American Ascendant Cover

American Ascendant

The Rise of American Exceptionalism

Dennis M. Spragg

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2019, 432 pages

Book Review published on: August 14, 2020

Dennis Spragg examines the turbulent period of World War II when media and the government formed an alliance in promoting the concept of American exceptionalism to galvanize American support and support the Allied war effort while demoralizing Axis forces.

Spragg opens with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and events that followed in the United States becoming an independent country. He argues that the United States is an exceptional nation that transcends region, race, and religion; and that events in America’s history have defined what American exceptionalism is and how it transformed the United States from its independence from Great Britain to a global superpower. He describes the transition of the United States during World War II from isolation to intervention and, finally, to an active player role on the international stage.

America Ascendant: The Rise of American Exceptionalism describes the herculean effort to persuade a domestic audience of the noble cause in defeating fascism while demoralizing the enemy and influencing neutral audiences. The U.S. government was successful in the recruiting of prominent personalities from entertainment, news, and marketing in creating America’s information effort to win the war. There was fear that the National Association of Broadcasters was the government nationalizing radio and suspending free speech. Other issues included concerns of balancing military secrecy and the right of the American public to know information. One of the more major challenges faced by the Office of War Information was the subject of the Soviet Union. While Americans wanted the Soviets to defeat Nazi Germany, it was difficult for many Americans to embrace an atheist and communist ally. Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote Mission to Moscow at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in hopes of encouraging support for the Soviet common cause against Nazi Germany. The Warner Brothers film that followed with the same name received criticism for whitewashing Joseph Stalin’s bloody purges of the 1930s, falsely making it appear that Stalin was stamping out a Nazi conspiracy.

A major event for the Allied information war effort in Europe was the activation on 13 February 1944 of the Public Relations and Psychological Warfare Division in the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force. The division was commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert McClure and was responsible for the coordination of all Allied information and psychological warfare activities. These two activities would become separate divisions on 13 April 1944 with McClure in charge of the Psychological Warfare Division. McClure realized the importance of being consistent and truthful in messages targeting both German troops and civilians. He developed an effective psychological warfare campaign that stressed Allied superiority in manpower and equipment, impossibility of a German victory, impossible nature of a two-front war, weakness of the Luftwaffe, and the idea that German soldiers had performed their duty and could surrender with honor. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower credited Allied psychological warfare activities with shortening the war and saving lives on both sides.

One of the more interesting psychological warfare activities was Operation Annie. McClure’s Psychological Warfare Division used Radio Luxembourg to broadcast as a German radio station originating in Germany to broadcast selected messages to German audiences with the intent to demoralize German troops and the populace. The Germans countered with Radio Arnhem that broadcasted actual recordings of Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme with fake news presentations.

In mid-1944, it was realized that war-weary Americans would need to stay engaged with the world once the war ended. As a result, Darryl Zanuck and Fox created a motion picture called Wilson, which premiered 1 August 1944 and was based on Woodrow Wilson and intended to set the stage for a new American-led world order. Eisenhower’s interest in international messaging led to the establishment of the United States Information Agency on 1 August 1953. The United States Information Agency and the Voice of America played a prominent role providing information and entertainment to audiences around the world during the Cold War.

The strength of America Ascendant is Spragg’s exceptional prose and style. It is simply hard to put down. His exhaustive research of both primary and secondary sources provides a comprehensive look of the Axis defeat from many perspectives. The work is highly readable and may be the most comprehensive examination of America’s public diplomacy efforts during World War II to date. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas