Propaganda during WWII

Deception and persuasion, two things that come to mind when thinking of the word propaganda. In times of great distress such as war, where emotions are running high, manipulation is made easier by taking into consideration the state of mind a country’s citizens are in. Propaganda can be thought of as using mass persuasion to achieve a goal whether made obvious or practically unnoticeable.

When thinking of past wars, specifically World War II, one staple of the time were propaganda or war posters, which were used as a means of encouragement and persuasion to the American people during the time. The way these posters are thought of today and the influence they supposedly had may not be correct in all cases. But by taking a closer look at the psychology behind them and true reach of their influence, we can say that these posters had a definite influence over the American citizens of the past when it came to aiding in World War II.

Propaganda can show itself in many different forms. As described by Maria-Lucia Rusu and Ramona Herman in Buliten Scientific propaganda is “a form of mass influence of public opinion” (Rusu, Herman, 2018, p. 119). Used in times of war and in everyday life, it has proven to be effective at persuading a large number of people, in some cases a majority of a nation. What may not be known is the layers and different tools that make propaganda so effective at persuading an audience.

There are three main types of propaganda: white, grey and black. (Rusu, Herman. 2018). White propaganda is open, it is meant and dedicated to the spread of truthful and trustworthy information. Black propaganda is the direct opposite, focused on misinformation and is meant to manipulate and cause fear.

Gray propaganda is the most commonly seen, where truthfulness is not known and the credibility of the author is also unknown (Rusu, Herman. 2018). This is an important distinction. The word “Propaganda” has a negative connotation. What usually comes to mind with it is ‘deceit’ but by realizing that propaganda is not always something that is set out to spread false information to its audience is something to bear in mind. It is manipulation, however, just because information is given to manipulate, this does not mean that the information is untrue.

Along with White, Gray and Black propaganda, there is one type of propaganda that is more specifically created for times of war which is agitation propaganda. Agitation propaganda is used “…to revolt the population against the system or mobilize it against the enemy,” (Rusu, Herman. 2018. p. 120). This type of propaganda was extremely prominent in World War II, not just within the United States.

Germany had their own campaigns as well, encouraging their citizens to fight or reassuring them that they would come out victorious in the war. In the United States, this propaganda was used to rally troops; a call to action of the people to join the war efforts or to create an emotional stir within the people, making them fear or hate the enemy. In The Power of Persuasion by Tod Olson, he states that “Since many Americans felt that the war was too far away to be of any real danger, poster artists tried to instill fear by exaggerating the nearness of the enemy.” (Olson, 1995).

As previously stated Black, White and Grey propaganda were all used to manipulate, persuade, inform or encourage the american people and on top of these, agitation propaganda also wove itself in between the different posters, making them serve multiple purposes. For example posters would often be used to inform or encourage people to buy war bonds to fund the war to help those fighting overseas, an example of white propaganda because that is a true fact, however in the same poster it would example promising victory against Germany as a result, making it also an example of agitation propaganda.

These posters often had multiple purposes when it came to what they were trying to say, encouraging people to do whatever they could either using encouragement, and the promise of a better life after the war, or making people fear what would happen if the war was lost. “Posters often implied that actions at home had consequences overseas” (Olson, 1995). Propaganda posters were created to communicate every aspect of the war with the public.

Various artists created posters to persuade people to preserve resources and raise money for the troops, as well as join in the fight themselves. Propaganda posters were a subtle way to gain support for the war effort by involving everyone. During this time even women were being asked to join in the war efforts. In the process of recruiting women, which was fairly new for the time, posters were crucial to this process.

The Office of War Information or OWI focused on recruiting women into the navy and coast guard, making the roles appear feminine. Poster girls were also influential in this process, making the women in the posters look beautiful and perfect, with taglines expressing how proud their families were of their daughters or sisters joining the Navy’s WAVES or how little girls wished they could be in the WAVES too. Most of these posters showed an unrealistic standard of beauty for women going to war, showing them with pretty curled hair and red lipstick, looking unharmed and un-bothered about the war, but willing to fight. (Ryan, 2012).

One iconic poster from this time that a lot of people recognize is “We Can Do It!” a scene of a factory worker with her sleeve rolled up, bandana around her head. “We Can Do It!” is a poster that is thought to have been created and used by the government to persuade women to go into the working world in factories while the men were away at war, all the while looking feminie while doing it. However this iconic poster that is now seen as a symbol of feminism, was no more than a generic shop poster for Westinghouse productions and not a worker recruitment poster. Although recruitment posters for women did exist, and held similar ideas to what we think about the “We Can Do it poster”, this new knowledge can help us understand that our modern perceptions about these propaganda posters may be incorrect. (Kimble and Lester, 2006).

The “We Can Do It!” poster, today sometimes referred to incorrectly as “Rosie the Riveter” is a hugely iconic poster. However, once learning that it was not produced for, or in affiliation with the United states government, can help us take a second look at the way propaganda posters were actually used during war time and what we actually know about them today. Kimble and Lester (2006) state that “Even if Westinghouse had chosen to use the poster as a recruitment tool it is unlikely to have been effective.” (p. 545). When taking a closer look, it becomes clear that this poster is not what we think it is today. There is nothing on the poster that is specific to the war, nothing to encourage specifically women to join the workforce.

It’s a generic shop poster, but when thinking about how war posters were used in WWII this is one of the first ones that people think of, highlighting how our perception of propaganda during this time may very well be incorrect. Many women that did join the workforce, didn’t do so out of patriotism like it is commonly assumed today and like some posters then would have presented, but because of the need for better wages. Many posters focused on patriotism being a driving force for doing what you do, but it’s important to realise that this is most likely not always why many people decided to do what they did to fund the war. It’s important to take a realistic approach when considering why because pressure from society and the government, people did so much to help in the war effort.

For example, people who purchased war bonds they were also investing into their financial well-being. This is because, according to the National World War II museum “Ten years from the time you purchased your War Bond you could redeem it and get $25. That’s the investment you made in your own financial future.” (n.d.). It is important to realise that not only was there more than one reason to help aid in the war, this shows that the government wasn’t trying to take total advantage of its citizens, and promised them something in return for helping.

America was not the only country during this time to use propaganda or war posters to rally people into joining the actual or hypothetical fight for World War II. Japan, Germany, and France also took part in the poster war. Using them for similar purposes. In Germany, with the rise of children joining the Hitler Youth program, propaganda during this time was used to target and manipulate children into joining the Nazi regime, as well as including them in the posters themselves.

More so Germany also used posters to paint Hilter as a capable and powerful leader, there to save them from any harm that might come to their nation (Behreandt, 2018). During the German occupation in France, posters were made warning citizens about spies hushed people into silence about the war, warnings and notices reminding them of curfews and other strict laws were made by the Germans forces, translated into french. (Weitz, 2000). These posters were mostly made with the intention to scare and manipulate their audience into submission. When looking at the moral standpoint of these propaganda posters.

Propaganda posters were not just used for recruitment for the military, but they were also used to encourage the everyday American citizens as well as reminding and encouraging them to purchase war bonds, and save resources. The author of The Four Freedoms Live on, Stoddard (1995) states that “Dramatic war-bond posters hanging in every factory, office, store, and government building stirred our patriotic passion with headlines of ‘Buy a Share in America,’ ‘Bonds for Victory.’ ‘Back the Attack,’ and ‘Make Your Own Declaration of War.’ (p 60). Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, were the four freedoms illustrated in these posters and were declared by president Roosevelt were almost a promise to the american people if we won the war. Whether the true intent of all of these posters was to encourage the american people or manipulate them, they worked.

The allied forces won the war, but suffered devastating casualties. Communication through propaganda did not cease, but moved on after the war ended. Even in today’s society it can be argued that propaganda is still around.With fake news. PSA’s, and advertisements everywhere you look, the messages may have changed and we may be getting better at hiding it than in the 1940s, but it’s still the same.

With this idea, it is important to learn from history and look back on how the american people were affected by the propaganda they saw. It would be difficult to gain a general consensus of what the public thought of it all today. Based on the posters it’s safe to say most were already scared and worried about the war, and their fear was then heightened by the posters making use of black and agitation propaganda. Some posters might have encouraged, and sparked patriotism within america. Some rallied the troops, both men and women using strategies that would appeal to each individually.

Posters asking men to enlist were stern and serious, one example being uncle sam wagging a finger and telling a young man that he should find the nearest recruiting station because he wants him to join the army. For the women at the time posters featured pretty ladies in fashionable uniforms with perfect hair and lipstick and asking them to join the WAVES. (Ryan, 2012).

In a world filled with propaganda, putting pressure on its citizens to risk their lives and give whatever they had to fund or support the war, can be seen as cruel, manipulative and even scary. But without these tactics, we may not have won the war. The sense of urgency in some of the posters, we needed Americans to believe in the war, brushing it aside was not an option. The world was turned upside down during world war II and although propaganda can be for the most part unethical, it may have been the one critical factor that helped us to survive the war.

When WWII began, the spread of information was limited. News outlets with websites and tv programs didn’t exist. Propaganda for the war came through radio, short movies and in print or poster form. Hanging posters concerning the war everywhere the american citizen’s looked could have been the only way to make it real for the people and for them to see it, get information, even if not totally truthful and deceptive at times, without them we may not have survived.

Most Americans bought war bonds, each bond was worth about $25 (NAtion WWII museum). Citizens that chose to ration during that time were encouraged to save meat, and grow their own food in what were called Victory Gardens, (Connors, Wolf. 2009). The FFA made huge contributions to the war during the time, donating their food, resources and volunteer time (Connors, Wolf. 2009). Propaganda posters were a way of encouraging this, with slogans explaining how crucial to the war it was that people give what they had at home to improve the lives of those fighting in the war.

Without the use of war posters or propaganda, people may not have been motivated to give or even aware of how detrimental World War II was and the posters affected the people of the United States enough that they were prompted to donate their money, resources and their time to helping the war. Propaganda posters promised peace, hope and victory if the american people gave, and chaos if they did not.

Propaganda as we think of it today is manipulative and does not usually have it’s target demographics best interests at heart. It is used to influence, encourage, manipulate, or change the opinion of the viewers to serve a cause. These propaganda posters were a call to action, their creators used various tactics to reach their target audience, using a combination of different kinds of propaganda, and oftentimes manipulative tactics to sometimes lie and scare the american citizens into helping in the war. The war did not discriminate and both men and women were called to join in the fight each being singled out by posters created for that specific demographic, using stereotypical gender norms for that time to appeal to both men and women.