WWII Propaganda by Allison Christensen

After World War 1 the American public had an isolationist attitude. In a 1936 Gallup pole, Americans were asked the question, “If another conflict breaks out in Europe should we get involved?” 95% of people said no, they felt that we should stay out of European problems and keep to ourselves.  Many American’s had strong memories of WW1 and were hesitant to get involved.  The government realized that the method of giving speeches to soldiers and recruits was no longer effective. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941, The Government turned to the motion picture industry and Frank Capra to create films that would get Americans on the side of the conflict. President Roosevelt endorsed motion pictures stating, “[Film is]One of our most effective media in informing and entertaining our citizens…a very useful contribution [to the war effort] (cinemocracy).”  Film was a powerful tool that spoke to the average Americans sensibilities and persuaded them to support the war effort in World War One.

In 1942 the American Government organized the U.S. Office of War Information. The OWI served as liaison between the government and the motion picture industry. OWI was challenged to make films that would carry an American message at home and abroad. Films that at the same time avoid provoking partisan congressional criticism, censorship, or other attempts at interference. Films that would strengthen the American feeling of dominance, it’s theme was, “That we are coming, that we are going to win, and that in the log run everybody will be better off because we won (Barsam)”. Many films where produced, but the most effect films were produced by Frank Capra. He was commissioned by the OWI to create seven informational films titled, “The why we fight series”. The films explain to military personnel and civilians why we need to be in the war. These films in Capra’s view, “not only stated, but in many instances actually created and nailed down American and world pre war policy (Barsam)” The films where made in chronological order and included; “Prelude to War” 1943, “The Nazi Strike”1943, “divide and conquer” 1943, “The Battle of Brittain”1943, “The Battle of China”1944, “The Battle of Russia”1944 and “War comes to America”1945 (Barsam).

These films were propaganda compilation films that used actual historical facts and news footage combined with dramatic narrative and popular war songs. They gave a sense of small town America. The films are very charming, a vision of what we hope America once was. The films were carful to avoid a depiction of social problems in America. Instead, they oversimplified patriotic vision and the tradition of small town America. The films were designed to be a persuasive sales pitch, they where attempting to get to the heart and sensibilities of average Americans and ask them to release their children to go to war in a foreign country.

The first film in the series “Prelude to war” is said to be the most patriotic of the series. It depicts terrorist executions, destruction of churches and brainwashing of the Germans and Japanese. Although we know this film is propaganda, the words at the beginning of the film read, “The purpose of these films is to give factual information as to the causes, the events leading up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting (Capra)” This statement gave the film credibility.  The film starts by separating the earth into two worlds. A depiction on scene shows two globes, one of them white and labeled, “Free world” the other black and labeled “slave world.” Knowing the American audience viewing this film was generally spiritual, the narrator mentions Moses, Mohammad, Confucius and Christ, noting that all of these men all believed that, “In the sight of God all men are created equal.” Then the narrator mentions the constitution and several leaders of our great nation. All of this voice over continues while “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” plays in the background. This segment is ended with a heart felt “Give me liberty or give me death”.  Then the images turn to the Slave world and states that the leaders of this world are insistent on killing freedom.   The music changes to a dark ominous tone letting the viewer know that we are now in a dark place. While speaking about the “Slave world”, the narrators voice is very stern and clipped. Images of hard times, starvation and unemployment fill the screen. The narrator makes bold statements meant to invoke an emotional response of fear from the viewer. Statements such as, “100’s of thousands of those who stood in their way where killed”, “these leaders believe that God must GO!” “These people have given up their rights as human beings” “remember the faces of these men [Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito] these are the men who are trying to take over the world and will not stop until there is nothing left! (Capra)” Reasoning with Americans, the film maker showed a map and a graphic depiction of the enemies plan to first take Europe then spread out, until finally taking America and the entire world.

While depicting the “Slave world”, Footage of children singing, “Hitler is our savior” play on the screen. Children practicing methods to kill and marching to a rhythmic pounding that is unnerving. The images of these children are contrasted with children in the “Free” world. The “Free” children sing “Onward Christian soldiers” and are shown playing in the playground. Music including: Red River Valley, Anchors Aweigh, Onward Christian Soldier and My Country tis of Thee, play throughout the film evoke strong memories and patriotic emotion. The music is an integral part of the films emotional impact.  Whenever the narrator spoke on the “free” world side his voice was very soft and sentimental which contrasted to the harsh tones when speaking of the “Slave” side.

By 1944 American opinions start to shift and people did get behind the war. Ken Burns, in his 2007 documentary The War, quoted a woman as saying, “We had grown to despise Hitler, from the movies and images we had seen in the movie theaters, we wanted him stopped.”

The “Why we Fight” series and similar propaganda films of this time were blatantly biased. Even when they were first released most American viewers realized they were propaganda(Burns). However, the films were successful because of the filmmaker’s expert use of rhetorical appeals. Relying heavily on pathos to persuade the American public and the ability to get at the heart of the average American sensibilities. Using music to evoke an emotional response, both the favorable emotions toward America and the ominous music feeding the fear of these unknown people that wanted to take over the world. The Graphic images that were arranged perfectly to make Americans fear the enemy. The harsh voice overs that described blasphemous men who had all claimed to be God.  Using logos with a map demonstrating how the enemy would soon be on American soil. And finally the ethos, as the entire film was brought to them by the government and presented as fact.


Sources Cited


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