Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public

Larry Holzwarth - November 25, 2017

Propaganda is the deliberate spreading of ideas or information for the purpose of shaping public opinion. Often it is disguised as news, as when William Randolph Hearst used blatantly false stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba to help lead the United States into war with Spain. Other times it has been used to help generate the support of the public for government actions. During the Second World War government approved propaganda was relied upon to remind the public that the United States was engaged in a “good” war, and the troops serving at the front were merely the tip of the spear. A victory over the brutal Germans and the equally inhumane Japanese required the full support and sacrifice from all Americans.

American motion pictures depicting the war often presented the troops, or sailors, or airmen, in terms which revealed the diversity of the nation. A typical squad would include a Dodger loving horse player from Brooklyn, an Iowa (or Kansas, or Nebraska, or Ohio) farm boy, innocent and true of heart, a bookworm of superior intelligence, and so on, a visual reminder that all Americans were in this together. Other reminders of the unity required for victory came in posters at shops and workplaces, advertising in magazines and newspapers, radio broadcasts and more, all with the aim of keeping up spirits and war production.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Uncle Sam dons his work cap as he prepares to lead the way on the home front, with all Americans contributing to the effort. Detroit Historical Society

Here are nine examples of propaganda which were commonplace during the Second World War.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Often erroneously truncated to Loose Lips Sink Ships, this is but one of many posters urging silence regarding ship movements. US Office of War Information

Loose Lips Might Sink Ships

Even before the United States entered World War II as a combatant, ships laden with military supplies and foodstuffs cleared American ports destined for the United Kingdom. Lend Lease ensured that in return for the use of British bases in Canada and the Caribbean American manufacturing and agriculture was enlisted in support of the British Empire (and after June 1941 the Soviet Union). This support of the opponents of Germany and Italy helped place American industry on a war footing many months before the United States joined the belligerents in Europe.

All goods leaving the United States were sent to Europe by ships which were forced to run the gauntlet of German U-boats and surface raiders. In the early days of the Battle of the Atlantic U-Boats were often forced to remain on station near the known sea lanes used by cargo ships. Limited operational time at sea meant that the Germans often had to leave patrol areas having failed to sight any ships.

German spy activities in and around America’s east coast ports helped to place U-boats in the right areas when the Germans were informed of the time of a ship’s embarkation from the ports, whether or not the ship was to be included in convoys escorted by vessels of the Royal Navy or the Canadian Navy.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
A more graphic example of the potential harm to be caused by incautious conversation. Wikimedia

Sailors discussing their upcoming journey were a weak spot in the system of security necessary to protect the shipments. Merely mentioning a time or day of departure in a waterfront bar or other place of resort to the sailors (such as a Union Hall) provided the Germans with the knowledge necessary to encounter the ships at sea.

Longshoremen too were often aware of the time of departure for a given vessel or vessels. Posters which warned the maritime employees against discussing the time of sailing, expected arrival in the UK or other ports, lading, a ship’s speed, and any other information which may aid the enemy were placed wherever sailors, and agents of the enemy, were known to gather, along with graphic depictions of the hazards of unguarded discussions of operations.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
The advent of victory gardens changed American eating habits to consuming more fresh vegetables and fewer starches. Wikimedia

Dig for Victory

Rationing of food during the Second World War on the home front hit hard, especially in the areas of meat, sugar, fats, and wheat. The need to provide food with extended shelf life to the troops overseas, and to America’s allies, hit these areas hardest because they could last longer and remain consumable.

Americans were urged to alter their diets to replace the lost caloric intake from the rationed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables. In order to increase the supply of these items, Americans were urged to plant Victory Gardens, providing vegetables and some fruits for personal consumption. Victory Gardens also helped ease the pain of gasoline rationing, as foods grown at home did not require trips to the market to obtain them.

The United States Department of Agriculture strongly encouraged the planting of Victory Gardens, and Eleanor Roosevelt set an example by planting one on the White House lawn. In congested urban areas where open land was at a premium, public parks set aside plots of ground for the use of citizens to grow their own vegetables. The joys of growing one’s own food were exhorted by the government as both a healthful and patriotic activity. Easing the pressure on the food supply at home helped increase morale within the civilian community and provided many with more healthful diets than they had enjoyed previously.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Home canning became as important as gardening in the production of food. Zazzle

By 1944 the amount of food produced by Victory Gardens in the United States exceeded the commercial production of fruits and vegetables. The US government touted the money being saved on the production of fruits and vegetables for home consumption as being used in other areas of military support.

More than 18,000,000 Victory Gardens fed the home front, inspired by both detailed guidelines published by the Department of Agriculture (and major food producers such as Beech-Nut) and solid reminders in the form of posters which proclaimed the advantages of growing and preserving one’s own food.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
America’s long resistance to carpools and ride-sharing began during World War II despite government pleading. Wikimedia

When you ride alone you ride with Hitler

Although gasoline rationing quickly became a fact of life on the home front during the Second World War it was tires which were first rationed, with sales temporarily suspended on December 11 1941 – the date Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. One of the reasons for the immediate rationing of tires was the Japanese offensive in the Far East, which quickly overran large amounts of the world’s supply of rubber.

By early 1942 it was clear that tire and fuel rationing was a cause of conflict with the need for workers to increase production, particularly in areas which lacked suitable mass transit facilities, which were also subject to rationing. The solution proposed by the government was ride sharing.

Of all the commodities rationed during the war, the American public seemed to have the most difficulty accepting gasoline rationing, which restricted the use of their automobile. Pleasure driving was prohibited early in the war; anyone operating a car had to be able to present a valid reason for doing so, such as heading to and from work.

The government did not look favorably at cars which carried only the driver, and encouraged what would later become known as carpooling, presenting the argument that multiple passengers in a vehicle could pool their gasoline ration as well. This argument was never received well.

The government encouraged and helped produce propaganda linking the unauthorized use of gasoline as directly supporting America’s enemies, and tried (largely in vain) to encourage carpooling. Posters which appealed to patriotism were used, as were posters suggesting that carpooling would encourage an increase in social appeal. As it would in a later day, the public largely rejected these arguments, preferring the use of their own car on their own terms.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Venereal disease was a major concern of the military leadership of World War II. Wikimedia


She may look clean – but…

Aimed largely at the young American troops, most of whom were away from home for the first time, the government sponsored the creation of a campaign to control the spread of venereal diseases during the war. The posters warned of the dangers of contracting venereal disease, displaying women as sometimes wholesome in appearance, sometimes clearly sultry and deliberately alluring. The anti-VD campaign was based on the US Army’s experience in the First World War, when it lost over 7 million man-days to soldiers being stricken.

Syphilis was the fourth leading cause of death by disease in the United States prior to World War II (after tuberculosis, pneumonia, and cancer), and the accepted form of treatment was mercury injections, a process that could take up to one year, so the government’s concern was legitimate. Propaganda campaigns which equated prostitutes to Nazi troops were used, as were posters which depicted a faithful wife at home, exposed to a deadly disease through the indiscretions of a wavering husband.

Other posters warned women to avoid dance halls and other areas where they would be likely to meet soldiers and sailors, any one of whom could be infected.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Posters like this one were seen in barracks all over the world, alongside the pinups and pictures from home. Wikimedia

Posters warning of the potential hazards of syphilis and gonorrhea were displayed in bars and restaurants, in buses, subways, and trains, dance halls and public parks, and virtually all other places where people were likely to gather, no doubt encouraging some interesting questions from children old enough to read but too young to understand the subject matter.

Even Salvador Dali was commissioned by the army to produce a poster warning against venereal disease. It is hard to imagine that any of the posters which depicted women as infested with hidden horrors would be acceptable today, but during the pre-penicillin days of early World War 2 they were ubiquitous.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Appeals such as this one used terror and prejudice to encourage the purchase of War Bonds. Wikimedia

Buy War Bonds

Throughout the Second World War Americans were exposed to nearly constant reminders, in magazines, movie theaters, newspapers, radio advertisements, outdoor rallies, dances, political meetings, schools, and virtually everywhere they looked, to buy War Bonds.

War Bonds were viewed as a means of controlling inflation with the United States at full employment by removing cash from circulation. This was in addition to their obvious use in generating funds to help prosecute the war. Most of the advertising appealing to the public to purchase War Bonds was donated, and celebrities were recruited to add their personal appeals to the public.

Norman Rockwell created, at the behest of the government, his series The Four Freedoms, which toured the country in a War Bond drive and generated over $130 million in revenues. Films often displayed at the end of their credits (which were often watched due to the custom of having a second feature) a graphic imploring the public to buy bonds, which were for sale at the theater’s box office. Through multiple separate bond drives, posters were printed and liberally distributed which displayed fighting men in action, or pointing to their equipment, asking the public to give them the tools to finish the job.

Eventually the government sold $185 billion worth of War Bonds during the Second World War. The use of War Bonds, which were in essence a voluntary loan made by the bond purchaser to the United States government, kept inflation under control and provided much needed funding to the government without raising taxes.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
This ad from Winchester Firearms compares the sacrifice asked of the home front to that of the men at the battlefront. Wikimedia

You Talk of Sacrifice…

Americans on the home front during the Second World War have long been depicted as cheerfully enduring the sacrifices necessary to keep what eventually became over 12 million men and women in uniform. Their willingness to do their part is a fact of history, but another overlooked fact is the extent of the black market dealing in rationed goods in the United States during the war.

In the United States, sugar, meat, and gasoline were the most often found items in the black market, and the illegal activity was extensive enough that the government funded a propaganda campaign to warn citizens away from black marketeers.

The Office of Price Administration (OPA) estimated the black market in the United States in 1943 to have exceeded $1 billion, and both meat and gasoline offered opportunities lucrative enough to attract the attention of organized crime, still suffering from the losses endured when Prohibition ended a decade before. That same year a writer for Colliers drove from Brownsville Texas to International Falls Minnesota, consuming 123 gallons of gasoline, without needing to use any rationing coupons. He even managed to acquire additional coupons along the way. When his story appeared in Colliers he was quickly removed from the list of eligible gasoline recipients by the OPA.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
A soldier on his conscience piques a gasoline purchaser. Gas rationing was often circumvented by the black market. Wikimedia

In addition to the black market purchase of rationed items, hoarding became a problem as the war ran on, especially of canned goods. To combat such activities the government responded with posters which appealed to patriotism and the conscience of individuals, asking them to compare the sacrifices asked of them with those being asked by the men and women in harm’s way overseas.

Despite the efforts to prevent black markets and other violations by the end of the war over 4,000 gasoline stations had lost their licenses to sell gas and oil due to participation in black market activities. More than 32,000 Americans lost their ration coupon books after being found guilty of violations of the rationing program.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Anti-Japanese propaganda often contained racially tinged stereotyping. This poster was in support of scrap drives. Alarmy

You Can’t Pop a Jap Without Scrap

Scrap drives were an important part of the home front’s contribution to American victory during the war, and metal, paper, rags and old clothes, and rubber were all collected and recycled for use in military equipment. The use of metal in civilian capacities was also reduced and contributed to changes in American life, for example by early 1942 the sale of dog food in metal cans was curtailed. Manufacturers shifted their focus to dry dog food.

Americans were pressed to collect and contribute anything made of metal which they could spare. Pots and pans, broken down tools and equipment, old toys, fence materials, jar lids, coat hangers, anything made of metal was accepted and its donation encouraged. In some towns, ancient cannons from previous American wars used to decorate parks or civic buildings were melted down and made use of in the current war.

Old tires were at a premium, for cars and trucks, bicycles and tricycles, and anything else which used rubber wheels. So were raincoats, galoshes and even rubber bands. Paper too was badly needed, both for the massive amount of it used in the administration of government and military and for its desirability as a packaging material.

Pulpwood for the manufacture of new paper was soon scarce due to manpower shortages, and publishers found their paper allotments reduced early in the war. This led to smaller newspapers with narrower margins as well as an increase in the production of paperback books, which surprisingly used less paper than their larger hardbound brethren.

Scrap drives were often organized by communities or by organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Government posters which encouraged the donation of any and all items which could be of use to the war effort were common, and nearly all stressed the need to provide the necessities of war to the troops bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Quality workmanship was demanded by stressing the risks being taken by the troops using the materials being produced. Wikimedia

Suppose it Won’t do its Job?

During the war, and even before the United States entered the war, American factories turned out the materials necessary to fight. American industrial production during the war was staggering, from massive warships to parachutes to canteens to toilet paper and the American work force reached full employment as it churned out everything needed to maintain the troops and the home front.

Nonetheless the government felt the need to maintain a propaganda campaign pleading with workers to keep up levels of production, maintain quality, and minimize absenteeism on the job.

Posters which urged a maximum effort at all times were common, most often seen at the workplace or in the buses, trams, trolleys, streetcars, and subways which carried workers to their jobs. Quality was often urged by presenting soldiers or sailors faced with possibly defective equipment while in a moment of danger. Many of these posters featured women, now doing what had until then been considered to be a man’s job.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
With Germany out of the war in the summer of 1945, reminders that the Japanese were still fighting led to posters like this one. US Army

Posters urging increased production became even more prevalent during the summer of 1945, after the collapse of Nazi Germany. With the Germans out of the war the government feared a letdown on the home front after more than three years of sacrifice and felt the need to stress the fact that the war with Japan was not yet over.

With the existence of the atomic bomb a highly guarded secret, many believed that the Pacific War would drag on for many months, or even years, and posters stressing the need to finish the job, with a direct focus on Japan, became more common. The war ended in late summer, just as American production hit its peak for the war, and many planes and tanks manufactured that summer went straight to the boneyard.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
One of the most famous recruiting posters in history, it was copied from a British recruiting poster from World War I. Wikimedia

I Want You

The famous recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer and stating “I want you for the US Army” actually dated from 1917, when the American Expeditionary Force was gearing up to go to France. Based on a British recruiting poster from earlier in World War I it returned to use in the Second World War and has been used by the US Army many times since. But it was far from the only recruiting poster in the war.

In the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack posters which depicted the American flag, battered but still flying, exhorted Americans to Remember Pearl Harbor. Later posters tried to attract attention to special disciplines required by the military, recruiting for the SeaBees, Army Nurses, Submarines, Aviation, and so forth.

Many of these military disciplines required their members to be volunteers, and thus did not fill their ranks through the use of the general draft which fed the Army’s ranks throughout the war. Many also had higher academic and physical fitness standards than those of the draft, and thus required more focused recruitment efforts.

The US Coast Guard produced recruiting posters which were addressed specifically to owner-operators of small boats, implying the need for their expertise in the smaller service. The US Navy prepared a poster which depicted a sailor preparing to attack an enemy submarine, another US Navy poster showed a young woman proudly proclaiming that her man had joined the submarine service.

Nine Propaganda Methods the Government Used During World War II to Control the Public
Recruiting for special branches of the military competed with the draft for men. Time Magazine

All of the branches of the military were competing for the same manpower, and all used methods of attracting their attention which went beyond posters. Full length motion pictures which focused on the contributions of certain parts of the military; bombardiers, PT boat squadrons, Army Rangers, B-24 pilots (starring Jimmy Stewart, himself a bomber pilot) and many more were used as recruiting vehicles, with military representatives on hand in the theater after the show to close the deal.