Brief Encounters

Short reviews of a history of wartime public opinion and a biography of Time publisher Henry Luce

Selling War in a Media Age: The Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century | Edited by Kenneth Osgood and Andrew K. Frank, Afterword by David Halberstam | University Press of Florida | 278 pages, $44.95

Two historians—Kenneth Osgood from Florida Atlantic University and Andrew K. Frank from Florida State—have brought together ten essays by fellow scholars on how presidents led (or misled) the United States into wars large and small, hot and cold. Some of the articles are primarily studies in the twists and turns of presidential rhetoric. Osgood, for example, notes that Cold War presidents used the term “peace” in public statements 9,888 times, most often while promoting war.

The more venturesome articles describe the interplay between presidents, federal bureaucracies, the media, and pressure groups. Emily S. Rosenberg recalls the massive efforts by the Wilson administration to smother a nation divided over World War I in prowar propaganda, while suppressing every symptom of dissent, with imprisonment if necessary. Marilyn B. Young examines the Korean War, sixty years old this year, noting both Truman’s failure to offer a credible rationale for being in the war and the degree to which Americans ignored and continue to ignore the brutal behavior of all the armies involved, despite the gritty work of American war correspondents.

Chester Pach retells the story of the struggle to control the Vietnam scenario, with the Johnson administration attacking journalists on the scene as disloyal. He offers lively interviews with several correspondents of that era, who recount how the reality of the war sank in after they arrived in country. (The text of a lecture by David Halberstam, who died in 2007 before he completed an article for this anthology, briskly reviews his parallel Vietnam experiences.) Lloyd Gardner provides a harsh account of the selling of the great twofer: two Gulf Wars by two Bushes. And at the end, Robert J. McMahon asks whether it is ever possible for a president to nudge the nation toward war without lying. And if he does, is it sometimes all right? Most of these authors would vote no.

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century | By Alan Brinkley | Alfred A. Knopf | 531 pages, $35

After the death in 1967 of its founder, Henry R. Luce, Time declared him (with Lucean hyperbole) to have been “America’s greatest maker of magazines” and his publications to be “a valued and trusted voice of America throughout the free world.” More than forty years later, Alan Brinkley, heretofore primarily a historian of New Deal-era politics, delivers a fresh assessment in The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.

Luce’s reputation has not fared particularly well at the hands of his previous biographers. In William Swanberg’s Luce and His Empire (1972) and David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be (1979), the publisher appears as a garden-variety, power-hungry tycoon (a word that Time popularized), who bent his journalism to fit his politics. James L. Baughman’s Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (2001) is equally critical but more scholarly and incisive. Brinkley seeks to set aside the accumulated animus and make sense of how a self-conscious but determined son born in China to missionary parents came to be the creator of at least three new journalistic genres: the concise, stylish news magazine (Time); the high-end business magazine, aimed at educating America’s Babbitts (Fortune); and the popular magazine of photographic journalism (Life).

Brinkley also examines how Luce attempted to transform himself into a statesman, an international herald of American values, a would-be counsel to presidents he happened to like, and an advocate for a non-Communist China—and how he fell a bit short in each of these roles. The author persistently probes to find the man under the trappings. Luce was a loner with few close friends and the partner in an unhappy second marriage to the celebrity writer-politician Clare Boothe—which made him a consistent seeker of the companionship of other, more compatible women. These are dimensions little touched upon by previous biographers, and they add much to readers’ understanding.

On the other hand, his concentration on Luce the private man means that Brinkley slights the intense office warfare and ideological skirmishing at Time Incorporated. Of Luce’s legacy, he writes: “Like all powerful media, Luce’s innovations had their day and then slowly lost their centrality as newer forms of communication took their place. And while his company survives still, far larger and wealthier than it was in Luce’s lifetime, little remains of the goals and principles he established for it.”

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.