Gerl On Her Research on Collier's Magazine Covering the Cold War

16 Aug 2017 10:04 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

Editor’s Note: Ohio University Prof. Ellen Gerl presented her research-in-progress, “Operation Eggnog: Collier's 1951 Narrative Issue Takes on the Cold War,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Prof. Gerl to tell us more about how and why she started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for herself and our field.

By Prof. Ellen Gerl

I came across Collier’s special October 27, 1951, issue, “Preview of the War We Do Not Want,” while looking for examples of nuclear doomsday narratives. I planned to expand some previous research on the St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information, a group whose newsletter story about their city post nuclear bombing was picked up in the Saturday Review and other national media. But I dropped that research idea. The Collier’s issue was just too interesting: three hundred pages of fact-filled reportage about a hypothetical World War III; bylines of Edward R. Murrow, Red Smith, Marguerite Higgins and others; and the in-house codename Operation Eggnog. Although a secret code name was reason enough to investigate, I also noticed that the issue’s editor was Cornelius Ryan, who would go on to write the non-fiction bestseller The Longest Day and whose papers happened to be located at Ohio University, my academic home.  

Unfortunately, my elation over visiting an archive that didn’t require travel funds was short-lived. The collection lacked material from Ryan’s tenure at Collier’s. But Crowell-Collier Publishing Company correspondence held at the New York Public Library’s archives showed how editorial staff shaped the issue. Over ten months, Ryan traveled to Europe and across the United States to cajole writers to participate. At their New York offices, editors debated how the fake war would start, who should write about women, and whether they might convince Winston Churchill to pen a story. In all, the magazine spent an extra $40,000 on articles, sold double a normal issue’s advertising and printed an extra half million copies. 

Historian Frank Luther Mott wrote that the magazine’s “motives were patriotic,” and letters I read indicated that the U. S. State Department unofficially supported the project. It also seems some Collier’s editors disliked the U. S. policy of containment, favoring a conquer communism head-on strategy. The editors’ note in the front of the issue described their big, and not-very humble, goals: “(1) to warn the evil masters of the Russian people that their vast conspiracy to enslave humanity is the dark downhill road to WW III; (2) to sound a powerful call for reason and understanding between the peoples of the West and East--before it’s too late; (3) to demonstrate that if The War We Do Not Want is forced upon us, we will win.”

Robert E. Sherwood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former director of the Office of War Information, wrote the issue’s introductory article. When he turned in his manuscript, he commented to editors that he thought his piece should be “coldly factual as possible,” not sensational, so that the reader would think: “God this is it! This is precisely what can happen.” 

My IALJS presentation focused on the markers of literary journalism within the issue such as concrete details, cinematic scenes and emotional appeals. The issue also raised the question of what role truthiness plays in “hybrid” texts that mix facts and fiction. Scholar Annjeanette Wiese’s work was helpful here. I also discussed the mechanism of transportation in literary narratives, that is, the extent to which readers’ beliefs are affected when they become lost in a text. I found recent work on transportation and persuasion by researchers Timothy C. Brock, Melanie Green and Karen Dill fascinating on this subject.

Overall, I suspect that readers did not suspend belief as much as they wanted to believe that democracy would always prevail. 

I am uncertain where to take this research next, but there’s much here to mine: Cold War propaganda, ethical issues, 1950s-style fake news. I’d be interested to hear from AJHA members who are Cold War media historians, which I am not. 

The only disappointing research finding? The codename Operation Eggnog, the editors noted, was just a meaningless moniker for “easy office identification.”


Prof. Gerl is Associate Professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University.

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