History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
During World War II, it was a common sight in the U.S. to see brightly colored posters warning that “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” imploring men to “Defend Your Country,” and encouraging women to join the effort at home as “We Can’t Win Without Them.” These paper relics continue to intrigue us today, but what many overlook is that they are vestiges of the U.S. propaganda machine.
It took just over two years—and a deadly push from the Japanese—for the U.S. to join World War II. But once Roosevelt had committed the country to fighting on the side of the Allies, he needed to make sure every citizen was on board. He needed an information campaign.
The result was a thriving government department dedicated to propaganda. Along with radio and the visual arts, films produced in collaboration with Hollywood were created to emphasize the successes—and only the successes—of the Allied soldiers fighting abroad. They also targeted American women who the country desperately needed to join the workforce.
Videos like this one from 1944—the 25th film produced by the U.S. War Department— encouraged women to give up their frivolous pursuits, like shopping, and engage in making warplanes and ammunition instead. The films featured overly dramatic plots, like a captured Adolf Hitler expressing his regrets, and a poor old maid getting saved from loneliness by a newfound dedication to the cause (and their new “family of ten million to look after”). What American gal could resist the call of Uncle Sam?
Propaganda Hour with Uncle Sam
On June 13, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9182, which established the Office of War Information (OWI)—the government division responsible for all wartime propaganda. Elmer Davis, a former journalist and CBS radio host, ran the OWI, which oversaw all of the radio, film, news reporting, and visual art created to buoy the war effort—or at least the public perception of the war effort—both abroad and at home.
“The propaganda was run by an old newspaperman,” Paul Fussell, a WWII veteran and author of the memoir Doing Battlesaid. “He ran the propaganda thing just the way Goebbels did in Germany. And nothing was ever said that reflected ill of the war effort or the troops fighting it or the ships sunk. And so on. Everything was gung ho and nice and we were going to win, ultimately.”
“Propaganda” was not a term that the U.S. government embraced. But regardless of what they called it, the government launched an information campaign aided by everyone from the Hollywood establishment. This included a close collaboration with the Walt Disney company, as well as writers like John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill, who served on the advisory council of the Writers’ War Board, an affiliated group dedicated to pro-America literature.
Recruiting the Hidden Army
Women increasingly became the target of the government’s publicity campaigns. As more men were shipped overseas in an effort to secure a military victory towards the end of the war, more women were needed on factory floors to fill the open jobs that fed the industrial war machine supplying the U.S. army.
Over six million women accepted jobs during World War II, raising their total percentage of the workforce by a full 10 points. In the air-force industry alone, women made up 65 percent of the labor force by 1943. Their impact on the war industry was significant. According to the Gale Group’sU.S. History in Context, It is estimated that women were responsible for the production of “296,429 airplanes, 102,351 tanks and guns, 87,620 warships, 47 tons of artillery ammunition, and 44 billion rounds of small arms ammunition.”
The U.S. Reconsiders Propaganda…for a Time
Despite the seeming success of the propaganda campaigns in bringing women to the factory floor, the domestic work of the OWI didn’t sit well with Congress. As Fussell’s comments suggest, the American propaganda machine smelled a little too much like the manipulative information campaigns Nazi Germany was perpetrating against its own citizens.
When several writers affiliated with the OWI, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., decided to resign in protest, they issued a statement that said, “We are leaving because of our conviction that it is impossible for us, under those who now control our output, to tell the full truth…as we see it, the activities of the OWI on the home front are now dominated by high pressure promoters who prefer slick salesmanship to honest information.”
In 1944, Congress pulled most of the domestic funding for the department; when the war ended in 1945, they shut it down altogether. In 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act was passed. Along with amendments attached over the next several decades, it effectively outlawed domestic propaganda in the U.S.
However, the tide may be turning back. In 2013, part of the Smith-Mundt Act was allowed to lapse, opening the way for the government to again fund the distribution of its own news and information. Only time will tell if Uncle Sam will want you to help out again.