The Art of War
Government-sponsored posters were used during turn-of-the-century conflicts, such as the Spanish-American War of 1898, but their use exploded during World War I, the first major war for the U.S. that required massive mobilization. It was also a divisive war, according to University of Maine historian Nathan Godfried, which made posters important tools for generating public support.
By 1941, the advent of radio and film made war posters a somewhat less critical method of reaching Americans. But posters and other types of propaganda remained popular. And as the country began an even more massive buildup for war, several key propaganda themes began to emerge.
“It was the idea that victory begins at home, that (the individual plays) an important role in linking the fighting front to the home front,” says Godfried, whose research interests include the history of mass media, labor history and American pop culture. “Some of the posters addressed broad principles such as, ‘What are we fighting for?’”
Norman Rockwell’s image of parents tucking their children into bed answers that question directly: freedom from fear.
Other posters stress the importance of vigilance. In one, a comic strip-like narrative shows how an offhand comment overheard by a spy led to the torpedoing of a vessel.
The use of racist or stereotypical imagery became more prevalent in World War II posters. A poster about preventing forest fires includes an unflattering caricature of Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamamoto. Next to him is a bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed Adolf Hitler.
War posters also targeted specific population groups, such as women and schoolchildren. For example, a “Homemaker’s War Guide” provided instructions on everything from conserving rubber to dealing with an air raid, while another poster calls on youngsters to be Victory Farm Volunteers in the U.S. Crop Corps.
Many posters asked viewers to buy war bonds, pairing deeply patriotic images with persuasive language.
“They’re fighting harder than ever,” says one poster featuring soldiers in combat. “Are you buying more war bonds than ever?”
The posters — with their rich colors, dramatic images and liberal use of capitalization and exclamation points — were designed to attract attention. Though some featured the work of artists such as Rockwell, many were designed by advertising specialists, screen and radio writers, and journalists whom Godfried says ended up working in government press and information offices – especially the Office of War Information – or in the military.
“The advertising influence was strong because advertisers knew how to sell ideas. There was a very fine line between propaganda and advertising,” he says. “Most advertisers did not necessarily view propaganda as bad word in this period.”
No matter the subject or theme of a poster, most went through the Office of War Information. War bond posters, for example, might have come from the U.S. Treasury. A poster encouraging women to sign up to become nurses is credited to the U.S. Public Health Service. The forest fire poster was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In addition, some private companies printed posters. During the war, most big companies found that it wasn’t useful to advertise their products, for a variety of reasons, Godfried says. They had either diverted their production to wartime goods or were still producing goods but in smaller amounts. In order to keep their names in the public eye, many companies engaged in institutional advertising or conveyed a public service message, such as “join the Women’s Army Corps.”
With the exception of military recruiting posters, which are still used today, the use of war posters petered out following World War II. The reasons, according to Godfried, include the advent and widespread use of television and other electronic media. Equally important is that none of America’s foreign conflicts since 1945 has involved a declaration of war by Congress or necessitated an extensive national buildup and global involvement. These so-called “limited wars” have been fought in a specific country or region – think Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East.
“World War II required massive coordination and mobilization, and you don’t have the same historic conditions, mentality and commitment in subsequent wars,” Godfried says. “Therefore you simply don’t get the same kind of messages asking for sacrifice at home. With the war on terror, for example, government officials urged patriotic Americans to go to the mall and buy something. It’s just a different mentality.”