When the United States joined World War II in 1941 after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the tide of the war had unknowingly turned. With the inclusion of this future “superpower” country, the Allied forces of World War II were given the military boost they sorely needed in order to wrap up the war in four years.
The United States’s jump into the war wasn’t without effort from the home front. In hopes of increasing the morale of both deployed troops and stateside citizens, the government began creating propaganda posters to encourage viewers to pitch in any way possible. These civilian efforts included rationing, purchasing war bonds or donating books and other materials to help soldiers. Meanwhile, propaganda targeting soldiers reminded them who was to be trusted... and who was not, frequently in ways that may seem strange or baffling to the modern eye.
Although many people first think of World War II and Rosie the Riveter when they hear propaganda posters, the Second World War was far from the first time propaganda was used to fuel the fire. For example, the sinking of the USS Maine led to the creation of several newspaper articles, headlines, cartoons, and posters that arguably sparked the Spanish-American War. In another case, Uncle Sam’s “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” poster during World War I also urged citizens to take up arms and join the front lines in the fight for liberty and freedom.
These illustrations and advertisements had real power to them, and the same would be true of the propaganda posters made in World War II. In addition to raising awareness about the availability of resources, these posters helped encourage Americans to grow their own “Victory Gardens” to alleviate the pressure on the public food supply. And it actually worked! Roughly one third of the vegetables that were produced in the United States came from the home gardens propaganda urged average American citizens to cultivate.
In regards to actually keeping Americans engaged in the war, other posters depicting the Axis forces as evil tyrannical caricatures were also created as well. In most of these propaganda posters, Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, and Benito Mussolini were usually featured being overpowered by American soldiers. In other cases, the men were also pictured as a looming threat that could possibly destroy the country should citizens not participate in any way they can in the war effort.
Fear and patriotism were the two main ingredients when it came to the creation of these propaganda posters. Fear in the sense that American citizens needed to worry about Axis soldiers stomping on their soil—prompting them to donate or ration. And if they were to participate in these propaganda movements, they would be rewarded with the feeling of knowing they were helping out the troops on the front lines–and preserving their own lives as well.
Whether they were encouraging citizens to join the war themselves, work at a munitions factory or start their own Victory Garden, one thing can be said about WWII propaganda for sure: It got the message across. From strange to the nationalistic, take a look at ten World War II propaganda posters that are relics from a time where the average citizen felt like they were just as important as the troops on the front lines.
This Man is Your Friend
Oh, how the tables have turned since the creation of this 1942 American propaganda poster. During World War II, Russia joined the Allies, alongside the United States, to help dismantle Axis forces in Europe. In an effort to unify public opinion on the war, this propaganda poster painted Russian soldiers in a positive light. Little did everyone know that they would become one of the United States’s biggest rivals after World War II was over.
We Can Do It!
First appearing during World War II, this iconic poster features a woman (who later became known as Rosie the Riveter) pulling her sleeve up while flexing her muscle and exclaiming “We Can Do It!”. The poster was primarily used in Westinghouse Electric Corporations in order to promote morale among female workers, who had joined the workforce in droves to support their country and the soldiers overseas. During the 60s, the poster would later make a popular reemergence as a symbol amongst feminist movements.
Your Metal Saves Our Convoys
Rationing was a country-wide effort to make sure the United States’s army was well-fed and supplied. This poster was one of many such propaganda pieces that encouraged the American public to be aware of how many resources they were using. In the case of this particular piece, the poster is asking for Americans to continue giving whatever metal they can to help out on the warfront. The metal needed to make guns, tanks, and other weapons was in scarce supply during World War II. Many citizens did their utmost to find additional metal scraps, tearing down fences, handing over their pots and pans, and even donating metal toys.
Simple Sam the Wasting Fool
Slightly more on the humorous side, this World War II propaganda poster features a man named “Simple Sam” sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on. Why is Sam so “simple” though? According to the text on the poster, “every day he breaks a tool,” which was considered wasteful during World War II. The poster encouraged Americans to not be like Sam, and be more careful as to how they’re using tools and other important resources that were needed for war.
Loose Lips, Might Sink Ships
This common little idiom actually has its roots in World War II propaganda posters. The piece depicts a sinking ship with a warning against talking about internal war strategies. The poster has a ton of variations, but the general idea is that American citizens should keep any information they have about troop movements or assaults to themselves. If they don’t, word could reach the ears of the enemy, and someone’s gossipy mouth might cost the country a few lives.
Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon
This bizarre World War II propaganda poster features terrifying–and rather racist–caricatures of Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo looking sinister above a blazing forest. The advertisement was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to keep Americans on their toes about forest fire prevention. It was believed that Axis forces may make an attempt to burn down America's forests in an attempt to distract them from the more pressing, but farther, issue of war in Europe. Without able-bodied men to serve as firefighters, one small blaze could end up toppling a town or city. The pressure to stop fires before they started was high.
Enlist in a Proud Profession
Yet another patriotic World War II propaganda poster aimed towards women. The piece features a woman proudly wearing a Cadet Nurse uniform while the advertisement encourages other women pursue the same career. With promises of free lifetime education for high school graduates who qualify, who could resist not having to pay student loans for the rest of their lives? The education promise was put into place by Congresswoman Frances Bolton, who saw that potential nurses were being lured into more lucrative careers at factories and other defense jobs and took action. The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps were also opened to all women, regardless of race.
Give Your Good Books to Our Fighting Men
This propaganda poster was made to promote a pretty wholesome cause. While troops were out fighting in the war, the American government needed ways to boost morale and keep soldiers occupied during down time. As a part of the 1943 Victory Book Campaign, propaganda posters supporting the effort encouraged American citizens to take books they owned to a nearby collection center where they would be donated to military libraries for troops to read.
Although women joined war efforts in new and novel ways in the 20th century, they also took part in a long-established, if less honored, method of participation. Propaganda posters specifically targeting men in service to remind them to take precautions in their sexual encounters abounded. From posters like these, which specifically pointed to women as the causes of "venereal disease" (more commonly referred to as STDs today) to posters that warned of the danger of gossiping about war movements with your sweetheart, soldiers were reminded to take care with the gentler sex.
Starve the Squander Bug
Interestingly enough, Dr. Seuss dabbled in the World War II propaganda genre as well as his beloved children's books. War bonds were an essential part of funding the war costs for the United States–they also helped keep inflation down during this turbulent time. In an effort to increase patriotism, while also maintaining a steadfast army, propaganda posters like these were made in order to encourage American citizens to purchase war bonds to help end the war faster.
Featured photo: University of North Texas Digital Library & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History