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Arming the Arts: How Media Mobilized America for World War II

Jordan Braverman is a freelance writer and columnist. He graduated from Harvard and received graduate degrees from Yale and Georgetown. An extensive writer, having written for the Baltimore Suns, the Washington Star,  the Congressional Record, and more, Braverman has written many works and even poetry. His newspaper columns have also been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1994, he received the Editor’s Choice Award in the North American Poetry.

Despite being a  war or technology and science, World World II was surprisingly influenced by the arts. Jordan Braverman’s Hastening the Homefront: How Americans Fought World War II Through the Media analyses the various arts during World War II and their influence in altering the public mood, as well as fortifying an isolationist nation through the horrors of war. Cartoons, radio, advertisements--all wove their ideas and purposes into a single goal: to win the war.

Sunday, December 7th. Pearl Harbor. In one single sweep, America was  swept into World War II. For the first time, America would need to devote total resource, total commitment towards the war effort. Everywhere, veterans, children, women, and young men rallied together. By the end of the war, America would mobilize 15 million men and women. Of those, 670,000 would be wounded and 292,000 would die. To the public, war came to them in various ways. Radios, movies, books, plays, music, and newspapers all brought the reality of war to the citizens of America. An explosion of executive power in the government brought about changes to the everyday life in America. The War Powers Act and Presidential Executive Order 8989 were all utilized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to mold public opinion behind a single goal: winning the war. These measures gave FDR the ability to “reassign the functions of the government” so that America could fight the war efficiently.¹ Censorship became vital to success of the government’s agenda. One section of government created by FDR, the Office of War Information, led the movement by government to influence the arts and public opinion. The ability to control what the public saw and heard was crucial to winning the war. Because World War II was not just a war of machines and weaponry, but also a war of propaganda, America needed to utilize propaganda itself if it wished to win the war. Dissemination of ideas would be instrumental in keeping 130 million Americans doing their jobs; whether fighting on the warfront or building in factories. A newcomer to the harsh realities of war, America quickly became under fire not from just bullets, but Nazi and Fascist propaganda. The machines of war turned slowly for the United States--having no dedicated propaganda agency until 1941, the United States faced the daunting tasks of disseminating information and distributing to its citizens. The division of the OWI into three branches helped America in energizing the public’s will--the Domestic, Policy Development, and Overseas branch. The largest branch, the Overseas branch, actively spread messages through radio, pamphlets and other means to spread the word that a United Nations victory would be better off for the enemy occupied countries. By the next year, the OWI had become a efficient branch of the government, utilizing the arts infused with propaganda to boost public morale.

The first war of science and technology, World War II was dominated with the advent of radio, movies, and music. Throughout the war years, radio played programs commonly seen nowadays on the television--dramas, comedies, and soap operas. FDR consistently broadcasted radio speeches known as the “Fireside Chats”. First, America had to deal with Axis radio flashes--short bits of news that seemed to put the Axis nations in a favorable life. The immediate impact of the radio on American life was the instantaneous news of war, which could be updated at a moments notice. From the mundane news of war to the broadcasting of V-E day by CBS, radio brought the war closer to American shores than ever before. The music that radio broadcasted was highly patriotic--Rosie the Riveter and other similar songs were all played to inspire. Music not only boosted morale, but kept the nation unified. Music through radio helped relieve boredom and fatigue in war plants. Despite the standard of living plunging during World War II, Americans did not complain--once again, music was right there. Jerome Kern’s Who’s Complaining summed up the attitudes of Americans changed by music and radio--sacrifice was necessary to win the war. “Parades, community sings, band music” and more were all organized to emphasize patriotism and solidarity.² Songwriters of the day popularized the desolation of war. Often times, the theme of the song would be about a girl left behind in war or families broken due to war. What resulted was a grim, yet patriotic time for music. Movie had a headstart over radio, yet its impact was all the same. Hollywood, which had originally done a series of movies that reflected America’s intolerance for international matters, quickly took up the mantle of conveying wartime ideals. The most famous movie, Charlie Champlain’s The Great Dictator helped insert some comedy relief into a time of hardship. Like radio, movies offered families during the War a place for recreation and enjoyment. But all the while, movies maintained the patriotic theme that defined World War II society. Dramas, documentaries, and educational films all had underlying war messages to send. The portrayal of enemies in film were carefully done so as to reinforce the Japanese, German, and Italian as enemies. Conversely, the allies were portrayed as courageous and morally upright. In the end, movies, radios, and music made America seem greater than it may have been in the beginning. This crucial mindset created through such mediums gave the nation victories on screen and in lyrics, which would eventually translate into victories on the battlefield.

Although more classical forms of media--theater and literature--took a relative backseat during World War II, both still remained significant contributors to bolster the war mentality. Divided in the civilian and military, theater boosted the morale of both citizens and the armed forces. Entertainers such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby traveled around America and overseas to perform. One famous play by John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, relates the struggles of World War II to the struggle for freedom from oppression. Like many plays of the time, the enemies were not exclusively directed to the Axis countries, but were implied. One critical difference, however, were plays tended to be more sympathetic to the average German or Japanese. Lillian Hellman’s play, Watch on the Rhine , highlighted the internal resistance many of the Axis countries faced from within. Simultaneously, such plays helped promote democracy as good and fascism as evil. And despite being old, classical forms of media, namely literature, still remained a powerful force. Most books during wartime were designed to help Americans adjust to war. Books became the “business of the whole vast literate population” of America.³ Books not only documented the everyday lives of Americans during war, but also the factors that caused World War II. Everyday Americans became absorbed in international affairs--naturally they had to learn about world matter. Thus, came an influx in demand for historical and informational books. Journals, magazines, and books that detailed all the histories of allied nations and Axis nations were widely read by the public. The rise of American power could be attributed to the rise in American interest in books.

Although originally more obscure, cartooning and advertisements both soon emerged during World War II and would become major mediums in conveying ideas, thoughts, and propaganda. Almost everywhere during World War II, advertisements  told citizens exactly how their lives functioned. Everything from costs of goods to list of services, advertisements reached millions of Americans through radio, magazine, billboards, newspapers, and more. The change in advertisements through WWII paralleled the changes in society--instead advertising beauty products or fashion, ads soon targeted civilians for frugality. A common example was ads calling for the American people to save scrap metals for the war effort. More recreational ads such as smoking and cola drinking offered Americans relief from the war too. On a larger scale, “brag advertisements” offered incentives from companies to perform better--the government would fund advertisements if the company followed the war effort.⁴ Last but not least, cartoons would also become a dominant media--conveying the ideals of America: liberty, justice, and peace to children as well as adults throughout American and world. The most well known hero, Superman, rose during the war era--a model of American values, Superman fought on behalf of American virtues. He represented America’s desires to “be stronger than all opposing obstacles” and “see all wrongs righted”.⁵ In fact, Superman and comics became so popular during the war time era, that Nazi propaganda publicly attacked the creators of the Superman comics. Thus, comics proved that even a medium targeted for children could have lasting impacts around the world.

Having graduated from Harvard, Jordan Braverman comes off as an qualified writer. However, as an American writer, he tends to focus on the American point-of-view more than the view of nations outside America. Despite talking about American media, there is not as much information as how other nations, allied or axis, influenced American arts at home during World War II. Written in the 1990s, when America was experiencing a resurgence of conservatism, Braverman tends to glorify the Allied war effort.

The Armor magazine gives a positive review of To Hasten the Homecoming: How Americans Fought World War II Through the Media. Braverman follows a “unique look” at World War II through his analysis of the homefront war effort. In it, he describes “different aspects of the media” and how they helped the fuel the war effort of America. The chronicling of the growth of media during World War II portrays a fresh look at the war, set apart from battles, fighting, and bloodshed. To Hasten the Homecoming according the magazine, is a “book worth reading.” ⁶

To Hasten the Homecoming: How Americans Fought World War II Through the Media does exactly what it’s titled. Describing a wide variety of media tools, from cartoons to movies, the book translates how arts and other forms of communication were manipulated during war times to serve a country's needs. The wide coverage of media forms serve to draw the reader into the singular purpose of the book--that is show the reader that during total war, everything, from arts to comedies are changed to suit the war effort. Furthermore, Braverman manages to convince the reader that without the vital role of media, without the coercive messages of the media, without the nation unified by media in World War II, America may have well lost--a fact often forgotten in other books that  focus on battle and bloodshed. The only criticism the book can draw is that fact that it delves too widely and not deeply enough. For the most part, it gives only lists of works, songs, or scripts for examples instead of analyzing certain, significant works of media and their impact. This turns the book into a monotonous read, leaving the reader wishing for more thought provoking content towards the later chapters.

Nonetheless, this book remains a must read for those that wish to learn more about World War II from the civilian point-of-view. It is a powerful reminder that war is not just fought by soldiers but by citizens as well.

1. Braverman, Jordan. To Hasten the Homecoming: How Americans Fought World War II Through the Media. Lanham, Md: Madison Books, 1996. Print. 11
2. Braverman, Jordan.  117
3. Braverman, Jordan.  186
4. Braverman, Jordan.  243
5. Santos, Benjain B. "To Hasten the Homecoming: How Americans Fought World War II Through the Media." Armor Jan.-Feb. 1998: 60. Web.