Review of


Richard W. Steele. “The Great Debate: Roosevelt, the Media, and the Coming of the War, 1940-1941.” The Journal of American History Vol. 71, No. 1 (June 1984): 69-92.

 In “The Great Debate”, Richard Steele examines the role the media played in assisting President Franklin Roosevelt in eliminating substantive public discussion of American foreign policy in the years preceding World War II.  He specifically addresses the way in which America’s moviemakers, radio stations and newspapers became eager advocates of the administration’s interventionist policies, while simultaneously stifling competing isolationist voices. Steele concludes that this cooperation effectively eliminated public debate on important foreign policy issues, and that when the United States suddenly found itself at war with Japan, many Americans struggled to understand how it had happened.

 Steele traces the beginnings of media complicity to the Nazi blitzkrieg. Historically, filmmakers had resisted becoming tools of government propaganda. By the end of the 1930s, however, Hollywood’s responsibility in fostering a proper appreciation of democracy became the focus of public attention, and attitudes began to change. Steele alludes to a degree of coercion at this point, noting that during this time the Justice Department was involved in litigation with the film studios over possible antitrust violations. In August of 1940, three major film producers offered their studios to the White House, and pro-interventionist films were soon forthcoming. In November of 1940, the Justice Department settled five of the eight antitrust claims on terms favorable to the studios. 

Radio stations, exposed to potential regulation and punitive measures from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), had traditionally protected themselves by providing “public service programming”; after the German offensive in Poland began, White House press secretary Stephen T. Early was quick to remind the industry of the role it had to play. Programs quickly filled the airwaves that both informed and entertained. Many of the interventionist dramatizations were so highly polished that in another time they might have been considered typical entertainment offerings. Isolationists clamored for, and stations granted, equal time; but that consideration only applied to directly political messages. The docudramas and moving “news reports” that so clearly favored the interventionist perspective were not considered political and therefore not included in the equation.

Prior to the outbreak of war, newspapers had routinely attacked the administration for its overzealous promotion of New Deal policies, and many reporters remained fiercely independent. Unable to control the press, Roosevelt responded by simply refusing to comment on important issues; the resulting news blackout left Americans completely in the dark as the storm approached. Journalists never cooperated with the administration to the degree of other forms of media, but they rarely complained about the treatment they received at Roosevelt’s hands, either.

Steele footnotes his work, and relies heavily on previously published sources with some references to the personal papers of President Roosevelt and members of his administration. Many of these sources spring from contemporary articles in magazines such as Variety, Theatre Arts and Harper’s to later scholarly articles in Political Science Quarterly and American Heritage to massive multivolume tomes such as Complete Presidential Press Conferences. The absence of original primary source material initially proves to be a bit unsettling; however, it must be recalled that the author’s subject is the media itself, and thus much of the research is done there.

Steele’s style is somewhat dry and plodding; there is little in his prose to engage the senses. He seems content to stick to the facts and deliver his argument as a barrage of uninspiring events, uncolored by the emotions of those involved. Considering that much of the article’s focus is on the glamorous world of movies and radio, and nearly as much on Franklin Roosevelt, arguably one of the most fascinating personalities to ever occupy the White House, it is disappointing that Steele has produced such a bland account.

Steele uses quotes sparingly, and what remains has all of the sizzle of a State Department memo on unrest in Paraguay. That FDR, Jack Warner, Walter Winchell and the leader of the Socialist Party could all be mentioned without being quoted directly is nothing short of tragic. The opportunity missed is not merely measured in entertainment value, but more importantly in establishing the setting: a time when Americans increasingly lived in fear and its leaders struggled to reinvent themselves in a rapidly changing world. This new world was presented to the American people on the radio, in newsreels and in Sunday papers. According to Steele, this presentation was being orchestrated by Franklin Roosevelt, whose private conversations and personal deliberations would certainly have been illuminating. Instead, what we get is a sequence of events.

For the student of the Second World War, Steele has produced an overview of the relationship between FDR and the media during the war. His writing will supply adequate background information and his footnotes will point the scholar toward many useful sources. Steele’s writing is not especially challenging, and the typical university student should not have trouble in its reading. The more curious may have their interest in this fascinating subject piqued by Steele’s article, but are unlikely to be completely satisfied.

Perhaps one of those students will go on to write an article on the subject that will paint a more colorful picture, an article that will allow us entry to the private thoughts and motivations of those who presented a world at war to the American people.


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