The Media Offensive: How the Press and Public Opinion Shaped Allied Strategy during World War II by Alexander G. Lovelace. University Press of Kansas, 2022, 400 pp.
Alexander G. Lovelace, a scholar at the Contemporary History Institute of Ohio University, has made an excellent contribution to history with The Media Offensive: How the Press and Public Opinion Shaped Allied Strategy during World War II. This book argues that in their concern over public opinion, the media—encompassing print, radio, and reporting by uniformed personnel—and the military significantly influenced strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of warfare.
This proved particularly true in the case of the US Army, which encompasses Lovelace’s focus of investigation. In essence, he claims that nationalizing warfare on an industrial scale carried the public into the conflict simultaneously as participants and stakeholders. This caused World War II to witness a “media revolution,” where the power and speed of radio, print, and movies “massively increased” media influence over the population (18). Lovelace argues that maintaining public support via the news developed into a national line of effort influencing many important decisions in the Pacific and Europe theaters, a trend which previous scholars have understudied.
The book generally works chronologically from the outbreak of the war in 1941 through the defeat of Germany in 1945. The examples are primarily from the European theater, although General Douglas MacArthur’s use of media outlets to influence popular US opinion to support his return to the Philippines is also discussed. Lovelace claims the media had a symbiotic relationship with the military and each used the other—the military to gain support on the home front, and the media to write stories that captured the nation’s attention. However, since both the military and the public’s common goal remained the defeat of the Axis, these interests between the population and state aligned. For example, to better serve the public’s desires, the US military conducted operations like the Doolittle Raid, the invasion of North Africa, and the seizure of Rome—indirect and perhaps inefficient uses of resources, but operations which nevertheless demonstrated its ability to respond to threats quickly and with success in a way the American public appreciated. Throughout the text, Lovelace analyzes the strategic decisions of historical figures, such as George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and many other generals. Lovelace argues that total war facilitated an evolution in the perceived prominence of media stories due to the importance of public support required to prosecute such wars. Consequently, news stories influenced military decision-making to a point not previously experienced in American history.
In the final section, Lovelace argues that the close bond between the US Army and the American media that developed during World War II would not carry on to later limited wars, like the proxy wars utilized to combat communism on the Korean Peninsula or in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s. These Cold War conflicts resulted in a strained relationship of distrust between the military and the media. Instead, the media grew to be skeptical of the information provided by the military, which was perceived as deceptive propaganda. Meanwhile, military leaders came to disdain reporters as biased and self-serving. The contrast with the earlier dynamics might leave the reader to believe the media/military relationship was irreversibly altered following World War II. However, the prospect of total war remains in the twenty-first century, as demonstrated by the Ukraine and Russia war. As such, this book provides lessons still applicable to today and the future.
Although The Media Offensive is an excellent read, there are a few limiting aspects of this work. Lovelace admits that his study does not include the media’s influence over Marine Corps operations in the Pacific, a topic rich with scholarly opportunities and iconic moments—perhaps he might return to that subject in a future project. He also confesses that the media’s influence over combat operations had limits and was not always the decisive factor in the decisions made. Correspondingly, the narration often describes the many factors influencing decisions without clarifying if military objectives or media publicity had the greater effect on the decided outcomes. This makes it difficult for the reader to assess exactly what influence the media (or public opinion) had or if certain strategic decisions simply made practical military sense. Additionally, while the introduction and the conclusion are written masterfully, some of the chapters’ content reads more like a narration of events rather than an analysis providing the same powerful arguments exemplified in the beginning and closing portions. Nevertheless, Lovelace does circle back in at least one chapter to draw out his main arguments about media influence, which provides an enhanced and scholarly perspective on those events, and this methodology might have worked better if used throughout.
This book will prove interesting to a wide audience. Consequently, I highly recommend it for history buffs but also for current practitioners of military science, as well as international affairs and political science. The lessons revealed about how the media can influence military decision-making can be applied as a case study to compare with other periods of time. Lovelace only briefly utilizes this methodology in his short comparison with the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In contrast, there remains ample opportunity to examine this nascent time frame in World War II and the application of those lessons learned in the modern era, an age where the term “media” has become so prolific and influential that it increasingly requires numerous qualifiers to define. Radio, print media, and film have been compounded with other digital forms, like social media, social networking, and social medium platforms, to name a few. In short, this work enters into a rich academic space with further opportunities to explore. Lovelace’s contribution will prove foundational to future studies on strategic influence.
Robert S. Burrell, PhD