The imposter's war The press, propaganda, and the newsman who battled for the minds of America

Mark Arsenault

Book - 2022

The shocking history of the espionage and infiltration of American media during WWI and the man who exposed it. A man who was not who he claimed to be... Russia was not the first foreign power to subvert American popular opinion from inside. In the lead-up to America's entry into the First World War, Germany spent the modern equivalent of one billion dollars to infiltrate American media, industry, and government to undermine the supply chain of the Allied forces. If not for the ceaseless ac...tivity of John Revelstoke Rathom, editor of the scrappy Providence Journal, America may have remained committed to its position of neutrality. But Rathom emerged to galvanize American will, contributing to the conditions necessary for President Wilson to request a Declaration of War from Congress--all the while exposing sensational spy plots and getting German diplomats expelled from the U.S. And yet John Rathom was not even his real name. His swashbuckling biography was outrageous fiction. And his many acts of journalistic heroism, which he recounted to rapt audiences on nationwide speaking tours, never happened. Who then was this great, beloved, and ultimately tragic imposter? In The Imposter's War, Mark Arsenault unearths the truth about Rathom's origins and revisits a surreal and too-little-known passage in American history that reverberates today. The story of John Rathom encompasses the propaganda battle that set America on a course for war. He rose within the editorial ranks, surviving romantic scandals and combative rivals, eventually transitioning from an editor to a de facto spy. He brought to light the Huerta plot (in which Germany tried to push the United States and Mexico into a war) and helped to upend labor strikes organized by German agents to shut down American industry. Rathom was eventually brought low by an up-and-coming political star by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Arsenault tracks the rise and fall of this enigmatic figure, while providing the rich and fascinating context of Germany's acts of subterfuge through the early years of World War I. The Imposter's War is a riveting and spellbinding narrative of a flawed newsman who nevertheless changed the course of history.

Saved in:
Subjects
Genres
Biographies
Published
New York, NY : Pegasus Books, Ltd 2022.
Edition
First Pegasus Books cloth edition
Language
English
Physical Description
330 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9781643139364
1643139363
Main Author
Mark Arsenault (author)
  • The imposter
  • Bombs, bullets, and bad luck
  • Frostbite and dynamite
  • Birth of a sensation
  • The creation of John Revelstoke Rathom, part 1: from thin air
  • Spies, lies, allies
  • Transformation
  • Romancing the dictator
  • The creation of John Revelstoke Rathom, part 2: love, sex, and poison
  • Minister without portfolio
  • "Idiotic Yankees"
  • Good friends/high places
  • The creation of John Revelstoke Rathom, part 3: tried by fire
  • Shock & awe
  • Department of Judas
  • The only thing we have to smear
  • Kompromat
  • Out of character
  • Genesis of a lie.
Review by Booklist Reviews

John R. Rathom, editor of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, was one of the most ardent proponents of the U.S. entering World War I. His blockbuster stories of German subterfuge and sabotage in America made the Journal a top source of information, quoted by large and small newspapers across North America. The articles, however, were embellished to cast Rathom as a master spy hunter in addition to an investigative journalist, and the government intelligence agencies of the time as lax or incompetent. After WWI, his propensity for self promotion ran afoul of his sources, including Attorney General Thomas Gregory and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was publicly exposed as a fraud in both his professional and private lives, leading to a swift and complete downfall. In his first nonfiction book, Boston Globe reporter Arsenault not only resurrects Rathom and uncovers the surprising secret of his true background but also provides a complete sense of the world in which Rathom lived. Well researched and clearly written, this book provides insights into journalism and parts of American history that still resonate. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

In this superb debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Arsenault tells the stranger-than-fiction story of the efforts of John Rathom (1868–1923), the Australian-born editor of the Providence Journal, to shift American attitudes toward involvement in WWI. Rathom spent months exposing German covert operations in the U.S., documenting sabotage, campaigns to undermine industry and labor, and even a plot to incite a war with Mexico. In response to this relentless drumbeat, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the recall of two top-ranking German diplomats implicated in Rathom's accounts. But Rathom's fidelity to the truth was highly selective, and even his name was false. Digging both by the pro-German press and federal investigators exposed his unwarranted taking of credit for others' work and outright lies. Arsenault's own sleuthing details this remarkable character's entire life, even coming up with a convincing case for Rathom's real name and origins. His eye-opening account, which also covers a Navy scandal that could have derailed FDR's political career, is a valuable look at both the ethics of journalism that prioritizes the ends over the means and century-old antecedents for foreign propaganda disseminated as part of a sophisticated scheme. Not only those interested in the path that led the U.S. to enter WWI in 1917 will be enthralled. Agent: Michael Signorelli, Aevitas. (Apr.) Copyright 2022 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The shocking history of the espionage and infiltration of American media during WWI and the man who exposed it. A man who was not who he claimed to be...Russia was not the first foreign power to subvert American popular opinion from inside. In the lead-up to America’s entry into the First World War, Germany spent the modern equivalent of one billion dollars to infiltrate American media, industry, and government to undermine the supply chain of the Allied forces. If not for the ceaseless activity of John Revelstoke Rathom, editor of the scrappy Providence Journal, America may have remained committed to its position of neutrality. But Rathom emerged to galvanize American will, contributing to the conditions necessary for President Wilson to request a Declaration of War from Congress—all the while exposing sensational spy plots and getting German diplomats expelled from the U.S.And yet John Rathom was not even his real name. His swashbuckling biography was outrageous fiction. And his many acts of journalistic heroism, which he recounted to rapt audiences on nationwide speaking tours, never happened. Who then was this great, beloved, and ultimately tragic imposter?In The Imposter’s War, Mark Arsenault unearths the truth about Rathom’s origins and revisits a surreal and too-little-known passage in American history that reverberates today.The story of John Rathom encompasses the propaganda battle that set America on a course for war. He rose within the editorial ranks, surviving romantic scandals and combative rivals, eventually transitioning from an editor to a de facto spy. He brought to light the Huerta plot (in which Germany tied to push the United States and Mexico into a war) and helped to upend labor strikes organized by German agents to shut down American industry. Rathom was eventually brought low by an up-and-coming political star by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Arsenault tracks the rise and fall of this enigmatic figure, while providing the rich and fascinating context of Germany’s acts of subterfuge through the early years of World War I.The Imposter's War is a riveting and spellbinding narrative of a flawed newsman who nevertheless changed the course of history.