What is the track record of the press since Lippmann’s day? In “City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington” (Chicago), Kathryn J. McGarr weighs the performance of the Washington press corps during the first decades of the Cold War. She shows, by examining archived correspondence, that reporters in Washington knew perfectly well that Administrations were misleading them about national-security matters—about whether the United States was flying spy planes over the Soviet Union, for example, or training exiles to invade Cuba and depose Fidel Castro. To the extent that there was an agenda concealed by official claims of “containing Communist expansion”—to the extent that Middle East policy was designed to preserve Western access to oil fields, or that Central American policy was designed to make the region safe for United Fruit—reporters were not fooled.
So why didn’t they report what they knew? McGarr, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thinks it’s because the people who covered Washington for the wire services and the major dailies had an ideology. They were liberal internationalists. Until the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam—the Marines waded ashore there in 1965—that was the ideology of American élites. Like the government, and like the leaders of philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation and cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, newspaper people believed in what they saw as the central mission of Cold War policy: the defense of the North Atlantic community of nations. They supported policies that protected and promoted the liberal values in the name of which the United States had gone to war against Hitler.
Many members of the Washington press, including editors and publishers, had served in the government during the Second World War—in the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), in the Office of War Information, and in other capacities in Washington and London. They had been part of the war effort, and their sense of duty persisted after the war ended. Defending democracy was not just the government’s job. It was the press’s job, too.
There was another reason for caution: fear of nuclear war. After the Soviets developed an atomic weapon, in 1949, and until the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, end-of-the-world nuclear anxiety was widespread, and newsmen shared it. The Cold War was a balance-of-power war. That’s what the unofficial doctrine of the American government, “containment,” meant: keep things as they are. Whatever tipped the scale in the wrong direction might unleash the bomb, and so newspapers were careful about what they published.