President Barack Obama confronts a formidable task as he tries to explain the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the American people. Not only does he contend with the troubled legacy of past policies, but he also inherits a long tradition of government efforts to rally popular support for war by convincing Americans they fight for freedom, democracy, security, and economic opportunity. Combining a vivid blend of fact and fiction, these war stories have informed, inspired, and deceived.
“Bring the whole story together in one official narrative,” advised Secretary of State Dean Acheson when American troops went to war in Korea in 1950. The United States fought to protect its way of life in a clash between the free world and the communist world, declared President Harry Truman. If Americans did not fight the communists in Korea, he warned, they would end up fighting them in Wichita. Official narratives have played a vital role in U.S. government propaganda, translating geostrategic objectives into slogans that clearly defined the good guys (us) and the bad (them). From the Philippine War to the Iraq War, the narratives have shown Americans fighting to defend civilization against barbarism, communism, and terrorism. They highlighted the rewards of victory and downplayed the costs and complexities of conflict. When these wars did not turn out as projected, people expressed disillusion. “Sold a bill of goods,” summed up Mark Twain during the Philippine War.
Why do Americans keep buying these goods? Why America Fights explores the packaging and sale of home front propaganda by wartime administrations in six wars from 1898 to the present. It shows that for the most part officials have preferred to depend on selected facts and widely-held beliefs rather than outright lies in order to maintain credibility with the public. Wartime leaders and propagandists have drawn on patriotic histories and contemporary cultural attitudes, basing their official narratives on what they think the American people believe to be true about the nation and themselves. Very often, leaders and propagandists shared these perceptions. They believed in their product.
The resulting narratives resonated with the concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that as the world’s morally superior nation, the United States had an obligation to extend its way of life. They served to camouflage potential contradictions between U.S. principles and its pursuit of power. In 1950, President Truman announced that the people of Asia wanted what Americans wanted. The U.S. goal in the world, asserted the president, was to contain the spread of communism in order to allow Americans and everyone else to be “richer and happier.” Such a purpose justified U.S. involvement in Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
In these official narratives the United States frequently resembled a super hero that uses his power only for good against evil. In World War I, for example, posters, ads, and movies showed Americans as chivalrous crusaders who fought to rescue the women and children of Belgium and France from the vicious Huns. In the Vietnam War, South Vietnamese forces were assigned the part of the loyal sidekick who helps the hero save the town. Such rousing stories guaranteed a happy ending, but were not terribly enlightening about international realities or the history and culture of other people.
When the actual war failed to live up to the noble narrative, the stories that purported to explain everything raised questions instead. If the conflict was so clear and straightforward, why were ill-equipped troops ordered to carry out ill-defined objectives? How come enemies and allies alike refused to follow the plot? What about the lack of progress as promised? When the Korean War turned into a stalemate, for instance, many Americans became confused about why they were fighting a limited war if the American way of life was at stake in an all-out confrontation with communist fanatics. “Someone gave old Harry the wrong dope on this war,” commented one GI.
The official narratives’ appeal to America’s special destiny frequently backfired. Indeed, skeptical citizens have contended that the United States at war was not fulfilling its professed role as a powerful force for good. Critics and dissenters have cited over-exaggerated threats, the bombing of civilians, alliances with undemocratic regimes, and reports of atrocities as evidence of war gone wrong. Confronted with such challenges, officials have attempted to repackage their justifications. When U.S. forces in Iraq located no weapons of mass destruction, the George W. Bush administration shifted emphasis to the goal of spreading democracy. In this case, the familiar invocation of America’s mission won some support, but did not avert disappointment and distrust.
The official narratives nevertheless have shown significant resilience over the past century. There is no denying that they can be an essential asset in dark times. Appeals to national destiny following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 helped to instill confidence for a tough fight against the Axis. The effort by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to portray the Soviet allies as fellow freedom fighters “just like us” was another matter, however.
Acknowledging disillusion with the last war, leaders sold the next with the pledge that it would restore faith in America’s global mission. Wrapped up in their official narratives was the encouraging message “we will get it right this time.” War propaganda, in its compelling simplicity, would project again a mythic America in the world as it should be rather than as it was. Such a history suggests the challenges the Obama administration faces in telling U.S. citizens persuasive and credible war stories about why they fight.
Susan A. Brewer
Susan Brewer is the author of: Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (Oxford University Press).
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