The History of NATIS

When I wrote about NATO’s early publicity posters last year, I mentioned that there seemed to be almost nothing written about them or the NATO Information Service (NATIS), the NATO agency responsible for propaganda and publicity. So it was a pleasure to be able to read Linda Risso’s Propaganda and Intelligence in the Cold War: The NATO Information Service (Routledge, 2014). Risso’s book is predominantly an institutional history of NATIS, focusing on its organizational structure and its many changes of message and media. It amply covers the challenges that came with trying to convert an organization for inter-governmental liaison into an agency that would actually convey a consistent pro-NATO message inside and outside the alliance era.

Though there were proposals to give NATIS more authority, more central control, and – very occasionally – more budget, they mostly failed. Part of the reason, as Risso explains, was that the countries with better-established information agencies, mostly notably the US and UK, didn’t want to have to reveal the full range of their propaganda activities. In the early 1950s, the non-UK delegations to NATIS weren’t even supposed to know that the British Information Research Department (IRD) existed. IRD reports went to the UK delegation in a plain (i.e. “not ‘Foreign Office'”) envelope without packing slips that might indicate their origins.

Though its not a media or an art history, Propaganda and Intelligence in the Cold War does discuss a number of NATIS’s outputs, including its print publications, traveling exhibits, and involvement with non-governmental advocacy groups. One area where NATIS seemed to be more active was with film, at least partly because its first Media Section chief was Peter Pooley, who had worked in the British government’s GPO (later Crown) Film Unit during the Second World War. Seconded to the US Economic Cooperation Administration to work on short films promoting the Marshall Plan, Pooley had a lot of first-hand experience selling government policy. Though a lot of the early NATO films sound terribly dreary, High Journey (1959) was essentially an aerial guided tour of Europe narrated by Orson Welles.

NATO also took advantage of the expertise of the J. Walter Thompson Company, the lead consultants for Marshall Plan advertising and public interest advertising in the US through the Ad Council. Victoria de Grazia quotes some of JWT’s work on a campaign for NATO’s 10th anniversary in her book on US businesses in twentieth-century Europe, Irresistible Empire:

Advertising would “make clear to the world the striking superiority, as much moral as material, of the Western conception of Man and his dignity.” The NATO Birthday, NATO Song, and NATO promotional slogans such as “Good night – sleep tight – NATO stands on guard,” “N.A.T.O. – four letters that spell peace,” and “Since NATO, not an inch of territory lost” would work “to forge a history of community and traditions.”

The campaign certainly sounds hokey today, but what about in 1959? (Still hokey, I suspect.)

Risso is fairly circumspect in her evaluation of NATIS’s effectiveness, observing that the organization’s low and peripheral status meant it had little to work with: “centralised NATO information work was bound to tend towards the lowest common denominator This tendency translated into a general – if not bland – portrait of NATO as an insurance policy and fire brigade, and an information service that was structurally unable to respond to quickly to the demands placed upon it.” It’s worth noting also that NATIS was explicitly not an organization for wartime psychological warfare, or even public affairs. Those roles were the preserve of national organizations.

Where does that leave the history of NATO’s graphic design work? I’m still in search of more information, and hopefully more images, but I certainly have a far greater appreciation of the organizational challenges that put NATIS in a tough spot here.


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