Today marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Office of War Information (OWI). Its purpose was to centralize the many information services of the United States government and create a single line of communication about the war to the American public. The OWI created and distributed posters, booklets, photographs, radio shows and films designed to improve morale and boost patriotism, encourage people to participate in the war effort and, most importantly, control all information Americans received about the war.
The Office of War Information created a propaganda machine that controlled all war-related information given to the public. Images and news reports were censored. Propaganda was created. Government approved ideas were included in films, radio and advertising. Anything that negatively impacted the war effort or damaged morale was removed from public consumption.
Photographers were sent across the country to document Americans doing patriotic work. They photographed workers at factories and on farms, children gathering scrap for the war effort, men and women in uniform, and social change in the form of positive images of women and African Americans – everyone “doing their bit” for the war effort.
Propaganda posters were everywhere. They encouraged Americans to join up, plant a Victory Garden, stay quiet, work in factories and on farms, watch out for the enemy (everywhere) and, most of all, support the war effort. A spokesperson for the OWI said, “People should wake up to find a visual message everywhere like news snow – every man, woman and child should be reached and moved by the message.”
Images distributed by the Office of War Information. Click to enlarge.
Radio programs, newsreels and films were an essential part of this propaganda machine. Elmer Davis, the OWI Director in 1942, said of this process, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”
This war of information was not limited to US shores; enemy troops in Europe and the Pacific were also targeted. Leaflets, newspapers in foreign languages and magazines were used to demoralize enemy soldiers and encourage them to surrender. The Psychological Warfare Division (which worked with OWI and the Office of Strategic Services) also distributed soap, matches, sewing kits and seed packs with anti-Axis messages and pro-American images.
Many in Congress did not like the operation of the Office of War Information on US soil and by 1944 most of its work was done overseas. It was shut down in September of 1945. Many Americans were never aware that their war was fought not just on the battlefield but at the movies, in their favorite magazines and on the factory floor.
Want to learn more? View six new Take a Closer Look galleries featuring propaganda posters.
Posted by Laura Sparaco, K-12 Curriculum Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.