The Imposter’s War: The Press, Pro­pa­gan­da, and the News­man who Bat­tled for the Minds of America

September 1, 2021

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. And yet John Rath­om was not even his real name. 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. A riv­et­ing and spell­bind­ing nar­ra­tive of a flawed news­man who nev­er­the­less changed the course of history.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mark Arsenault

  1. Peo­ple, politi­cians and cor­po­ra­tions are con­stant­ly bom­bard­ing us with pro­pa­gan­da to affect how we think …Tide cleans bet­ter… Pep­si beats Coke … My oppo­nent in this elec­tion is a crook …. How do we process pro­pa­gan­da in our own lives? Are we aware of its effect? Does hid­den source gray pro­pa­gan­da” ever appear in what we view online?

  2. Tak­ing Rathom’s life as a whole, was he a hero or a vil­lain? What about Wern­er Horn, the bridge bomber? Was Horn a patri­ot or a criminal?

  3. Ear­ly in his jour­nal­ism career, Rath­om was a grifter and an extor­tion­ist. Did his moral char­ac­ter improve through­out his life? Did it get worse?

  4. News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines had a monop­oly on news in Rathom’s time. We have many more choic­es for infor­ma­tion today, but is the coun­try, on the whole, bet­ter informed?

  5. What was the impact of the two main women in Rathom’s life, Mary and Flo­rence? What was it that these two intel­li­gent, inde­pen­dent and well-edu­cat­ed women saw in the Aussie imposter?

  6. Is there an indi­vid­ual in pub­lic life today who could be con­sid­ered a mod­ern equiv­a­lent of John Rathom?

  7. How did your opin­ion of John Rath­om change over the course of the book?

  8. Rath­om was care­ful to leave almost no evi­dence of his for­mer life. Do you think he reject­ed his reli­gious tra­di­tions, or did he mere­ly hide them to avoid reli­gious bigotry?

  9. Rath­om obit­u­ar­ies in 1923 gen­er­al­ly includ­ed lies from Rathom’s made-up biog­ra­phy, while soft ped­al­ing his fall from grace. What would be an accu­rate open­ing line of a John Rath­om obituary?