Tuesday, November 27, 2012

M. Todd Bennett's "One World, Big Screen"

M. Todd Bennett is assistant professor of history at East Carolina University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II, and reported the following:
Throughout most of its history the United States remained allergic to international alliances. Heeding the advice given by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, Americans traditionally steered clear of foreign entanglements, charting an independent course in the world. However, today’s United States is an international power enmeshed, albeit reluctantly, in a wide array of external relationships, from the UN to NATO to ANZUS.

When and why did this historic shift in U.S. foreign policy as well as the American worldview happen? World War II arguably marked the tipping point. Isolationists were ascendant prior to 1941, and even after Pearl Harbor many Americans expressed reservations about U.S. participation in the Grand Alliance, which grew to include almost four-dozen countries spread across the globe, making it by far the largest foreign entanglement in U.S. history. Within only four short years a remarkable change occurred, however, such that by 1945 most Americans supported not only strong overseas action on the part of the United States but also U.S. involvement in such multinational alliances or organizations as the UN.

Several developments caused that transformation, which affected U.S behavior in the world long after World War II’s last shots had been fired. My book, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II, addresses one overlooked cause: the extensive wartime propaganda campaign spearheaded by Washington and Hollywood that taught Americans to see themselves as internationalists, as citizens of the world whose well-being depended upon greater connectivity with other, non-American residents of the international community. That campaign depended heavily on cinema, culture’s centerpiece during Hollywood’s pre-television “golden era.” Throughout the war years, 85 million Americans – 85 million, more than three-fifths of the overall U.S. population, which totaled less than 140 million at the time – attended movie theaters each week. Unlike the printed word or radio, films combined audio and video into a sensuous whole projected onto the big screens of darkened theaters, creating an immersive theatergoing experience that, it was widely thought, strongly influenced the behavior as well as the beliefs of viewers. Add to that the fact that Hollywood movies were entertaining, that they educated fans without appearing to do so, and it is easy to understand why wartime officials and filmmakers presumed that motion pictures could effectively “sugarcoat” propaganda and remake the American worldview.

With oversight from the Office of War Information (OWI), the U.S propaganda ministry, Hollywood produced dozens of features designed to model good world citizenship. Some, like Mrs. Miniver or Casablanca, the Best Picture winners of 1942 and 1943 respectively, are considered classics today. Page 99 deals with a lesser-known picture, Action in the North Atlantic (1943), starring Humphrey Bogart. The rollicking Warner Bros. adventure followed the travails of an American merchant vessel that, sailing as part of a multinational convoy, navigated treacherous waters filled with German U-boats to deliver Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union, a wartime ally. Although some opposed Hollywood’s editorial policy – conservatives called Action in the North Atlantic pro-communist propaganda – the film “beautifully and effectively” illustrated internationalism at work, according to the OWI, thereby contributing to the “one world” spirit considered necessary to win the war as well as the peace that followed.
Learn more about One World, Big Screen at the the University of North Carolina Press website.

Writers Read: M. Todd Bennett.

--Marshal Zeringue