Joel R. Davidson, Armchair Warriors: Private Citizens, Popular Press, and the Rise of American Power, Naval Institute Press, 2008. 316 pp., notes, works cited, index.
Review by Stephen Badsey
University of Wolverhampton
The relationship between public opinion, the mass media, and military power in a modern democracy is a particularly complex one, especially in the case of the United States, and is an understandable preoccupation among historians at present. Both in his title and his introduction, this author promises his readers some kind of discussion or analysis of this relationship and its associated issues. In fact he has produced a book on a quite different subject, although still one that provides interest, and has some merit.
Starting with the Spanish-American War and ending with the U.S. emergence as a world superpower in the aftermath of World War II, this is an anthology of letters sent by private citizens throughout the United States to various government and military officials and politicians, from the President downwards, expressing opinions and offering suggestions on the wars and defense issues of the day. The great majority of these letters were never made public in any form, and although the author supplements them with occasional newspaper and magazine editorials, any connection that most of them might have with the popular press is indirect at best. The resulting collection of the writings of cranks, crackpots, racial and political bigots, busybodies, and inventors of the miracle weapon that will win the war, certainly has its entertainment value, but it is difficult to judge how far these individual letters might be representative of more widely held opinions, and the author offers his readers no guidance on this issue. Instead, he provides the briefest of linking passages, and a little general popular historical context; this is very much the work of the historian as copy-typist.
In 1917, Scientific American magazine, which the author notes had volunteered to screen letters on how to defeat the U-Boats for the Naval Consulting Board, found that the overwhelming majority fell into five categories: ideas that had already been adopted, ideas that were old and discarded, the mechanically or scientifically impossible, the possible but inexpedient, and ideas that would defeat one aim in achieving another. Similarly, almost all the letters published in this book reveal only their writer’s lack of any grasp of politics, strategy or military technology, together with quite often a ruthless willingness to tear down civilization in order to hurt the enemy of the moment. Inevitably, there are letters predicting an attack on Pearl Harbor, or reflecting some future (or existing and secret) military development, or postulating a strategy that merited serious consideration at the time.
It is noteworthy how real the idea seemed to some people in 1940-41 that a defeated Great Britain might surrender its fleet to Germany, and the threat that this would then pose to the United States. One rare gem in the collection is the suggestion in 1941 to the National Inventors Council from the behaviourist B.F. Skinner that a pre-conditioned bird in a transparent nosecone could be used to steer a bomb onto its target. But otherwise the author’s initial assertion, that these letters disprove the idea of a supine public passively following the war news given to them by their government, and represent instead evidence of a dynamic interplay between government, press and public at war, will be something for another and very different book to prove or not.