Modern Propaganda: What Americans Faced in the World Wars

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Throughout history war has rarely been a universal decision unilaterally agreed upon amongst the residing citizens of any nation, and America is of course no exception. Influencing the citizens of the United States to fight in a war is a seemingly daunting task, but it is made feasible through influence tactics such as propaganda. Modern propaganda, first invented by the United States and England, is produced in the form of television, posters, advertisements, music, and other forms of mass media that can be spread to a wide audience. Modern propaganda attempts to distribute messages to a target population, and inevitably the target audience begins to adopt the message or values, regardless of their knowledge of propaganda techniques/influence or not. The use of modern propaganda started in the twentieth century with rapid industrialization and peaked with the invention of the radio. During World War I and World War II, American propaganda was used to influence the populace to fight and support the war effort; furthermore, propaganda was a decisive tactic to keep us unified and protected.


Propaganda works at a subconscious level. For example, perceptions and ideas that a  leader inserts into music, will seep into one’s mind over time and without awareness, leading people into believing that the beliefs or values held by others are actually their own. As propaganda was spread throughout America, this turned to the majority of the country bearing the same mindset. Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher who is well-known for his expertise in modern propaganda states, "Successful propaganda will occupy every moment of the individual's life: through posters and loudspeakers when he is out walking, through radio and newspapers at home, through meetings and movies in the evening." Indeed, propaganda took many shapes and forms during both World War I and World War II to convince Americans to join the war effort. For example, in the morning, they could be reading the newspaper where advertisements were displayed wanting men to enroll in the army. On their way to work, they could be hearing music singing about the war, and at night, before movies played in the theatre, advertisements or news reels turned on asking them to join the war effort. The message was clear and the pressure to go to war, was heavily prevalent. This is why modern propaganda in America worked so well because as a whole, we had access to and enjoyed mass forms of media that could spread universal messages throughout the country quickly and easily.


In many ways propaganda is a useful device. Edward L. Bernays, an American journalist who is thought to be one of the forefathers of modern propaganda, believed that propaganda was and always will be vital for the survival of the country. He stated that the mass amount of information that comes to us in everyday life (such as world events, like Germany invading Poland and therefore starting World War II) would be impossible to process by ourselves. If, as a country, we aspired to have an unbiased opinion of everything that was happening we would have had to gather the data ourselves. Obviously, this is too time-consuming for each and every person in America to do, and would create total chaos. So, propaganda gives us quick explanations for world events (usually from a single side), yet is easier for us to process than having to discovering upon the information ourselves.


Although radio was not popular until after World War I, songs speaking of war were very popular in motivating men to leave home, encouraging women to join the effort, and convincing the country that to go to war was vital. Instead of focusing on the hatred America had for other countries, the World War I American musicians, such as the famous song-writer George M. Cohan, used both national pride and honor to convince the men to go to war. One of Cohan’s most popular songs during this time was “Over There.” It was recorded in 1917, the same year the United States declared war. The song’s lyrics sing, “Every son of Liberty, hurry right away, no delay, go today, Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad.” Using a patriarchal tone, the lyrics make the listener feel the urgent call to enroll for the army. However, if the listener decided not to go, their father (and family) would then be ashamed of them. Calling on pride and honor in this way, and making the men feel excluded if not willing to participate, was a great method of persuasion. In addition, George M. Cohan was not hired by government officials to write the piece, but did so out of his own interests. Supposedly the song came to him while on a train after learning of the declaration of war. Even as an artist, and not a government official, he was able to influence others. Propaganda is not only used by the government, but by the people as well. This is because the mindset to go to war was already with some of the people, but increased with both peer and governmental pressure. The propaganda had already been released through posters, advertisements, and the words of the president himself. Independent artists just helped to strengthen this influence.


In another American World War I song, the lyrics sing, “When Yankee Doodle gets back to Paree, he'll break a million hearts. Take it from me.” The song is referring to a U.S. Soldier fighting in Paris. The song is focusing on the possible benefits of being deployed rather than the reality of fighting in war. The song is promising soldiers that French women and other equally exciting things will be in France waiting for them; however, this is a much romanticized view. It is not true to reality. In another song written in 1917, it sings, “Goodbye everybody I'm off to fight the foe. Uncle Sammy is calling me so I must go. Gee I'm feeling fine don't you wish that you were me? For I'm sailing tomorrow over the deep blue sea.” This song proclaims joy in its first verse and even goes on to instill envy in those not going to war. The amount of pressure to see war as a positive event is very evident in the music being created at this time. Propaganda was used in World War I to convince the soldiers to go to war, and made them believe the war would be exciting and something to be proud of. In some ways this could be seen as true, but in hindsight the war was mainly horrific.


Several years later, Americans feared the declaration of another war and the deployment into World War II. Previously, the United States had decided not to participate, because they recalled the horrors of World War I and the Great Depression which followed thereafter. However, many wanted to join the war after fearing another attack like the bombing of Pearl Harbor from the Japanese. In this war, it is very obvious that the key to getting troops on board was to instill an anti-Japanese mentality. In 1941 a musical hit by Bob Miller called, "We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap (And Uncle Sam's the Guy to Do It)" was written to promote this hate and revenge in the Americans' beliefs. The song is simple, upbeat, and repetitive like most other patriotic tunes. One section even includes Yankee Doodle, a classic among most Americans and a song used in the Revolutionary War. The song lyrics describe Uncle Sam (America) as kind and giving, but if crossed would fight back, "Uncle Sam is mild...But never get him riled or you will rue it! So now they wanna fight! Well they’ve bit off quite a bite! And Uncle Sam is gonna make ‘em chew it!" The song is threatening yet it calls to power the American pride. Now, not only is the common American defending their powerful country, but they are also going to show others the power wielded by the United States. This song especially ‘riles’ up its listeners and calls to attention the anger every American should have for the Japanese people.


The German Nazi’s in World War II heavily used propaganda in ways that the general public view as unethical. It would appear that the simple, motivational songs and posters in America differed greatly from the menacing propaganda in Germany. However, Hitler in his book, Mein Kampf (a famous piece of propaganda) credited Britain and the United States for perfecting modern propaganda. “By contrast, the war propaganda of the...Americans was psychologically sound. By representing the [enemy] to their own people as barbarians and Huns, they prepared the individual soldier for the terrors of war...it increased his rage and hatred against the vile enemy….and it never dawned on him for a moment that his own weapons possibly, if not probably, might be even more terrible in their effects.” After studying America’s use of propaganda and seeing the hate and aggression put in songs, such as: “We’re Gonna Have to Slap, The Dirty Little’ Jap” mentioned earlier, Hitler was able to convince his country to go to war, conquer Europe, and commit genocide. Many songs were written in Germany also and some (but not all) of these composers were hired by the government. Of course we know how effective this propaganda was as we know how elite the Germans became. However, unlike the Americans, Germans played propaganda on the enemy side.


A mysterious swing band under the name of Charlie and His Orchestra was hired by the Ministry of Propaganda in Germany to play popular American and British music with changed lyrics to manipulate (mainly) British but also American people into thinking they were listening to their own songs. This propaganda organization was able to broadcast in England and the United States, and then play the changed songs. Not until the song was halfway over, would the person discover the Nazi lyrics hidden underneath the tune, and these lyrics liked to highlight the failures of the Allies (Britain especially). The disturbing difference in lyrics were meant to make the Allies feel defeated, and controlled. After all, if the Nazi’s could invade even the music the Allies listened to, how could the Germans be far from taking total control? One song in particular was very alarming, as it started out as a love song singing, “You can stop me from kissing you…. But I'll get even with you tonight, ‘Cause you can't stop me from dreaming,” it sounds like a typical western swing song. However this changed in the fourth stanza, “You can't stop, Germany from beating you, Germany is the boss now and you are through…Europe gets even with you and fights.” Once again through musical propaganda, a country used intimidation to get what it wanted. Not only is the change in lyrics startling—but undermining as well. The band must have been affective because Charlie and His Orchestra released almost 200 of these songs (remade from their original counterpart) and became very popular. These songs were even rumored to have been a (sarcastic) favorite of Winston Churchill.
Although propaganda was effective in the cases of World War I and World War II, was it an ethical tool to be used on the American people? If the American casualties from both wars are combined, it reaches just over half a million. It seems from death’s standpoint the propaganda used in war was wrong. However, perhaps it also motivated us to accomplish greatness at a time in the world when we were still new to the prospect. Propaganda gave the soldiers a reason to fight. Through messages, themes, and ideas carried through propaganda our soldiers gained further motivation to fight in a bloody war. Ellul adds to this, “[Propaganda is] a false explanation far removed from reality, but...is obvious and satisfying….there is no more mystery; everything can be explained…propaganda provides...a solution for all threats.” Ellul is trying to say that propaganda gives one justification in doing things that previously would have seemed immoral. Because of propaganda, people had better reasons for why they should kill people, build weapons, or harm others in war. It seems that propaganda persuades people in a corrupt way. However, without propaganda, Americans would have let their own drives stop them from fighting, and this could have led to much worse things for America.


As it is simple and easy to believe, works effectively, and can be spread through media so that the entire population can be influenced by it, propaganda (on the surface) seems to be unethical. There are two sides to the story. Ellul claims that propaganda is, “A menace which threatens the total personality,” meaning that propaganda interferes with a person’s true thoughts and feelings because it plants conclusions in their minds that are not their own. However Harold Lasswell, a famous American political scientist defines propaganda as a “mere tool …no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.” Propaganda is just a device which is used to convince people, much like rhetoric or persuasive argument. At propaganda’s finest, it has kept the American people unified and protected. At its worst, it has led to the demise of millions. Because propaganda has been used negatively by many groups including the Nazi’s, the idea of negative propaganda has been brought to sharp focus. Propaganda is neither good nor bad; it depends on the way it is being used, to be determined as wrong or right. As it pertains to the citizens of the United States, it seems that it was wrong to manipulate men to go to brutal wars, but good in that it strengthened the country and enabled us to win both wars.


Without America’s involvement in both wars, the allies would likely not have won and that would have led to many more casualties than we actually experienced. In this way, it seems that the propaganda was vital. In conclusion, the effects of (especially musical) propaganda on the American public was morally wrong, but necessary for the country’s welfare. This manipulation was what drove the American people to go to war, thus helping to end both world wars. Propaganda has been used by many countries, however, depending on how it is used it can be either moral or immoral. Although propaganda may be an unethical way of changing million’s perspectives, it is a decisive tactic that has kept America unified and protected.






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