American Propaganda During World War II

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What is Propaganda?

Propoganda is a form of publicity used by government and powerful institutions to sway the masses. It is information that is deliberately spread to influence others in a time of war and desperation. Its influence reaches the public through different forms of media, such as visual art, music, and film.

David Culbert explains in Film and Propaganda in America that, “Propaganda, therefore, extracts and elevates selected themes to a dominant norm, in the process allowing exaggeration to become the norm. Propaganda is best understood as a form of continuing education, or re-education, but with a purposeful twist, themes are freed from the cultural matrix which gave these themes their original tension.”

WWII Music

The National Wartime Music Committee was created in November of 1942. Its job was to use music to improve the public’s spirits throughout the long war. However, the NWMC had little success in controlling the music because they did not have any real power and were not in touch with what Americans wanted from their music. The committee could not survive and was shut down in April of 1943. The Music War Committee was then created to replace the NWMC, with the same goal to find America’s anthem for the war. Oscar Hammerstein II, an important figure in musical theater, headed the operation. However, the committee still faced the same problems. There were plenty of war songs, but none that stuck with the American public. Songs that encouraged people to purchase bonds, the most popular being “Any Bonds Today?” by Irving Berlin, were not as successful the committee hoped. Citizens rejected obvious military songs in favor of romantic tunes that reflected on the difficulties of being away from the ones they loved.

Because so many Americans were in support of the U.S. involvement in World War II, this patriotism was reflected in commercial music. Songs about the soldier, such as “I’ll Be Back in a Year, Little Darlin’” by Russ Hull showed an optimistic view that the war would be over soon. Others sang about the drafting process, like “In the Army Now” by Big Bill Broonzy. These songs merely showed what was happening during that time, but were not big hits. One song that was popular was “(There’ll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” by Walter Kent and Nat Burton. It was a big hit do to its message that peace would eventually come. Some artists experienced a change of heart after the events of Pearl Harbor. The Almanac Singers had at first released an album called Songs of John Doe, which had anti-war sentiments. After Pearl Harbor however, they released another album, Dear Mr. President, which apologized for their previous album and supported U.S. involvement in the war. Another artist, Woody Guthrie, also showed his approval with tunes like “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” and “Seamen Three,” which depicted a fight against fascism. Many songs expressed confidence that the U.S. would be victorious, such as “It’s Taps for the Japs” by James Cox and “(We’ll Be Singing Hallelujah) Marching Through Berlin” by Bob Reed and Harry Miller. Pearl Harbor also inspired many anti-Japanese songs due to American’s vengeful response to Japan’s attack. Music was a way for Americans to let out their anger in such songs as “We’ve Got to Do a Job on the Japs, Baby” and “Get Your Gun and Come Along (We’re Fixin’ to Kill a Skunk).”

Although countless songs were written in response to the war and to inspire unity and optimism, not many made a lasting impression that have survived the times. Propaganda in music was not very effective because Americans did not want to listen to music about the fighting or how to be a better citizen. They wanted upbeat, dance-able songs that did not remind them of the horrors of war.

Film Propaganda in WWII
Why is film such a successful medium for propaganda?

- Film became one of the most popular mediums of information giving because of it universal nature. Because film is a medium of sight and sound, any man or woman can understand regardless of literary skills or education. In fact, film can exploit this audience particularly well because as Munson states, “film carries more conviction than any other expressive medium because the onlooker believes, quite falsely, that the camera cannot lie.” However, the filmmakers along with government personalities who instigate the messages are fully aware of the manipulations that can be accomplished through simple editing techniques, compositional framing, and music cues. For instance, the menacing march of Germans with arms raised to Hitler can suddenly be made to look ridiculous if put to the right music or if mocked by a cartoon character like Daffy Duck. Likewise America can easily be made to look heroic and invincible though camera angles, suggestive editing and inspiring music. If approached with a certain degree of subtleties, the audience will be unaware of the manipulation.

American Propaganda Films

Why We Fight
external image whywefight024.jpg - This series of seven films is perhaps the most extravagant undertaking of intentional propaganda conducted by the United States government. The film was directed by Frank Capra who was previously known for his classic narrative works such as,
It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra was actually inspired by Leni Refenstahl’s famous nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will and he ended up using much of that film’s stock footage to reverse the message and turn the images of Nazis as the enemies. The producers of this series saw the talent of Capra as capable of delivering a convincing message that still contained the sentimental “Capra” touch that American audiences knew so well. Capra’s dedication to American ideals along with Disney’s trusted production of animation sequences and maps came together to form a convincing portrayal of the need for America’s involvement in the war. Roosevelt, in fact, was so adamant about the series’ importance that he demanded it be shown for public viewing in theaters across the nation. In the end, 54 million Americans had seen the film. The film series was heavily monitored by the United States government all the way though production and before it was released into theaters all 7 films of the series went through a rigorous approval process through the Chief of Army Information Branch, the Director of Information and Education Division, the Director of War Department Bureau of Public Relations, and the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of War. Additionally, as with other propaganda films, the Office of War Information had to screen the film first before a wider theatrical release.

“No compromise is possible and the victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan.” –G.C. Marshall Chief of Staff

Interesting Note:
- Capra was actually inspired by Leni Refenstahl’s famous nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will and he ended up using much of that film’s stock footage to reverse the message.

Regarding the idea of film as Propaganda Frank Capra wrote to other aspiring filmmakers and producers:
"The is total war, fought with every conceivable weapon. Your weapon is film! Your bombs are ideas. Hollywood is a war plant! Hitler has taken over whole countries with film. Your job is to counter-attack and take them back."

Mission to Moscow

external image mission-2-20100105-164716-medium.jpg- Mission to Moscow made in 1943 and based off of the book by Joseph E. Davies (former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union) was perhaps the most infamous Hollywood feature that had an explicit message of propaganda. Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers, the film came into adaptation by specific request of Franklin Roosevelt. The message of the movie was intended to change the American’s public perception of the Soviet Union as a legitimate ally. Much like Why We Fight, author Joseph Davies plays a major narrative role in explaining and defending his memoir from which the film was adapted. Although Davies had control over much of the adaptation under the supervision of Roosevelt, the Office of War Information exercised some authority over the production to guide the film toward the correct ideology of national promotion. The Office of War commented that “One of the best services performed by this picture is the presentation of Russian leaders, not as wild-eyed madmen, but as far-seeing, earnest, responsible statesmen.” This is provides particular interest and a bit of irony behind the exaggerations of propaganda as a medium. Propaganda in this case is used offensively to try and manipulate a positive image of an ally in the public eye. This differs drastically from the films made about Germany and Japan which depict their citizens and leaders unsympathetically as purely evil. The film in some respects came across as propaganda too blatantly is some respects with its historical inaccuracies and misinformation. Even the film’s producer Robert Buckner acknowledged that much of the film was an exaggeration, if not an explicit lie, to cover up the reality of the Soviet Union’s political purposes under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Rather than highlight the totalitarian tendencies of the Soviet Union, the film depicted the nation as progressing toward the values that constitute American government. Because of this, the reception of the film suffered from numerous negative critical responses. Although a financial failure, Mission to Moscow can still be considered a successful propaganda film in some respects due to its impact on the majority of the American public.

Walt Disney in WWII

external image disney_sig.jpg - During WWII over 90% of those employed with Disney were working in association with the United States government on propaganda related and military training films. Every branch of the military utilizes Disney animation to their advantage, causing Disney to increase production of film from a former 28,000 feet of film per year to 90,000 feet in just three months for the Navy alone. Because Disney was such an iconic and trusted American production company, the United States government benefitted greatly in gaining the trust of American audiences through these films.

Different military and government branches used Disney animation in unique ways. The Treasury Department exploited the friendly animations of Daffy Duck found in the Spirit of ’43 to persuade Americans to support the income tax in order to benefit war costs.

The Air Force put out the immensely influential film, Victory through Air Power, which was an adaptation from Alexander Serversky’s 1942 book of the same name. A misconception may arise that Walt Disney was forced to make propaganda films by the United States government, but this film shows otherwise. Walt Disney himself was inclined to make this adaptation after reading Seversky’s novel. The film was especially significant beyond the basic influence of public morale, as it actually shaped the theories behind aviation and long-range bombing. Serversky laid out 4 objectives for aviation as expressed in the book and the film. After screening the film, FDR was convinced of these theories.
1.The rapid expansion of the range and striking power of military aviation makes it certain that the United States will be as exposed to destruction from the air, within a predictable period, as are the British Isles today.
2. Those who deny this possibility are exhibiting something like a "Maginot line mentality";
3. The U. S. must begin preparing immediately for "an interhemispheric war direct across oceans;"
4. The U. S. must become the dominant air-power nation, "even as England in its prime was the dominant sea-power nation of the world."

Der Fuehrer’s Face is an anti-Nazi propaganda film. This marks a shift from the patriot building pro-american films to the negative approach of making fun of the enemy to build a mutual hatred toward the enemy. Here we see the sympathetic Daffy Duck under the extremely unfair authority of the Nazi regimen. This casues the audience to build animosity toward the powers that would put their likable and familiar cartoon character into a “despicable” situation. It also helps to parody Nazi ideology inorder to make it seem laughable rather than intimidating. When Daffy Duck finally rebels, the audience is meant to share in that rebellion against Nazi-Germany.

Poster Propaganda During WWII

Propaganda posters were mainly used for the boosting of production, the rationing of certain items like gasoline, paper, lard, and aluminum foil, encouraging women to join the work force, to warn citizens of speaking out against the war, getting citizens to buy war bonds and getting everyone to “do their part”. Though posters were not the most successful form of propaganda used during World War II it still had an impact on the public eye. In November 1941, the War Advertising Council (WAC) was created to enlist advertisers, companies, and the government in an effort to get the support from the public and boost morale for the war. This council brought all three entities together during this time period to produce what many call “the greatest aggregate means of mass education and persuasion that the world has ever seen.” The WAC pushed many posters that had both disturbing messages and graphic scenes to scare the public into supporting the war.

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The poster above is a great representation of the WAC attempting to scare the public. This poster was designed to bring the war close to home which made people fear for their country and for their lives so they begin to support the war.

The WAC also attempted to bring more women into the work force because production needed to be raised to get money for the war, but there were not enough men to fill those positions. Women were viewed at that time as house wives and home makes, so when "their call of duty" was needed for the war and that call was to participate in working outside the home, many women became very sceptical. "Rosie the Riveter" posters were then created to influence women to join in the fight for the war. Many posters like the one below were created, but Rosie was the most popular and the most influential of the posters persuading women to do their part. This poster demonstrated that women could do anything they set their minds and muscles to, but that they still had a place in society to help out the war instead of fighting overseas.

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Another big issue that the government had with the war was people fighting against American involvement in the war. The governmnet then created the Espionage Act preventing individuals from speaking negatively about the war. If people felt the need to speak against the war, they were arrested and put in jail for breaking the law. Though many saw this new law as a violation of the first amendment, the government justified this act by stating that it was not a form of censorship, but rather that people had the freedom to support the war by remaining silent. The government said that people were doing their job in supporting the war by obeying the new law that was implemented. The WAC distributed posters aiding in this act to show people how to obey the new law and how this new law helped in the war efforts.

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The posters above encouraged the Espionage Act and persuaded people into thinking that if they talked about the war in a negative way or gave away any information they knew about the war that the enemy would get a hold of the important information and use that against the U.S. during the war.

Another big project the government instilled during the war to raise money was war bonds. People were encouraged to buy these war bonds to support the war and then after the war had ended, they could cash in their bonds for a small profit. Posters were made to persuade people to purchase these bonds and to do their part to support the war.

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The last main thing that the government encouraged people to do was ration certain items so that companies could produce those materials at a rapid pace for the use of the war. Production during the war had increased greatly but production was maily ment for war efforts so people were encouraged to do with little so the troops could do a lot. Posters were distributed by the WAC to enourage and remind people to keep up the rationing and again do their part for the war effort.

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These posters above are a great representation of what the average American could do to support the war. They showed that everyone could do their part for the war and that everyone should have been doing their part.

Posters were an effective way to get the message out quickly, but had little impact in the eyes of the Americans. This form of propaganda was a little too far from the actual truth and were too obvious in their efforts to sway public opinion. Americans did however take to a few posters and were influenced to do their part. Americans did participate in war bonds and rationing to help in the war effort, but other than that, they did not really take any of the poster propaganda seriously. Overall, it was a wasted effort by the government and the WAC becuase the cost did not out weigh the benefit.


1. Do you know who Rosie the Riveter is?
Yes: 40%
No: 60%

2. Have you ever heard a song about WWII?
Yes: 52%
No: 48%

3. Do you know who the most popular U.S. WWII filmmaker was?
Yes: 0%
No: 100%

4. Do you know the year the U.S. entered WWII?
Yes: 40%
No: 60%

5. Do you consider propaganda to be a positive or negative thing?
Positive: 44%
Negative: 56%
Final Analysis: ======
In a letter written by Lyman Munson of the War Department to Col. Watrous, Munson explains that any method of communication is propaganda based by its nature. All media therefore is an avenue for propaganda. Defending Americas need for explicit war propaganda, Munson argues that the enemy will inevitably use every source possible to defend their own ideologies and it would therefore be naïve to not embrace this form of communication. He states, “In combating the enemy, propaganda offers two channels. A positive assertion of your beliefs and aims, and a refutation of his assertions. The first has the power of attack. The second has the weakness of negative approach.”
Propaganda was used to increase the American public morale and support for WWII. This manifest itself in many different mediums but the message was universal: America is the hero, and German and Japan (specifically) are the enemies.
In many respects, Propaganda was very successful. For instance, in a Gallup poll conducted after The Spirit of '43, 37% of the attendees admitted that the film played a major role in their willingness to pay taxes. Not all critics were understanding of some of the blatant messages present within propaganda. James Agee, a popular film critic writing for Time magazine heavily criticized Disney saying, "Major de Seversky and Walt Disney know what they are talking about, for I suspect that an awful lot of people who see Victory Through Air Power are going to think they do… I had the feeling I was sold something under pretty high pressure, which I don't enjoy, and I am staggered at the ease with which such self-confidence, on matters of such importance, can be blared all over the nation, without cross-questioning."

Whether WWII propaganda played a positive or negative role (and much of that depends on the perspective), its significance in shaping the ideologies, morale, and even the outcome of the war simply cannot be denied.




Combs, James, and Combs, Sarah. Film Propaganda and American Politics: an analysis and filmography. New York: Garland Pub., 1994

Culbert, David. Film and Propaganda in America: A Documented History Volume III pt. 2. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Handakis, Paul M., Barbara S. Hugenburg, and Stanley T. Wearden. War and the Media: Essays on News Reporting, Propaganda and Popular Culture. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2009.

Hayes, Malcolm. 40s & 50s: From War to Peace. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens Pub., 2002.

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

McCloskey, Barbara. Artists of World War II. Westpost, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Rhodes, Anthony Richard Ewart. Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion, World War II. Secaucus, N.J.: Wellfleet Press, 1987.

Short, K.R.M. Film & Radio Propaganda in World War II. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.