World War II Propaganda Posters Term Paper


Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began targeting Japanese-American businessmen and placing them under arrest. Following Pearl Harbor, the efforts expanded beyond businessmen and targeted the whole of the Japanese community. Executive Order 9066 "set into motion the exclusion from certain areas, and the evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, most of whom were U.S. citizens or legal permanent resident aliens." (Children of the Camps). The conditions faced by these people absolutely contravened the principles of liberty that underlined American participation in the war; they were incarcerated without due process, lost their jobs, had to leave their homes, had inadequate medical care, and were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, despite the fact that there was no evidence to suggest than even a single Japanese-American was aiding Japan in the war effort. (Children of the Camps). While the government and the war effort may not have benefited from the internment of Japanese-Americans, it is easy to see that other groups would have. For example, rival business owners would have benefited from the internment of Japanese-Americans, as would have real estate speculators. Knowing what motivated anti-Japanese propaganda does not wholly explain the success of posters like "Murdering Jap." To understand the success of propaganda, one must look to the reasons why people like to believe in propaganda. For anti-Japanese propaganda, the largest motivator may have been fear, because the Japanese attacked on U.S. soil. However, the poster used fear in another way; by equating "Japs" with torturers, that propaganda suggested that there was something even more fearful than death at the hands of the Japanese: torture at the hands of the Japanese.

Miller and Minsky identified a second type of propaganda, the glittering generalities. With this, the propagandist "identifies the race, nation, policy, program, candidate, with virtue by the use of virtue words - words that instead of making us fighting made, as the bad names do, put us into a kind of rosy glow." (Miller and Minsky). Specifically, they warned against the use of the word "democracy" because it would be "the key word of any propaganda campaign to get [the United States] into war or to keep [the United States] out of war." (Miller and Minsky). By remembering the four key components of democracy: political democracy, economic democracy, social democracy, and religious democracy; one can examine propaganda to see if it truly supports democracy.

The war poster that is captioned Half-slave, Half-free, uses the concept of democracy, though it couches it in even broader terms by using the word "freedom." The poster has a very moving depiction of slave-like conditions. People, including children, cowering from a shadow-figure that is dressed like a Nazi. The shadow-figure holds a whip, and is raising it towards the cowering people. The image is moving, and it clearly intends to encourage U.S. involvement in a war against a country that has not aggressed against the United States at all. However, the poster uses the glittering generality of "freedom" in a very interesting manner; one that did not portray the reality of life in America, but instead portrayed an idealized version of American life. This poster's use of a glittering generality was logical, given that it appealed to national pride, one of the key reasons that people believe in propaganda, and Americans prided themselves on celebrating freedom.

However, at the same time as this poster's publication, African-Americans in the United States were still living with the vestiges of slavery. For example, though slavery had officially ended, blacks were expected to act in a specific and subservient manner. "This racial etiquette governed the actions, manner, attitudes, and words of all black people when in the presence of whites. To violate this racial etiquette placed one's very life, and the lives of one's family, at risk." (Davis). Blacks were expected to act subserviently when encountering whites in public, by stepping off the sidewalk, removing their hats when speaking to whites, and to bring their own implements when dining from a public restaurant. (Davis). Therefore, this call to freedom belied the truth of what was going on in the United States. At the same time, however, the image of the whip was probably meant to resonate with an African-American population that was not yet a lifetime removed from slavery. While African-Americans had not attained substantive freedom, they had attained nominal freedom and were no longer subject...


The idea of slavery, especially the legal and sanctioned use of the whip and the treatment of people as property, were ideas that were anathema to most African-Americans. African-Americans joined the armed forces in substantial numbers during World War II, despite discrimination in the army. Therefore, that piece of propaganda may have been effective with African-Americans, as well.
The third type of propaganda described by Miller and Minsky was the device of transfer:

Here the propagandist would transfer the prestige and the sanction and the authority of some institution we respect, like the state or the university or the Church, to some cause he would have us respect. Or it works in reverse. He may transfer the condemnation of this institution to something he would have us condemn or reject."

Symbols are used as part of the transfer process. "Symbols are effective because, with the speed of light, they can bring in us a reaction that arouses a whole complex of feeling, of emotions." (Miller and Minsky).

In the poster captioned "Ride with Hitler," the artist used the device of transfer. Obviously, once America became involved in World War II, Hitler became public enemy number one. Therefore, to transfer the emotions surrounding Hitler to the idea of riding in a car alone, is a good example of transfer. Moreover, by that point in the war, the image of Hitler had actually become a symbol, as well. His image came to symbolize oppression, murder, violence, and irrational behavior. As a result, showing the image of Hitler in the car with a lone driver reinforced the notion that to ride with Hitler meant that one was engaging in oppression, murder, violence and irrationality.

The transfer of Hitler to a concept like the wasteful use of resources is a more complex piece of propaganda than suggesting that children are endanger of being enslaved by the Germans or tortured by the Japanese. Therefore, the emotions prompting people to believe in such propaganda had to be more complex and more complete, as well. Therefore, one sees that such an image is aimed at impacting people on multiple levels. First, the thought of Hitler in a car with someone is frightening, so the poster uses the image of fear. It also incorporates national pride; people do not want to be seen as aiding the country's enemy. However, the entire conservation message also worked because it aimed at individual pride; people would be shamed by failing to conserve, because it was presented as a very simple way to help one's country. Finally, the conservation message was presented in a logical fashion; by making the connection between waste and hurting the troops, the poster helped make it clear why Americans were being asked to conserve.

Miller and Minsky also point out the use of the testimonial in propaganda. Testimonials come in the form of an individual speaking about an issue, product, person, or policy. The testimonial can be coupled with other devices. In wartime propaganda, the testimonial was often coupled with the plain folks device:

The plain folks device is a familiar American method of persuasion by means of which an advocate of any proposition identifies it, himself and his audience with plain people. It was a notably strong weapon in the hands of Huey Long, and it serves anyone who wishes to appeal to great masses of ordinary folks. (Miller and Minsky).

The combination of the two devices is a way to get mass appeal for a testimonial. If an average person believes that something is beneficial, the likelihood is that other average people will find that same thing to be beneficial, as well.

The plain folks and testimonial devices were combined in the propaganda poster that is labeled "Crop Corps" in this paper. The poster has two very all-American looking people, a man and woman who appear to be part of a couple. Both of them are young and healthy, and they look a lot like people from middle America. The man appears healthy and is an age range that would make him eligible for voluntary service, if not for the draft. The message of the poster is clear; American men can contribute to the war effort by working on a farm, as well as by engaging in active service in the war. The message also makes it clear that women can engage in the war effort in a meaningful manner, by working at a farm and helping grow crops for the troops. Unlike many pieces of wartime propaganda, the "Crops Corp" poster did not use any elements…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

The Children of the Camps Project. "Internment History." 1999. PBS. 9 Feb. 2008

Davis, Ronald. "Racial Etiquette: Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behavior in Jim Crow

America." Unknown. Jim Crow History. 9 Feb. 2008

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. "Mobilizing for War: Poster Art of World War II."
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. 2005. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. 9 Feb. 2008
Graphic. 28.11 (1939): 706-. New Deal Network. 9 Feb. 2008
Shah, Anup. "War, Propaganda, and the Media." 2005. Global Issues. 9 Feb.
2008. National Museum of American History. 9 Feb. 2008
Feb. 2008

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