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March 01, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN \f7

Television and the Red Menace: The Video Road to Vietnam, J. Fred MacDonald (Praeger: $15). TV and the atomic bomb are perhaps the most evocative artifacts of 1940s technology. The Bomb warned "stay away," replacing the nationalism and imperialism that prevailed before World War II with nationalism and isolationism. TV was initially seen as doing just the opposite. It was, NBC's Niles Trammel proclaimed in 1950, "a mighty weapon" that shows "the "commonality of mankind . . . the essential human understanding that all people share." Only weeks later, however, Trammel's boss, David Sarnoff (then the chairman of the board of NBC's parent company, RCA) insisted that TV must be used to "expose (Soviet) lies, spike (Soviet) propaganda" and celebrate the values of America's "heartland."

Sarnoff's sentiments prevailed, Fred MacDonald tells us, first through dramas underscoring the importance of order and obedience, then through "happy democratic military sitcoms" and finally through a timid TV news media that--in the early years of the Vietnam War--conveyed only vague government rationalizations of why we were in Vietnam, such as "national honor" and "keeping our word to our friends who have invited us into their country." MacDonald's argument that the news media helped get us into the war is unusual, but his conclusion is familiar: Vietnam brought out a healthy skepticism in the media, one that is now at work enlightening us about Central America and the Middle East. Unfortunately, MacDonald's conclusion is too simplistic to capture the complex video revolution chronicled in his book. TV, in fact, is still trying to reconcile conflicting pressures to be both sympathetic and skeptical and is still fond of reporting vague government rationalizations rather than geostrategic realities.

The Language of Nuclear War: An Intelligent Citizen's Dictionary, Eric Semler, James Benjamin, Adam Gross (Harper & Row: $9.95). When creating an apolitical dictionary about a very political subject, the temptation is to reflect official rhetoric rather than explain underlying concepts. These editors, however, have managed to avoid superficial definitions while still steering clear of partisan politics. Despite the military's reputation for understatement, the terms described here suggest that "Nuclear-speak" is far more blunt than we might think: The area affected by an A-Bomb, for instance, is called the "kill radius," while a group of attacking weapons and decoys is dubbed a "Threat Cloud." Some terms--such as the "nth country problem"--are deeply disturbing nevertheless. The "nth Country" is the latest nation to acquire nuclear weapons, and the "problem" refers to the possibility that "as more and more countries join the nuclear club, a point will be reached when nuclear war is inevitable."

Isles of Illusion, Asterisk (David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vt. 05053: $13.95); Six Months in Hawaii, Isabella Bird (Metheun Inc., Routledge & Kegan Paul: $14.95). Both of these authors crossed the gangway in search of lotus-land and in flight from stuffy British customs--Asterisk in 1912, Isabella Bird in the 1870s. Both also endured the tumultuous sea storm so often found in travel adventures. The similarities end here, however, for Isabella Bird explores her island with a free spirit and an open mind, while Asterisk is plaintive and unhappy--undoubtedly the reason he used a pseudonym. Compare Asterisk's reaction to a mid-Atlantic gale--"If this is adventure, then God grant me a humdrum life"--to Bird's struggle to survive a near-shipwreck: "It was a long, weird . . . invigorating day."

Bird was an adventurer in her own country as well, studying botany, chemistry and biology, writing for several scholarly periodicals and attempting to help Edinburgh slum-dwellers. The social stigma of being rebellious rather than docile and "feminine" brought on depression, insomnia and back trouble, however, and so her trip was prompted by desperation, not curiousity. Because her travels served as an escape, Bird tells us more about horseback riding, hiking, sailing and camping than about herself, though a short biography at the book's beginning indicates that she didn't marry until she was 49. So, ultimately, while Bird's descriptions are glowing and sometimes magical, Asterisk is the more racy writer. For all his bigotry--"the natives on many of the islands are dangerous cannibals, and they are all as ugly as sin"--he is frank about his hopes and failures, possessing, as John Gavin writes in the introduction, "a gritty, self-flagellating honesty." Asterisk also has a sense of humor that prevents the book from becoming oppressive. "You have no idea how horrid flying-foxes are," he complains. "I am quite sure that they are the souls of journalists."

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