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A Bright Shining Slogan

How "hearts and minds" came to be.

The phrase "winning hearts and minds" has, in recent years, become indelibly associated with the challenges of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. But the concept has had a long and circuitous life. It was first associated with democracy in the 19th century, later served as a call to national solidarity during the Great Depression, and finally became a slogan for a policy the U.S. military never quite implemented in Vietnam. As U.S. President Barack Obama fights two inherited wars and continues the daunting task of reaching out to Muslims, the concept has never been more relevant, even if the words themselves have begun to lose all meaning.

429-347 B.C. Greek philosopher Plato becomes the first to draw a clear distinction between feeling and thinking — between the heart and the mind. The two were referred to as separate philosophical and physiological creatures until the mid-20th century.

FEBRUARY 13, 1818 Writing to a Baltimore newspaper editor, U.S. founding father John Adams describes the American Revolution as being "in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations."

1934 U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt uses the term frequently in his speeches to soothe a body politic battered by economic turmoil: "In these days it means to me a union not only of the states, but a union of the hearts and minds of the people in all the states and their many interests and purposes, devoted with unity to the human welfare of our country."

JUNE 1952 The phrase gets used for the first time in its modern sense — to refer to counterinsurgency objectives — during the Malayan Emergency, an uprising by local rebel forces to oust British colonial rule. "The answer [to defeating the insurgents] … rests in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people," says Gen. Sir Gerald Templer.

APRIL 2, 1963 In the thick of the Cold War, "hearts and minds" creeps into U.S. counterrevolutionary rhetoric. "Perhaps most significant of all is a change in the hearts and minds of the people — a growing will to develop their countries," President John F. Kennedy tells Congress. "We can only help Latin Americans to save themselves."

MAY 4, 1965 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson says that "ultimate victory [in Vietnam] will depend upon the hearts and the minds" of the Vietnamese. But the policy doesn’t match the rhetoric, and a brutal, escalating campaign of pacification ensues, further alienating the South Vietnamese population.

1974 The Academy Award-winning Vietnam documentary, Hearts and Minds, helps cement the phrase’s negative connotations.

SEPTEMBER 14, 2005 U.S. President George W. Bush justifies the invasion of Iraq by hailing the possibility of a political transformation of the Middle East. "Across the world, hearts and minds are opening to the message of human liberty as never before," he tells the U.N. General Assembly.

2006 Scholars begin to describe China’s foreign policy, particularly in Africa, as designed to win the "hearts and minds" of global elites.

SEPTEMBER 19, 2006  Iranian President Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad deploys the term in a defiant speech to the U.N.: "Would it not be easier for global powers to … win hearts and minds through … real promotion of justice, compassion, and peace, than through" continuing to assemble nuclear weapons?

DECEMBER 15, 2006 The U.S. Army and Marine Corps release a revised "Counterinsurgency Field Manual," drawing on historical counterinsurgency lessons as well as recent experience in Iraq. The manual calls for a minimal use of force. "Protracted popular war is best countered by winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace," it reads.

2009 U.S. President Barack Obama uses the phrase in his campaign to reset relations with both the Muslim world and Russia. "[Abiding by the Geneva Conventions] … will make us safer and will help in changing hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists," he says on January 9. And in Moscow six months later: "[By] mobilizing and organizing and changing people’s hearts and minds, you then change the political landscape."

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