Thursday, June 18, 2009

Domestic Propaganda in World War I link to: Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen by Christopher Capozzola

In 1917 the United States government established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to mobilize and sustain public opinion in favor of America’s war effort. Since that time, the historical treatment of American domestic propaganda efforts in World War I has evolved in three distinct phases, reflecting an evolution in thinking not only about the definition of propaganda but also about its impact on American life.

Christopher Capozzola, a scholar trained in the post-Cold War period, analyzes the past from a vantage point in which a “rights society”, diversity, and pluralism are the enshrined national norms. His book is compelling in that he shows us that such was not always the case.

The works of earlier historians bear out that American thought has undergone a significant change. In the 1940s, Lavine and Wechsler could write unblushingly “In the molding of public opinion, the miners and unskilled workers didn’t figure very decisively; ‘the Americans’ delivered the sermons and wrote the newspaper editorials.” Here was a top down driven society where historians wrote knowingly for a narrow and homogeneous elite. During the period 1950-1990s, we see the emergence of the voice of dissent, and increasing attention to previously excluded groups. The discourse revolves around the relationship of the individual to the state, with the balance shifting in the direction of historians giving the rights of individuals an increasing significance in relation to the needs of the state. The scholarship of this period clearly reflects the national security anxieties and domestic political battles of the Cold War.

Interestingly, with the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of historians trained after the fall of the Soviet Union, scholarship concerning World War I launches forth in a new direction, leading one to speculate if historians are inevitably prisoners of the political era in which they live. If so, then no one book can ever do justice to a subject, and the history book/web product of the future must incorporate the viewpoints of all prior historical schools/phases in order to provide the most skillful and useful analytical tool.

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