Osgood, Kenneth, and Andrew K. Frank, eds. Selling War in a Media Age: The Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010. xii + 278 pages. Cloth, $44.95.
In the 1840s a visiting Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville, described a bourgeoning American democracy characterized by unprecedented geographical and social mobility, a democratic ideology of equality of opportunity and equality under the law, and steadily increasing literacy (slavery and the treatment of Native Americans were glaring exceptions). By the close of the nineteenth century, mass production and consumption, and the mass media, were beginning to characterize what some sociologists and historians refer to as a mass society.
This collection of papers, all written by historians, on how presidents have attempted to "sell" wars to the masses contains a preface by the editors, also both historians, and essays by first-rate experts. In the introduction, Andrew L. Johns explains that presidents from William McKinley to George W. Bush have stressed national values and national security in attempting to mold public opinion.
According to George C. Herring, there was no need to "sell" the Spanish-American War to the masses because of "yellow journalism," the insulting DeLome letter, and the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. McKinley's war was popular with the masses, but annexing the Philippines was a harder sell. However, the general climate of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the venerable "City on a Hill" tradition of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and a moral obligation to uplift an inferior race, carried the day. McKinley's campaign unveiled other major themes in twentieth-century American history, including cultivating journalists, undertaking speaking tours, demonizing enemies, and characterizing domestic dissenters as unpatriotic.
Emily Rosenberg explains the "barrage of government-produced" information (p. 51) designed to sell World War I, much of it controlled by George Creel's Committee on Public Information. Creel's campaign employed various forms of censorship and propaganda, including news releases (which newspapers had better publish or risk losing their supplies of newsprint), about 40,000 four-minute speeches in movie theaters, and outright forgeries. Posters showed "Huns" as animalistic monsters attacking cowering women and children defended by stalwart American soldiers.
Mark A. Stoler notes that Franklin D...