15
Public Ultimatums

IN 1936, AS Adolph Hitler employed the cult of Aryan supremacy to draw the German masses toward the brink of total warfare, Walter Benjamin remarked that "[w]ar and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system."1 In the intoxicating fervor of combat, Benjamin declared, irreconcilable tensions between capital and labor--chronic social and economic antagonisms--melt away beneath a sacred banner of national blood lust.

For corporate America, which had endured the humiliation of public scorn throughout much of the New Deal era, the United States' entry into the Second World War lent weight to Benjamin's judgment. As the mobilization for war forged a reconciliation between the Roosevelt administration and large-scale manufacturers, the reputation of big business began to improve and the corporate role in the defense of democratic principles gained increasing notoriety. Stark social disparities--which throughout the thirties had preoccupied the nation's attention--began to fade from public view as the federal government, giant enterprises, and the vast majority of the American people discovered common ground in a prodigious struggle to save the world from fascist aggression.

For business leaders and their beleaguered public relations counsels, the salve of war brought a welcome sense of relief. Many began to nurse the impression that the troublesome activism of the thirties was behind them and that new, more auspicious, priorities had captured the public mind. "[T]his is not the time to be promoting economic and general reform measures and everyone accepts that," reported Rex Harlow, a prominent public relations strategist, in

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