As details continue to emerge about the U.S. government’s interference with the press and manipulation of public opinion during the Iraq War, one inevitably hears the lament that such actions are out of keeping with the tradition of American democracy. Susan Brewer’s Why America Fights makes it clear that this is premised on a massive historical misunderstanding. From President McKinley’s war for conquest in the Philippines through both of the World Wars and the costly misadventures in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the American government has been nothing if not interfering and manipulative in dealing with the press and the public.


The reader learns in detail the processes by which one federal administration after another has suppressed or misrepresented basic facts, stoked public fears, played to base nationalistic impulses, and gradually replaced the customary noninterventionism of Americans with a mythology of a country that must go abroad in search of democracies to promote. If the Bush administration comes off looking less deceitful than many of its predecessors, that is only because those earlier administrations were so successful in their duplicity that the public mindset Bush needed to gain support for his wars had already been well established.


Brewer begins her account in 1898 with President McKinley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, and others selling a nakedly imperialistic power grab in the Philippine Islands as a “divine mission” to extend the benefits of civilization to our “little brown brothers.” (If this sounds familiar to veterans of a more recent war, that is as it should be.) McKinley was a master manipulator of public opinion by way of the press: he established the executive mansion as a central depot for war news, assigned a secretary to meet daily with the media, and put together a staff of dozens to monitor opinion and issue carefully timed press releases to ensure that the administration’s angle would dominate the news. “Having destroyed their government,” the president said, in response to critics of his plans to occupy the Philippines after the end of the Spanish-American War, “it is the duty of the American people to provide for a better one.” Colonialism was equated with respect for sovereignty, war with peace, and critics of U.S. battlefield atrocities were said to “walk delicately and live in the soft places of the earth.” Opponents of war had no business speaking ill of the “strong men who with blood and sweat” went about the business of spreading civilization.


With minor modifications to suit changing circumstances, subsequent presidents retained this basic framework. Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism “kept the world safe for democracy” even as his official Committee on Public Information interfered with media freedoms, jailed citizens who spoke out in protest, and misled the public with materials put out by its literal Madison Avenue Division of Advertising. During the buildup to the Second World War, opponents of internationalism were pegged by the Roosevelt White House as subversives and Nazi sympathizers, and once the war began the administration censored press and personal communications, used extensive polling statistics to tailor official statements and government propaganda to the shape of public opinion, and leaned heavily on radio and film to promote the right messages.


By the time of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, state propaganda had become less overt and dissent was more openly tolerated. Yet the success of prior administrations in establishing the White House as a key media player and, more important, enshrining the idea of the U.S. military as bringer of freedom and defender of the civilized world meant that war had become a much easier sell. Brewer documents in excruciating detail the ways in which the Johnson, Nixon, and Bush II administrations routinely twisted information to suit their own ends and, when mere twisting wasn’t enough, simply created the “facts” they needed. But the reality of American global dominance, and President Truman’s success in defining the Cold War agenda, rendered the project of encouraging pro-war sentiments in place of noninterventionist ones largely unnecessary. Despite receiving little support from the international community, both the Iraq and Vietnam wars were initially quite popular among Americans.


It is a shame that Brewer does not similarly assess the Bush administration’s promotion of the wider framework of the war on terror, which is likely to define American military affairs for decades to come, even as Iraq fades from the nation’s memory. She also displays an unfortunate willingness to acquiesce in the false understanding of “patriotism” as unblinking support for one’s nation’s wars and fails to make a consistent distinction between governmental use of the media as a tool for outright propaganda and the recognition among self-interested filmmakers and journalists that war sells and that a few citizens are inclined to trust an excessively negative messenger. When 19th-century “yellow journalists” realized that they could sell papers by filling their pages with tales of Spanish atrocities, it was surely propaganda of a sort. But this is a different phenomenon from the creation of federal agencies designed to manipulate news accounts and win the public over.


Least satisfying of all is Brewer’s claim—made in both the introduction and the conclusion, and in each case entirely without argument—that even deceitful state propaganda can be tolerable if the cause is sufficiently noble. Brewer notes at the start that she believes World War II—“a legitimate war,” she calls it—fits this billing. She supplements this diagnosis with her attempt to distinguish the “censorship, exaggeration, and lies” relied on by the likes of the Bush administration from the “strategy of truth” adopted by FDR. But the facts make it hard to sustain such an interpretation: from Brewer’s own account, Roosevelt lied to the public about his intended policies as he ran for a third term in 1940, censored news reports that were deemed insufficiently optimistic, and of course sent 180,000 Japanese Americans to concentration camps. (“Pioneer communities” was the official term.) Even the truth-telling strategy Brewer champions was itself an advertising move, based on the recognition that “too much salesmanship” on the part of the Office of War might turn people off, while more “straightforward and practical” instructions on what to do and believe would “regain public confidence in official propaganda.” If the cartoonish film and poster campaigns of the Wilson administration are the point of comparison, then the Iraq War’s salesmen come off rather well, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that in each case the public was being dishonestly sold a war by men who would barely have to sacrifice, much less fight and die, to implement their preferred policies.

These qualms aside, this is an important book. It sheds light on an aspect of U.S. political history that American citizens in general, and members of the press in particular, ought to examine more closely before being taken in again by bellicose state propaganda. The present debate over healthcare reform shows that the role of the executive branch as a de facto advertising agency is unlikely to recede, and it has become far too easy to use the authority and free airtime that come with political power as a means to manipulate public opinion on matters domestic and foreign. Obviously it is possible to imagine cases when such propaganda can be used for good rather than bad ends, but it is surely better for people to meet official publicity campaigns by residents of Pennsylvania Avenue with an instinctive mistrust. Our government’s proper role is to represent the popular will, not to manipulate until it aligns with the president’s agenda. 

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John Schwenkler will be assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University beginning January 2010.

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