Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I

By Murphy, Dennis M. | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I


Murphy, Dennis M., Parameters


Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I. By Jonathan Reed Winkler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 280 pages. $55.00.

The Department of Defense defines strategic communication as "focused United States Government processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences in order to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs, and actions synchronized with other elements of national power." Parsing that definition to its essential parts, strategic communication consists of orchestrated words, images, and actions that persuade and influence in order to change behavior. The modern strategic communication practitioner, however, should not be fooled by the title of Jonathan Reed Winkler's new book. The tome's focus is not on the message, but on the physical means required to transmit it, specifically the global submarine cable system and emerging transoceanic radio networks of World War I. As such, the book presents significant parallels to the modern world of cyberspace as a domain offering both threats and opportunities. It also points to a strategic vulnerability in that the United States had little or no control of this critical means of communication, an eerily familiar concern as America increasingly relies on the Internet for fast and reliable business dealings and personal communications.

Winkler begins his work by relating the fascinating story of the surreptitious destruction of German submarine telegraph cables on the same day Great Britain entered the war in 1914. He describes how the cable ship Alert moved unescorted into the English Channel, found and raised five German cables, and "hacked" (yes, hacked) them with hatchets. The United States, with virtually no oceanic cable system of its own, found itself at the mercy of the British, who now controlled existing cables, cable manufacturing, and access to the scarce raw materials used in the manufacturing process.

Themes of national security priorities emerge in subsequent chapters. The United States' use of cables was primarily a matter of commercial interest prior to our entry into the war. The British, having cut the German lines, now had a virtual monopoly over US transoceanic communication. Along with that monopoly came British-imposed censorship of the cable traffic as part of the war effort. The impact on the economic viability of America's commercial sector was telling. Firms could no longer use "shorthand" in their cables, a practice that saved money (since cable fees were based on the number of words sent), or maintain proprietary secrets. Additionally, the amount of war traffic on the cable networks increased dramatically, causing delays in delivery of commercial messages due to backlogs. …

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