- Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion, 1950–1953
Steven Casey's Selling the Korean War is an exquisitely documented and exceptionally detailed chronological narrative of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations' domestic propaganda campaign aimed at popularizing the Korean War in the United States. Casey principally relies on published as well as unpublished official documents from the presidential libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration. This is not a book about the Korean War in the sense that it is not about Korea or the Koreans, and neither is it an examination of American strategic leadership or policy. Other historians and political scientists have already laid a solid foundation for American archives-based scholarship on U.S. policy making for Korea and the Korean War, including Donald S. MacDonald, Bruce Cumings, and William W. Stueck. To the existing historiography, Casey adds the complex story of how the U.S. government exercised the "power to mold, manipulate, and control media coverage" in wartime (p. 13). By successfully convincing [End Page 558] the American public of the necessity of intervention as well as the global Cold War implications, the Truman administration was able to pass NSC-68, indefinitely committing the nation to militancy and nearly quadrupling U.S. defense spending. Even after the war quickly turned into an interminable stalemate, the Truman administration was able to consistently maintain enough public support for the war that even the first Republican presidential victory in twenty years did not herald a change in foreign policy regarding the Korean War, because most Republicans had stopped criticizing the Democrats' handling of the war before the 1952 elections.
In fits and starts, the U.S. executive branch learned to effectively censor and appropriate the otherwise discursive and potentially critical media to instead disseminate "official facts" of the government's changing goals, needs, and limits throughout the war (p. 15). Casey's narrative begins with Truman telling reporters "Don't make it alarmist" after being informed of the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 (p. 20), and "after more than three years and 140,000 American casualties," the narrative ends with Eisenhower lowering American expectations of the 1953 armistice to the point that "restrained … relief" became an acceptable substitute for victory (p. 356). Casey claims that without "censorship and proper guidance" by the government during the initial period of the war, the media became critical of the military, fueling mutual resentment. On the other hand, completely restricting access, for instance, during intermittent periods of crisis, created an official "information vacuum" that led reporters to print either their own speculations or criticism from the opposition party (p. 360). Effectively coopting the media required the establishment and coordination of public information offices (PIOs) within the various organs of government and branches of the military that manipulated a delicate balance of imposing restriction and offering access.
Casey introduces a peculiar ideal of "objectivity" as it was understood and embraced by journalists at the time. "'Objectivity' did not mean the absence of bias; rather, it was a series of journalistic practices that entailed distancing the reporter from the story, normally by basing it around hard evidence," which often referred to "official facts" produced by the government (p. 14). Casey points out the irony of "the media's basic lack of interest in a country America was ostensibly fighting to defend" (p. 350). Throughout the narrative, Casey evaluates the effectiveness of the government's ability to control the information reaching the American public and provides a detailed and dispassionate account of the machinations of the interplay between government [End Page 559] branches and departments, rival political parties, and the press corps. The Truman administration was ultimately successful in convincing Americans that U.S. intervention was absolutely necessary, not for the Koreans, in whom Casey points out Americans generally had no sincere interest, but for the survival of the United States. But was this, is this, a historical certainty? Was the Syngman Rhee regime worth defending? The American public could not...