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Cyber War as Cultural War

The Cyber War we are seeing today is an extension of a deeper cultural war. The only difference is that it is being conducted with different tools, and yet it should have a considerably larger effect today because the means of communication have been so magnified.


Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht(*) has produced an interesting essay that shows the connection between international geo-politics and culture. She argues that the Cold War (in Europe) can be seen in part as a conflict between the cultures of the United States and Europe. The common understanding was that “Americans have no culture”, in comparison to the “High Culture” of Europe. At best, America was a weak shadow of high culture. This followed the views of Joseph Goebbels propaganda which said that “Americans are money-hungry barbarians with no cultural life of their own.” (Quoted by Gienow-Hecht, p. 407) Here, we suppose, one is referencing the masters of classical music, such as Mozart, and the development of sophisticated cultural icons such as ballet, opera, orchestra music, Greco-Roman architecture, the theatre, and classical style painting. Americans, on the other hand, were viewed as having none of that. They were seen as being unsophisticated and “without culture”. As the Cold War developed, the East (Soviet Union) invested in culture as a way to sway minds towards their way of thinking.

Figure 1 – Technology and national information strategy has changed the balance of power between Russia (Soviet Union) and the United States. In the immediate post-war period, the USSR developed a leading-edge strategy. This was followed by similar actions by the United States. The rise of international data communications through undersea cables and satellites, followed by the Internet set the stage for a revolution in the USA that was not followed in the USSR. The rise of social media has added another layer of complexity. The USA does not have coherent national information strategy for either offense or defense.

In this sense, “information warfare” is simply another aspect of a wider cultural warfare. The idea is that if people admire one culture over the other, then eventually they will vote that way also. Much investment was made in the arts by both sides. According to Gienow-Hecht, from 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, “[b]oth superpowers deliberately employed psychological warfare and cultural infiltration to weaken the opponent and its client states on the other side of the Iron Curtain.” (p. 400, para. 2) Russia exported artistic tours by the Bolshoi Theater, and the USA set up various Amerika Hauser in Germany. Here are a few other aspects of this struggle.

Sowjetische Militar Administration in Deutschland (SMAD). This was operated by the Soviet military. It worked on the assumption that all culture was ideological. SMAD propagated the narrative that the Soviets were Abendlandkultur (saviors of occidental cuture) (p. 402). Sponsored discussions and seminars on German culture, and included artists, writers, sculptors, painters and others to participate. Also worked to denounce non-traditional culture that was leaking in from the United States. This included abstract expressionism and surrealism, which were tied with capitalism and fascism. These ideas were magnified by ideas that the Soviet Union stood for peace, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stood for imperialism, militarism and war.

Deutsche Theater. Located in the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. Offered numerous productions of classical European art. Invitations sent out on regular basis to bring over western cultural icons for cultural exchange, which in this context means to convince them of the superiority of the Eastern model of society.

All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS) (Всесоюзное общество культурной связи с заграницей). Soviet organization to promote Russia’s “classical tradition”. Jazz was condemned. Shostakovich was praised.

Deutschlandsender (radio). Operated in the German Democratic Republic from 1948-1971. Continued to promote “classical” art, in comparison with “corrosive” western art.

Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) later Deutsche Film AG (DEFA). Built theaters and created content for propaganda purposes.

UNESCO. The Soviet Union joined in 1950 and started a program for a “new world information order“, which implied more government control over the press.(**) This interesting debate also developed the concept of “information imperialism”.

GDR Peace Council. East German operation to invite over western intellectuals so as to influence their way of thinking about the East-West conflict.

Ministry of Cinematography (Soviet Union) (Государственный комитет по кинематографии СССР). Creation of films to glorify life under communism. See for example the masterpiece Seventeen Moments of Spring (Семнадцать мгновений весны), which glorifies the work of a Soviet spy working in Nazi Germany.


Campaign of Truth. The United States seemed slow to respond. Things started to take shape in the 1950s (half of a decade later). The Americans created a “Campaign of Truth” during the Korean War. This was to advertise the difference between the United States and Soviet Union. It was used particularly during the Korean War, which Kim Il-Sung was operating as a lackey for the Soviet Union. The budget for the State Department increased from $20 to $115 million for information activities.

Figure 2 – Propaganda cartoon issued by Campaign of Truth during Korean conflict. It shows Kim Il-Sung sitting on a pile of skulls. Date of original June 25, 1951. Issued by the United States Army, 8th Division Korea, Psychological Warfare Section. A full collection is available at the Albert Brauer Psychological Warfare Propaganda Leaflets Collection at the Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University Libraries.

United States Information Agency (USIA). Set up to arrange information programs and cultural exchanges to teach Europeans about American society. Encouraged the “export” of US culture.

Fulbright Program. Facilitates the exchange of researchers, and to “internationalize” scientific research. (See also here under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.)

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. All radio stations. Set up to broadcast pro-western messages.

There was further funding of American cultural exports. These were set up through the Ford Foundation or Rockefeller Foundation. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored the translation of many American classic novels.

Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). A covert CIA program to operate in the cultural realm including conferences, music concerts, and operation of various publications including the magazine “Encounter”.


It appears that although there remained, and remains today, an image of the United States as not representing so-called “high culture”, the protest and rebellious side of American culture got through. These undercurrents perhaps were at least in part responsible for protests against government power in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. It set the stage for the Helsinki Accords(Helsinki Final Act)  to have a strong effect in stimulating cultural protest that eventually were at least partially responsible for bringing down the Soviet Union. (See the Accords Part VII. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.)



In Figure 1, we have divided the post-war period into four periods.  The figure illustrates that in the immediate post-war period (1945-1950), the Soviet Union and United States were engaged in a battle for the “hearts and minds” of Europe. There was a sense that part of national strategy was to convince citizens in Europe of the superiority of either the communist or capitalist system. Each side had fears. If Germany was “lost” to the West, then Russia might eventually face the re-emergence of a strong competing power. If Germany (and other parts of Europe, e.g., Italy, Greece) were lost to the East, then it would be a security threat to the United States.

During this Cold War, the two sides competed using the traditional media (print, radio, and film, then later television). The East argued that American culture was crude and that the “East” was preserving the High Culture of Europe. The signing of the Helsinki Accords started a process of rebellion, but the seeds of rebellion had been sewn by the disruptive nature of American culture.

The Soviet Union never caught up with the information revolution made possible by the development of international satellite data communications, the integrated circuit and computers. (See the Essay by Gus W. Weiss “The Farewell Dossier“.)  So what has happened is that global data communications and later the Internet enabled the rise of giant multinational enterprises that can operate in an integrated manner across international borders, almost with no concern for the nation state. In addition, the social media applications hosted on the Internet have created the potential for the sudden emergence of powerful social forces, as we have seen in the Arab Spring. These also can operate in a trans-national mode.

In the early stages, social media grew rapidly. Then in response, countries started to take actions to protect their citizens from this giant phenomena. In China, a “Great Internet Firewall” has been set up and government censorship and control of communications is a legal and expected part of life. Similar actions have been taken in Russia, but in a more subtle manner.

At the same time, the Internet has made governments, individuals and organizations of all types vulnerable to hacking.  A giant struggle is going on between countries in this arena. [This blog argues there is a need for a cyber arms limitation treaty.]

But at the heart of the matter is the underlying culture of the Internet and today’s social media. This has spilled out from America to cover the entire earth, and now it is up to adversaries of the USA to develop defensive strategies to “protect” against this threat to their culture. In most cases, it represents a potential threat to their political culture.

But as of this time, no clear strategy has emerged for the United States, which still sees Cyber war as merely a part of computer security, and not as part of a broader competition for the hearts and minds of citizens all around the world.


(*) See Jessica C. E. Geinow-Hecht, Culture and the Cold War in Europe, The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Vol. I., Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, Editors, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 419. This blog entry draws heavily upon the professor’s work. In particular the list of programs established by each side. The professor, in her chapter, does not cover any aspect of the Internet or events after the fall of the Soviet Union.

(**) See Carrier Buchanan, Revisiting the UNESCO debate on a New World Information and Communication Order: Has the NWICO been achieved by other means?, Telematics and Informatics, Vol. 32, Issue 2, May 2015, pp. 391-399.

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