The Little-Known History of the Freedom Academy
I’ve gotten a few questions over the last day about why I decided to call my Substack The Freedom Academy. The reason is that I was inspired by what I learned about one man’s attempt to combat disinformation and propaganda, and fortify our democracy, during the Cold War. Here is his story:
In 1959, a man named Alan Grant testified to Congress in support of a proposal to create an independent academy to educate government officials, journalists, teachers, business people, labor leaders, and ordinary citizens about Soviet propaganda and disinformation. He called it the Freedom Academy.
Grant was a graduate of Harvard Law School who had studied guerrilla warfare. As he researched Communist tactics during the Cold War, he discovered that the Soviet Union was engaging the United States in an invisible war that Americans had no idea they were fighting. Historian Stacey Cone detailed his discoveries as follows:
Through the successful deployment of psycho-political tactics, Grant determined, communism was spreading very much as Marx and other Communist leaders had predicted. Their new approach to fighting was non-military, long-term, and indirect—no battlefields, bullets, or bombs were necessary. Instead, Communists used organized persuasion and mass propaganda campaigns to subtly and slowly win people in great numbers to their side. The concept Grant believed, was brilliant guerrilla strategy—a method that an open democracy could least prevent or defeat. Freedom of political thought and speech were hallmarks of democracy, but the Communists were insidiously turning both into vehicles whereby freedom’s enemy could render democracy vulnerable while remaining invisible during the attack. Unless Americans could come to understand what was happening, Grant thought, they were likely to lose this bloodless war. Ironically, he believed, it was possibly the most important battle of all. Nothing short of the American way of life was at stake.
Examining how educational institutions, including his alma mater, were training students about this threat, Grant was both shocked and disappointed. He found that universities trained students broadly in “area studies,” but not in understanding the psychological tactics that the Soviet Union was deploying against the United States and other countries around the world. Grant also discovered that secondary institutions were not adequately teaching history and civics in order to prepare future citizens of the importance of democracy.
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Grant gathered a group of likeminded individuals in his hometown of Orlando, Florida to form what became known as the Orlando Committee. The Committee drew up a proposal for a government- and privately-funded institution that would train both Americans and foreign students in understanding Soviet information warfare tactics and countering them by advocating for the “essentials of democracy” around the world. The Orlando Committee sought to create a bipartisan coalition in support of the plan, recognizing that fighting Communism on the psychological battlefield would require transcending political ideologies and uniting under a shared commitment to democracy. Their proposal was sent to about 170 influential government officials, journalists, intellectuals, and authors from the right and left of the political spectrum, and in 1958, Grant’s congressman, Albert Sydney Herlong (D-FL), agreed to introduce it in Congress.
“The strategy and tactics being used against us are so foreign to our thought patterns, and the problem [that] this new type of warfare presents is so vast and complex, that it is difficult for us to hurdle the mental roadblocks and come up with the right answer, even when that answer is very plain.” — The Orlando Committee, proposing the creation of the Freedom Academy
The Freedom Commission Act proposed the creation of the Freedom Academy, a training facility to educate government officials and ordinary citizens on the threat of Soviet information warfare and how to counter it using democratic ideals, with the hope that they would spread that knowledge to their respective peers and communities. The Academy would be overseen by a Freedom Commission, an independent, executive branch agency that would have six Senate-confirmed members and a chairman. It was initially introduced in Congress in 1959 by Rep. Herlong and Rep. Walter Judd (R-MN). It received favorable editorial coverage from magazines and newspapers across the country, including Life, the New York Daily News, the St. Petersburg Times, and Reader’s Digest.
What happened after is perhaps a testament to both the virtues and weakness of our democratic processes. After the bill fizzled in the House, it was reintroduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee — again with bipartisan support — in 1959. Although it was met with great support, the House Un-American Activities Committee (ironically enough) resisted it, as did several government agencies like the Justice and State Departments, which didn’t see the need for a new agency competing with their resources and mandates. Ultimately, the combination of political climate, agency turf-protecting, and disagreements about how to combat psychological warfare in ways compatible with democracy won the day, and the Freedom Academy never became a reality.
When I first read this history, I was fascinated. The Freedom Academy brought together my interests in foreign affairs, law and policy, and counterintelligence. I loved the idea of a knowledge hub where people from all backgrounds convened to learn about how adversaries were manipulating their perceptions and society and empowering them to respond in ways that strengthen our democratic and social fabric. Sort of a “citizen’s academy” for democracy. For a brief time I wondered if such a program could be created as a center at a university — but working at one myself, I know that universities are primarily research institutions, and were ill-suited to the broad-based, practical purpose the Freedom Academy envisioned.
When I thought about creating a Substack, I knew I only wanted to do it if I could 1) offer something unique that readers couldn’t find anywhere else and 2) took advantage of the community-building capacity of this platform. I immediately thought of the Freedom Academy. My goal is to channel the spirit of Grant’s vision and use this platform to educate and create a community around understanding the threat of disinformation and its impact on democracy.
What do I hope people will get out of the Freedom Academy?
I know from teaching my Yale course, Russian Intelligence, Information Warfare, and Social Media (yes, it’s a long name), that most people are unaware of the psychological tactics being used against them by foreign adversaries and domestic actors who seek to undermine democracy. Most of us are also not conscious of how our own behavior — on social media and with our fellow citizens — help to facilitate these activities and make them more effective. My objectives with this project are five-fold. I want people who take this course to be able to:
Understand the history, tactics, and goals of foreign disinformation operations in the United States and worldwide;
Analyze the ways in which propaganda and disinformation manipulates consumers’ cognitive biases;
Recognize self-created vulnerabilities in American society which have been magnified by social media platforms and exploited by foreign adversaries and domestic actors;
Assess the potential effects of disinformation on democratic institutions and social trust; and
Assess policy solutions that address the multi-faceted nature of disinformation and its impact on American democracy.
I hope that what I present to you in class each week will further at least one of the above goals.
My students in each iteration of my university course were stellar, and many became passionate enough about the subject to pursue it in their professional work. But those were seminars, with just a few students each. I used to tell them that they were “Dumbledore’s Army” — small, but fighting the most important fight. This Substack allows me to make this content accessible to a far wider swath of people. Perhaps it’s fitting that this Freedom Academy is manifesting in an online format, given that the threat of information warfare today presents largely in cyberspace. The great part is that it has the capacity to bring together more people than Alan Grant ever imagined. I look forward to getting started with you.