Conspiracy Theories and Rumours as Key Elements of Political Propaganda: The Cold War in the USA and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s


Rumours and hearsay can be important communication devices in civil society. Their influence tends to intensify in times of social crises and long-term conflict, which then can function as a test of trust in official authorities. The Cold War took place in an almost apocalyptic atmosphere fearing the outbreak of a fatal nuclear conflict. On both sides, combat was waged not only in the fields of armaments, economics or technology, but also on a psychological level, as a way to gain the trust and sympathy of citizens. The dividing line between East and West was also a demarcation between two frequently mirrored images of the enemy presented by representatives of state power and the state controlled media. However, in contrast to official propaganda, there was also a less manageable spontaneous public debate, which responded to the intervention of state supervision, questioned official interpretations and sought its own answers to important social events. In this paper, the function of rumours and conspiracy theories during the Cold War is described on both sides of the conflict, as indicators of public opinion and as tools for influencing it. The "potato beetle" case and narratives about an alleged communist conspiracy in the USA during the period of "McCarthyism" became symbols of the conspiratorial rhetoric of the Cold War. The article also serves as a starting point for reflections on the differences in the spread of political rumours in totalitarian and democratic societies.