British news management in the USA during World War Two is the subject of a Guardian article this weekend at http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,1854211,00.html and the piece seems stuffed full of fascinating connections.
William Boyd’s article says that in 1940-41, up to 3,000 British agents based in the USA directly influenced that country’s news media in an effort to recruit America as an ally in the war against Germany. This phenomenal bit of spin involved getting sympathetic news stories printed and broadcast, in such a way that the manipulation behind the stories remained hidden. It’s a story that is not widely known, although it is certainly no secret.
Among the American journalists that the Brits managed, apparently, to influence was the columnist Walter Winchell. His name, interestingly enough, pops up in Philip Roth’s superb novel The Plot Against America – Roth re-writes history to provide a chilling account of what would have happened had America backed Germany in the war, and Winchell figures as one of the increasingly lonely voices warning against cosying up to the Nazis.
Back to reality, and it occurs to me that this wasn’t, of course, the first time Britain had tried to cajole the USA into war. During the First World War, the British press baron Lord Northcliffe was sent to the USA to put the case for fighting Germany. I wonder if he would have done the same, had he still been alive in 1940? Certainly, the Daily Mail that he left behind, and his brother Lord Rothermere who ran it, had been famously supportive of the new Nazi Germany and have never been allowed to forget it. For an example, see http://media.guardian.co.uk/site/story/0,14173,1415070,00.html.
There’s a book about Britain’s propagandising in 1940s America, but it is reputedly very heavy going- you can see a review of it at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=3330945077241. In the meantime, Boyd has a novel about it coming out (Restless Bloomsbury, September 4).