U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II

With the entry of the United States into World War II, the U.S. government took steps to protect war planning and to promote war sentiments among its citizens. Although war correspondents were permitted to work among troops on the war fronts, information regarding troop movements was carefully guarded.

Summary of Event

When World War II began in Europe in 1939, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that the United States had no agencies to handle propaganda. Such agencies would become necessary if the nation were to enter the war. To prepare for this eventuality, the president established several such agencies, as well as an office of censorship, a necessity in wartime, to suppress opposing views against the war effort. When war was declared on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt immediately mobilized for U.S. involvement in the European conflict as well. The president was a master propagandist, with considerable rhetorical skills, who realized that his mission as a wartime leader was to use those skills to provide leadership. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];censorship
Censorship;United States
Propaganda;United States
[kw]U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II (1941-1945)
[kw]Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II, U.S. (1941-1945)
[kw]Propaganda During World War II, U.S. Censorship and War (1941-1945)
[kw]World War II, U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During (1941-1945)
[kw]War II, U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World (1941-1945)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];censorship
Censorship;United States
Propaganda;United States
[g]North America;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[g]United States;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[c]Communications and media;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[c]Radio and television;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
[c]World War II;1941-1945: U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II[00090]
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military]
Davis, Elmer
Price, Byron

By the time the United States entered the war, Roosevelt already had established a propaganda effort in Latin America by creating the Office of the Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations Between the American Republics (OCCCRBAR). OCCCRBAR had been created by order of the Council of National Defense on August 16, 1940. Nelson A. Rockefeller Rockefeller, Nelson A. was appointed its coordinator. It was abolished by Executive Order 8840 (July 30, 1941), and its functions were transferred to the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs[Office of Coordinator of InterAmerican Affairs] (CIAA).

With the establishment by Congress of the Office of War Information Office of War Information, U.S. (OWI) in June, 1942, U.S. propaganda activities were coordinated under the direction of veteran radio journalist Elmer Davis. The U.S. propaganda effort under Davis was conducted in a great many different media, including books, films, leaflets, pamphlets, cartoons, comic books, comic strips, posters, documentaries, and radio broadcasts. Cartoons were an important propaganda tool. During World War II, the Hollywood studios enlisted cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, to help the war effort. A popular such cartoon was Jack Kinney’s Kinney, Jack Donald Duck Donald Duck short “Der Fuehrer’s Face” “Fuehrer’s Face, Der” (Kinney)[Fuehrers Face] (1942), which satirized the Axis leaders, introduced a catchy title song, and won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Cartoons Academy Awards;Best Short Subject, Cartoons
Animation .

An important part of the OWI’s work were the posters that very effectively communicated the office’s messages. These posters included Someone Talked! (1942); Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms (1943), inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech; and the classic Loose Lips Sink Ships. The poster, inexpensive, colorful, and immediate, was the ideal medium for delivering messages about American duties on the home front during World War II. The posters touched on all aspects of wartime life, from the factory, where workers were instructed to take shorter cigarette breaks and focus on increased production (“KILLING Time Is KILLING Men”), to the home, where conserving scarce resources was essential (“We’ll have lots to eat this winter, won’t we Mother? Grow your own”), to the farm, where eggs and meat were wartime weapons in their own right (“Our Allies Need Eggs” and “Grow It Yourself Plan a Farm Garden Now”). Victory magazine, published from 1943 to 1946 by the OWI, was similar in format to Life magazine; it was translated into at least six languages.

Motion-picture production became a joint effort between the Hollywood studios Hollywood studio system;wartime propaganda and the government; hundreds of feature-length motion pictures on war themes were produced. Nearly all Hollywood films presented a positive view of the war effort that minimized class and racial differences in American society. These included Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and The Fighting Seabees (1944). Stereotypes abounded: The Nazis were evil, Japanese were racially inferior, and the American way of life was the best in the world.

In this World War II propaganda poster, Americans are reminded never to reveal sensitive information to anyone, because “loose lips sink ships.”

(National Archives)

Also popular were documentaries. General George C. Marshall commissioned film director Frank Capra to produce the Why We Fight series Why We Fight series (Capra) , probably the most remembered of the World War II documentaries. In addition, the Information-Education Division in the War Department, which started as the Morale Services Division to produce health and training films, manufactured propaganda films as well. The first documentary of the war was actually the color footage that a Navy photographer took from a pier during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It formed the basis of John Ford’s documentary, December 7th
December 7th (Ford)[December Seventh (Ford)] (1943).

Rosie the Riveter Rosie the Riveter was another classic propaganda symbol during World War II. She was used to represent the millions of American women who took up traditionally male jobs while the men were serving in the armed forces. The original Rosie the Riveter drawing, We Can Do It by Howard Miller, was produced for the War Production Coordinating Committee. After the war ended, Rosie the Riveter became one of the most memorable and enduring images of World War II homefront propaganda.

To strengthen U.S. participation in the “war of words,” President Roosevelt established the Voice of America Voice of America
Radio;wartime propaganda (VOA) in February, 1942, as the U.S. government’s international broadcasting agency. It complemented the lesser known U.S. government broadcasting efforts that were already transmitting to the American republics under CIAA guidance. Also, many government agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Treasury, broadcast highly patriotic radio programs, such as Treasury Star Parade (1943-1944), to sell war bonds and maintain American enthusiasm for continuing the fight.

In addition to the propaganda designed to disseminate messages deemed beneficial to the war effort, the United States engaged in censorship of messages deemed harmful to that effort. The Office of Censorship Office of Censorship, U.S. was established by the president in Executive Order 8985 Executive Order 8985[Executive Order 08985] (December 19, 1941), under the authority granted to him by the first War Powers Act War Powers Act (1941) , passed only one day earlier. Roosevelt’s order authorized the director of censorship to censor “in his absolute discretion, communications by mail, cable, radio, or other means of transmission” between the United States and foreign countries. When he appointed journalist Byron Price as director of censorship, the president noted that “all Americans abhor censorship but the experience of this and of all other nations has demonstrated that some degree of censorship is essential in wartime.” Price, for his part, promised only “voluntary” domestic censorship.

The new Office of Censorship created the Code of Wartime Practices Code of Wartime Practices, U.S. , which addressed both print media (books, newspapers, magazines, and house organs) and radio broadcasts. In a spirit of cooperation, the code asked editors and broadcasters not to disclose or report any information that could be of value to the enemy, such as information on troop and ship movements. The Broadcasting Division of the censorship office monitored both domestic and foreign broadcasts. The Office of Censorship’s Press Division, which dealt mainly with newspapers and magazines, drew more media attention than any other branch of the agency because of its impact on journalists. After the war, the Office of Censorship was abolished by Executive Order 9631 Executive Order 9631[Executive Order 09631] (September 28, 1945).


During World War II, propaganda became more important for the United States than in any previous war. World War II was arguably the first truly global conflict, and it required more combat personnel, more military support personnel, and more homefront workers in war-related industries than had any previous war. As a result, a greater proportion of the populace needed to be motivated to participate wholeheartedly in the war effort. For this reason, U.S. propaganda was a combined effort that involved government agencies, the military, businesses, and civilian organizations.

Propagandists stressed American economic productivity, power, and commitment to the war effort, while emphasizing the importance of defending the American way of life. Media efforts were designed to promote the sale of war bonds, to boost military recruitment, to increase the number of women and minority workers in factories, and to persuade citizens to ration limited resources responsibly and to grow “victory gardens.” Hollywood studios cooperated with the government and with the military in film production, while the government produced its own films as well. Radio broadcasts, particularly the VOA, began in the form of a news service to occupied Europe; today, the VOA continues to broadcast. Along with propaganda came censorship, a necessary part of the wartime effort, but Price and his agency managed a fairly successful operation that existed, for the most part, harmoniously with the media. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];censorship
Censorship;United States
Propaganda;United States

Further Reading

  • Bird, William L., and Harry R. Rubenstein. Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Homefront. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. Based on the collection in the National Museum of American History and on records of the OWI, this book presents its readers with a vast number of posters and outlines the evolution of poster propaganda.
  • Cull, Nicholas J., David Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. Encyclopedia that includes several well written articles on World War II topics, alphabetically arranged, that cover the innumerable forms, methods, and practitioners of propaganda over the past five hundred years. Political movements and figures loom large in the content.
  • Daugherty, William E., ed. Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958. Casebook compilation of essays on psychological warfare and propaganda, many of which are based on personal experiences of the authors. Prepared as a training guide for military personnel assigned to psychological warfare planning and operations.
  • Davis, Elmer H., and Byron Price. War Information and Censorship. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, n.d. Two lengthy essays by the heads of the OWI and the Office of Censorship during World War II. Each author discusses the mission of his agency and its execution of that mission.
  • Holsinger, W. Paul, ed. War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Emphasis is on the nonmilitary aspect of war, specifically the homefront culture. The chapter on World War II, one of the longest in the book, features an introductory essay followed by brief descriptions of significant popular persons, events, and artifacts, among which are television programs, sculpture, songs, comic books, films, novels, and theatrical productions.

  • Paper Bullets: Great Propaganda Posters, Axis and Allied Countries, WWII. New York: Chelsea House, 1977. Lavishly illustrated compilation of beautifully reproduced posters (all in color) from both sides of World War II. Features an essay by Daniel Lerner on psychological warfare and the significant role that posters played in the propaganda war.
  • Winkler, Allan M. Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. Short history of the wartime propaganda agency, with good background on its creation. Provides more detail on the OWI’s overseas operations than on its domestic section.

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