American Art Propaganda and World War II

In my last piece, I gave a brief overview of the history between art/visual propaganda and politics, and why saying that artists shouldn’t express their politics is short-sighted. I’d like to delve a little deeper into that relationship but to do that, we have to do a little time traveling. The Allies (France, Great Britain, Russia, and later, the United States) realized the value that the arts had in furthering their agenda during World War I, with the use of stamps that proclaimed “nothing German”, and posters that warned against the havoc the Axis Powers would reap if the Allies couldn’t stop them. When it came time to take up arms again in World War II, they perfected that relationship, to the point where some of the pieces have become embedded into cultural consciousness, particularly in the United States.

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter is considered an early representation of female empowerment in the U.S. When so many of the young men working in the factories and shipyards were sent to the front lines during World War II, the American government needed new bodies to fill those positions. At the time, hard labor was seen as “a man’s job” while women were relegated to domestic duties and their place was in the home. That’s where Rosie came in. Rosie, a good-looking woman with her sleeves rolled up, eating a sandwich and holding a riveter, gave nineteen million women (at one point) the idea that they could still be ladies but still do their part in the war effort.

Side note: Although J. Howard Miller created the version of Rosie most recognize today, Norman Rockwell’s iteration was (at one time) more popular than Miller’s.

This newfound independence, encouraged by the American propaganda machine, backfired once the war wound down. There was a campaign created to encourage women to “return to normalcy”, meaning returning to the home and the kitchen. For a long time, it worked, and Rosie disappeared until the rise of the women’s liberation movement decades later.

Uncle Sam’s “I Want You”

One image perhaps more recognizable than Rosie is good old Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam has become a personification of America herself (or himself, I guess), and has been around in some shape or form since the War of 1812. The Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster, however, was created to inspire young men to join the Army, and is still a prominent call to action in Army recruitment offices today. This particular version of Uncle Sam became popular during World War I, after the initial image illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg for Leslie’s Weekly Magazine was adapted by the U.S. Army. He was brought out again by the time World War II rolled around, his stern gaze and powerful stance symbolized the ideal American man, and America’s position within the world itself.

Buy War Bonds

War bonds stopped being sold in 1980, but they were vital to America’s continued efforts during World War II. Instead of increasing taxes and imposing a savings program, the American government launched a multi-pronged effort aimed to get the American people involved voluntarily. Their two main objectives were getting bodies to fight in the war, and cash. They got the bodies through campaigns led by Uncle Sam, Rosie the Riveter, and a slew of Hollywood productions that either enshrined the soldier as an American hero (like Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back) or glorified the Allies’ efforts, like The Beast of Berlin, The Great Dictator, Waterloo Bridge, Casablanca, and Dive Bomber. But to get more cash into their coffers, the government rebranded “liberty bonds” (which is what they were called during World War I), into “war bonds”. The posters imploring citizens to purchase bonds featured gallant soldiers, flying the American flag or preparing to dive head-first into invasion, or innocent children, playing with their toy planes and dolls, worriedly looking up at the shadow of Nazi oppression. The change from “liberty bonds” to “war bonds” took place after the attack on Pearl Harbor to reflect their importance to defending the country, and the posters created in their campaign further played into patriotic sentiments that were running on overdrive.

“We’re Fighting to Prevent This”

“We’re Fighting to Prevent This” took a different approach than Rosie or Uncle Sam did in motivating the American public. Instead of inspiring to serve and to defend their country in any way they could, “We’re Fighting to Prevent This” aimed to scare and intimidate, putting the enemy on full display. The hand wearing the swastika, crumbling the documents that all Americans hold dear, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the idea of “labor and business freedom”, showed Americans what they could be losing if the Allies weren’t successful. Illustrated by Chester Raymond Miller, the image itself has long since fallen by the wayside, but the spirit of it has prevailed.

Art is an entirely personal subject, both in the way you express yourself with it and the way it resonates with you, its audience. An “Uncle Sam” poster today might not have the same effect on a young teen growing up in the 21st century as it did to one growing up in the 20th, and “Buy War Bonds” is a phrase that is mostly meaningless in today’s discussion of war and world conflict, but the emotions those posters and illustrations stirred up are undeniable, and not entirely unrelatable. And there’s no denying that at least in America, the propaganda created during the days of World War II had a collective impact on the cultural consciousness. For better or worse, some of it came to define how Americans saw themselves, and their idea of what it meant to be a patriot. And for better or worse, some of it always will.

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