Promoting the War Effort: Robert Horton and Federal Propaganda, 1938-1946

By Sweeney, Michael S. | Journalism History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Promoting the War Effort: Robert Horton and Federal Propaganda, 1938-1946


Sweeney, Michael S., Journalism History


Lee, Mordecai. Promoting the War Effort: Robert Horton and Federal Propaganda, 1938-1946. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 304 pp. $39.95.

Historians of wartime propaganda in the United States have focused much of their attention on the Committee on Public Information during World War I and its mercurial leader, George Creel, for excesses that whipped Americans into a frenzy and sold - most would say, oversold - the war to ordinary citizens. When they turn to World War II, historians note that the Office of War Information, headed by radio commentator Elmer Davis, operated weakly and inefficiently - and most would say, thankfully so - when compared with Creel's model.

But studies of the OWI's propaganda and publicity on behalf of the federal government do not tell the full story of World War II public relations. In the months leading to American entry into the war as well as the first six months afterward, another federal agency born in the pot of alphabet soup stirred by Franklin Roosevelt came to flourish and briefly mirrored much of the best and some of the worst of the CPI.

That agency was the Division of Information of the Office of Emergency Management. For several months bridging the gray area of non-belligerence and the early months of war itself, it centralized government public relations in an attempt to make all war-related agencies speak with one voice to the American people.

Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has given the Division of Information its due in Promoting the War Effort: Robert Horton and Federal Propaganda, 1938-1946.

The book is somewhat misnamed, as it expends little energy or space on federal propaganda and public relations after June 1942, when the newly created Office of War Information absorbed nearly all other PR-related agencies, including the Office of Facts and Figures and the Division of Information. Nor does the book do much to make Horton, a Vermont native trained as a newspaper journalist, much of a three-dimensional figure. The intent here is to explore the interesting questions of the circumstances under which it is appropriate for a government to direct propaganda toward its own people, as well as the ethical lines between wartime public relations serving the public vs. PR serving those who hold office. Lee's account of the Division of Information, apparently the first significant study of the agency, acts as a case study for those PR and propaganda questions.

Lee argues that government propaganda directed toward its own citizens is inappropriate except in three cases: when it resonates with widely held values, when the president requires it to explain and persuade on behalf of important policy, and when it serves to mobilize people during wartime. …

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