Semantic infiltration is the "systematic distortion of meaning of certain words to confuse or mislead".[1][2][3] According to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it "is the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality".[2][4] Eventually, “we pay for small concessions at the level of language with large setbacks at the level of practical politics”.[3]

The process of semantic infiltration occurs when a “skillful or persistent semanticist can persuade an opponent to accept his terms of debate…[and the] opponent thus unwittingly through repetition or willingly through persuasion adopts the semanticist’s usage of words and by extension, the ideas, perceptions and policies that accompany them”.[2]

Origins of the Term

The term was coined by Fred Iklé in a Rand Corporation study[2] from the 1972[3] to describe a Soviet tactic of Political warfare that imposed difficulty on the US’s negotiating position.[2] Iklé saw what he believed to be a paradox. At the same time State Department and other officials concentrated on the language used by Communist governments, they themselves began to use the same terms, “first in quotation marks, later without”.[2]

The term was later made popular but made popular by Senator and former Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan saw what he believed to be, “the unprotesting acquiescence with which people in the West have allowed totalitarians of the world to usurp some of their most cherished concepts”.[5] In the Heritage Foundation’s journal, Policy Review, he wrote that, “Democracy is under assault from totalitarians masquerading as democrats. Nonetheless, we persist in dignifying these enemies of freedom with the terminology of freedom”.[5]

He called the State Department the leading offender in adopting the language of the enemy, exemplified by a group of Rhodesian guerillas. Although they received funding from the Soviet Union and China pursuant of its dictatorial ambitions, names such as the “Patriotic Front” and “Liberation Forces” were used to describe them, while their opponents were referred to as the “Salisbury Group.” According to his logic, the American people would automatically attach preference to the groups fighting for patriotism and liberation, rather than their unfortunately named foes.[5]

Moynihan viewed this adoption of Communist terminology by the US as “fatal” to clear thinking and neutrality. He said that Americans should have no qualms about expressing “proprietary interest in ideas of self-determination and republican government,” as well that it was “essential that other nations not be allowed to distort these concepts”.[5]

In Political Warfare Theory

Jim Guirard, in a 1984 paper for the United States Information Agency and United States Public Diplomacy Commission, said, “Repeat the false word often enough, make certain the truthful alternative is never clearly perceived and you are able to imprison people within their own minds”.[4]

As a Soviet Tactic

The Soviets utilized semantic infiltration throughout the Cold War. Some efforts were toward gaining advantage in negotiations, like those necessary for arms control agreements, while others were directed toward softening Western culture to be less hostile toward Communism.

Familiar concepts such as: ‘’democratic, fraternal, liberation, progressive, people,’’ and ‘’peace’’ were invoked in contexts and with connotations foreign to those otherwise normally understood. This caused a sort of demoralization among US policymakers, who went out of their way to use different words, thereby ceding them to the adversary. Officials also “shied away” from calling using the terms ‘’dictatorship, empire,’’ or ‘’Soviet imperialism’’ to describe the Soviets and their actions.[2]

It was not long before the US media began to use the words set forth by the Communists. Guerilla groups became “liberation movements,” radical anti-US protesters became “peace activists,” and US efforts to halt Soviet expansion became “American imperialism”.[2] It was never noted that guerilla groups and anti-US protestors were controlled or supported by the KGB.[2]

According to Joseph Stalin, “…of all the monopolies enjoyed by the state, none would be so crucial as its monopoly on the definition of words. The ultimate weapon of political control would be the dictionary”.[4] In 1985, the Soviet government achieved that to a certain extent. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Current English and the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of Current English carried Soviet government-approved redefinitions of English words.[6] Examples of redefinitions include:

  • ’’Marxism’’: “teaching on the main laws of development of nature and society.”
  • ’’Maoism’’: “opportunist ideology and policy of the ruling circles in China, named after Mao Tse-tung.”
  • ’’Bolshevism’’: “the revolutionary Marxist trend of political thought in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.”
  • ’’Imperialism’’: “the highest and last stage of capitalism”.[6]

Guirard accused Communists of perverting words and symbols to skew the West’s perception of good and evil, robbing them of resolve to mobilize against that with which they disagreed.[4] According to Leonid Brezhnev, anything that “furthers the construction of Socialism” is moral, however Western understanding is based on natural law in the Judeo-Christian sense.[4] Soviet invocation of morality would then provide an advantage to a Western audience ignorant of what the true meaning, and how it should be interpreted.[4] This was one way by which the Soviets would, “twist the meaning of words to make their causes appear at least tolerable to the rest of the world”.[7]

Semantic infiltration was used to gain an unwarranted advantage especially during negotiations. Soviet negotiators would often use their own words with unique meanings to describe a concept. The word would be inserted into discussion, then repeated until the American or other Western negotiators would begin to use it. The meaning assigned to the word to be infiltrated would be predefined, in order to increase the favorability of the Soviet position.[8]

It was not until the Cold War began to come to a close that the Americans also began to use semantic infiltration to control the terms of debate. Anthony R. Dolan, a former speechwriter for US President Ronald Reagan, referred to the term ‘’evil empire’’ a semantic infiltration. The term was used in a speech before the British House of Commons.[9] It stuck with the Soviets and, like the term ‘’Iron Lady’’, they began to use it themselves, but unlike the term ‘’Iron Lady’’, it was not used in defiance. To Dolan, it reminded him of the movie Star Wars, in which there is a very clear evil that must be fought against.[10]

Ideological Subversion

See Also: Cultural infiltration

Yuri Bezmenov, a former-KGB officer who defected to the Canada, described and warned of the Soviet plan for ideological subversion, or active measures, of the US in a 1984 interview.

In the interview, he described the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (later named for Patrice Lumumba) as part of the overall plan. This university, under the direct control of the KGB and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was where future leaders of “so-called ‘national liberation’ movements were educated and selected carefully”.[11] This university churned out militants who were sent back to their countries of origin to lead these ‘national liberation’ movements. “Translated into normal human language,” Bezmenov said, they were “leaders of ‘’international terrorist groups’’”.[11]

The goal of the scheme was to: “…change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite of the abundance of information, no one is able to to come to sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country”.[11] He described four basic stages:

  • ’’’Demoralization’’’. Takes 15-20 years. This is the amount of time necessary to educate one generation of students, who are exposed to Communist ideology. At that time, according to Bezemov, three generations of American students had been educated without a proper counterbalance of American values and patriotism. During this phase, Americans perceive reality through adoption of the words and ideas of “the enemy”.[11]
  • ’’’Destabilization’’’. Takes 2-5 years. This phase is meant to destabilize the economy, foreign relations, and defense systems to prepare the target for the next phase.
  • ’’’Crisis’’’. Takes 6 weeks.
  • ’’’Normalization’’’. Occurs indefinitely after the violent change of society and economy.

Bezmenov advocates in part for a national campaign to educate people on the spirit of patriotism and rid America of acceptance of Communist ideas and concepts.[11]


As used today, Semantic Infiltration can range from definitive Cold War examples, to euphemisms used to obfuscate the truth.

Guirard likens euphemistic qualities of semantic infiltration to newspeak, from George Orwell’s novel 1984, wherein words that can potentially be directed negatively at the state are replaced. For example, “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” Dictatorships, he says, have a “vile and repulsive product to sell, [so they] must turn to a highly sophisticated science of mislabeling in order to promote itself and denigrate the competition”[4] and to “put respectable labels on actions and intentions”.[7]

Cold War Examples

Guirard provides many examples, which are also echoed by other authors:

  • ”People’s Democracies”, “People’s Republics”, “Democratic Republic” – All terms used to denote totalitarian, Communist regimes that are not democracies, not republics, and are not governed by the people.[5]
  • ”Liberation Movements” – Totalitarian regimes by any other name[1][2][3][4]
  • Communist police states called “people’s democracies”.[4]
  • Terrorist gangs called “liberation movements”.[4]
  • Single-party Marxist regimes called “social justice”.[4]
  • Communist terrorists called “progressive forces” or a “patriotic front”.[4]
  • The term “socialist” is used to describe the systems of both Communist countries (such as the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba), but also free countries (such as France, Denmark, and Sweden).[4]
  • The term “revolution” is associated with an otherwise honorable action, but is “used by corrupt regimes”.[4]
  • The term ‘’liberation’’ used for “imposition of Soviet-brand tyranny” rather than, for example, Allied forces removing Hitler from Europe.[4]
  • Communists called “socialists,” “progressives,” and “leftists”.[4]
  • Communist assassins called “guerillas”; anti-communists called “death squads”.[4]
  • ”Arms limitation means continued buildup”.[7]
  • ”Détente means continued expansion into Africa, Asia, Near East”.[7]
  • ”Press freedom” defined based on service to the state as the press’s only purpose in a UNESCO subcommittee agreement.[7]


During the Cold War, the Soviets so diluted the concept of peace, for example by funding and manipulating the “peace movement,” that the West rarely invoked it.[2] As defined by the Soviets, peace was a “forced tranquility accommodating Soviet strategic and economic interests”.[4] With regards to discussion of ‘’détente’’, ‘’peaceful coexistence’’, and ‘’peace’’ in general, the Soviet interpretation was “continuation of war by other means”.[4]

Iklé’s List of Modern Examples

In an article written nearly 40 years later Iklé asserts that any word utilized to gain unwarranted political advantage as a semantic infiltration, no longer just those used by the Communists during the Cold War:

  • ”Undocumented Immigrant” instead of “Illegal Immigrant” – Iklé suggests that this term gives the advantage to immigrants who have arrived in the US in violation of immigration law (illegally), as it is possible for an individual to have forged or incorrect documents and still fall under this category.[12]
    • The Associated Press revised its stylebook to state that it is no longer acceptable to use the term “illegal” to describe a person, but only an action, i.e. entering a country illegally. It also suggested that the term “undocumented” is imprecise, as “a person may have plenty of documents, just not the one’s required for legal residence”.[13]
  • ”Racial profiling” when used as a pejorative – Iklé suggests that all Offender profiling done by law enforcement has demographic elements, including race. He says that term is used accusatorily to “[gain] unwarranted advantage to those who want to hamper policemen”.[12]
  • ”Racist” when used to denote “anti-Jihadists” – Iklé asserts that Islam is a religion, not a race.[12]
  • ”Xenophobic” and “Islamophobia” used as pejoratives – Iklé suggests that these terms are semantic infiltrations used to label fear or opposition to certain groups, but terms “xenophile” and “Islamophilia” are never used to “describe the opposite attitude”.[12]
  • ”Hispanics” used to describe anybody whose ancestors came from Spain – Iklé says this term was an invention of the Nixon Administration, as a new category of Americans “entitled to preferential treatment for college admissions and government contracts”.[12] He notes that Brazilians are not entitled to these benefits.
  • ”Affirmative Action” – Iklé views affirmative action as a “nice-sounding, soothing label [for] the controversial policy of preferential treatment”.[12]
  • ”Industrial Action” – is a term now used by the British Labor Party, to not evoke negative emotions associated with the word “strike”.[12]
  • ”Gays” – a term that used to mean “merry, happy, and cheerful,” but has gradually been changed to mean “homosexuals”.[12]
  • ”Travelers” instead of “Gypsies” – A term picked up by the English press to describe nomadic peoples from northern India.[12]
  • ”Underdeveloped countries”, “Less developed countries”, “Developing countries” – Iklé sees these terms as labels for “poorer countries,” which have changed over time because the previous one was “too derogatory”.[12]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 [1] Waller, J. Michael. The Public Diplomacy Reader. Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics, 2007. Print. p284-289.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 [2] Waller, J. Michael. Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War. Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics, 2007. Print.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 [3] Hayward, Steven F. "Beware the Semantic Infiltration." National Review Online. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 [4] Guirard, Jim. "Cold War Disinformation: Solving the Problem of "Semantic Infiltration"" TrueSpeak. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 ["Semantic Infiltration" The Pittsburg Press. N.p., 16 Oct. 1978. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <,101072>.
  6. 6.0 6.1 [,6524276]Smale, Alison. "Soviets Redefine Words in Oxford English Dictionary." New York Times. N.p., 8 Apr. 1985. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <,6524276>.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 [,16083076]Schuster, Bob. "Semantic Infiltration." Prescott Courier. Google News Archive Search, 25 Oct. 1978. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <,16083076>.
  8. [5] Bennett, Paul R. Russian Negotiating Strategy: Analytic Cast Studies from Salt and Start. N.p.: Nova Science Pub, 1997. Google Books. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.
  9. [6] Evil empire – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  10. [7] Greenstein, Fred I. "Leadership in the Modern Presidency." Google Books. Harvard University Press, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>. P 277
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 [8] Bezmenov, Yuri (1984) (Video). Soviet Subversion of the Free-World Press: A Conversation with Yuri Bezmenov. Interview with G. Edward Griffin. American Media
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 12.9 [9] Iklé, Fred. "Semantic Infiltration." The American Spectator. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.
  13. [10] Morrison, Patt. "Extra, Extra! 'Illegal Immigrant' and Other Language Changes." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <,0,2328891.story>.

External links

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