The debate over US involvement in World War II was a turning point in the history of both US foreign policy and radio. In this book the author argues that the debate’s historical significance cannot be fully appreciated unless these stories are understood in relation rather than in isolation.
All the participants in the Great Debate took for granted the importance of radio and made it central to their efforts. While they generally worked within radio’s rules, they also tried to work around or even break those rules, setting the stage for changes that ultimately altered the way media managed American political discourse.
This study breaks with traditional accounts that see radio as an industry biased in favor of interventionism. Rather, radio fully aired the opposing positions in the debate. It nonetheless failed to resolve fully their differences. Despite the initial enthusiasm for radio’s educational potential, participants on both sides came to doubt their conviction that radio could change minds. Radio increasingly became a tool to rally existing supporters more than to recruit new ones. Only events ended the debate over US involvement in World War II. The larger question—of what role the US should play in world affairs—remained.
Mark S. Byrnes is professor in the Department of History at Wofford College.
Chapter 1: “A Democracy of the Air”
Chapter 2: “Getting Away with the Selling of Time”
Chapter 3: “A Program of Radio Education”
Chapter 4: “Radio is the most effective medium for reaching the people”
Chapter 5: “Arsenal of Democracy”?
Chapter 6: “Popular Screen Stars of Hollywood”
Chapter 7: “Some Machinery for Propaganda”
Chapter 8: “Radio: Intervention’s Trump”
Chapter 9: Commentators: “The Public Decides”
Chapter 10: The Great Debate’s Debates
Chapter 11: “The Masquerade is Over”
Chapter 12: “A Moral Force” or “A Gargantuan Jest”?
Chapter 13: “Now the Mask is Off”
Mark Byrnes has given us a new and imaginative take on the Great Debate before Pearl Harbor, about US involvement in the European war against Hitler’s Germany. Roosevelt’s mastery of radio for communicating with the American people, prompted anti-interventionists (cleverly labeled isolationists by FDR) to conclude that a government conspiracy prevented them from getting their arguments out to the public. When polls showed large majorities for intervention, isolationists "blamed one, ubiquitous scapegoat: radio.” Byrnes demonstrates otherwise. This book is an historical primer for assessing the role of media in today’s politics.