Review: Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I

A new book shows how a world war brought the United States into the modern communications age

Reviewed by Kieron B. Murphy

Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I

By Jonathan Reed Winkler
Harvard University Press, 2008;
358 pp.; US $55;
ISBN: 978-0-674-02839-5

An old saying, thought to date back to World War I, goes: ”The first casualty of war is truth.” This was never more true than during World War I.

Even by the standards of the Bush administration—which monitored hundreds of millions of phone calls at the height of its domestic spying—the extent to which the United States and such countries as the United Kingdom censored information and controlled wartime communications 90 years ago is shocking. It is the central theme of Jonathan Reed Winkler’s Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I.

Winkler, an assistant professor of history at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, won the 2008 Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Naval History Prize for this work on an aspect of military history that had hitherto received scant attention.

Winkler’s account of how control of communications around the world shaped the epic contest opens with a story from its very first hours. Minutes after it had declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the British government ordered a naval vessel in the English Channel to cut five submerged telegraph cables that linked its chief opponent to the rest of the planet. The morning of the first day of the conflict, much of Germany’s communications with its far-flung empire had been severed.

Unfortunately, insightful stories such as this are rare in Winkler’s survey. Overall, Nexus is a rather dry narrative, chiefly aimed at university historians and not for the average war buff. Still, there are some key insights, foremost among them a description of how British domination of global telegraph and radio networks, accompanied by heavy-handed censorship, irritated the United States so much that it aggressively pursued sophisticated new communications technologies. The resulting global infrastructure would come to place the United States strategically at the center of the world—a position that would be built upon and reasserted by the growth of the Internet.

Ironically, one of the first things the United States did with its enhanced communications assets, when it finally entered the war in 1917, was to embark on a strict censorship regimen. The Americans had learned a lesson the hard way, and they learned it from a rival—but an allied one, not an enemy.

About the Author

Kieron B. Murphy is a frequent contributor and blogger for IEEE Spectrum Online. Read his interview with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on the occasion of the moon landing’s 40th anniversary.

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