Propaganda and censorship in Gulf War I

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2 Promoting War
2.1 Propaganda for the liberation of Kuwait
2.2 Kuwait’s engagement in the propaganda
2.3 Media’s support for the war plans

3 Censorship in the Gulf War
3.1 Avoiding the Vietnam Syndrome
3.2 The Pool System
3.3 The Military Ground Rules
3.4 Reporting under the government’s restrictions
3.5 “Unilateral” Reporting
3.6 The Briefings
3.7 Image vs. Reality

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“The Bush Administration achieved a five-month-long commercial for militarism and individual weapon systems. The American people were seduced into the celebration of a slaughter by controlled propaganda demonizing Iraq, assuring the world no harm would come to Iraqi civilians, deliberately spreading false stories of atrocities including chemical warfare threats, deaths of incubator babies and threats to the entire region by a new Hitler” (Initial Complaint of the International War Crimes Tribunal)1

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 is considered to be one of the most strongly censored wars in American history. Besides security reasons, the censorship policy was also intended to raise and sustain support for the American troops on the home front in order to avoid “mistakes” in the handling of the media, that supposedly lead to the defeat in the Vietnam War. Besides the restrictions for free media reporting inflicted by the government, the media was one of the strongest censors themselves.

This paper deals with the censorship system that was used by the US military and the media’s self-imposed censorship. It addresses the question to what extent the system exceeded the intended security purpose and how the media reacted to those restrictions. Propaganda strategies used before and during the war are also being examined. Besides, emphasis is put on the media’s role as an independent institution and its performance to provide the American people with unbiased and relevant information.

2 Promoting War

2.1 Propaganda for the liberation of Kuwait

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, many Americans knew little about the reasons and America’s stand on Iraq’s attack. A survey2 in early February 1991 showed for instance, that only 13% of all Americans knew that on July 25 1990, just days before the invasion, April Glaspie (at that time U.S. Ambassador to Iraq) assured Saddam Hussein that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreements with Kuwait”3 One of the widely accepted reasons for the invasion of Kuwait, Kuwait’s insistence on lowering oil prices and border disputes over an oil field, were identified by only 2% of the sample group in the same study. The study also revealed that Americans were much more likely to support an intervention against leaders that slaughter significant numbers of civilians (58%) whereas only 18% would support an intervention to support Oil interests.

As there were numerous cases of countries illegally occupying land at that time, with the U.S. not intervening, e.g. in Israel or Syria, other interests are very likely to have been the reason for the liberation of Kuwait. Despite the speculations of Bush’s domestic problems as a reason for another war, oil prices are very likely to have been an important factor for the decision to go into war. The Iraqi invasion led to a change in the oil price from $19 per barrel before the invasion to $30 a barrel after the invasion4, which has undoubtedly had a significant influence on U.S. economy. Other factors such as an important flow of surplus capital in the U.S.5 or geo- strategical interests are supposed to have contributed to the decision to liberate Kuwait.

As the results of the survey suggest, the majority of Americans would have been willing to support military action to liberate a democratic country that has been invaded by a ruthless leader and is therefore posing a threat to nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia. Professional propaganda was waged to put the situation in the “right” perspective. Especially remarkable was the propaganda support that the U.S. government received from the Citizens for a Free Kuwait (CFK), a group formed of Kuwaiti citizens that happened to be outside Kuwait at the time of Iraq’s invasion.

2.2 Kuwait’s engagement in the propaganda

One of the CFK’s first moves was to hire one of the most renowned public relations companies in the U.S. Hill and Knolton (H & K), which is known for its good contacts to the U.S. government6. The company’s president Craig Fuller mentioned after the war in a BBC interview that he almost immediately contacted the U.S. government to find out how to best support the president’s intentions. “Getting [the Kuwaitis’] message across was completely in line with the goals of the bush administration. By helping the Kuwaiti citizens, it was clear we would be helping the Bush administration”7. Until the end of the war, H & K received $10.8 million from the CFK. The money came to a large extent from the Kuwaiti government that paid almost $12 million to the CFK8. H & K’s campaign for the liberation had primarily two aims: 1. to improve Kuwait’s image and 2. to portray Saddam Hussein as a potential new Hitler.

Kuwait had an image problem at that time. Until the dissolution of the national assembly in 1986 by the ruling family Al Sabbah, Kuwait was considered to be a democratic country, even though hardly more than 3% of the Kuwaiti population were allowed to vote. Women had no right to vote at all. Besides having a large record of voting against resolutions supported by the U.S. in the general assembly of the U.N., e.g. a strong opposition against resolution 3379, which equated racism with Zionism, Kuwait became also known for its almost slave like treatment of foreign workers by their employees and their families.

The known efforts of H & K included the production of various video press releases, glorifying Kuwaiti resistance fighters and Kuwaiti business personalities. They also organized a so-called information days at 20 U.S. colleges and a National Day of Prayer for Kuwait on September 23 1990 which was followed by the announcement of a National Day for Free Kuwait by thirteen US governors. Other means included the distribution of press kits, emphasizing the alleged merits of Kuwait’s society and history and the distribution of bumper stickers and t-shirts with the words “Free Kuwait”.9

The second strategy turned out to be more fruitful to raise support for the liberation of Kuwait. In order to portray Saddam Hussein as a new kind of Hitler, H & K made use of atrocity propaganda that has been proven successful in similar forms in earlier wars10: atrocities committed against children. Probably the best known and most successful propaganda in this was the “incubator story”. It is not known when and where the story appeared first but probably the first written account of the story can be found in the September 5th issue of London’s Daily Telegraph where Yahya Al Sumait (former Kuwaiti Secretary of House Building) claims that babies were taken out of their incubators and left to die in a premature section of a hospital in Kuwait.11 This story was repeated unverified in various news sources and finally made it to a hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in the U.S.. In that hearing, a girl called Nayirah, her full name was disclosed because of claimed fears of Iraqi retaliation actions against her family in Kuwait, testified dramatically her eyewitness account of the incubator story. It turned out, as revealed later by John R. MacArthur in the New York Times, that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. who had been briefed and prepared by H & K. The Caucus also received a $50.000 contribution from the CFK.12 A similar incident happened on a hearing before the U.N. Security Council where H & K put on an audio-visual presentation of the atrocities committed by Iraqi occupants. Again, 5 of the 7 witnesses, instructed by H & K, testified atrocities under wrong names, which was unmentioned at the hearing and also unnoticed by the press at this time. The story was also later supported by Amnesty International, quoting two undisclosed doctors who claimed to have witnessed the burial of more than one hundred premature infants and also testified that 312 children had died this way. After the war Amnesty had to admit in a press release that no evidence could be found that the death of the children, mentioned above, could be related to the claimed incubator incidents or any other Iraqi action.13 A private investigation by an American company, paid by the Kuwaiti government, found out that Nayirah’s testimony relied on only one single incident where perhaps six infants were removed in the described way.14 This story was taken up by the media and also used by President Bush on many occasions15 to illustrate the atrocities committed by Hussein’s troops. It can therefore be suggested, that this story contributed to a large extent to the effort of demonizing Saddam Hussein. The media also turned out to be supportive of beating the war drums.

2.3 Media’s support for the war plans

Although American media owners have been criticized as being too supportive of the government’s war plan, A study by Robert M. Entman and Benjamin I. Page concludes that the American media in fact did supply a substantial amount of critical reporting. But it also reveals that the criticism was rarely touching the core issues of the discussion, which was that Iraq had to unconditionally retreat from Kuwait, even if that would have meant the use of military action16. Critics restricted themselves more or less to the question of the immediate necessity of action.

The Hussein/Hitler analogy also became a prominent image in news coverage and was quite welcomed by the Bush sr. administration. This kind of coverage offered an easy way to coordinate the debate and the government’s aim. By comparing Hussein to Hitler, readers were drawn the conclusion that war was the only way to handle such a leader, as it also had been the case in WW II. Few critical voices in the media noticed the fast image change of Saddam Hussein as noted by Marjorie Williams from the Post: “ He (Saddam Hussein) has undergone a striking transformation, over the past week, in the American media and the American imagination. Once a dictator whom most Americans could not identify, but with whom the United States has sided for most of the past decade, Saddam Hussein is now suddenly revealed as a fiend in human form.”17 The analogy became even more popular after the Iraqi invasion. Between August 2 and January 15 the Washington Post and the New York Times used the analogy in 228 stories, editorials or columns dealing with the Iraq conflict.18


1 International War Crimes Tribunal United States War Crimes against Iraq in

2 Hamid Mowlana, George Gerbner, Herbert I. Schiller. Ed. Triumph of the Image. The Media’s War in the Persian Gulf – A Global Perspective. Westview Press: Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: 1992. 220.

3 EXTRA! Special Gulf War Issue 1991. (Self-) Censored Stories. Eight Stories National Media Ignored in

4 Mowlana, 40.

5 Private investments from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Emirates amount to $150 billion in the U.S.. in Roots of War, 39.

6 Among other good contacts was Craig Fuller, the company’s president, who was the former chief of staff of vice-president Bush.

7 Craig Fuller after the war in 60 minutes quoted in W. Lance Bennett, L. Paletz. Ed. Taken by Storm. The Media, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London: 1994. 144.

8 John R. MacArthur. Die Schlacht der Lügen. Wie die USA den Golfkrieg verkauften. DTV: München: 1993. 59.

9 MacArthur 53-61.

10 Especially in WW I, where the Germans were accused of having raped a Belgian girl on the streets and of having bayoneted a two year old child. Another unproven atrocity was a widely reported story about Germans chopping of the arms of a child clinging to its mother’s skirt. (MacArthur, 62).

11 MacArthur 64-65.

12 Bennet, 140.

13 MacArthur, 87-88.

14 Bennet, 140

15 Bennet, 140

16 Bennet, 95.

17 Bennet, 72.

18 Bennet, 71.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Propaganda and censorship in Gulf War I
University of Cologne  (History Seminar/Anglo-American History)
Promoting War: Media and War in American History
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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523 KB
Propaganda, Gulf, Promoting, Media, American, History
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Thomas Müller-Kulmann (Author), 2003, Propaganda and censorship in Gulf War I, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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