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  • The Great War of Words: British, American, and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933
  • Ewart Skinner
Peter Buitenhuis . The Great War of Words: British, American, and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1987. 199 pp. $27.00.

It was prophetic that before the Great War, the English philosopher Graham Wallas proposed that reason was not the sole basis for men's actions; men acted through "affectations" and "instincts" that could be aroused and charted through [artful] manipulation. Although at the turn of the century public opinion was most directly influenced by famous writers, one reads with incredulity the details and consequences of a 2 September 1914 meeting of twenty-five British authors at Wellington House in London, headquarters of Britain's War Propaganda Bureau.

They met at the behest of C. F. G. Masterman, cabinet minister and chief of the bureau, to discuss the means by which they could contribute to the Allied war effort. The gathering itself might have been simply an innocuous symbol of national solidarity in a time of crisis but for its depth of purpose, agenda of public deception, international scope, and the remarkable names among the list of authors whom Masterman had sworn to secrecy. At that first meeting sat, among others, Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Hope Hawkins, John Masefield, and H. G. Wells. Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Toynbee, Ford Madox Ford were later enlisted, and the circle soon included Henry James, Edith Wharton, and the Canadian Beckles Willson.

Given the book's emphasis, its title, British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 is somewhat misleading. Peter Buitenhuis' study is based on the prewar, war-time, and postwar literature produced by the Wellington House group, their propagandist colleagues. Buitenhuis discusses those who protested the war, such as Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw, who were "tortured between patriotism and truth."

There is freshness in Buitenhuis' approach both to literature and to propaganda because the author gives us a new perspective on both. Particularly interesting is his exposé of the war-time collusion between government, literati, and private publishing houses. For example, private firms published and disseminated Wellington House books and pamphlets in Britain and the United States but effectively hid their source. The War Propaganda Bureau also deliberately influenced American foreign policy through subtle and artful manipulation of the American press, public officials, university professors, and other public opinion molders.

The book concentrates on the effects war-time propaganda had upon those who produced it, rather than its effects upon the public at large. Buitenhuis' rightful indignation is therefore directed toward the propagandists themselves. They sold themselves and their art; they sacrificed truth for the expedience of the state and sometimes for another shilling. John Masefield "whitewashed" the disaster at Galipoli and "John Buchan turned the defeat at the Somme into a great victory."

Buitenhuis argues that the symbolic, mythic world created to support the war, rather than war itself, culminated in the "literature of disillusion" and the novels and poems of "anger, repudiation, anguish, cynicism or despair synonymous [End Page 274] with names of the 'lost generation.'" This book should well serve the student of propaganda and the sociologist of literature. It is not well-indexed, but its thirty-three illustrations and concluding two-page bibliographical note on propaganda sources add value.

Ewart Skinner
Purdue University


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pp. 274-275
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