This spring, amid its usual byzantine policy tinkering and chummy energy industry machinations, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) was practicing alchemy—turning natural gas into freedom. In a May press release announcing the approved expansion of a natural gas-processing plant on the Texas coast, two senior-level DOE officials referred to natural gas as "molecules of U.S. freedom" and "freedom gas."
This linguistic turn to rebrand fossil fuel as an ideological good is a symbolic continuation for the Trump administration, which has consistently pushed policies friendly to fracking and natural gas and filled its ranks with many former energy industry executives (including the two DOE secretaries behind "freedom gas"). But it's also part of a long U.S. history of renaming and rebranding well-known things in order to push a political agenda—and maybe some associated U.S. business interests along with it.
"There is this historical tradition in American politics of attaching the words 'liberty' and 'freedom' to things in order to make them more palatable and interesting to the American public," says Ken Osgood, a historian of American propaganda at the Colorado School of Mines. "It often emerges from an intermingling between the private sector and government."
Since at least the Civil War, anytime the U.S. has approached war, Osgood says, it has engaged in "a sustained campaign to sell that war," frequently with themes of freedom and liberty. As the American War Machine readied itself to enter World War I, there was a flurry of anti-German renaming. Newspapers reported outbreaks of German measles as "Liberty Measles," sauerkraut was "Liberty Cabbage," and Dachshunds were "Liberty Pups." The temporary renaming of Frankfurters as "Liberty Sausages" was an intermediate step toward the eventual "hot dog" that persists today.
Perhaps the best known example of this wartime phenomenon is Republican congressmen's rechristening of their cafeteria's french fries and french toast as "freedom fries" and "freedom toast," in response to France's refusal to join a "coalition of the willing" assisting in President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. The renaming was apparently influenced by a similar stunt on the menu of a restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina, and went on to be mimicked by scores of restaurants across the United States hungry for jingoistic marketing.
Other rebrands blending U.S. government propaganda and industry PR have often been laundered through the Department of Energy and its precursors. "They're born and bred. That's their lifeblood, ethos, and values," Osgood says. "They've been absorbing the arguments that are coming from private industry, so there's a culture of thinking about problems a certain way—advancing the language in a certain way."
Shortly after President Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he gave a speech at the United Nations, declaring the start of his Atoms for Peace campaign. Entering office amid the nuclear arms race, he faced a nation frightened and beginning to feel morally uncomfortable with its use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Banning the bomb looked like an increasingly attractive proposition to many Americans, Osgood says. Eisenhower—looking to lower military costs and continue pursuing a policy of strategic deterrence against the Soviet Union through stockpiling of nukes—had no interest in disarmament. Instead, he sought to rebrand atoms and nuclear energy as implements of peace.
Prior to the campaign, news reports that mentioned atoms were almost always about the dangers of the bombs, Osgood says: "When the Atomic Blast Hits Your Home or Auto," "Have Atom Bomb Tests Fouled Up the Weather?" But the Atoms for Peace campaign—"a merger of government and private sector interests" spearheaded by the DOE's predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, according to Osgood—attempted to sell the public on the myriad wonderful potential applications of atomic technology, including nuclear power, radiology, agricultural uses, and even curing cancer.
American media bought right into the campaign, and soon began regurgitating the PR narrative. A flood of articles began to appear touting "These Wonderful Atoms" and their usefulness for "countless peaceful tasks," as Osgood details in his book, Total Cold War. An optimistic National Geographic feature included pictures of a child accompanying his dog during radiation treatment with the caption "Even a dog's life can be made happier through atomic energy's healing power." Walt Disney produced a similarly focused television episode called "Our Friend the Atom," and General Electric released a cartoon documentary called "A Is for Atom."
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was engaged in parallel propaganda campaigns at home, renaming streets and metro stations with a communist bent, and attempting to sell itself as a peaceful alternative to the warlike West. Cartoons and posters disseminated throughout the Soviet Union presented the country as anti-nuclear weapons, and included lots of similar Atoms for Peace-style propaganda about the positive domestic applications of atomic research, according to Karen Petrone, a Soviet historian at the University of Kentucky. One poster reads "Let the atom serve peace not war," according to Petrone's translation. Another shows Soviet space workers clutching a giant atom.*
"It's similar to the Atoms for Peace in its rebranding the position of the Soviet Union, which of course is armed to the teeth at this moment, including with nuclear weapons," Petrone says.
The marketing symbiosis of American business public relations and government propaganda that drove Atoms for Peace was demonstrated perhaps even more clearly by the Freedom Train, a mobile exhibition that traversed the country's railroads between 1947 and 1949. The train carried many primary documents of American patriotism, including Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's scrawled Constitution marginalia, the Magna Carta, and the U.S.S. Missouri's flag flown during the onboard Japanese surrender two years earlier.
The train's fuel was a joint campaign to quash the labor strife and growing Marxism of the post-Depression 1940s, as well as a move by American business leaders to promote free market ideals and undermine New Deal regulations. The idea was cooked up by a junior official at the Department of Justice, and championed by Attorney General Tom Clark. But it was funded and carried out by the American Heritage Foundation, an organization created for the Freedom Train headed by advertising maven Thomas D'Arcy Brophy, with the heads of Chase National Bank, General Electric, Studebaker cars, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Reinhold Neihbur on its board. "It was an attempt to inoculate [Americans] from the dangers of communist ideology, stir up their faith in capitalism, and, at the same time, promote this idea of political and economic freedom," Osgood says, "thereby kind of undermining the sort of intellectual arguments that supported the New Deal regulatory state."
Since the late '80s, campaigns centered around ideas of "freedom" have continued to be deployed in the service of bucking the regulatory state, often routed through free-market think tanks that employ mercenary scientists to challenge public opinion about climate change, smoking, and other scientific knowledge that could lead to industry regulations. Freedom, in this spin zone, is freedom from government. Many of the scientists who work for these groups produce reports outside their scientific body of expertise, but still stand on the authority of their mostly unrelated scientific credentials.
For example, as historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt details, two physicists (Fred Seitz and Fred Singer) led efforts in the '80s and '90s to discredit biomedical research on the risks of smoking. Around that time, cigarette advertising campaigns again began promoting their "Torches of Freedom," presenting smoking as a feminist reclaiming of a traditionally masculine action, Osgood says—a callback to Edward Bernays' legendary 1929 Torches of Freedom parade of Lucky Strike-smoking flappers marching down Broadway, funded by American Tobacco.
The Heartland Institute, a prominent free market think tank that runs a blog called "The Freedom Pub," was paid $50,000 by Phillip Morris in 1997 to challenge anti-smoking science and lobby congress members, according to Oreskes and Conway. In the past, it has also reportedly received funding from oil companies, like ExxonMobil. Today it frequently publishes reports that disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change.
Last year, one of Heartland's authors published an op-ed on the conservative website Townhall, titled "I Love Carbon Dioxide and You Should Too." In it, he refers to carbon dioxide as the "miracle molecule." Perhaps a source of inspiration for the poets at the DOE? As ever, the anxiety of influence looms.
*Update—July 11th, 2019: This article has been updated with a closer translation of the posters.