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September 2009

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Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq
Review by John H. Brown, Ph.D.
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Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0195381351, 342 pp. $29.95

The War in Iraq is a highpoint of U. S. foreign policy. A cruel dictator is overthrown with the wholehearted support of the Iraqi and American people. Democracy is courageously introduced in the politically oppressive Middle East. In-country hostilities are brought to a quick end thanks to a successful military surge.

To some this is what happened in Iraq. But to others, President George W. Bush’s invasion of a far-off land was a poorly explained and disastrous misadventure. The administration misled the public about the true nature of the war and its consequences. Such prevarication was a sharp break with truthful American leadership in the past.

Not quite so, says Susan A. Brewer, Professor of  History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, in her new book, Why American Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq. Rallying support for its wars (including unsuccessful ones) by the U. S. government, she contends, is nothing new.

Based on her examination of six conflicts -- the Philippine War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War -- she argues that U. S. leaders repeatedly sold war to the American public through propaganda -- “the deliberate manipulation of facts, ideas, and lies” is her definition -- as well as censorship. The mass media, with some exceptions, are a willing collaborator.

According to Brewer, propaganda is used by the politically powerful in America to expand U. S. worldwide influence, all the while claiming the United States is spreading democracy throughout the globe and saving civilization against “them.”  A vast array of media and tools of persuasion are employed in these propaganda campaigns in times of conflict.  This results in opposition from the U.S. public, more prevalent in some conflicts than others.

“Americans do not expect to know the whole truth during wartime, but they do not want to be lied about why they are fighting,” Brewer writes, adding that “[o]ver time, the strategies of persuasion have resulted in a diminished role for citizens.” Democracy, she suggests, all too often loses out to propaganda.

Brewer is not opposed to home front propaganda per se. In war, propaganda is “essential,” as “leaders must endow [a conflict] with clarity and purpose in order to maintain morale and justify sacrifice.” Some wars -- e.g., World War II -- have more “honest” propaganda than others. But propaganda cannot cover up flawed policy. The Bush administration, while part of a longstanding U. S. government domestic propaganda tradition, is particularly guilty in her view:

In the extreme case of the Iraq War, the Bush administration threw off numerous constraints, dismissing allies and the United Nations, marginalizing career military, diplomat and intelligence personnel who questioned its policies, and misleading Congress and the public, all the while practicing expectations management and promising progress. As Mark Twain had said about the Philippine conflict a century earlier, people were “sold a bill of goods.”

Brewer’s volume deserves praise for seeking to treat the Bush years objectively, i.e., from a historical perspective. The book’s main point -- “the first casualty when war comes is truth,” as stated by Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917 and cited in her introduction -- is well documented by extensive research, including in archives.

Her usefully footnoted work makes unsettling parallels throughout between Operation Iraqi Freedom and previous wars. The chapter on the Spanish-American War questions the traditional historical wisdom that it was yellow journalism, and not President McKinley’s policies, that brought about this conflict.

The section on Wilson and World War I, which was published earlier in another version as an article, is particularly enlightening on the domestic activities of America’s first propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), whose atavistic denunciations of evil Huns stand in contrast to Wilson’s enlightened rhetoric about the virtues of democracy.

Victory over Nazism/fascism, as well as the need for internationalism -- themes in World War II propaganda stressed by President Roosevelt (“always difficult to pin down,” Brewer says) and the Office of War Information (OWI, 1942-1945) -- is well documented in chapter III. So is the use of movies as propaganda (also well treated in the previous chapter).

The last three sections -- on the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq -- have some interesting nuggets, but did not strike this reader as particularly ground-breaking in their observations (The United States Information Agency [USIA] the USG propaganda agency during the Cold War, is not covered in the book, doubtless because, officially at least, its focus was on overseas, not home front propaganda).

The index of the book is quite complete and the bibliography useful, although it does not cite important new volumes on USG propaganda during the Cold War, such as Kenneth Osgood’s provocative Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006).

The main value of Professor Brewer’s volume is providing much information on the message and tools of U. S.  home front propaganda when the country is at war. But her claim that the motive behind this propaganda is a constant American-elite strategy for global “expansion” and “dominance” is rather vague.

Perhaps Brewer could have speculated on more down-to-earth reasons for our government propagandizing the American people to fight wars. Indeed, in the case of the War in Iraq (the causes of which will long be argued by historians), it could be said the invasion had a lot to do with the November 2002 elections -- when the party in power hoped to gain votes by having a chief executive, down in the polls, appear to be a “tough” commander in chief after 9/11, ready to take on “the terrorist threat.”  * See my essay, “Too Parochial for Empire: The Bush Administration Conquers Washington,” TomDispatch (November 18, 2007) at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174864/john_brown_invading_washington  .


imageJohn H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic.  He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

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