American army propaganda, especially for recruitment purposes, has a long history of capturing the nation’s experience of war. In line with the Davison Art Center’s “Call to Action: American Posters in World War I” exhibit, Professor of English Sean McCann, Professor of History Ronald Schatz, and Olin Professor of English, Emeritus Richard S. Slotkin presented a supplementary lecture on Nov. 13 in the CFA Hall. Titled “Posters, Propaganda and the American Experience in World War I,” the lecture explored the various ways in which the state apparatuses of the 1910s propagated recruitment for the Great War and, in doing so, altered the course of American society and culture.
McCann started off by delving into how Americans became persuaded to view the war. He explained how our contemporary view of the war differs greatly from the nation’s dominant perception in the midst of it.
“We are likely to think about it simply as a global cataclysm,” McCann said.
At the time, however, the government painted it as a war of civilization as well as a prime opportunity to “defend” American values throughout the world. As evidenced by taglines such as “Wake up, America!” and “Civilization calls every man, woman and child,” Americans viewed the war as a duty their nation had to undertake for the benefit of the globe.
“[It was] a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between American innocence and European decadence,” McCann said.
According to McCann, President Woodrow Wilson firmly believed in that this vision sparked an intense need for propaganda. Immediately following the United States’ declaration of war, he established the Committee on Public Information, an agency that would use every available form of media to push the public toward supporting the war effort.
New technology allowed for the production of the full-color lithographic mass-producible posters that characterize the modern advertising industry. Back then, of course, the products would have never been explicitly referred to as propaganda, as the government relentlessly refused any notion that American involvement was anything but duty.
“We did not call it propaganda, for that, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption,” McCann said.
Schatz then took the floor to discuss the cultural and political context of the posters. He explained that since most immigrants of the latest immigration boom had not yet fully integrated into American society, government propaganda faced the challenge of producing inclusive imagery behind which members of every ethnicity could rally.
The scope of this challenge is difficult to imagine now. Schatz cited Connecticut as specific example.
“We think this is a Yankee state, but 70 percent of the population of the nineteen-teens was an immigrant one,” he said.
The government approached this issue by playing off of immigrants’ sentiments towards the American Dream. Many posters strategically catered to them with taglines such as, “Are you 100% American? Prove it!” followed by a command to join the army or buy war bonds. Sometimes the tone was more confrontational, as in, “You came here seeking freedom. You must now help to preserve it.” Other posters called upon “Americans All” and actually listed the generic surnames of various ethnicities and heritages—such as O’Brian, Villotto, Levy, Papandriopoulos, Gonzales and Kowalski—to inspire a sense of unity and cohesion in the face of the “savage” enemy.
The government was so strongly intent on recruiting immigrants that it even produced some posters in languages other than English, including Italian and Yiddish.
Slotkin concluded the discussion by expanding on the issue of immigration while weaving it together with the experience of black Americans. Rather than viewing “whiteness” as independent of language and geographical origin, encompassing a variety of European groups, the government’s propaganda lumped together black people and immigrants in its addresses. That, Slotkin explained, threw into question the “Americanism” of black Americans, not helped by the United States’ heavy segregation of the military.
“The 40 years before the war were the plague of racism in America,” Slotkin said.
While this racism separated immigrants and domestic-born whites, the very notion of nationality had to be broadened in order to bring people together for the war effort. Thus, the government approached leaders of various marginalized ethnic groups, ranging from Italian and Jewish groups to Black Americans, in order to instill in them a sense of unity, if only temporarily.
“They were offering them a bargain,” Slotkin said. “Full citizenship in exchange for loyalty and service.”
W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most prominent black American intellectual leaders of the 20th century, was even moved to support the war, stating, “Our country before our rights.” To further that ideal, the government even produced posters specifically for black Americans, portraying Abraham Lincoln calling upon them to join the army.
Granted, there was some irony at play, as the government’s campaign also included Jim Crow-style posters depicting the Germans as brutish apes abducting a half-naked white woman.
Open until Dec. 7, the “Call to Action—American Posters in World War I” gallery is a true collection of history. Archiving the development, and manipulation, of American culture and identity, it is a worthwhile destination for those seeking to question and further understand the role of military and citizenship in this country.