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

Andrea J. Dew, Marc A. Genest, S. C. M. Paine, eds.
Mark Oromaner

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 Mark Oromaner (Independent Scholar) Published on Jhistory (January, 2021) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55974

The edited collection From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates about War and Revolution is devoted to “exploring the role that information, political narratives, and the evolving nature of communications technology have played in precipitating, prolonging, and concluding wars over the course of American history.” In addition, “success in war is often as dependent on the pen (or quill, telegraph, newspapers, television, or tweet) as it is on traditional military means” (p. 1). As I write this review, Donald Trump has one month left in office; however, I think it is fair to say that we still don’t know the impact of tweets in precipitating, prolonging, or concluding wars. Although the emphasis of each essay is on the impact of communications technology, each case study is built around the themes of the messengers, the messages, and the media.

The editors, Andrea J. Dew, Marc A. Genest, and S. C. M. Paine, have written on military policy/strategy and are affiliated with the US Naval War College. However, we are assured that the expressed views do not represent the college or any government agency. Although a number of the authors of the fifteen contributions are also affiliated with the War College, others are or have been affiliated with institutions ranging from Baruch College, City University of New York to Cornell University in Washington to the London School of Economics. These essays are framed by an introduction and a conclusion by the editors. As will be seen, chapters appear in chronological order according to the date of the conflict. I am not sure that, strictly speaking, two of the most interesting cases belong in this book. The first (chapter 6) is Bruce A. Elleman’s analysis of the impact in the United States of John Reed’s personal account of the 1917 Soviet Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), and the second (chapter 8) is Paine’s account of the impact of Edgar Snow’s reporting on the Mao Zedong-led Chinese Revolution. However, both of these accounts do demonstrate the importance of developments in communications technology, that is, newspapers, mass magazines, and books.

The fifteen essays are presented in five parts. Part 1 contains two chapters covering early American wars: the decade leading up the American War for Independence and the lesser-studied War of 1812. In the first, Genest presents a fascinating narrative of how Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty used the media technology at hand—correspondence, pamphlets, newspapers, and personal and political networks—to spread the word about the uprising against Great Britain. A few years later during the War of 1812, battles took place at sea or away from population centers. Therefore, for both the Americans and British, knowledge of how the war was progressing was “shaped by timely communications and the printed word” (p. 25). In this case, “the printed word” referred primarily to newspapers.

Part 2 contains five cases ranging from the American Civil War through World War I. The additional three essays focus on the origins of the Spanish-America War (“Remember the Maine” Yellow Journalism), the War in the Philippines (1899-1902), and the previously referred to influence of Reed’s reporting and book on the Soviet Revolution. This was the era of mass circulation newspapers, magazines, and the telegraph. In terms of actual battle developments and the dissemination of analyses to various audiences, the telegraph was a revolutionary instrument. In the words of Martin J. Manning, during the American Civil War, “reporters often reached the battlefield by rail, while battlefield reports reached newspaper and government offices by telegraph. For the first time in history, the almost real-time transmission of information became possible.” Manning reminds us that while the telegraph provided almost real-time information, it made the telegraph office a central node in the dissemination chain. And, “who controlled the telegraph office controlled the flow of information” (p. 45). Presidents since the Civil War have demonstrated their understanding of the increasing importance of the control of information before, during, and after wars. 

Part 3 contains three cases during the period of the 1930s to the early years of the 1950s. The first, cited earlier in this review, explores the influence of Snow’s magazine and book publications concerning the Chinese Revolution. The second essay introduces the use of a relatively new technology, radio, and its sophisticated use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. At that time, radios were in almost 90 percent of American households. News and other live events were brought to these households. And, of course, “Roosevelt used prime-time evening ‘fireside chats’ as an opportunity to inform, persuade, and charm the public with his wit, folksy manner, and warm personality” (p. 130). In his contribution on FDR and the war, Michael G. Carew points out that “in effect, Roosevelt addressed not only the American people but also the peoples of the alliance and ultimately those of the emerging United Nations” (p. 154). In his use of communications skills and technology, Roosevelt learned well from the failures of Woodrow Wilson to prepare the American public during and after World War I.

Part 4 contains two excellent contributions on the role of television and satellite-based cable. In the first, David Kaiser explores how from 1954 to 1975 five presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford) were not able to persuade American public opinion that an independent South Vietnam was an essential component in containing the spread of communism in Asia (the domino theory). Television meant that pictures, reporters, and commentors were now in the homes of the vast majority of Americans. And, at some point during the Nixon administration, it “became clear that getting out of the war had become more important than winning” (p. 187). Judith Baroody’s essay on the 1991 Gulf War explores the impact and challenges of satellite-based communications on war. Reporters were embedded with troops and could report in real-time 24/7. Vietnam may have been the first TV war; however, heavy equipment had to be carried, film had to be forwarded to broadcast facilities, and TV information was controlled by the big three networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In the Gulf War, reporters “reported live as the air war began, first from cell phones and then on camera, a dramatic game changer in the way TV news did business” (p. 211). The big three had to make room for Ted Turner’s Cable News Network. Soon the administration and military adopted these direct broadcasting methods. Given the complexity and selectivity of the information provided by the military, Baroody questions whether these briefings resulted in a better-informed public. At the same time, she points out that “most research indicates that the media reflects, but does not lead, public thinking” (p. 218). This is an important research area.

Part 5 brings us into the twenty-first century. These all-too-familiar wars include the War in Afghanistan (the longest war in American history), the War against the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Global War on Terror. In addition to the media already in use, these wars introduced the use of the internet and social media. In a few words, Drew and Genest accurately point out that the internet and social media “leveled the playing field among powerful states, terrorist groups, and even individuals. This increasingly egalitarian information environment has shaped, facilitated, and constrained the actions of all sides in the war on terrorism that has been raging since 2001” (p. 226). Despite economic, military, and technological advantages, the United States and its allies have not fared well in any of these wars. Three American presidents (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump) failed to develop an adequate overall communications strategy to combat the messages that resonated with significant segments of the local populations in all three wars. In these cases, the revolutionary technology enabled the other side to get their message to the right audiences. As in the example of Vietnam, these failures have weakened support for the wars at home.

In this review I have stressed the impact of communications technology on the perceptions of war. However, I have also conveyed the view of the authors and editors that developments in technology must be viewed within the context of messengers, messages, and media. From Quills to Tweets does an excellent job of demonstrating how these three factors “combine to create a platform for the communicator in chief and his proxies to communicate war” (p. 283). In terms of audience, members of the general public and students will benefit greatly from a reading of this work. They will learn much about overlooked aspects of American political history and will be better prepared to understand the ways new communication technologies will be employed to create or to prevent potential major events in the future of this country and the world. Specialists in media, military strategy, and policymaking will have to face the challenges posed by new technological tactics, such as cyberattacks. 

Citation: Mark Oromaner. Review of Dew, Andrea J.; Genest, Marc A.; Paine, S. C. M., eds., From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates about War and Revolution. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55974

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.