Wednesday’s Book Review: “Selling War in a Media Age”

OsgoodSelling War in a Media Age: The Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century. Edited by Kenneth Osgood and Andrew K. Frank. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.

Collected works are always problematic. There is always the challenge of ensuring high quality of all of the essays, and often there are issues concerning a sustained and broadly overarching question to connect all the book’s contributions. These issues are present in this volume as well, but overall this is a strong collection of essays that moves through the twentieth century to explore how presidents have tried to manage their public relations. Essentially a chronological collection, the essayists include discussions of William McKinley and the 1898 war and its aftermath, World War I and World War II propaganda, five chapters on the various aspects of the Cold War including one on Vietnam and another on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A chapter on selling the Gulf Wars precedes a conclusion that seeks to wrap up the volume.

The most interesting essays, from my perspective, relate to the Cold War, especially Paul S. Boyer’s chapter on “Selling Star Wars: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.” Boyer extends his ideas from his superb book, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1994) into the 1980s and explores the Reagan administration’s efforts to renew the Cold War after a decade of détente. SDI rejected the concept of nuclear deterrence and its application in “Mutually Assured Destruction” in favor of a belief that nuclear confrontation was something that the United States could win. This clearly upset the strategic relationship and sparked another arms race and set the stage for scrambling thereafter to walk back from a possible confrontation.

I also very much appreciated co-editor Kenneth Osgood’s essay on Eisenhower and Cold War rhetoric. Again, this extended some of his earlier work, especially his book, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006), and focused on how he sought to strike a balance between permanent rivalry and military preparedness versus demobilization and peacetime.

There are, of course, several important areas not discussed in this book, and perhaps others will take up the mantle of presidential rhetoric and the management of public opinion in these arenas. For example, there is very little concerning the Kennedy administration and its confrontations with the Soviet Union, as well its attempts to walk back from the brink of nuclear war relative to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There is essentially nothing on the place of the United States on the wars of liberation and the demise of colonial empires—even though there were instances in which the United States intervened—suggesting that anticolonialism may be a ripe area for future exploration.

Overall this is very fine collection. It has its weaknesses, of course, and a great many strengths.

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