World War II Posters - Pictures of Persuasion

National Archives displays images used to promote patriotism, shape public opinion

A SHORT distance up Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Archives and Records Administration, where a World War II poster exhibition, ``Powers of Persuasion,'' is on display, a huge building is under construction.

Above the gate to the site is an echo of wartime posters. A large banner proclaims ``Safety comes in cans. I can, you can, we can.''

This contemporary slogan in admonition's clothing is characteristic of the way the American homefront in the 1940s was collectively persuaded to be patriotic. Back then, it was a life-and-death clash on a world scale. And the persuasive art of the poster, as the exhibit shows most powerfully, was practiced to maximum pitch.

O. W. Riegel, a propaganda analyst in the United States Office of War Information during the war, knew exactly what the posters were designed to accomplish.

``The function of the war poster,'' he said, ``is to make coherent and acceptable a basically incoherent and irrational ordeal of killing, suffering, and destruction that violates every accepted principle of morality and decent living.''

The 107 posters and related pieces in the exhibit, selected from more than 5,000 posters in the National Archives, succeed so well that they challenge viewers to stop short and realize that yesterday's propaganda is today's slick and clever advertising.

The new twist is that the ``poster'' in our living room now is electronic, and the message moves.

The power television carries is quadrupled over that of posters. In peacetime, the bombardment of consumer messages and cultural values on television has far greater impact than a poster. But give posters ample credit as the bedrock of television images.

And the heart of this, then and now, is the manipulation of images and symbols to get the viewer to feel something and do something.

Poet Archibald MacLeish, then director of the Office of Facts and Figures (the forerunner of the Office of War Information), concluded that all posters were aimed at one controlling purpose: shaping opinion.

``The principal battleground of this war,'' he said, ``is not the South Pacific. It is not the Middle East. It is not England, or Norway, or the Russian Steppes. It is American opinion.''

Before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the US had proclaimed neutrality in the war in Europe. Still mired in the Depression, America was more attracted to isolationism than engagement.

In early 1941 in a speech before Congress, President Roosevelt told the nation that four freedoms were essential ``anywhere in the world.'' They were: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear. These were the reasons for fighting, if war was to come.

Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and a stunned America was thrust into war. To help unify and encourage the national purpose, postermakers found the themes and symbols that worked to rally a nation. So important was this to the war effort that Roosevelt created the Office of War Information to tell the story of how and why America was fighting.

Stand before the 1942 poster by Lawrence B. Smith depicting three children at play and marvel at the genius of the design and intent. This is pure rousing propaganda in the best sense.

The children are suddenly tense and vulnerable, because the menacing shadow of a Nazi swastika has fallen over them. The oldest boy carries a model airplane with American markings on the tail and has his arm out protectively looking up at the source of the shadow. The smaller boy carries an American flag on a makeshift staff, and the little girl with the doll looks afraid of the shadow.

Beneath the children are the words ``Don't Let That Shadow Touch Them. Buy War Bonds.'' The poster strategy is three-pronged: Because the evil menace threatens American children, the viewer should feel fear, anger, and guilt if nothing is done to save the children.

There were two kinds of posters in the war effort: those that appealed to fear, depicting a nation at risk, and those that called to patriotism through duty and sacrifice.

In the latter category, patriotic womanhood took on a new look in posters; the image of ``Rosie the Riveter'' was a strong, hardworking woman in factory work clothes with strong arms, lipstick on, and a determined look on her face.

The best example of this feminist patriot is J. Howard Miller's poster of a woman wearing a red polka-dot bandana and blue work shirt; her fist is doubled and her armed flexed to show her muscle. Above her head are the words ``We Can Do it!''

In the understandable zeal to rouse the nation, many posters depicted the enemy as subhuman, as odious rats and bloodthirsty dogs, and sometimes used racial stereotypes to hammer home the need to destroy the foe.

But Mr. MacLeish, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in l959, had a view that sheds light on racial or ethnic hatred even today: ``I hate Nazism and Fascism and all their works,'' he said. ``But the campaigns of personal hatred for whole nations of human beings are disgusting to me. There is a clear difference between the hatred of persons and the hatred of evil.''

* `Powers of Persuasion' will be at the National Archives and Records Administration through February 1995.

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