BRIGHT IDEAS: Susan Brewer on Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq

Brewer book jacket3Today’s Bright Ideas post comes from Professor Susan Brewer. Professor Brewer teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She is the author of To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States during World War II. Today she shares how she the ideas behind and how she came to write her latest book, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq. As someone who loves history and studies of the way media is used to shape agendas, this books looks like a winner. But I’ll let Professor Brewer explain more on that.



Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq

Why America Fights explores the packaging and sale of war aims by the U.S. government to the American people over the past century. It analyzes propaganda in six wars—the Philippine War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War—intended to rally public support by showing Americans that they fight for democracy, freedom, security, and economic opportunity. Such messages from “to make the world safe for democracy” to “protect the American way of life,” assure the public that their ideals and interests are one and the same.

I had the idea for this project while I was working on my first book, To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States during World War II (1997). It examines the British government’s careful efforts to construct a lasting “special relationship” with the United States when it recognized that only its wealthy ally had the power to help the depleted British Empire through postwar recovery. Propagandists analyzed U.S. political culture to determine the best way to win American hearts and minds. For example, to overcome what they called the “ancient grudge” held by Americans against the British Empire, British officials sought to link the empire with America’s epic frontier past so popular in films and novels. They called their theme “white men in tough places.” Although officials acknowledged the racist nature of such a message, they thought it would encourage white Americans to identify with the colonizer rather than the colonized. Besides they knew that most African Americans were not allowed to vote. Intrigued by the way in which British policymakers defined their interests and constructed appealing messages to promote them to the American public, I wondered about U.S. government efforts to do the same.

My research also was influenced by the George H. W. Bush administration’s presentation of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I observed how the administration used explicit and implicit references to past wars to justify the current one: the comparison of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler; the story of the invading Iraqi troops pulling the plugs on incubators holding Kuwaiti babies, later discredited, which recalled World War I propaganda showing the invading Germans bayoneting the babies of Belgium, also later discredited; and the steady assurance that the Persian Gulf War would not be another Vietnam. These themes, I thought, had a lot to do with popular history and culture and not so much to do with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. I wanted to investigate just what government officials have chosen to tell and not to tell when convincing the American people to support war.

To see how various administrations defined their war aims and then how they decided to present them to the public, I conducted research at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the presidential libraries. I analyzed the resulting messages as delivered through speeches, posters, movies, radio shows, television appearances, magazine ads, and news stories. What I found was that to promote war aims dedicated to defeating the enemy and expanding U.S. power, propaganda portrayed Americans as liberators, protecting civilization and advancing progress. “To make the world a decent place to live in,” declared a World War I poster. In this case, as in others, the world failed to live up to its projected image, leaving Americans feeling disillusioned about their intervention in the Great War. One of the goals of official propaganda in World War II would be to restore public confidence in America’s global mission and build a consensus in favor of ongoing U.S. commitments overseas.

From war to war, propaganda revived the portrayal of the United States as a just and benevolent nation using its power to create a better world. In doing so, it typically focused attention on American cultural beliefs rather than global realities, presenting idealized versions of the United States and its allies while dehumanizing the enemy. It sought to win over the American people by appealing to what they wanted to believe about themselves. I hope that readers of Why America Fights will consider why these official constructions of wartime national identity remain so compelling.

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