World War 2 Propaganda


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American Studies Research Paper

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As the United States entered World War II, the American government needed to make sure the entire country was marching in step with the war effort. The government created the Office of War Information (OWI) to coordinate the propaganda created for Americans. In addition to the government, many private companies reassigned their advertising departments to produce propaganda to help the war effort. These departments focused on increasing production at the nations’ firms. In fact, some of the most memorable propaganda, such as Rosie the Riveter, was not produced by the government. In Hollywood, the film industry worked with the OWI to produce movies to increase morale and spread information about the war. The goal of most of the propaganda was to mobilize the home front and build support for the war. America’s productive capacity was one of the leading factors why America was able to win World War II.

Before 1942 the government split the task of providing information to the public between many different agencies: the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, the Office of Emergency Management’s Department of Information, and the Office of Co-Ordinator of Information. On June 13, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of War Information to consolidate the different agencies tasked with "disseminat[ing] general public information on the war effort." FDR appointed Elmer Davis to head the new agency. The OWI gathered data and controlled the release of news to the American people, emphasizing the importance of the war and why we needed to win. The agency had an annual budget of $25 million and employed 30,000 people. The OWI coordinated the press, as well as the film and radio industries to provide consistent information about the war to the American people. The agency had two purposes: to glorify the war and to tell Americans why their sacrifices were necessary. At first the agency tried to truthfully represent the war, but later as the war grew direr, the OWI presented more slanted information.

The OWI was not without problems or critics however. Davis had to fight with military leaders who did not like the work the OWI was doing. In addition, many Congressmen thought that the OWI was too pro-Roosevelt, especially with the 1944 election approaching. In 1943, Congress cut the OWI’s funding, stopping most of its programs on the home front. After the war, many accused the OWI of harboring Communists, perhaps because of its connection with Hollywood or the fact that Elmer Davis spoke out against McCarthyism.

One of the OWI’s projects was Frank Capra’s series of films called Why We Fight. These films give background information on the war and warn about the danger of the imperialistic Axis. The course was designed to be shown to new Army recruits to replace the old and dull "Army Orientation Course." The film was created on a tight budget by putting together footage from captured enemy propaganda, old movies, and newly created animated maps. Capra drew inspiration from the Nazi film Triumph of Will. At first, the film was only supposed to be shown to soldiers. However, Roosevelt and Churchill wanted the films to be shown to the general public. The films revolutionized documentary film making and military training methods. For his service, Frank Capra was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The first film in Why We Fight, Prelude to War starts out by presenting the United States as the "free world" which has a long history of freedom set by religious and political documents. It then contrasts this with a world of slavery led by a "rabble-rouser," Adolf Hitler, who is out for his own selfish interests. The people in this slave world gave up their individualism to allow their governments to pursue imperialistic pursuits. In addition, the governments of these countries controlled all of the news sources and filled them with propaganda. The film included images of the Nazis defacing churches and children marching and saluting Hitler. The film then goes into how America faced the Depression differently than Italy and Germany did. The goal of the film was to differentiate America from the Axis countries and explain the problems with the Axis ideologies.

Wartime posters tried to use the advertising techniques of the time to sell the idea that the factory and home were arenas of war and that the factory workers and families were vital to the war’s success. The posters tried to explain to the people why their sacrifices of consumer goods were necessary, as well as try to create a culture which would help the war. For example, the government reminded Americans that "loose lips sink ships," as the enemy was just around the corner. The posters brought the war home, as unlike Britain, the United States themselves, were not bombed or on the front lines.

Posters were used since they were simple and made with silk-screen technology to be quickly reproduced. The WPA even published a handbook, How to Make and Reproduce Posters, which declared that "anyone can make a poster." The posters would be put in places that traditional advertising did not reach, such as schools, factories, offices, and store windows. The OWI even conducted surveys in factories to test worker’s impressions of new posters.

Private firms also made posters, even outnumbering the amount of official government-issued posters. Manufactures used posters and the war effort to get employees to "suspend union rules, abandon traditional work patterns, and make sacrifices in the name of patriotism." S. D. Warren Company even published a catalog of posters that they sold to business to encourage workers to increase production. The government also urged "joint labor-management coordinating committees" to work together to increase morale and to resolve issues between labor and management. General Motor’s poster "Together We Can Do It" exemplifies this. The posters also tried to paint workers as "production soldiers," for example in "Wear it Proudly." Some posters encouraged workers to ask their supervisors if the had any questions ("Any Questions about York Work? Ask Your Supervisor!"). Others suggested that wasting time was hurting Americans ("Kiling Time Is Killing Men"). All of the posters tried to get Americans to work harder and longer at their jobs, in order to support the war effort.

One of the most well-known symbols during the war was Rosie the Riveter. One of the most recognizable posters of "Rosie" was, and still is today, We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse War Production Co-Ordinating Committee. Rosie made it seem patriotic for women to work outside the house. Women filled the jobs of men who left to fight the war. With the help of the Rosie images, more than 6 million women joined the workforce. After the war, Rosie became a symbol of feminism and women’s economic roles in the workplace.

Posters frequently used stereotypical images of the enemy giving instructions to workers telling them to work slower. For example in "Thanks for Loafing, Pal!," Hitler thanks an American worker for slacking. These posters tried to get Americans to reject this possibility by working harder.

Posters also idolized America’s streets, families, optimism, and standards of living. These posters tried to remind Americans what they were fighting for.

Others tried to show the grim realities of a war at home. For example, "Dear God, Keep Them Safe!" by the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company shows two school children wearing gas masks. These posters attempted to get workers to work harder to avoid this possibility.

However the design of posters was not free of conflict. Two groups at the OWI clashed over the design of posters. One group liked the "war art" style featuring stylized symbols and images. Francis Brennan, who was the former art director of Fortune Magazine, wanted posters to combine the sophisticated style of contemporary art with the promotion of war aims. For example, "Strong in the Strength of the Lord," used artwork combined with an abstract message of supporting "the cause". Another group, which had worked in the advertising industry, wanted the government’s posters to resemble advertisements. These posters tried to combine the messages of sacrifice with the smiling faces and carefree households found in advertising. In the United States, the advertisement style was seen more often.

The government also sought to control Hollywood and the movie industry. Before the war, the government was trying to get Hollywood to cut back on the interventionalist tone of movies, since the US government was trying to play an isolationist role. However after the war started, the OWI guided the movie industry in glorifying the war, the men who served in it, and the American home front which supported the troops. The OWI created the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) which had offices in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles.

At the start of the war, the OWI asked filmmakers to think about 7 questions as they made movies:

  • Will this picture help win the war?
  • What war information problem does it seek to clarify, dramatize, or interpret?
  • If it is an "escape" picture, will it harm the war effort by creating a false picture of America, her allies, or the world we live in?
  • Does it merely use the war as the basis for a profitable picture, contributing nothing of real significance to the war effort and possibly lessening the effect of other pictures of more importance?
  • Does it contribute something new to our understanding of the world conflict and the various forces involved, or has the subject already been adequately covered?
  • When the picture reaches its maximum circulation on the screen, will it reflect conditions as they are and fill a need current at that time, or will it be out-dated?
  • Does the picture tell the truth or will the young people of today have reason to say they were misled by propaganda?

The OWI at the start of the war wanted to represent the war truthfully. Thus, the last question was important for them. However, as the war became bogged down, the OWI instructed Hollywood to produce more symbolic and one-sided films. The BMP reviewed over 1,650 movie scripts during the war. Their recommendations ranged from adding a few lines of inspirational dialogue to recommending that the movie be withheld until after the war.

Hollywood also helped to boost morale in America with movies portraying idealistic middle class families who managed well through the pressures of family, working, and rations. Movies such as Joe Smith, American portrayed hardworking Americans doing their duty by working and not leaking secrets to the enemy.

Hollywood produced light-hearted song and dance movies to get American’s mind off of the war, at least for the length of the movie. Such movies include Holiday Inn, and Stage Door Canteen. Other movies also helped Americans remember what they were fighting for with nostalgia films portraying turn-of-the century life. Meet Me In St. Louis and Life With Father serve as examples of these films.

Americans in the Gilded Age followed Hollywood celebrities and yearned to be like them. Hollywood celebrities supported the war by putting on USO shows, or even enlisting in the military themselves. Others appeared in advertisements and publicity tours to sell war bonds and promote scrap drives.

The BMP also produced documentary films for showings at schools, churches, and other community venues. Films like Why We Fight and the Autobiography of a Jeep explained the war effort to the American people and got them to connect with it. The OWI also produced 52 short films as part of the American Speaks series. About half of the films were written by OWI staff, while Hollywood screenwriters wrote the other half. By January of 1943, 4.7 million people had watched 31,000 showings of BWI films.

In order to save food for the troops, and keep prices down, the government encouraged people to plant "victory gardens." Victory gardens were vegetable gardens planted in people’s backyards, vacant lots, parks, schoolyards, and even baseball fields. Almost 20 million Americans were involved in the maintenance of a victory garden, and the gardens produced up to 40% of the food Americans consumed. In order to encouraging the planting of victory gardens, the OWI printed posters encouraging victory gardening. These posters presented gardening as a communal affair and a civic duty. In addition, magazines like Good Housekeeping and Better Home & Gardens, seed companies, and the government published pamphlets and instruction manuals to help those who had no experience with gardening. A good sized garden was supposed to feed a family for the summer, with the excess canned using home canning equipment for the winter.

During World War II, the government and private industry went all out for the war. They organized information campaigns in order to maximize production of needed war goods and minimize the home front’s use of goods. In addition, the campaigns told Americans why they were fighting and kept morale up by providing distractions. They reminded the people of what would happen if America lost the war or had to fight it at home. They provided this information through a variety of mediums, most notably posters and movies. However, the information campaigns did not last long. Many were shut down or curtailed as the US was winning the war because Congress did not like how close the government or industry was working together or thought that the advertisements were too political. In all, the propaganda helped the American home front be one of the most productive of the war, allowing America and its allies to defeat the Axis powers.



  • OWI
  • Why We Fight
  • Posters
  • Movies
  • Victory Gardens

At First

  • Basics and OWI
  • Reasons and Importance
  • Types and Artistic Styles
    • 7 questions evaluating movies
  • Causes Advocated for
  • Effects