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Propaganda for the good guys.

The United States knew it was on the right side of the world war.

But to win, it needed to start winning the information war.

ON APRIL FOOL'S DAY 1940, the Third Reich, anticipating the problems that might emerge should America become an extraneous character in Adolf Hitler's carefully crafted script for World War II, transmitted radio broadcasts to the United States. The objective was not to win Americans over to the Nazi cause, but to raise doubts about the wisdom of helping the Allies, [paragraph] Radio Deutsche Europa Sender, Germany's international radio facility, broadcast 11 hours of daily programing to North America headlined by an outrageous spokesperson supporting the German cause. Originally from Iowa, Fred W. Kaltenbach had a doctoral degree from the University of Berlin. Influenced by President Franklin Roosevelt's media savvy, Kaltenbach structured his broadcasts as informal fireside chats. His topics, anything but intimate, were misinformed and misguided.

Presented in a simple and homey style, his program, "Letters to Iowa," was directed to the American Midwest. He began each episode with "Greetings to my old friend, Harry, in Iowa, then argued a case against Roosevelt's reelection to a third term and denounced the Lend-Lease Act aiding Great Britain. "It's a lost cause," Kaltenbach said. "It will only lead to an unnecessary war with Germany. "

According to German intelligence,

Kaltenbach reported, "British and French agents had met in Paris to plan to stage the subversive sinking of the American liners Manhattan and Roosevelt, with the intention of creating an international incident giving cause to war." The United States would blame Germany and thus have its excuse for joining the conflict.

Roosevelt knew he had to rebut Kaltenbach's nonsense. He felt the broadcasts bordered on treason and abused the principle of freedom of speech. He also believed generally that he needed to sell his thinking about the spreading war. He went to work at writing and polishing his own script, his war message.

The task turned out not to be easy. During World War I, American propaganda efforts had been entrusted largely to men with experience furnishing news, opinions, advertisements, and entertainment to the home-front population, and their skills were inadequate. In the years after the armistice, no peacetime agency existed to preserve and develop pertinent skills, train expert personnel, or engage in appropriate research and planning, and the federal government otherwise failed to develop the rudiments of public information, propaganda, and impression management. Psychological warfare in the United States was in a fetal state when World War II broke out.

As the reality of war in Europe sank in on the western side of the Atlantic, Roosevelt established the Office of Emergency Management as an overseeing body responsible for disseminating public information. The OEM had a direct propaganda role, and in the summer of 1940, presidential assistant Lauchlin Currie suggested to FDR that the government sponsor local defense committees to give citizens forums to focus their war-related energy and to teach others by example. Days later, the White House hosted representatives of an ad hoc body created from the ranks of the military to formulate a basic plan for a public relations administration. The plan, while calling for some type of morale-boosting agency, advocated caution, even secrecy, so as not to create public alarm about the imminence of American involvement in the war.

Roosevelt waited a while after establishing the OEM before he created another propaganda body, and he reasoned that, given the potentially controversial nature, the right man had to be cast as its head. He chose the librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, to direct the Office of Facts and Figures, established on October 24, 1941. MacLeish, a poet, playwright, journalist, and speechwriter whose artistic abilities spanned several media and genres, became a key individual in the matrix for raising public morale and clarifying the reasons behind America's war efforts.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, MacLeish had worked as an attorney for a short period and then, in the 1920s, headed to Paris, where he became an expatriate poet. By the 1930s, with social problems intensifying during the Great Depression, he returned to America, bringing an abiding social concern to his artistic endeavors. Subsequently, he joined the staff of Fortune magazine and then was tapped by FDR to become the librarian of Congress.

MacLeish took a special interest in applying his talents to his OFF post and assigned noted radio dramatist Norman Corwin to write a script for a show entitled We Hold These Truths, restating and rephrasing the Bill of Rights to commemorate its 150th anniversary. The piece was originally intended as a powerful adjunct to Roosevelt's pro-intervention stance and was scheduled for broadcast over CBS on December 15, 1941. After America was pulled into the world war by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, We Hold These Truths became even more important as a vehicle by which the administration could underscore the conflict between representative democracy and totalitarian government. At the urging of the White House, the program was aired on four radio networks simultaneously.

We Hold These Truths showcased a cast of stars. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, provided musical accompaniment. The roster of Hollywood icons assembled to read from Corwin's script included Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, Edward Arnold, and Orson Welles. The program's climax was a special address from FDR himself, which set a dramatic moral tone.

Sixty million Americans listened to the broadcasts, the largest audience for a dramatic program in the history of radio. Public response was overwhelming, and Corwin won the coveted Peabody Award for outstanding journalism. MacLeish asked the heads of the four participating networks to air a full 13-week series advancing the principles of We Hold These Truths, mixed in with news from the front. With Norman Corwin as director, the result was This Is War!

For the next 13 Saturday evenings, audiences of This Is War! heard actors James Cagney, John Garfield, Robert Montgomery, Jimmy Stewart, and Douglas Fairbanks pay tribute to each branch of the American military. One episode, "Smith against the Axis," pushed themes of the "little guy" and of the innocent child as the embodiment of Allied war motives. The fictional Smith's son, Jimmy, represented the values of the ordinary American "little guy." Early in the script, Corwin's words, spoken by narrator Cagney, included this emblematic passage:

"He's what we are fighting for. So there will be a United States in thirty-five years for him to be president of. All over the world, the fight is freedom versus slavery. Smith against the Axis. Whatever your name is, whatever you do, you, Smith, the people, are everywhere. When a nation's soldier falls, there should be weeping in every town and village in America, because they all fight for the same goal, for peace of mind and sweet sleep at night and for the future Jimmy Smiths of the world."

Couched in colloquial language, "Smith against the Axis" brought abstract liberties down to personal terms, explaining to Americans what they felt, or should have felt, in their hearts about the basic principles of American government.

The many separate strands of Roosevelt's bigger war script still needed to be worked into a unified fabric, and in the January 1, 1942, State of the Union address, MacLeish wove them together. Lacking a motivational document to draw on--an equivalent of what Hitler's Mein Kampf was for Germany--MacLeish wrote a speech for FDR that charted an entire information campaign. He parsed the speech into four organizing themes: a demand for unprecedented effort and individual sacrifice; an understanding of Hitler's script for global domination; the postwar goal of an international order guaranteed by a United Nations; and above all, the fight for freedom.

"We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God," Roosevelt said. "Those on the other side are striving to destroy this deep belief and to create a world in their own image--a world of tyranny and cruelty and serfdom. This is the conflict that day and night now pervades our lives. No compromise can end that conflict. There never has been, there never can be, successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, and decency, and freedom, and faith."

IN advocating THE principle OF equality, the speech was more than just a refutation of those intent on shredding the emerging Allied war script. Absolutely essential was conveying an image of America as a mosaic of ethnicities, races, and classes. The government was eminently aware of the negative propaganda potential that social inequality and disharmony might afford. If America was to play the role called for in the Allied script, social divisions could not be simply ignored. They would have to be transformed into a source of strength. "We must emphasize that this country is a melting pot, a nation of many races and creeds who have demonstrated that they can live together and progress," a government guide for the movie industry later suggested. "The typical war worker as portrayed in films might be a Chinaman, a Negro, a Greek, a Pole, a man from the grain belt, the mountains, the slums, from Park Avenue or a park bench." While Germany discriminated against dissenters who protested the national will of the Fatherland, condemning Jews and Poles to a landscape of concentration camps, leadership in America aimed to preserve founding values: freedom, endowed by the Creator, in the pursuit of happiness as the inalienable right of every American. As unity became inseparable from the depiction of America and its cause, disunity became synonymous with defeat, and those uttering divisive words became fools being manipulated by the enemy.

As successes with propaganda made Roosevelt more comfortable with the gray art, he made a move in June 1942 that would prove to have enduring significance. Under the direction of information handler William "Wild Bill" Donovan, he formed the Office of Strategic Services, the immediate predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS had wide latitude in carrying out a propaganda mission, especially after it began to work with the British.

A graduate of Columbia Law School, Donovan had become an influential Wall Street lawyer and in World War I earned a Medal of Honor for bravery under fire as part of the mobilized New York National Guard. Possessed of a rich and daring imagination, he was solely responsible for organizing a centralized intelligence program and quickly cultivated a close relationship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, learning much about psychological warfare and spy-craft. He established close ties with a British group that sparked his creativity and led him toward black propaganda, the malicious, enemy-targeted form of propaganda, which he intended to use to help win the war. That group was the Political Warfare Executive, the clandestine British body that had been put in place to produce and disseminate both white and black propaganda, with the goal of targeting enemy morale.

Meanwhile in June 1942, Milton Eisenhower, brother of military commander Dwight and director of the War Relocation Authority charged with overseeing the internment of Japanese Americans, convinced Roosevelt to clear the decks of myriad agencies performing propaganda duties and unite their work under the Office of War Information. The new agency was tasked with supervising the release of war news, handling publicity campaigns for other government departments on request, and constructing policy guidelines for the mass media regarding their portrayal of the war to the public. Four individuals were placed in command of the new super-agency. Elmer Davis, a CBS radio commentator, experienced journalist, and Roosevelt confidant, was named director. Milton Eisenhower handled the administrative end. Publishing magnate Gardner Cowles, Jr., was made director of the OWI's domestic branch. Archibad MacLeish developed long-range strategy and worked closely with Robert Sherwood, a playwright who also penned speeches for FDR, in writing scripts for OWI-sponsored films and radio shows.

In the end, the central division of American propaganda duties was the OWI handling white propaganda and Donovan's OSS handling black. Members of each agency held lengthy discussions to hatch elaborate plans for both. Bogus radio stations and leaflets came out as still-favored instruments of black propaganda, and Donovan intended to expand their role in cooperation with the Brits.

As head of the OSS, Donovan worked closely with General Dwight Eisenhower, and was briefed on all aspects of the war. One day a report meant for the president came to his office from Churchill, an account from an inside operative that shook Donovan to his core. It read:

"Despite Nazi attempts to keep secret the Einsatzgruppen ['Special Action Squads'] extermination of the Jewish people, news of mass murders has been filtered into Britain by an underground resistance group reporting unimaginable atrocities in Poland and Russia. Whole districts are being exterminated and 'scores of thousands' of executions in cold blood are being carried out by mobile killing units. The mass exterminations are well organized. Once rounded up with the help of police and collaborators, people are marched, following signs pointing to 'resettlement centers' located on the outskirts of cities and towns. Reaching the destination, they are shot."

The London Times had run an eyewitness account that it managed to obtain through an operative of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency:

"We were instructed to drive the truck outside of town. On the way there, we came across Jews carrying baggage, walking on foot, in the same direction we were traveling. There were whole families. The farther we drove, the denser the columns became. They were led past a number of different areas, and at each designated place they had to leave their luggage, then their coats, shoes, garments, and underwear, valuables. Despite the efforts of the Sonderkommandos ['Special Units' of death camp prisoners], who aid in the killing process at work camps, some were left alive. After they left the area, the soldiers were given schnapps to help anesthetize the horror of their work. The squads, apparently anxious to get back to their quarters to continue drinking, had left too expeditiously to shovel the earth properly."

In the end, the alphabet of propaganda organizations created by Roosevelt as wartime president was dedicated to using any necessary means to eradicate horror and terror in the world. They were all part of Roosevelt's script, and over time, his administration got its act together to smooth it out and promote it effectively. And winning the propaganda war became much easier once America was winning the actual war.

Nathaniel Lande of Santa Barbara, California, has worked for years as a journalist, filmmaker, and professor. This article was adapted from the latest of his 11 books, Spinning History: Politics and Propaganda in World War II, from Skyhorse Publishing.

Caption: Background: Cast and crew take their places for a live broadcast from the radio series This Is War!. Actors Frederic March, famous for Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in his navy lieutenant uniform here, stand at the mic. The sound-effects battery in the foreground was especially elaborate for the time, necessary for simulating combat.

Caption: Opposite: The Germans had the early edge in wartime propaganda. Among their slanted offerings were radio broadcasts across the Atlantic that delivered the pro-Nazi musings of Iowa native Fred Kaltenbach. Above: America soon caught up to its foe. A week after Pearl Harbor, the patriotic radio show We Hold These Truths aired on three networks, boasting an all-star creative team that included scriptwriter Norman Corwin (dark moustache) and actors Jimmy Stewart (behind Corwin), Lionel Barrymore (at the mic), and Orson Welles (far left).

Caption: Archibald MacLeish, poet, librarian of Congress, and one of Franklin Roosevelt's first propaganda chiefs, wrote the words the president delivers here on January 1, 1942. Broadcast nationwide, this is the first State of the Union address since America entered the world war.

Caption: Equality was a key theme of the 1942 State of the Union address. The idea was that America and its Allies clearly held the high ground on this issue. Here, in Berlin in 1933, Nazis sing in front of an F.W. Woolworth store to promote a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses.
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Author:Lande, Nathaniel
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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