'Packaging American Wars': how propaganda machines work

The seed of a fine programming idea, planted in Virginia, is being offered to PBS-affiliated stations nationally this week. With a bit more broadening, the show has international implications.

Packaging American Wars (PBS, Friday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings), produced by the Blue Ridge ETV Association in Roanoke, Va., is a fine example of the kind of innovative regional programming which today's PBS seems to be encouraging more and more. The idea of a special on the development of wartime propaganda is an excellent one, and the results are interesting, if a bit loosely presented.

Charles McDowell, Washington correspondent of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, narrates, with help from several wartime propaganda experts and academics. There are fascinating film clips from newsreels and propaganda films of the past 50 years. But the documentary limits its scope unnecessarily, tracing war propaganda only from World War I forward.

World War II veterans will be particularly interested in the straightforwardly earnest examples from the ''Why We Fight'' series, which every GI was required to see. Pacific war veterans may be surprised to hear the bitingly satiric routines of ''Tokyo Rose,'' an example of the Axis propaganda shown sporadically on this show about American propaganda.

The documentary presentation is followed by a bland, blessedly brief panel discussion. One of the panelists, however, gave this viewer a jolt of recognition when he casually suggested that the great change in future war propaganda may come in the timing: With the advent of nuclear warfare, the propaganda may, of necessity, be limited to preparation for war. There may be nobody left to propagandize after the war has begun.

''Packaging American Wars'' is a thought-provoking beginning to what, one hopes, will soon evolve into an international discussion. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, which funded this program, is to be congratulated for giving the concept its initial impetus.

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