Lund on Dew and Genest and Paine, 'From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates about War and Revolution'

Author: 
Andrea J. Dew, Marc A. Genest, S. C. M. Paine, eds.
Reviewer: 
Stefan Lund

Andrea J. Dew, Marc A. Genest, S. C. M. Paine, eds. From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates about War and Revolution. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019. 320 pp. $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-712-4; $110.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62616-711-7.

Reviewed by Stefan Lund (University of Virginia) Published on H-War (March, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55153

From Quills to Tweets arrived at a fitting moment. The 2020 US presidential election brought renewed scrutiny to the administration of social media and the post office, highlighting the continuing importance of communication technologies to the shaping and broadcasting of political messaging. Editors Andrea J. Dew, Marc A. Genest, and S. C. M. Paine offer an extensive collection of fifteen essays, spanning from the colonial era to the present. Each essay investigates the role communication technologies have played in beginning, concluding, and perpetuating US military conflict as well as Americans’ perceptions of foreign wars and revolutions. The guiding theme is how changes in the message, messenger, and medium of communication over the course of more than two centuries created new difficulties that reporters, generals, presidents, and others had to master to effectively to communicate during times of conflict. Together the essays in this volume offer a comprehensive picture of the challenges of fashioning and publicizing wartime narratives throughout US history.

The volume is split into five parts, with parts 1 and 2 spanning from early revolutionary organizing to the invention of the radio. Part 1 includes Troy Bickham’s thought-provoking essay arguing that the slowness with which news moved during the War of 1812 was crucial to the creation of popular narratives about the war and allowed both Britons and Americans to make plausible claims of victory. Part 2 stretches from the Civil War through World War I and offers compelling insights, such as Michelle Gretchell’s analysis of the propaganda campaign of Cuban émigrés that informed the infamous press coverage preceding the Spanish-American War.

In the second half of the volume, parts 3 through 5 cover eighty years from the Second World War through the War on Terror. Steven Casey cogently explains how the Truman administration latched onto the issue of voluntary repatriation of prisoners to sell the Korean War to the American public. David Kaiser provides an illuminating examination of two decades of presidential messaging on Vietnam, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy’s near silence. Part 5 is the best and most thematically consistent section of the book, examining the twenty-first-century War on Terror. The three essays in this section, by Thomas H. Johnson and Matthew C. DuPée, Haroro J. Ingram and Craig A. Whiteside, and editor Andrea J. Dew, explore how American leadership has struggled both to make themselves understood in the Middle East and to define the guiding purpose of these conflicts at home. The authors explain how American counterterrorism communications have been ineffective at combatting the narratives of the Taliban and Islamic State, due in part to a failure to effectively target relevant populations and calibrate US messaging to make it more likely to resonate with the intended target. Along with Dew’s essay that argues that recent presidents’ ineffective framing of the war may have denied it legitimacy in the eyes of the American public, this section presents a strong (if worrying) argument that the US government communications on the War on Terror have largely failed, both at home and abroad.

The broad swath of time this volume encapsulates makes it valuable, and it includes essays on topics the reader might not expect, such as the formation of US perceptions of the Russian Revolution and Chinese Civil War. This does result in some of the chronological coverage being rather thin, however. Part 1 covering roughly 1760 to 1860 contains only two of the fifteen essays. The partisan press system that produced most Americans’ newspapers during the first half of the nineteenth century and operated as a key propaganda and organization tool of the early parties receives only a brief and unnuanced discussion in chapter 3 (“The Communications Revolution during the Civil War”). There are several notable omissions, such as the influence of the French Revolution on radical, party, and national politics, as well any of the numerous wars fought against American Indians.[1] That being said, this collection of essays certainly impresses upon the reader both the complexity and variety of challenges that changing communication technologies have posed. While the lessons the editors identify in the conclusion may seem obvious (“the most powerful messages are simple” or “a successfully mediated message requires a messenger acceptable to the intended audience”), these essays make clear that implementing these principles in the moment, especially under the pressures of military conflict, is easier said than done (p. 288).

Note

[1]. On perceptions of the French Revolution in the American press, see Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011). On wartime portrayals of American Indians in early American history, see Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1999); and Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Citation: Stefan Lund. Review of Dew, Andrea J.; Genest, Marc A.; Paine, S. C. M., eds., From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates about War and Revolution. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55153

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