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News & Censorship Letters & Diaries Propaganda
“When it comes to propaganda, we suspected our enemies of it, but we never figured we were using propaganda.  We felt like our country was too honest to use propaganda on us, and we honestly were not conscious that they were.” —  Katharine Phillips
The war was fought in waiting rooms and store windows, on the walls of post offices and factory floors and on big-city billboards – anywhere a poster would help individualize the struggle for ordinary citizens. “Ideally,” a spokesman for the Office of War Information (OWI) said, “people should wake up to find a visual message everywhere like news snow – every man, woman and child should be reached and moved by the message.”

During the war that message often fell within the definition of propaganda: the deliberate spread of facts or ideas to aid one’s cause or hinder another’s. Every nation involved in the conflict deployed the tactic.

In the United States, federal agencies issued a flood of brightly colored posters. Labor unions and big corporations printed up their own, aimed at turning defense workers into “production soldiers.” Advertising directors, laboring at a dollar a year, helped lay down ground rules: No casualties were to be shown. Abstraction wouldn’t work. It was best to appeal directly to the emotions. Journalist and radio commentator Elmer Davis would steer the communications effort at home after his appointment as Director of OWI in June of 1942.

A young man reads military recruitment posters in a post office.
Library of Congress
A young man reads military recruitment posters in a post office.

“The propaganda was run by an old newspaperman,” said Paul Fussell. “He ran the propaganda thing just the way Goebbels did in Germany. And nothing was ever said that reflected ill of the war effort or the troops fighting it or the ships sunk. And so on. Everything was gung ho and nice and we were going to win, ultimately. And let’s keep our shoulders to the wheel and do our best. That’s all it was.”

By directing the visual presentation of the war, OWI could focus public attention on a particular theme: women’s roles, the coming casualties, or paying for the conflict. Home front duties often were compared to a soldier’s to ensure a connection between the war effort at home and the fighting on the front lines.

“This is a people’s war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it,” Davis declared. But the OWI cautiously restricted any information that could jeopardize military operations or diplomatic negotiations. To build support for the war, Davis’s office allowed no signs that reflected poorly on the progress of the war effort. No photos were released that showed a maimed U.S. serviceman or that depicted racial conflict. For the first twenty-one months of the war, no images of dead Americans were shown. The war was depicted in simple terms. It was good versus evil.

Propaganda also was directed at skeptical servicemen.

“We didn’t believe in the brand of evil that they were propagandizing,” Burnett Miller said. “We didn’t think we’re fighting to save the world. But we thought that it was our country against that country and that country had been the aggressor.”

“There was a Hollywood version of what we were doing that we were aware of,” Sam Hynes said. “We would go from our training at Santa Barbara at the airfield into the town and see a movie with John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, who was even a military hero in those days. And that was just like going to the movies. It didn’t have anything to do with what we were doing.”

All sides used propaganda at home and on the battlefield. The Axis powers sometimes used propaganda to shed a positive light on the unspeakable atrocities they were perpetrating.

After the Japanese Army assumed control of the Santo Tomas camp in Manila in the Philippines, they had taken carefuly staged propaganda photographs of some of the prisoners to show how well they were being treated. Eleven-year-old Sascha Weinzheimer and her younger brother were forced to pose for the photographer, smiling and wearing clean clothes. Things were not as they appeared. Prisoners – including children — were made to bow to the officers and were beaten if they failed to go low enough. Food and supplies from friends outside the camp were cut off. There was no more meat, just rice and dried fish. The photos of children in the prison attempted to paint a rosy picture of the hellish camp.

German propaganda supported the efforts of the murderous Nazi regime, even attempting to portray in a positive light the horrors of the concentration camps. The insidious propaganda film “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” was produced in 1944 in Theresienstadt, a “model” ghetto established by the Nazis in the former Czechoslovakia. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels intended the film to prove that Jews were being well-treated in the camps. But the film was a hoax, presenting a completely false picture of camp life. Upon completion, the director of the film and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

Propaganda campaigns were carefully crafted, often aiming to create doubt or resentment, targeting specific themes.

At Anzio, German aircraft and special artillery shells littered the beaches with propaganda leaflets, urging Allied soldiers to surrender. Those meant to shake the morale of British soldiers charged that American GIs were sleeping with their wives and girlfriends in Britain. Leaflets aimed at Americans claimed that the Jews back home were profiting from their misery. Those leaflets meant for both featured a drawing of a skull and the legend THE BEACHHEAD HAS BECOME A DEATH’S HEAD. Axis Sally, a failed American actress who passed Nazi propaganda over the radio every night on her “Home Sweet Home” broadcasts, began calling Anzio “the largest self-supporting prisoner of war camp in the world.”

While Axis Sally hinted and teased servicemen in Europe with information on her daily radio broadcasts, female announcers on Japanese radio spoke to Americans serving in the Pacific Theater. American servicemen came collectively to call the female announcers “Tokyo Rose,” though none actually used the name.

“Tokyo Rose would say, ‘We know you’re out there. Why don’t you fellows come on this side?’” John Gray said. “And she played records from the South. You could hear them over the radio. And she knew every street and every town. And every section where blacks lived. So she would say, ‘Now, you’re in New Orleans.’ And, ‘Let’s go down on Bourbon Street.’ And that was supposed to lure us to join them.”

Even those aware of the manipulation still felt propaganda’s pull.

“Having been through Normandy, and they didn’t know we were coming, and here we are going into Okinawa, and Tokyo Rose is telling us, ‘Okay GI Joes, we know you’re coming. We’re gonna give you an Easter party when you land. We’ll be there waiting for you.’ Well, that really sent shivers up and down one’s spine,” said Joseph Vaghi.

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“Why We Fight” is a series of seven documentary films commissioned by the United States government to demonstrate to American soldiers the reason for U.S. involvement in the war. Later they were shown to the general public to encourage support for American intervention. Most of the documentaries were directed by award-winning film director Frank Capra. Many of the films used footage taken from Axis propaganda films to promote the cause of the Allies instead. Animated portions of the films were produced by the Walt Disney studios.

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Prelude to War
Video Icon“Prelude to War” »
This was the first film in the "Why We Fight" series. Produced in 1942 by director Frank Capra, the film described World War II as a battle between the "slave world" of fascism and the "free world" of American liberty. It won an Academy award for Documentary Feature. (52:21)

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Katharine Phillips
Video IconKatharine Phillips »
She suspected the enemy of using propaganda, but not the U.S. government.

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It’s Everybody’s War
Video Icon“It’s Everybody’s War” »
In 1945, Hollywood studio Twentieth Century-Fox produced this fictional story of a small town coping with the war. Narrated by Henry Fonda, the film encouraged American citizens to continue supporting the war effort. (15:07)

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This 1941 poster shows a typical caricature of the Japanese enemy as portrayed in Allied propaganda.
National Archives

This 1941 poster shows a typical caricature of the Japanese enemy as portrayed in Allied propaganda.

See more war posters »

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Jim Sherman
Video IconJim Sherman »
War movies gave the impression that all Japanese looked the same and that they really were bad people.

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See all “Propaganda” photographs and media in “Search & Explore”»