World War II and the time immediately following World War II was a strange, uncomfortable, and uncertain time for the United States. There were many forces at work, particularly during the early years of America’s involvement in World War II, that threatened the very fabric of American society as it had existed up until that point in history. The world underwent so many vast and rapid changes that the governments had to work very hard to ensure that they kept their populations under control.
During World War II, most Americans were just becoming familiar with the idea of propaganda; to many, propaganda was the tool of totalitarian dictatorships, used to control the populace (Culbert, Wood et al.). However, what many Americans were unaware of was the fact that their own government was actively utilizing propaganda on the population, as a form of education and as a way to encourage the general population to support the war effort. Because the propaganda that was produced during World War II, particularly the animated type of propaganda that was produced during this time was reflective of other types of media that were commonly consumed by the population, the American population was very receptive to the various animated propaganda films that were released (Culbert, Wood et al.).
Many different types of media introduced new storylines into established products, such as comic books and animated series (Culbert, Wood et al.). These new storylines were encouraged by the Roosevelt administration and the various organizations that Roosevelt and the government set up to drive the war effort (Culbert, Wood et al.).
The propaganda that was used in the United States was prolific, and there were many different films created during this time. Hitler’s Children Education for Death, The Ducktators, and Superman: Eleventh Hour are all propaganda films produced by different directors and producers during 1942, with vastly different messages. However, each film exemplifies a different aspect of American propaganda during World War II.
Walt Disney’s famous piece of propaganda, Education for Youth is a piece of propaganda that is concerned heavily with Hitler’s utilization of the youth in Germany to further his own political agenda (Disney). This piece of propaganda is aimed to strike at the viewer’s sense of pathos, which was a commonly-used type of propaganda during World War II. The story follows a young boy named Hans as he is indoctrinated and manipulated by the Nazi war machine.
Propaganda in America is certainly not unique, and aims to do many of the things that all wartime propaganda does: it creates an “us versus them” mentality in the populace. Disney’s animated short Education for Children departed slightly from this tradition, but not entirely: essentially, this short functioned in such a way to cause the American people to feel empathy for the children of Germany and those living under Axis control, and made an attempt to garner support for the American involvement in the war by invoking a sense of urgency and sympathy in the American people (Doherty).
The symbolism in Education for Death is not subtle, and utilizes a very strict set of dichotomous opposites as a method for teaching the viewer the lesson that Disney is attempting to impart. The Bible is contrasted with Mein Kampf, Hitler’s biography; the symbol of the cross is contrasted with the symbol of the swastika (Disney). The contrast is blatant for good reason: there was to be no mistaking the good and the evil in the animated short. The contrast was used to great effect when, at the end of the film, Hans goes to war and is killed. The implication is very clear: the Nazi party does not care about its children or its people, and the people are expendable.
Unlike the Disney animated short, The Ducktators takes a very different approach to American propaganda. In this film, a pair of ducks give birth to a duck that is a characterization of Hitler; this duck grows into adulthood and gives a number of speeches that are meant to rile and rouse the barnyard population (McCabe). The war is played out metaphorically with the Dove representing the Allied powers and the ducks and goose representing the Axis powers. The overarching message of the animated short is that to help support the war, it is the average citizen’s responsibility to buy American savings bonds and assist the government in fighting the evil of the Axis powers (McCabe).
McCabe’s The Ducktators utilizes a few different types of propaganda throughout the film. The first notable aspect of the film is that it is created in a style that is recognizable to the vast majority of the American people-- because it was created by the same people who wrote and directed the Looney Tunes, it was a story that was attractive to children as well. By using this style, the people who created the film managed to make the message more innocuous and more appealing to the general population.
The Ducktators centers around the bravery of the Dove and the evil of the ducks and geese as they trample around the barnyard; this type of bullying is the type of behavior that children can easily understand. This is a type of propaganda that is meant to appeal to a wide swath of people, indoctrinating them from a young age with what is considered “appropriate” behavior. Propaganda is often associated with negative connotations, but it does not have to be a negative tool for the government to utilize; it can also be a way for the government to communicate needs to the population, although the negative connotations are sometimes earned, particularly when the group responsible for the propaganda is making attempts to hide the truth from the general populace.
During World War II, propaganda in the United States was used to increase support for the widely-unpopular war. Because World War I had taken such a toll on the economy and the population as a whole, support levels for American involvement in World War II were very low, even though the United States had very little choice about getting involved after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Spiegel Online International).
Although many of the productions that were animated and produced during this time were ostensibly released via recognized production studios like Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, most of these-- if not all-- were commissioned by the government of the United States as ways to encourage the general population to support the war, and to provide them with ways to help the war effort (Spiegel Online International).
Superman: Eleventh Hour provides a different insight into the World War II-era propaganda machine in the United States. This short is much more focused on the war itself, and uses the familiar hero iconography of Superman to rouse support for the war from the general population. Superman has always been a well-loved character in American media, and utilizing Superman allowed the creators of the short to witness the heroic aspects of fighting a war against the Japanese (Gordon).
The tone of the propaganda machine in World War II-era America could change on command, as well. According to Spiegel Online International, “During the war years -- whether it was on the big screen, in comic books, on the side of a tank or on a poster -- Hollywood's message was: 'Hang in there! We'll win if you all pitch in. This war is your war!' But once the war was over, these movies disappeared into the studios' back cabinets for decades There were reasons for this. A new era had begun, and Disney didn't want to burden his new friends -- and business opportunities -- with ancient history in the newly won markets of Europe” (Spiegel Online International). These movies were banned and hidden not because they contained information deemed inappropriate or offensive, but instead because they contained a message that no longer suited the government of the United States in their goals for the future.
As a whole, the public were enthusiastic about animation and animated propaganda: these films evoked a plethora of emotions in the public by using emotional appeals interspersed with comic relief. Similarly, the films were done in a style of animation that the public was very familiar with: there were no surprises in these shorts, and the public knew what they could expect from the style. By using this style of animation, the animators were able to package the message of the propaganda in a way that was highly effective and reached a wide range of different types of people.
Watching this type of propaganda today is a different experience because the viewers of today are imbued with a much better and more sophisticated sense of messages in media, due to the amount of media that is consumed on a daily basis. However, for the time, this type of propaganda was highly effective and did not strike the general public as overtly symbolic. Even today, the symbolism used in the propaganda pieces of World War II is used in modern-day media. The simplicity and brevity of these pieces is striking: the pieces are minutes long, and manage to tell an entire story that is impactful to the viewer in that short period of time.
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Culbert, David Holbrook and Richard E Wood et al. Film and propaganda in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Print.
Disney, Walt. Walt Disney Cartoon - Hitler's Children Education For Death. Digital video. 1943. Web. 20 May 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP0UrHbFyFU>.
Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Projections of war. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.
Gordon, Dan. Superman: Eleventh Hour. Digital video. 1942. Web. 20 May 2013 <http://archive.org/details/superman_eleventh_hour>.
McCabe, Norman. The Ducktators. Digital video. 1942. Web. 20 May 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsBG34TSJJ4>.
Nornes, Markus and Fukushima Yukio. The Japan/America film wars. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994. Print.
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