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American Quarterly 56.4 (2004) 1079-1087
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Radio in Wartime:
The Politics of Propaganda, Race, and the American Way in the Second World War
On the evening of December 29, 1940, 59 percent of American radio listeners tuned in to President Roosevelt's "Arsenal of Democracy" broadcast, a defining moment both in the course of World War II and in radio's articulation of a national voice for the United States. Above all else, Roosevelt emphasized the role "the people" had to play in preventing the spread of the disaster unfolding in Europe. From the thousands of supportive letters and telegrams he cites to the threat posed by "fifth columnists...within our gates," which "your government is ferreting out," Roosevelt made plain how central the popular will—and the effective management of it—was to the massive defense effort he calls for at the end of the speech, including the lend-lease policy with Britain. On May 27 of the following year, Roosevelt again took to the airwaves to announce a proclamation of unlimited national emergency. Seventy percent of the radio audience, or 65 million people, tuned in to hear the president describe a pitched global struggle between "the pagan brutality and the Christian ideal." "Your government knows," Roosevelt averred, "what terms Hitler, if victorious, would impose."1
The history of radio's place in national life, and the effort to motivate the American people as an "arsenal of democracy" are inextricably tied together. [End Page 1079] And in Roosevelt's rhetoric, oscillating between the power of the people and the stark new powers the government was arrogating to itself, we can hear the tension between populist, participatory democracy on the one hand, and centralized state power on the other. This tension characterized mass-mediated discourse during the war years, and nowhere was this tension thicker than on the radio airwaves. Radio's role in mobilizing the nation for wartime production relied, in large part, in reproducing this tension inherent in the notion of "the people," or, as Michael Denning has termed it, in the "competing populist rhetorics" that emerged out of the cultural and ideological contests of the 1930s.2
We have, in Barbara Savage's Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948, Gerd Horten's Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II, and Howard Blue's Words at War: World War II Era Radio Drama and the Postwar Broadcasting Industry Blacklist, three books that examine the interrelationship between radio's vital discursive role in American life in the 1940s and the government's massive war mobilization at home and abroad. As Savage puts it, "The emergence of a newly empowered national government and of the nation's first truly national mass political medium are not coincidental or parallel narratives but stories that converge and reinforce each other"(2).
In Savage's Broadcasting Freedom, out of these convergent stories emerges an understanding of World War II as a watershed historical moment in the civil rights movement. By the start of the war, when nearly every family in the United States owned or had access to a receiver, radio had created "a new aural public sphere, a discursive political forum for a community of millions of listeners spanning the boundaries of region, class, race, and ethnicity"(1). But radio's national public voice was, since its birth in the late 1920s, inextricably tied to the production and circulation of racist representations of...