Colorful U.S. Poster Art from World War II Spurred the Country to Victory
|Sisterly comradeship on display|
The Germans, led by Josef Goebbels and his propaganda Ministry, get much of the notoriety from World War II for their efforts to raise home front morale using various slogans and posters.
|This has become perhaps the most famous poster of the conflict, used in an ironic context with the tag line changed.|
However, all of the major powers used propaganda posters.
German propaganda, for instance, began well before the war and took a wide variety of forms, including newsreels, posters, parades and rallies.
|Geraldine Doyle inspired the "Rosie the Riveter" posters|
Some of their work even survives on walls to this day in various bunkers and relics left over from the war. But the Germans weren't the only ones using posters to rouse the masses.
|Awesome that iconic figures of the World War II era finally got some recognition|
The United States did not get any traction in this area until after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but after that, it made up ground fast.
|Women creating World War II propaganda posters, Port Washington, Long Island, New York, July 8th, 1942|
Any ad-man will tell you that sex sells. It sure was sold during the war. Both sides used overtly sexual imagery to make their points. Pictures of pretty girls were used in order to tell soldiers not to talk to pretty girls no matter what they might be selling. Love's got nothing to do with it, you might say.
|That's a pretty daring outfit for 1940. Probably not intended as a bikini - there were no bikinis in 1940 - more likely lingerie.|
Speaking of selling, war bond sales were hugely important as a way to finance the war, and many posters focused on that by appealing to the love of the home front.
Especially during the first year after Pearl Harbor, there was a deep sense of patriotism which manifested itself in sometimes corny ways.
|This actually is Canadian.|
And in not-so-corny ways.
|Bea Arthur of television's "Maude" served in the US Marines during World War II.|
A major thrust of the US propaganda effort was to encourage women to chip in some time and effort to help the military cause. They weren't asked to fight in combat, but to help out in special units specially designed for them. However, women could and did perish in these units. Some women ferrying planes crashed and died (Amy Johnson in England being the prime example), some nurses were taken prisoner by the Japanese (and held for years). Once you put on the uniform, bad things can happen.
When people get scared, they also get very sentimental and tend to glorify the people whose role it is to save them. Nothing wrong with that, it is a completely natural reaction that also happened decades later in the aftermath of 9/11. The devotion extends to military figures. Life Magazine commissioned reverential portraits of American military leaders, made in assembly-line fashion by very talented artists eager to help the war effort any way that they could.
|At the American Painting Factory, MacArthur was the top-selling hero - LIFE magazine, August 17, 1942 issue.|
While there were blatantly jingoistic moments in various Hollywood films of the time (such as the somewhat bizarre war bond sequence toward the end of "Holiday Inn"), American propaganda had its greatest flowering in poster form. The posters did not roll off of printers - they were hand-painted by dedicated young women.
|Patriotic as can be - women made it into a lot of World War II posters, unlike previous wars|
Some of it is true art, and some of it is difficult to review today because of the crude stereotypes and jingoistic taglines. All of it is interesting, though, in giving some insight into the mindset of America at war.
|Rosie the Riveter|
When Americans think of World War II posters, the one name that usually comes up is Rosie the Riveter. She was just one of many, many characters used. The British, of course, had their own iconic posters, but they were more along the lines of reassuring the public and appealing to the peoples' minds rather than to their hearts:
|Classic original British World War II poster (these actually were not put in circulation). What quality, to last all these years.|
American war poster art, on the other hand, appealed primarily to raw emotions.
|How would you like to have been the one to pose for this?|
Posters also were used in the combat zone to stir up awareness and ferocity.
|Poster on Luzon ca. 1944|
World War II Posters can be offensive to modern eyes, but that is just the way it was. It worked. The people on both sides of World War II would have used any means that worked, up to and including nuclear weapons, and they weren't worried about offending people with words. Feel free to feel whatever emotion these posters stir in you, that won't change the past and the fact that you are here to look at them because they worked.
The deeper you dig into this, the more disturbed you will become if you are sensitive about these things. You've probably read or heard that the Germans portrayed Jews as rats and so forth in their films, revealing just how racist the Germans were. Indeed, that is true. Well, take a look at the US propaganda poster below. The "moral high ground" can be on a very slippery slope indeed.
Both sides used the same basic techniques. These included making caricatures of the enemy, emphasizing their stereotypical characteristics in what can only be termed a racist way. The Germans were notorious for their caricatures of Jewish people and other minorities. The Allies did this, too. Since both sides did it, apparently it worked.
|"This is the enemy." Not a very flattering depiction of a Prussian General.|
There is a whole sub-category of war posters devoted to selling war bonds. The Allies worried from the very beginning about how to finance the war. That concern is notably absent from Axis propaganda, which again shows the difference in national orientations. The same theme of playing to the viewer's guilt or fear that is evident in other Allied propaganda is obvious in this area, too, and they didn't pull any punches.
Below is sample of the wide variety of posters you would have seen in magazines, on billboards, and in movie theaters.
|Admiral Yamamoto shown on this December 22, 1941 issue of Time|
|My personal favorite poster not just of World War II, but ever. One wonders what this department actually did.|
|Heck, this would have gotten me to sign up!|
|Comic book fans can carry rifles, too|
|In case you were wondering - this comic book cover from 1943 is quite real.|
|Admiral "Bull" Halsey was an early war hero|
|This poster points with pride to the fact that only the Allies had asbestos|
|Posters could be gruesome at times - and have bad puns|
|US posters greatly encouraged pride in production|
|Another rather gruesome poster featuring bloody knives|
|Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a key propaganda hero|
|This weirdly modern poster encouraged people to forgo their vacations|
|US posters had no compunctions about delving into stereotypes such as buck teeth and bad eyesight on General Tojo|
|It's hard to argue with anything in this poster about Hitler's brain. X-rays were very new, this was a sophisticated poster|
|American farms fed the free world during World War II|
|America knocks out the opposition|
|Having Hermann Goering in a rare front-and-center role on this turned out to be somewhat ironic considering his ultimate fate.|
|Posters portraying Hitler and Tojo as crazed fanatics was very common|
Posters were not necessarily works of art or particularly sensitive. All they had to do was make their point in a way that people could easily understand. If that meant whacking Tojo on his butt, or a plane shooting Hitler's Swastika off while he bent over playing with his war toys, that was perfectly fine.
Not all the posters were so comical, however. The below one creates a sinister mood by suggesting that the enemies might not always stay far away.
|Interestingly enough, the Germans did target New York City late in the war, but they never could attack it|
Posters on both sides played to racial/national stereotypes in various different ways. Whereas Axis posters tended to portray the Allies as cruel but weak and cowardly (such as baby killers, above), American posters portrayed the enemy as cruel and barbaric, savages from a half-forgotten past. The underlying subtext is obvious, that the enemy soldiers are retrograde savages who do not observe any notions of modern civilization and thus are mere animals to be slaughtered for the good of mankind. Again, different approaches for different audiences.
The below piece neatly combines the caricature style and the more cerebral and circumspect approach in one package.
|American propaganda appealed to the mind as well as the senses|
The fighting men had to be kept healthy in order to win the war.
|Win the war by thinking and working. IBM used this theme for its own workers.|
It was a virtual paradise for employers - virtually anything could be justified as "necessary for the war effort." Want to take your vacation time off? You enemy spy! If you did just about anything incorrectly or not as instructed, the implication was that you were secretly an enemy sympathizer. The below poster, which casts the wearing of safety shoes as part of the larger war attitude, neatly encapsulates this attitude.
The poster below makes the point even clearer.
|"Tokio Kid" was a figure in a series of wartime posters|
The pretty posters were much more pleasant - usually.
|Thirty years later, Lynda Carter would bear a striking resemblance to this 1944 "Victory Girl" as TV's "Wonder Woman"|
|This poster captures several symbolic images in one brilliant composition|
Typical patriotic imagery. World War II saw the birth of the female war hero|
|"Oh, thank you master!"|
|An oddly phallic recruitment poster from 1940.|
Of course, if things, you know, got out of hand, you had the practicalities of life to consider. Note the vaguely, shall we say, "foreign" look of the comely lass in the poster below with her starched collar and prim appearance.
|This actually isn't bad advice....|
In the end, everything worked. When the end came, it was time to strike the dictators from the map. Time Magazine, which had made Adolf Hitler its Man of the Year not long before, was quick to strike him from the list.
|Scratch one bad guy|
The Japanese followed soon after.
|Scratch the Japanese|