Term Paper: Propaganda

Pages: 9 (2442 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: American History  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] But government officials of the time - equally enraptured by a technology that was just as new to them - were quick to understand how film could be enlisted as a means of propaganda. Americans might well be persuaded by the nascent sorcery of the silver screen to want to start sending soldiers Over There.

It should be pointed out that the Wilson Administration's anti-isolationship propaganda was never limited to film alone, although film was arguably its most powerful and effective tool.

Overseeing the distribution of propaganda (both to Americans as well as abroad) was The Committee on Public Information (and what a wonderfully Orwellian title that is), which was established via executive order by Wilson in April of 1917. The committee included the secretaries of state, war and the navy along with George Creel, a journalist known more for his effectiveness than his subtlety. The committee would for the rest of the war oversee the publication of posters and pamphlets and the creation of films.

The posters were certainly effective - their bold and simple and uplifting images remain effective even today. Moreover, because posters were cheap and could be made quickly, new ones could be made and up on walls in a matter of days to meet changing needs of the country.

The posters helped not only with the obvious aim of recruiting members for the armed forces, but with the parallel home-front efforts embodied in various conservation efforts, in the multiple aims of the United War Work Campaign, in the work of the Red Cross, and perhaps most notably in the rapid subscription of the Liberty and Victory loans. Each of the four Liberty loan campaigns (two in 1917, two in 1918) and the Victory loan campaign of early 1919 brought an outpouring of poster art on both the local and national levels. http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/tn2.jpg

But the films were even more effective. It wasn't necessarily that movies like "America's Answer" - a documentary in 1918 about the sending of the first 500,000 American troops to France - were great art. The were professionally made, certainly, but their power to persuade Americans in the importance of U.S. engagement in Europe relied not on artistry per se but on each film's possessing a simple, clear message.

The force of this repeated, focused message (a hallmark of effective propaganda in all media) combined with the immediacy of film won over many Americans who - had they simply been reading about the war in the newspaper - might well have remained convinced that isolationism was the best policy.

The first films created under the aegis of the committee were hardly subtle in their content or message. "Our Bridge of Ships" (1918) was a straightforward piece of propaganda on building of naval vessel and "Pershing's Crusaders," also released that year, was a celebratory documentary on that leader.

But it was not only government officials who wanted to use the power of film to get Americans to support the war effort. Movie producers themselves were enthusiastic, seeing in the making of patriotic, sweeping epics a chance to redeem themselves and their medium. While before the war, film had begun to acquire a morally questionable reputation (worse even than the theater!), during the war the status of films and of all of those involved in the making of films (from producer to director to star) improved. Thus important people in the film industry who might otherwise have been reluctant to become involved in projects that were clearly propaganda were in fact eager to sign up.

By the end of the war, some of the most famous names in the young industry of filmmaking had become engaged in making propaganda movies for the U.S. government, including Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. Movies were used not only to influence Americans to support U.S. intervention in the war and later American troops and personnel overseas, but also to sell war bonds and so to help finance the war.

One of the most famous, and most effective, of movies in terms of generating support for American forces in the war and for the Wilson Administration's anti-isolationist policies during the war was Charlie Chaplin's 1918 silent Shoulder Arms in which Chaplin disguised himself as a tree trunk on the French front in an attempt to capture Kaiser Wilheim II.

The war, although marked by Chaplin's signature antic humor, was also an attempt to relate the war from the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches, those who had experienced the fighting as "filth and loneliness and danger and indignity." Chaplin's success in conveying to a wide audience the suffering and fortitude of so many young men of different nationalities was a strong defense of American intervention in the war.

It is certainly possible that, given the direction of the war in 1917, Americans would have dropped their isolationship attitudes without the nudging of propagandistic films created by the U.S. government. But it is hard to believe that such films not only hastened a change in public opinion but fundamentally altered the views of at least some Americans, who would never afterward be able to maintain their belief in the virtues of isolation.

References

Adams, J. (ed.) (1940). Dictionary of American history. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/amposter.htm

Jacobs, D. (1975). Chaplin, the movies, & Charlie. New York: Harper Row.

Maland, C. (1995). "Chaplin" in Dictionary of American biography. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

A www.myhistory.org

Adams 436

http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/amposter.htm

Maland 116

Jacobs 54 [END OF PREVIEW]

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