Sunday, July 5, 2009

Susan A. Brewer's "Why America Fights"

Susan A. Brewer is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her publications include To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States during World War II.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, and reported the following:
“Many of the deeply antifascist men and women already engaged in propaganda work were frustrated that so many Americans had been ambivalent about the threat posed by Nazi Germany. As much as they might have believed in the ideal of the informed citizen knowing the right thing to do, they thought the common man was in need of enlightenment and education.”

Page 99 of Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq addresses a dilemma confronting U.S. government propagandists during World War II. The Office of War Information (OWI), created by President Franklin Roosevelt in June 1942, was charged with instructing and inspiring the nation to mobilize for total war. Headed by the respected CBS broadcaster, Elmer Davis, the OWI dedicated itself to a “strategy of truth.”

The men and women of the OWI believed that democracy must prevail. They despised the Axis regimes for glorifying the leader, crushing dissent, burning books, and spreading hate. After observing the rise of fascist dictatorships, OWI staffers feared the power of propaganda to manipulate people. Yet, they knew they needed to exercise some of that power.

As confident as they were in American potential, officials at the OWI worried that U.S. citizens might be too self-centered to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the Axis. They also knew that the American public distrusted official propaganda. After World War I, many Americans had concluded that propaganda meant lies and they should stay out of other people’s wars. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, most Americans did not want Hitler to win, but they opposed U.S. intervention.

In the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war, the OWI sought to regain the trust of the American people and rally them for a long, tough fight. With the help of Hollywood, radio shows, and glossy magazines, propagandists repeatedly told the story of individuals faced with the choice of remaining isolationist or doing the right thing. A selfish Donald Duck or a cynical Humphrey Bogart examined their consciences and committed themselves to the war effort. Such stories showed that the informed citizen can make the right decision. They illustrated the superiority of democracy over political systems where the people had no freedom to choose.

As it portrayed the war as a global contest between the “free world” and the “slave world,” the OWI grappled with issues of democracy, citizenship, and official manipulation. Its adoption of the “strategy of truth” makes U.S. propaganda during World War II stand out in contrast to strategies deployed in other wars. “We stick to the truth,” explained Elmer Davis, “for we believe the truth is on our side.”
Learn more about Why America Fights at the Oxford University Press website.

Visit Susan A. Brewer's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue