In a world before social media and the internet, how did the United States encourage and promote American citizens in the 1930s and 1940s to contribute to the war effort? The answer-propaganda and lots of it. While propaganda took many forms, perhaps its strongest and the most effective channel was Hollywood films. In this Thought Hub vlog, Rob Price, M.F.A., shares the impact of these films in America during this era and how many young filmmakers put their careers on hold to contribute to the war effort.


– [MUSIC PLAYING] I think I was about 10 years old the day that my grandfather showed me a piece of history, a secret he kept hidden for decades in a closet. It was a private piece of history from his years of service in the US Army. He had served as a medic, you see, and he would routinely be sent to the front lines of battle, just hours before his arrival. He would look over the troops and see what was happening there. And one day, he found something very interesting. There’s a picture of my grandfather with my boys and my father right there. So he comes to the area where there have been battles just hours before. And he’s tending to the US wounded, and he approached several dead German soldiers. And he noticed at least one of the bodies still had one of these. He picked it up, looked it over. He marveled at the German engineering of this now famous German Luger pistol. It caught his eye. So, being a Price, he just took it and kept it. Tucked it away in his back pocket, into the Jeep, and it made its way all the way back to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana. Well, that day, he showed me this pistol. I was like transported back in time to touch a piece of history that, today, I realize is very sacred to America. You see, my grandfather was a member of what many historians call the greatest generation. These were the young adult men and women of the 1940s, of whom it can be argued that they saved the world. They kept the ideals of freedom and democracy alive for you and I. World War II was the war, friends, that sent men like my grandfather and women like my grandmother to the factories across America, to the front lines overseas, to work the jobs that men left behind. And history informs us that almost every single American wanted to do something to contribute to the war. Men were willing to fight, women willing to work. War bonds were being purchased in mass quantities, and people were more than happy to even ration their own food. But the question I want to answer today is this– in a world way before the dawn of the internet and instant social media, how did all this happen? How did the United States get what seemed like every American citizen on board to contribute to the war effort? I submit to you the answer, as Dr. [? Loeb ?] referred to yesterday and Professor [INAUDIBLE] referred to today, was carefully crafted propaganda, a lot of it. What is propaganda? Well, it’s defined as information of a biased nature used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or a point of view. Now, in the case of World War II, there was propaganda everywhere, with phrases like the buy war bonds, and [INAUDIBLE] of course I can. You saw those. And my favorite– you buy them, we’ll fly them. It was in TV shows, commercials, on the radio. Even Donald Duck was leveraged in the propaganda machine. I mean, what kid back in the 1940s did not love one of Walt Disney’s favorite characters? But the war effort for propaganda was most prevalent through the influence of Hollywood. And many of these influencers were commissioned and paid for by something called the US War Department. A handful of promising young film directors put their careers on hold to join the war effort. These included men like- you need to know these names– Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, John Ford. These men were all featured in the recent Netflix documentary series called Five Came Back. And I really encourage you to watch this three part series if you’re interested in further exploring their contributions to our nation. All of these men paid a very personal price for the war. Some returned to Tinseltown only to find that they had been penalized for being away from the machines of the Hollywood system. Others seemed unable to return to their producing more lighter comedic works. In fact, George Stevens, he was known for his humor before the war. Well, he turned his post-war attention to more somber and sober works like A Place in the Sun and the film called Shane. He once said, I came back and I tried, I tried, to make a comedy. I just couldn’t do it. 1959, Stevens directed The Diary of Anne Frank. You heard Ms. Montgomery mention that film earlier, or that book earlier, where he tried to find a glimmer of hope in a world torn apart by the ravages of war. The narrative films and documentaries these men and others like them produced were laced, friends, with overt propaganda themes. And they were aimed at influencing the American people in their view of the war. These themes were potent weapons that not only motivated the troops to fight and folks at home to pitch in, but it also spread hatred of the Nazis and the Japanese. The mainstream messaging consisted of three powerfully effective themes. One was the nature of the enemy. Number two was the need for men to fight overseas. And three was the need for women to work and sacrifice. So let’s examine them all and see how film shots fired served as the primary propaganda machine of World War II. Number one, the nature of the enemy. This was the most common theme used in many films and poster propaganda during World War II. Stereotypes of Nazis and Japanese were used to spread racism and hatred for the opposition. Characters in a film commonly used offensive language in reference to these adversaries. The goal was to make Americans hate the enemy so much that they would do anything to help the US defeat them. In fact, in popular movies, such as 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and Destination Tokyo and many others, the Japanese enemy overseas are referred to as Japs– you heard that earlier, as well, in our presentations– which quickly evolved into a derogatory term across the entire United States. Millions of Americans began to mimic what they heard in the movies and refer to all Japanese as Japs. And sometimes even as rats and monkeys, whether they were the enemy or simply an innocent Japanese American. Tragically, this led to the mistreatment of thousands of Japanese Americans. Many were held here– you see the picture– in what’s called internment camps for the duration of the war, because of fears that they were spies for the Japanese empire. But the Japanese were not the only enemy targeted in American propaganda films. The Nazis, the German Nazis, received their fair share of film shots fired against them. However, the goal of the propaganda aimed at the Nazis was different than the goal aimed at the Japanese, you see. Instead of spreading racism, blanket racism, against an entire nation, films about Nazis made them appear so brutal and controlling against their own citizens that Americans would feel compassion for the innocent Germans. For example, in the film by Walt Disney titled Education for Death– The Making of the Nazi, nearly every aspect of German civil life was depicted as under strict control by the Nazi party. Genealogical paperwork had to show the child was pure Aryan. Even a baby’s name had to be approved. The film also showed Nazis brainwashing children in schools by instructing them to believe that Germans were a superior race with no tolerance for weaklings or inherited diseases. Perhaps the most crucial propaganda theme, though, was the need for men to fight overseas. Without American men willing to risk their lives in battle, there would be absolutely no way the US and their allies could win the war and defeat the Axis powers. The government had to convince millions of men to leave their families and safety behind to fight in a bloody and dangerous conflict. And yes, there was a national lottery, but let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to win when the troops voluntarily decide to fight for their country. So to aid in this campaign, the US War Department had an idea. They began to tap on the shoulder of the aforementioned Frank Capra, who had already produced two Hollywood hits. You might recognize these films– It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Under the direction of a name you’ll recognize, chief of staff George C. Marshall, he directed a unique seven-episode series titled Why We Fight, which was aimed at showing American men what they were fighting for and why it was an honor to defend the great nation of America. During their first meeting together, General Marshall told Capra’s mission, quote, “Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films, the first in our history that will explain to our boys in the Army. Why we’re fighting and the principles for which we’re fighting. You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and the cause of freedom.” Well, after meeting with Marshall, Capra was shown a frightening propaganda film produced by the enemy, the Nazis, titled The Triumph of the Will. This film instantly opened Capra’s eyes to the immense challenge that lay ahead. Capra described the film as, quote, “the ominous prelude of Hitler’s Holocaust of hate.” He said, “Satan could not have devised a more blood-chilling super spectacle.” Capra admitted he was paralyzed to compete against the strong-handed propaganda for the Nazis. He said the film had fired no guns and dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal. Capra then slipped into what we might call the dark night of the soul. Quote, he said, “I sat alone and I pondered, how could I mount a counterattack against the triumph of the will and keep alive our will to resist this master race concept? I was alone. No studio, no equipment, no personnel.” As he began to calculate his cinematic response, Capra quoted scripture as inspiration. “I thought of the Bible,” he said. “There was one sentence in it that always gave me–” he called them goose pimples. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And then an idea was born inside of him. He may have called it a hunch, but I think it may have been more divine inspiration. He suggested to Marshall this. He said, let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause but the justice of ours. Let’s use the enemy’s own films to expose their enslaving ends. He then convinced the general to, quote, “Let’s let our boys hear of the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master race crud, and our fighting men will know why they’re in uniform.” And that, friends, is exactly what Frank Capra did. He secretly began to acquire film reels of Nazi propaganda and began putting them into his own releases. In addition, the Why We Fight films use techniques such as nostalgic analogies to remind people of the challenges America had faced before and how we’d overcome them because of brave men. The films discussed the selling of America at Plymouth Rock, way back to the beginning of our nation, and the building of our colonies. These films idolized how men of valor fought in the American Revolution to defend their sacred freedoms. And that it was now in the hands of their generation, the greatest generation, to do the same for America. Propaganda films were beginning to have a very deep, felt impact on recruitment and morale. Now, think about this. Without Capra’s propaganda and other filmmakers like him, millions of men may not have freely enlisted in the Army, which may have led to a mandatory draft with a much wider net. But maybe more low approval ratings for America’s entanglement in the war, which may have then led to eventual withdrawal and ultimately defeat. But thanks, in part, to film propaganda, that never happened. The third one, though, is the final reel of film propaganda was the need for women to work and sacrifice. This focused the lens on this aspect of Americana. These messages showed how they could help in the war effort by taking those tough-nosed, dirty jobs in factories and manufacturing plants. In one scene from the film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, the wives of fighter pilots off at war are talking about their lives. And one of them indicates she’s going to get a job in a defense factory because, “I can’t imagine just sitting around in my house doing nothing.” The goal of this film was for life to imitate art and embolden women across America to use their energies on the home front as a direct support system for their men in the military. A film called Women in Defense– it’s a short film produced by the Office of Emergency Management. It was actually written by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was narrated by popular actress Katharine Hepburn. The film script included on-the-nose lines such as, “American women are alert to the dangers which threatened our democracy today. Every woman has an important place in the national defense program, in science, in industry, and in the home.” These films made women feel important and that their physical efforts could make a significant impact in winning the war. Something American women had yet to fully experience, you could say, in the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War, and in World War I. Without American women working in these converted factories and other important plants, the government knew the US would not be able to manufacture supplies and weapons needed in a timely fashion. It was an edge, we could say, that the US military leveraged through messages in these wartime movies. These women were also encouraged by the US War Department to ration food for their families and go without luxuries they once enjoyed. In order for the US to have the best chance of winning, their kitchens would have to sacrifice food like butter and cheese and meat and jams and fruit. And the same rules applied to restaurants. In the film Destination Tokyo, captain of a ship writes a letter to his wife explaining how his son will not be able to get a toy train for Christmas because, quote, “we are in a war.” He continues writing that his son will understand the sacrifice. It’s worth giving up one toy for one Christmas so the US can win the war. He ends the letter with a promise that next Christmas will be different. This film featured, of course, the famous Cary Grant. In short order, women in America became accustomed to rationing and no longer mind doing so, because they knew that it was helping with the war effort. It was a powerful collective mindset planted by propaganda films. So, in summary, whether you agree or you disagree with the use of propaganda, it’s hard to argue its effectiveness in World War II. It created, number one, hate for the enemy. It brought out bravery and courage in men. It empowered women to work in these factories and these plants, and it convinced people to ration their food and help our troops believe in the cause of the war. Its effectiveness, friends, was indisputable. And propaganda films have a very important place in American World War II history. The propaganda during the war aided in creating a groundswell of support for the war. In fact, data shows that from 1917 to 1973, three of the top four years of what’s called inductions into service were from the World War II era– 3.0 in 1942, 3.3 in 1943, and 1.6 million in 1944. Now, these figures represent the number of folks who freely entered, who signed up for service to the selective service system. And in the end, it was America and her allies that triumphed against both the Japanese and the Germans, thanks in part to the film shots fired by the powerful propaganda machine of World War II. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Want more ThoughtHub content?
Join the 3000+ people who receive our newsletter.

*ThoughtHub is provided by SAGU, a private Christian university offering more than 60 Christ-centered academic programs – associates, bachelor’s and master’s and doctorate degrees in liberal arts and bible and church ministries.