“TREotM”: WWII and Propaganda Unleashed

By TREotM Archives
Cover image for  article: “TREotM”: WWII and Propaganda Unleashed

"The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media" -- Chapter 9, Part 2

This is a book in progress. Go here to read the previous chapters.

As World War II spread across the globe, Americans planted about 50 million patriotic “victory gardens” eating “what you can and can what you can’t.”  The gardens produced more vegetables than commercial operations in the early ‘40s.

Mass media became truly “mass” thanks to the pervasive influence of propaganda.  Even before the shooting began, the US dipped a reluctant toe in propaganda … but nothing like in the First World War.  This time the US hesitated to take control and originally insisted it was simply providing information.  As the fighting escalated, that changed to include more direction, control and attempts to not only set the tone of media reports but to directly constrain them.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a mid-level department called The Office of War Information that joined the Departments of War (later Defense) and State in issuing “news” in just about every conceivable media format to communicate with the public.  A private group called the Writers’ War Board worked closely with the Administration.

The formats used ranged from posters (almost 200,000 different designs!) to billboards to radio shows to news programs to leaflets (a fleet of B-17 bombers was used to drop domestic and international leaflets that included safe passage for enemy deserters and more) to movies to magazines to newspapers to animated shorts to comic books to books to advertising agencies.

The government created contests for artists that eventually spewed out nearly 200,000 ‘winners’ which were printed and distributed in post offices, railroad stations, schools, government buildings, restaurants and just about anywhere one could be put up.  The artists got nothing but a pat on the back for contributing to the war effort.

Radio became the favorite outlet of propagandists everywhere.  Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the This Is War series of reports and a couple of radio shows created by Orson Welles for CBS were favorites.  On Our Secret Weapon the mystery writer Rex Stout listened to Axis radio propaganda, picked out “lies” and then made them into comic punch lines.

Radio was used against the Axis powers, too, including one instance that helped convince the Italian Navy to surrender.  This Is War was also broadcast around the world via shortwave radio.

Movies played a big propaganda role, too, as gangsters on film quickly morphed into Germans, Italians and later Japanese.  Hollywood, so to speak, was on a war footing after Pearl Harbor.  Frank Capra, at the urging of a the Army’s Chief of Staff, created a series of films for recruits called Why We Fight (Prelude to War, the rise of Fascism; The Nazi Strike, from Anschluss to the invasion of Poland; Divide and Conquer, the conquest of continental Europe; The Battle of Britain; The Battle of Russia; The Battle of China; and War Comes to America, covering subsequent events).  President Roosevelt ordered the movies theatrical release; Prime Minister Winston Churchill did the same in the UK.

Propaganda wasn’t confined to straight out war movies either as it played a part in Mrs. Miniver (about an English housewife during the London bombings) and Casablanca.  Satire played a part, too, as the Three Stooges starred as bumbling spies in the short You Nazty Spies.

On the heels of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Office of War Information began working with Walt Disney even stationing troops at Disney offices for the duration of the war.  Both consumer and training animation films were produced.  Bugs Bunny peddled war bonds.  Daffy Duck encouraged donations of scrap metal.  The Spirit of ’43 encouraged tax payments.

Print wasn’t overlooked.  Both newspapers and magazines joined the war effort with positive stories … less so in newspapers than magazine.  The Office of Censorship worked with journalists to keep sensitive information from being printed.  The government even published a Magazine War Guide to “help” journalists support the war effort with suggestions such as depicting a detective “happy” to trail a criminal on foot instead of by auto.

The war effort included creating the arguments for a “just war” … that is, good versus evil.  That, of course, created a “good us” and an “evil them.”  Germans, Italians and Japanese all became either the butt of jokes or abominable monsters.

The Japanese, in particular, were suddenly mindless masses following obscene rituals as the nation invaded Manchuria, Korea and China forming “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”  Propaganda created an evil Japan and a sympathetic China in books such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.

The anti-Japanese propaganda worked so well it resulted in the US rounding up almost every Japanese resident of the western states into concentration camps scattered about empty spots in the west.  These camps lasted until the war ended.

Other popular propaganda themes included pro-British, pro-Russian (from after the German/Russian split and until the end of the hot war), pro-Chinese (named “First To Fight”), pro-Free French and others depicted as helping democracy and America survive the Fascist onslaught.

In the United Kingdom, the abandoned World War I Ministry of Information was resuscitated in September of 1939 and set about trying to shore up domestic support and help sway international opinion.  The UK used cinema much like the US did.  Taking film a step further, the UK more or less endorsed Edward R. Murrow and his reporting via radio and voice overs in newsreels.  The image of the dome atop St. Paul’s Cathedral with flames surrounding it from bombings created an indelible impression upon Americans.  Indeed, the UK government formed the British Security Coordination to handle propaganda aimed first at getting the US into the war and secondarily to keep the US in.  That unit filed so-called news stories to the US that were actually simple propaganda … no one objected until after the war.

Radio broadcasts from Britain were in 23 languages and many used the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which match the Morse code for “V” for victory in English and Freedom in Flemish.

The UK’s Commonwealth of nations rallied around its propaganda disseminating much of it domestically.  The Allied approaches to propaganda were universally shared.

On the Axis side, Germany’s relentless use of propaganda had a lot to do with making the term rife with negative connotations.  Joseph Goebbels, head of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda used every technique and medium to bolster Adolph Hitler’s dictatorship, Germany’s “total war” and the extermination of Jews. 

Germany’s reliance on propaganda was presaged by Hitler, in Mein Kampf, Chapter VI: “Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (...) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (...) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (...) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.

“Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favorable to the other side, present it according to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side. (...) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. (...) Every change that is made in the subject of a propagandist message must always emphasize the same conclusion. The leading slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula.”

From 1933 when Hitler appointed Goebbels, began to bore down on the “enemies” who forced the Treaty of Versailles upon Germany after WWI.  Using a technique of defining a put-upon “greater Germany” based on ethnocentrism with the aim of uniting all ethnic Germans, Goebbels set the stage for Vladimir Putin to annex land under the banner of a “greater Russia” aimed at expanding Russia’s influence in the world.

Hitler used “false flags” to simulate aggressive anti-German action in Poland using propaganda in German newspapers, newsreels and radio establishing excuses for the invasion of Poland.  As Hitler told his generals, “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn't matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”

The National Socialists in charge of the German government used books – especially textbooks – to shift public opinion.  Germans in elementary level texts were depicted as the Aryan “master race” and foreigners as unworthy and Jews as “inferior sub-humans.”  History textbooks argued for “lebensraum” for crowded Germany to expand to include all ethnic Germans and to fill “empty spaces” (read Ukraine and Russia) to the east.  Biology textbooks praised eugenics while teachers’ guidelines presented both the handicapped and Jews as dangers.  In America today we’re seeing state education boards trying to re-write history, particularly in Texas.

Film was included in the proselytizing of students.  Every school got a projector and copies of movies especially produced for kids called, of all things, “military education.”

And every school hosted a unit of Hitler Youth.

By 1936, film-making in Germany was completely nationalized.  Famously, the director Leni Reifenstahl made films of triumph about the Nazi Party Congresses.  One, The Triumph of the Will, featured speeches by Hitler and other party leaders that wound up in the Frank Capra movies depicting what Capra called "the ominous prelude of Hitler's holocaust of hate."

Propaganda in Germany expanded to include art, especially sculpture representing the Aryan hero, as ideals for which to strive.  Landscape art promoted German peasantry working to help the greater cause.

The Party published magazines for women, kids and, from the Office of Racial Purity, New Folk.  Party newspapers – there weren’t other public kinds – such as the People’s Observer glorified the Nazi way while attacking democracy as weak and Jewry and Bolshevism as evil.

The Party took propaganda to new levels with mass rallies and radio speeches that were almost mandatory.  The Party produced discounted radios and put them in restaurants and public spaces with loud speakers so every time Hitler ranted, Germans listened.  With a remarkable attention to detail, Hitler employed his friend the photographer Heinrich Hoffman as the only person with a camera who could take is picture … and his pictures appeared on postage stamps, postcards, posters and picture books … all of which paid royalties to Hoffman and Hitler.

Goebbels called radio “the eighth great power” noting It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.... It is no exaggeration to say that the German revolution, at least in the form it took, would have been impossible without the airplane and the radio. ... [Radio] reached the entire nation, regardless of class, standing, or religion. That was primarily the result of the tight centralization, the strong reporting, and the up-to-date nature of the German radio.... Above all it is necessary to clearly centralize all radio activities, to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones,... to provide a clear worldview.”

Radio was used internationally as well with Axis Sally Mildred Gellers broadcasting to the United States.  The Germans set up local versions in occupied countries touting the new world order of benevolent German rule.

As happened in Germany, the Italians also rallied around a personality cult, this time of the Fascist Il Duce … Benito Mussolini.  Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was endlessly portrayed as a man of action -- skiing, fencing, auto racing, horse riding, lion taming and swimming.  Sort of a prototype for Russia’s Putin today.

Also as in Germany, the Italians yearned for more space (spazio vitali or lebensraum or living space) and instead of looking to Eastern Europe, the Italians looked across their Mare Nostrum (Our Sea; the Mediterranean) to Ethiopia.  State controlled newspapers, radio and slogans inscribed on walls everywhere promised a paradise in Africa.  A border incident between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia in December of 1934 gave Mussolini the opening to invade in October of 1935; a kind of dress rehearsal for the upcoming major war.  Less than a year later Mussolini declared King Victor Emmanuel III emperor of Ethiopia.  Only the British and a weakening League of Nations opposed the move.

Schools were, upon Mussolini’s ascension as Il Duce, taken over by the central government with elementary schools spending about 20% of school time teaching students to be good Fascists.  Teachers and textbooks were commanded to honor the Fascist soul.

The Fascists added songs to the propaganda repertoire especially for Young Fascists and later for University Fascist Groups that added military marching to the songs.

In Japan, a very nationalistic antagonism to Western democracies dominated the propaganda exercises.  Often concentrating on government-produced films, the Japanese began in the 1920s to produce films promoting a very Japanese world view in contrast to Anglo-American imperialism.  Oddly, that created difficulties as the Japanese began to produce films in conquered colonies extolling an Asian-centric view that didn’t quite include the colonial points of view.

By the mid-1940s the Japanese were producing propaganda films in Taiwan, Korea, on the Chinese mainland, Manchuria, Shanghai, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Taking a cue from American propaganda, the Japanese began picturing Westerners as thugs in films such as Fire on That Flag featuring virtuous Japanese soldiers and cowardly Americans.

Newspapers and magazines were under strict state censorship and were ordered to continually print war slogans.  As in other countries on a war footing, radio, leaflets, slogans and other media forms were employed.

One unique Japanese propaganda medium was kamishibai, or “paper plays.”  A street performer used “picture scrolls” while selling candy to kids depicting the glories of sacrifice, heroism in battle or instructional messages.

Also unique to Japan was the office of Negro Propaganda Operations charged with fomenting racial friction in America and in American military units.  Using short wave radio black American prisoners of war, Japan broadcast to POW relatives with extended stories on race riots (as in Detroit in 1943), lynching and other incidents.  Of course, there weren’t all that many short wave radios in the US.

With wars today and a chronically unsettled Middle East, it will be interesting to note the rise of new methods of propaganda … some will work, some won’t.  The Internet has radically changed the abilities to control communications.  Not that some nations aren’t trying.

Next week: Chapter 10 -- Television!

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