harmony with personal freedom of choice. Persuasion would replace coercion. The ideals of liberal individualism could be realized in a society dominated by large-scale enterprises. “Reputation monopolies,” otherwise known as brand names, would bring about the abeyance of social tension in a way that was both painless to the consumer and profitable to the controller. It was more humane, as Harold Lasswell had said, than assassination. In 1920 the day had arrived when “the gentleman who awoke to a Big Ben alarm clock, and shaved with a Gillette razor, washed with Ivory Soap, breakfasted on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and continued through his daily routines depending on advertised brands (p. 76) was completely within the purview of values acceptable to the new liberalism and the corporate elite.

Advertising soon became a laboratory in which business tested the often-overstated claims the behaviorists made against the reality of human nature. In spite of what behaviorists like Watson said, the advertisers soon came to realize that consumers were not “infinitely malleable.” Advertisers might claim that they could sell “dirty dishwater,” and in some instances they might, but they could not do so over the long haul. As they became more and more convinced that the consumer was motivated by nonrational and even irrational buying appeals, they were forced to consider the nature of desire and where those desires came from. As they explored the age old distinction between want and need, which Plato had discussed in the Republic, they began to realize that consumption patterns varied widely from the objective circumstances dictated by a real world and were more influenced by unacknowledged desires. These desires, however, were radically limited in number and had only a tenuous connection to a product, but that connection could be strengthened by conditioning. It was at this point that the advertisers began to see sex as a marketing strategy. Man was not “infinitely malleable”; he was a rational creature with a tenuous hold on his passions, which were limited in number, sex being one of the most easily manipulated. Success in advertising meant, therefore, using the conditioned reflex to attach a particular product to the consumer’s sexual passion.

Vance PackardBy 1957, the connection between sexual passion and the products Madison Avenue wanted to sell resulted in Vance Packard’s best-seller The Hidden Persuaders, based on widespread fears of loss of autonomy in the face of manipulation of desire. “The most serious offense many of the depth manipulators commit, it seems to me,” Packard concluded, “is that they try to invade the privacy of our minds.” Wilson Bryan Key addressed the same fears in a more specifically sexual sense in his books Subliminal Seduction, Media Manipulation, and The Clam-Pate Orgy. One needn’t agree with Key’s analysis of ice cubes in whiskey ads to appreciate the sense of sexual seduction that advertising was arousing in the consumer by the end of the century.

John Watson managed specific ad campaigns for J. Walter Thompson, but his main contribution to the industry during the 1920s was as a guru of scientific technique, specifically in the realm of childrearing. It was his job to function as the scientific expert who would tell the public that up till then, they had gotten it all wrong in just about everything they had done—including, and especially, the raising of their children— and that now it was time to stop being old-fashioned and unscientific and start listening to what the experts had to say. Watson, according to Buckley, “became a popularizer of psychology as a means of self-help for those who had difficulty adapting to the new social order and an advocate of psychological engineering to an emerging class of social planners and corporate managers who sought scientific methods for social control” (p. 133).

Liberalism would continue to be both arsonist and fire department, dissolving traditional cultures in the name of “science” and “liberation,” and substituting in their place forms of social control based on manipulation of the passions.

The ironies of the world proposed by Resor, Bernays, and Watson become evident with some hindsight. Watson’s need to replace “traditional guides for human conduct” was inevitably followed by a regimen of social control. The consumer, who is seen as driven by irrational passion, most notably sex, can only be manipulated by appealing to authorities which are “scientific” as opposed to the discredited authorities of tradition, which are portrayed as “irrational.” Science is the solvent which, in the name of “reason,” dissolves the traditional bulwarks against the passions and allows them to be manipulated as a form of behavioral control. The campaign would continue throughout the rest of the century in America and in pre-technological societies throughout the world. Liberalism would continue to be both arsonist and fire department, dissolving traditional cultures in the name of “science” and “liberation,” and substituting in their place forms of social control based on manipulation of the passions.

Watson makes contact with “the Rockefeller Interests” - 1924

By 1921, John Watson, the creator of the behaviorist project for social control, was of little use to Yerkes, but Yerkes continued to write to Watson urging him to continue his research. In 1924 Watson finally linked up with what he termed “the Rockefeller interests.” In 1924 the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund (LSRM) awarded a grant of $15,000 to the Teachers College of Columbia University so that Watson could continue the work on infants that he had begun at Johns Hopkins. The LSRM was a major player in the field of behavioral research in the ‘20s, and foundation director Beardsley Ruml made it clear that he was not interested in the disinterested contemplation of the truth. He was interested in research that had social results and that meant, more than anything else, formulating strategies of social control under the guise of scientific childrearing. The LSRM viewed scientific childrearing as the first step in the engineering of social relationships, and far from being put off by experiments on little human beings, Beardsley jumped at the chance to fund an experiment whose point was, in Watson’s terms, to devise methods of controlling human behavior “without having the parents as the main conditioning factor” (Buckley, p. 153). If schools were to become, as Dewey had predicted, factories which engineered the minds of their pupils away from the views of those children’s parents and toward the interests of the large corporations and other purveyors of the liberal ideology, someone would have to come up with an explanation of how children learned. Watson, according to Buckley, was “attempting to create techniques that would reduce child rearing to standardized formulae.”

Eventually, the research would end up in Watson’s 1928 book on child rearing, Psychological Care Of Infant and Child , which Watson co-authored with Rosalie Rayner Watson. The book was dedicated to “the First Mother Who Brings up a Happy Child” and it coincided neatly with the disintegration of the extended family which liberalism was accomplishing by its assault on the local, for the most part, ethnic community in the wake of World War I. Cut off from the childrearing mores of their own hopelessly old-fashioned parents, “modern” mothers were urged to turn to science as the guide in raising their children, specifically the science of behavioral psychology as explicated by Dr. Watson. Watson lost no time in beginning his assault on “traditional guides for human conduct.” “A great many mothers,” Watson writes, “still resent being told how to feed their children. Didn’t their grandmothers have fourteen children and raise ten of them? Watson counters by saying that the fact that:

“many of grandmother’s children grew up with rickets, with poor teeth, with under-nourished bodies, generally prone to every kind of disease, means little to the mother who doesn’t want to be told how to feed her child scientifically” (p. 4).

Watson addresses his book to “the modern mother who is beginning to find that the rearing of children is the most difficult of all professions, more difficult than engineering, than law, or even medicine itself.”

“No one today knows enough to raise a child,” Dr. Watson informed modern mothers. “The world would be considerably better off if we were to stop having children for twenty years (except those reared for experimental purposes) and were then to start again with enough facts to do the job with some degree of skill and accuracy. Parenthood, instead of being an instinctive art, is a science, the details of which must be worked out by patient laboratory methods” (p. 12-3).

Watson’s book is full of instances where the laboratory is taken as the model for the nursery. Mothers should relate to their children the way Dr. Watson related to Little Albert. Mothers should treat their children “as though they were young adults.” This means:

Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of the difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.(p. 81-2).

J.B. Watson conducts an experimentThe point here is to make mothers feel shame for exhibiting affection because affection is not scientific, nor is love, an emotion Watson felt, probably drawing from his own experiences, which was based on stimulation of erogenous zones. Mothers should not even be seen by their children any more than is necessary to administer feedings, by bottle of course, and change dirty diapers because this fosters an unhealthy dependence in the child. For those mothers whose heart was “too tender” and felt that, all of Watson’s exhortation to the contrary, that they had to peek in on their child, Watson recommends: “make yourself a peephole so that you can see it without being seen, or use a periscope” (p. 85). The modern mother, however, should show no emotion; she should instead “handle the situation as a trained nurse or a doctor would and, finally, learn not to talk in endearing and coddling terms” (p.85).

Watson spoke as an expert about a world where the school was taking over more and more of the education and socialization which the family had formerly done. By internalizing the dictates of the technocratic society and implementing them in the nursery, the modern mother would facilitate her child’s success in the world later on. “The modern child,” according to Buckley, “would soon learn that real authority lay not in the family but in the marketplace and in its supporting social institutions. Achieving success depended upon internalizing the values of the corporate order. Success itself came more and more to be seen as the ability to emulate a style of living defined and exemplified by mass advertising” (p. 143).

No matter how promising scientific methods of childraising seemed, they placed an enormous burden on the mother, who now had two options: she would be culpable of neglect if she ignored the modern methods, or she would be culpable for every quirk of the child’s personality if she didn’t implement them correctly. This was clear for a very simple reason. There was no God, no nature, no culture, and no tradition to fall back on in Watson’s universe. There was only the raw material of biology and conditioning, and the mother was the main conditioner. If there were any failures, she was responsible.

“If you start with a healthy body,” Watson told young mothers, “the right number of fingers and toes, eyes, and the few elementary movements that are present at birth, you do not need anything else in the way of raw material to make a man, be that man a genius, a cultured gentleman, a rowdy or a thug...You are completely responsible for all the other fear reactions your child may show” (pp. 41-2).

Whether admonitions like this were intended to cause guilt is hard to say. That they did seems almost certain as modern mothers strove to be as scientific as possible by adopting the commands of experts like Watson. The guilt simply increased the social control, which was congenial to those who were promoting the experts.

Because his ideas dovetailed so closely with the interests of the mass media, Watson’s thought appeared in one mass market magazine after another during the 1920s. In addition to writing for Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic, The Saturday Review of Literature, McCall’s, and Liberty, he was profiled in The New Yorker. In 1930 Horace Kallen wrote an article on Watson and behaviorism in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in which he foresaw a world, according to Watson’s principle, producing human beings “as equal as Fords.” Neither Kallen nor Watson seemed upset by the conflation of the assembly line and human reproduction. In fact both seemed to see the conflation as a step forward, especially since Watson was predicting that marriage would by gone by 1978.

During the first 10 years of their marriage, Rayner and Watson had two boys, which he raised according to behaviorist principles, under the approving eye of the media, who would report periodically that “they seem normal.” Billy Watson would eventually commit suicide, so appearances can be deceiving, but by then he was grown and the media had other stories to occupy its attention.

In 1922, it looked as if Watson might be able to have the best of both worlds. In addition to his advertising job, he received a teaching appointment at the New School for Social Research, a institution founded in 1917 by Charles A. Beard and John Harvey Robinson to disseminate the ideas of Lippmann, Croly, Dewey, and Thorstein Veblen. Watson gave a series of weekly lectures at the New School from 1922 to 1926 when his character, or lack thereof, caught up with him. He was fired in 1926, according to the testimony of Beard’s daughter, for sexual misconduct.

That incident pretty much ended Watson’s academic career. By 1930 he had reached the height of his influence, but he had run out of things to say. At around this time, he decided to do a story on why people don’t commit suicide. The topic probably gives some insight into Watson’s frame of mind at the time. Cohen thinks Watson was suicidal at the time and resolved the crisis by moving out of New York City to a farm in Connecticut where he could lose himself in the details of caring for animals. Watson, it should be remembered, once said that any attempt at autobiography would probably lead to suicide, so maybe he was thinking about his own life at the time.

Whatever the reason, Watson wrote to 100 prominent people and asked them why they went on living. He got responses from everyone he wrote to, including a letter from Robert M. Yerkes, who replied that “despite psychological ills, difficulties, and disappointments, I find life intensely interesting, a game in which, by matching my wits against the universe, I may oftener win than lose and enjoy the risk.” Yerkes had written to Watson in 1932, urging him to take up observational work again. Watson, however, had no desire to get back into laboratory work. “I am afraid there is too much water under the dam for me ever to be able to think of going back to university work,” Watson wrote to Yerkes. Cohen tells us that Yerkes had no practical suggestions, which seems odd since returning to research was Yerkes idea.

It is odd for another reason as well. In 1931 , the CRPS’s budget was shifted from the Bureau of Social Hygiene to the Rockefeller Foundation. From the outset, the foundation’s officers pressured Yerkes, with little success, to concentrate on human problems. Yerkes, responding to that pressure, wrote to Watson in 1932 urging him to return to academic research, but by that time Watson had become too habituated to the good life and the emoluments which accrued to him as an advertising executive. As a result, the whole project of psychic engineering languished during the 1930s as it drifted away from Watson and Watson drifted away from it. Yerkes’ letter on why he didn’t commit suicide was his last correspondence with Watson. After completing the article in 1933, Watson sent it off to the editor at Cosmopolitan who had commissioned it. The editor, however, rejected it as too depressing, and a few months later, as if to confirm his original feelings about the article, committed suicide himself.

During the early summer of 1936, Rosalie Rayner Watson contracted dysentery and on June 19, she died. Shortly before her death, her two children were sent off to camp, so she never saw them before she died. After her death, Watson’s drinking increased, as did his silence on matters psychological, leaving a vacuum that was felt at the CRPS and elsewhere. By the late 1930s, the CRPS was deeply involved in Yerkes’ words , with “studies of neural and behavioral mechanisms as facts in the control of sexual activity and reproduction.” Once again, however, infrahuman studies predominated, leaving nagging questions about human behavior unsettled. This disappointed Yerkes, who had never abandoned his goal of using the CRPS to support scientists who could provide reliable data that would help society understand and control human sexual behavior.

With war clouds gathering over Europe, however, the need for social engineering became more urgent. Joseph Goebbels, it turns out, was a fan of Eddie Bernays and made use of his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, in Bernays’ words, “as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews in Germany.” And Austria, he might have added. One of those Jews was his Uncle Sigmund, who was lucky enough to escape to England in the late ‘30s. Eddie’s aunts were not so fortunate.

Joseph Goebbels, it turns out, was a fan of Eddie Bernays and made use of his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion

If the Nazis could influence public opinion to such a degree simply by reading Eddie’s book, then the Americans were clearly going to have to take the study of propaganda to a new level if they were going to defeat them in the next war. During the latter part of the 1930s, the Rockefellers got increasingly interested in communication theory and its military application, psychological warfare, and began funding studies that involved the people who had been involved in the CPI under George Creel during World War I. Harold Lasswell was working on a Rockefeller-funded study of content analysis at the Library of Congress. Hadley Cantril was doing similar work at Princeton for the Public Opinion Research Project. Paul Lazarfeld was working at the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University.

Watching the Nazis, the Rockefellers became convinced that the mass media had only increased their power to influence the public mind since World War I and now wanted to put the media to the same task as the CPI had done then. The Rockefellers were interested in a campaign of “democratic prophylaxis” that would target ethnic communities in the United States and make them immune to the effects of Axis and Soviet propaganda. In 1939, the foundation organized a series of secret seminars with men it regarded as leading communication scholars to enlist them in a effort to consolidate public opinion in the United States in favor of war against nazi Germany.Charles A. Lindbergh

The America First movement, under the leadership of people like Charles Lindbergh, tried prevent entry into a new war by reminding the country of the devastation the last one had caused, but ultimately to no avail. The isolationists were simply outgunned when it came to influencing the media and, as a result, forming public opinion. If they hadn’t written it yet, the Rockefeller interests were writing the book on psychological warfare, combining the insights of behaviorism, advertising, and communication theory into a potent weapon that would have far-reaching consequences for the country long after the war was over.

The Rockefellers were collaborating with William Stephenson also, a British Intelligence agent who had been sent to America to engineer America’s entrance into the war on the side of the British. In 1939, Stephenson formed an entity known as British Security Coordination, which occupied two full floors of the Rockefeller Center in New York, rent free.

Harold Lasswell felt that the Rockefeller Interests representing the Anglophile elite in the United States should “systematically manipulate mass sentiment in order to preserve democracy from threats posed by authoritarian societies such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union” (Simpson, p. 23). Not everyone agreed. Certainly the America Firsters were of another opinion on the matter of whether America should enter the war, and Mahl shows convincingly how their efforts were sabotaged by Stephenson and his psychological warriors. But some of the communications theorists objected too. Donald Slesinger, a former dean at the University of Chicago and a Rockefeller seminar participant, felt that, in resorting to the methods of psychological manipulation, the Rockefeller interests were no better than those they hoped to oppose: “We [the Rockefeller Seminar] have been willing, without thought, to sacrifice both truth and human individuality in order to bring about given mass responses to war stimuli.” Slesinger contended, “We have thought in terms of fighting dictatorships-by-force through the establishment of dictatorship-by- manipulation.”

Roosevelt, Calderone & BernaysSlesinger, according to Simpson, “drifted away from the Rockefeller seminars and appears to have rapidly lost influence within the community of academic communication specialists.” That lesson was not lost on Robert M. Yerkes. By 1940, it was clear that the war was not going well for the British, and the Anglophile establishment was clearly looking for a way to get into the war to help them out. They were also interested in upping the ante in psychological research, and that meant they were becoming increasingly impatient with Yerkes and his emphasis on infrahuman studies. As a result, Alan Gregg, the director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s medical division, decided to pressure Yerkes into funding sex research that involved human beings. In January of 1941, he informed Yerkes that the CRPS could look forward to funding for at most two more years. His grant for the 1943-44 year was “a terminating grant.”

Watson, the most likely candidate to do sex studies, was completely out of the picture now, drinking himself to death on his farm in Connecticut. Yerkes, however, had no intention of retiring, and he made this clear in his “Twentieth Annual Report of the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex,” when he called for a new role for the committee. “Henceforth,” he began, “we have concerned ourselves with knowledge and its extension through research. Scant attention has been given to the effects of current knowledge of sexual and reproductive phenomena on [the] individual and society.” To date, the CRPS had limited itself to promoting “the extension of knowledge disinterestedly, in accordance with the scientist’s ideal and almost regardless of social values, applications, and risks.”

Much of the knowledge that scientists had accumulated with such pains would become useless, he warned, unless some way was discovered to apply it with wisdom and insight to society. Many scientists , he continued, believed that disinterestedness was a menace. They insisted that “biological engineering” should become the teammate of research. “Lifting our eyes from the details of vital processes,” he declared, “we discover that life itself needs guidance.” In order to get involved in “biological engineering,” the CRP needed to know more about human sexuality. They needed someone who could discover the basic structure of the sexual mechanism just as Watson had come up with the conditioned reflex as the basic building block of learning in infants.

Alfred KinseyIn December 1940, an obscure entomologist by the name of Alfred Kinsey wrote to Yerkes about the surveys he had been conducting among students at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he was a professor. The conjunction was fortuitous. Kinsey needed money, and, more than that, he needed the respectability which an organization like the Rockefeller Foundation could confer. Yerkes, on the other hand, needed someone who was actually involved in sexual research on human beings as a way of saving his job at the CRPS. “Kinsey’s request for funds,” according to Jones, “offered Yerkes an opportunity to marry the human studies sought by the Rockefeller Foundation with the behavioral focus favored by the CRPS in the 1930s” (p. 424). Watson had always wanted to do sex research but the exigencies of the times and his career never allowed him to proceed.

Now the lessons of advertising which had emerged from psychological warfare after the last war and had been refined during the 1920s and ‘30s were about to be reabsorbed into their scientific matrix once again. The lesson of advertising’s refinement of behaviorism was clear. Man was not infinitely malleable. He was a rational creature whose reason could be overruled by his passions, which were limited in number, the most passionate of which was sex. If sex could be used to make the consumer buy products, it could also be used in other forms of “biological engineering,” of the sort envisioned by Yerkes. Just as Watson had been funded to explain the fundamental building blocks of personality in stimulus-response, now Kinsey would be funded to explain how sex could be used as a form of control. It was a lesson he was eager to teach. It was a lesson which Robert M. Yerkes would learn, to his chagrin, by falling under Kinsey’s control. Yerkes would find out first hand how successfully sex could be used as an instrument of control, when Kinsey used him as the guinea pig in his own private experiment.

In May of 1941, Yerkes informed Kinsey that the CRPS had approved a grant of $1,600 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1941. Yerkes strongly advised him to acquaint the committee with his methodology over the next several months, through personal discussions or printed material. Kinsey replied that he would be delighted to have any or all of the committee members come to Bloomington and observe his operation. CW

To be continued...

E. Michael Jones, Ph.D. is the Editor of Culture Wars magazine, as well as author of the new book Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999, available from Fidelity Press) from which this article is exerpted.


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