Aaron Noble is a Senior Historian and Curator at the New York State Museum and the coauthor (with Robert Weible and Jennifer A. Lemak) of An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War, also published by SUNY Press. Keith Swaney is an Archives and Records Management Specialist at the New York State Archives. Vicki Weiss is a librarian in the manuscripts and special collections unit of the New York State Library and the coauthor (with Paul Mercer) of The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911.
During the opening months of the war, governments attempted to influence public opinion functioned in a largely negative fashion, for example, the censoring of military information or criticisms of government policies. There was little effort to provide a positive message to sway readers. As a result, newspapers had a relatively free hand in justifying the war and the reasons for their respective nation's involvement. Partisan politics was a staple of the pre-war press; thus, newspapers could and did define the war in terms that reflected their own political ideals and agenda. Conservative, liberal, and socialist newspapers all largely supported the war (the ones that did not were shut down immediately), but they did so for different reasons and hoped for different outcomes if their side was victorious.
In September 1914, twenty-five of Britain's most distinguished authors met under the chairmanship of C.F.G. Masterman, head of the war propaganda bureau, to discuss how they could assist the Allied effort. They included such prominent figures as H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, John Buchan, Edith Wharton and Henry James. In The Great War of Words Peter Buitenhuis tells the hitherto unknown story of the secret collaboration between leading writers and the government. He examines the propaganda books and articles they wrote -- and also the work of those opposed to the war, such as G.B. Shaw and Bertrand Russell.
The official line was the the 'urbane' French and the 'decent' British had to defend civilization against the savagery of the invading 'Huns'. However, after the war, many writers became deeply embittered about the Allied propaganda machine and their role in it. There was a growing conviction that too many lies had been told and that in propagating Allied myths, they had sacrificed the all-important detachment of the writer. Buitenhuis chronicles both the disillusionment of the former propagandists and the reaction against their elders by younger writers, many of whom had served in the trenches. The consequences for post-war literature were profound: the prestige and power of authorship dwindled significantly, while the old rhetoric based on a widely held consensus collapsed and was replaced by lean, ironic and often understated modes of writing.