Scholars need to resist American mythology about war

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Review of Communication · October, 2001

[This article was published in The Review of Communication, 1:2 (October 2001): 226-229.]

review of
Jeffery A. Smith. War and Press Freedom: The Problem of Prerogative Power .
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. viii + 324 pages. Notes and index.
$45 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

I liked reading Jeffrey Smith’s study of the suppression of free speech in wartime. While the book covered familiar ground, I learned quite a bit from his careful examination of the historical record. The writing was clear and accessible, the documentation thorough.

I liked War and Press Freedom. And it drove me crazy. The apparent contradiction is the result of the unstated and unexamined assumptions in Smith’s volume. It is his ideology, not his research and writing, that is vexing. Smith’s assumptions are rooted in deeply ingrained mythologies about the alleged nobility of the American political and military establishments, summed up best in what is perhaps the single most morally and intellectually bankrupt concept in human history: patriotism.

We all understand that patriotism in the service of an evil goal is evil. When we apply that standard to others—the “good Germans” of the Nazi era, for example—everyone nods in agreement. Patriotism in the service of aggression, conquest, and racism is not a virtue.

Such an analysis holds beyond the Nazis, of course, which means that any invocation of patriotism—especially when we live in one of the great powers, where patriotism is so often used to build support for some unjust act—requires intensive scrutiny. The United States’ record of genocide, conquest, and illegal aggression suggests such scrutiny should be a part of scholarship in this country.

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So, when Smith questions the wisdom of the Supreme Court in Near v. Minnesota for suggesting that stories about troop movements could rightfully be the subject of prior restraints, he writes that the court could have chosen “to rely on the patriotism and cooperation of the press, as the government’s Committee on Public Information (CPI) had done during World War I” (53).

It was patriotic of the U.S. press to swallow the propaganda of the U.S. government to help drive an anti-war population to war? We should valorize the first official propaganda agency in the United States? We should ignore that in this context, the term “U.S. press” conveniently ignores the dissident press that opposed the war on quite justifiable moral and political grounds?

Throughout the book, Smith endorses, either implicitly or explicitly, the conventional wisdom about why and how the United States goes to war, and the motivations of politicians for suppressing speech in wartime. Smith seems to accept the idea that restrictions on freedom of speech are the result of some sort of paranoia on the part of government officials. He writes that during the World War I era, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed “a frightened Congress” to restrict freedoms (57). Congress, along with much of the business community, indeed was in some sense frightened during that period, but they weren’t paranoid. It was a fear based in the realization that political dissidents, radicals, and labor organizers were making headway in the United States, and the people who owned the country (and the politicians in their employ) were not hesitant to use state and private violence, along with the suppression of civil liberties, to put down the challenge. There was nothing paranoid about it. It was a completely understandable—and, at least in the short-term, a very effective—response to a
challenge to power. Anti-democratic, yes, but not paranoid, except perhaps in the way that all people who hold power in unjust systems are in some sense paranoid about losing it.

Take another of the other great mythologies of U.S. history, the Cold War. Smith writes that, “the Cold War soon provided circumstances deemed too combustible for freedom of expression” (63). That obscures the fact that the Cold War was not some naturally occurring phenomenon but was created by U.S. policymakers in large part for the purpose of keeping a lid on social change and policing the political culture. The start of the Cold War should be dated to the 1917 Russian revolution, when the United States realized the political, not

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military, threat that a socialist revolution posed to business-run societies such as ours. The post-World War II phase of the Cold War supported bloated military budgets, justified U.S. intervention around the world, and helped stave off the threat of an independent and neutral Europe. No matter how deformed and degraded a version of socialism the totalitarian Soviet Union offered, it did represent a challenge to the “inevitability” of capitalism. The anti-communist frenzy in the United States was created and sustained, by Democrats and
Republicans alike, in part to allow these policies of control to go on. It is a disservice, I think, to frame Cold War suppressions of expression as an unfortunate byproduct of this frenzy.

On one hand, Smith’s telling of these stories of wartime suppression is an important contribution to the scholarly literature on—and the political project of arguing for expansive notions of—freedom of speech and press during wartime, when the most onerous restrictions tend to be imposed. Both these contributions, from my view, are useful and essential if we are to be a functioning democracy. His book is most complete in its treatment of the early days of the new nation and the Civil War; the depth of his narrative atrophies as he makes his way to the present day. But in all the cases he recounts important facts, well documented.

However his book also does a disservice, both to history and the struggle for a more democratic United States, by accepting the ideology of American nobility in war aims. Attempts by the powerful to block dissident speech in time of war are not paranoid or pathological deviations from a freedom-loving path. They are an enduring feature of U.S. history. The modalities of control change with time, but the goal of those in power—to suppress and/or marginalize critical voices—hasn’t changed, as was so readily evident in the Gulf War. I make that claim well aware that we in the United States live with arguably the most expansive legal guarantees of freedom of expression in the world, for which I am grateful. But it doesn’t negate history or the possibility that the suppression of expression in cruder form won’t cycle back to greet us again in the future.

One might rise to Smith’s defense by suggesting his goal was to write objective and neutral scholarship; he simply wanted to go to the archives and document the history. But it should by now not be controversial that history is

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not only the telling of stories but the subjective selection of which stories to tell and the framing of those stories. We also make choices about the larger narratives in which we choose to set those stories, and those choices always have political dimensions. My point is not that Smith’s research is all wrong, but that he sets that research in political frameworks that obfuscate the realities of power in the United States and the deeper abuse of that power in war beyond repression of expression.

Every time allegedly neutral and objective scholars, especially those on the left/liberal end of the spectrum, accept such mythology about American power, it sets the mythology deeper and more firmly in the public consciousness. The “city on the hill” story about an America that fights for freedom and justice in the world is rarely challenged. In discussing the Gulf War, for example, it is crucial to talk not only about Department of Defense restrictions on the news media in the field, but also about how the news media never raised the question
of U.S. war crimes. It would have required no access to battlefields to point out that U.S. attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure far from the Kuwaiti theater were blatant violations of international law.

This gets to a core question about the crucial need for U.S. citizens and journalists not to shy away from the ugly truths about our government and its wars. In the book’s conclusion, Smith rightly points out that journalists need “to respect both the importance of truth and the necessity of minimizing harm” (228). From the context of the statement, he appears to mean “minimizing harm” to the U.S. war effort or U.S. forces. But that begs the question: What if U.S. forces are engaged in illegal and immoral aggression that inflicts massive harm on innocents abroad? Could it not be the role of truly independent and ethical journalists sometimes to reveal U.S. military secrets that could save the lives of people at risk in wars of U.S. aggression?

My advice: Read War and Press Freedom, but read with a critical eye that keeps that question in mind.