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Government Radio Propaganda, 1941-1943
FDR and his administration were very much aware of the public's distaste for propaganda, as well as the suspicions of their political opponents. From 1939 to 1941, Roosevelt and his advisers were forced to walk a very fine line. They went out of their way to assure politicians, the media, and the public that the government was not going to censor information; nor was it going to initiate a large-scale propaganda bureaucracy as long as the United States was not a belligerent. FDR persistently rejected the early demands for a government propaganda agency, which high-ranking cabinet members such as Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Vice President Henry Wallace, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox were calling for. Roosevelt and his close advisers understood that a central propaganda agency established prior to America's entry into war would become the target of every political enemy of the administration.
Yet during the same period, the government vastly increased its informational network, especially under the cover of the emerging defense effort. The two departments most actively involved in the radio defense effort were War and Treasury, both of which started their broadcast activities well before America's entry into the war. In late 1940 the War Department began collaborating with the networks on programs illustrating life in military training camps. As early as April 1941, it had established a Radio Division within its Bureau of Public Relations. This division was headed by Edward W. Kirby, formerly director of public relations of the National Association of Broadcasters, and started out with seven staff members, all with prior experience in broadcasting.
Early in 1941 the Treasury Department began collaborating with the networks through both commercial and noncommercial radio programs to promote the sale of defense bonds and stamps. Its best-known noncommercial offering was The Treasury Hour, later called The Treasury Star Parade. The program was produced in New York, with transcriptions offered to all radio stations interested in playing them. The number of subscribing radio stations quickly rose from fewer than 300 in late 1941 to 830 stations in the country (out of a total of 920) by the summer of 1942; some radio stations even played the same show several times a week. Well-known writers such as Norman Rosten, Arch Oboler, Stephen Vincent Benét, Thomas Wolfe, Violet Atkins, and Neal Hopkins volunteered their time and service; scores of actors and actresses, including Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery, did the same.
Yet these programs were just the tip of the iceberg. By late 1941 a basic infrastructure for information and publicity under government supervision was once again in place, justified by America's campaign of preparedness. The main links of this network were the Office of Government Reports (OGR), the Information Division of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF). The OGR was created in mid-1939 to monitor American public opinion and to relay "the opinions, desires and complaints of the citizens" to the Executive Office. An important new agency created in connection with the inauguration of the Defense Program in June 1940 was the Division of Information of the OEM. Its task was to provide central information services to the Office of Civilian Defense, the Office of Price Administration, and other new defense agencies. Finally, the OFF was established as the first centralized agency to oversee all information and propaganda campaigns for the defense effort. From late 1941 to mid-1942, it coordinated most of the domestic propaganda campaigns. In June 1942 it was replaced by the Office of War Information, under the leadership of Elmer Davis.
When Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, thus, the U.S. government was not caught unprepared. A basic propaganda network was in place, though it had too many heads and too little coordination. Even more significantly, most Americans were ill prepared to answer one critical question: What was this war all about? With hindsight, many people consider World War II a "good war," probably the clearest case of a war that provided justifiable reasons to fight. Yet for many Americans in late 1941 and early 1942, these reasons were not obvious. When asked by a government survey as late as the spring of 1942 whether they had "a clear idea of what the war is all about," respondents were evenly divided. Half said they knew "what the war was about," but the other half said they did not.
This, then, was the biggest challenge throughout 1942, and radio joined the propaganda campaign. The purpose was, as described by poet-turned-propagandist Archibald MacLeish, to explain to Americans what their country was fighting for and "to make the war their own." While all of radio-both commercial and noncommercial programming -joined the war effort right away, in this chapter and the next I will discuss noncommercial, government-sponsored broadcasts only. In contrast with commercial radio, these broadcasts were directly initiated and supervised by one of the propaganda agencies and were aired without commercial sponsorship, similar to network sustaining programs.
Despite the collective memory of the Great War and the New Deal crusades, as well as considerable partisan political doubts, government radio propaganda gained a new lease on life, which extended from mid-1941 through early 1943. Yet it was based on an uneasy truce because the public had not forgotten past lessons and remained distrustful of government propaganda. And it was fraught with tensions because Republicans and conservative politicians remained skeptical about the Roosevelt administration's political intentions. Robert Taft spoke for his party when he commented on the renewed battle for the hearts and minds of Americans: "The New Dealers are determined to make the country over under the cover of war if they can." And as the government radio propaganda got under way, many Americans had a nagging sense of déjà vu: all this seemed very familiar.
Government Radio Propaganda after Pearl Harbor: Fighting for What?
The first noncommercial government radio program after the attack on Pearl Harbor was broadcast on December 15, 1941. The show had been scheduled since mid-November to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Bill of Rights. William B. Lewis, the new director of the Radio Division of the OFF and former vice president of CBS, had asked his friend Norman Corwin to write a radio play. Corwin, one of the best radio writers in the late 1930s and 1940s, had worked for CBS for a number of years. He had just completed his series of weekly drama shows, Twenty-six by Corwin, and agreed to do the program. Even before America's entry into the war, this show was planned as a first-class radio event and was scheduled to play during prime time. Lewis sought to sign up Hollywood stars, and President Roosevelt was scheduled to conclude the performance with a short talk.
The fact that We Hold These Truths, as Corwin's play was titled, was broadcast just eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor gave it new significance. It also assured the participation of a first-class cast: James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Bob Burns, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles were among the actors, while Leopold Stokowski led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the national anthem. The president gave a short talk as planned. Corwin wrote a measured yet emotional radio play, in which he mixed the recitation of the first ten amendments to the Constitution with dramatic historical interludes and somber reminders for his listeners of what the Bill of Rights represented:
And then they framed amendments to the Constitution.... The Congress of the thirteen states, instructed by the people of the thirteen states, threw up a bulwark, wrote a hope, and made a sign for posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race-haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists, the men who give up fights that have been just begun.
It was no coincidence that the play had been written for the moment-for a confused and bewildered American people still trying to figure out what this war was all about. Corwin had been a committed antifascist and internationalist long before the official declaration of war, and We Hold These Truths was his first opportunity to indicate the stakes involved in the war to a large national audience, an estimated sixty million Americans. As he stressed in his play, the legacy of the Bill of Rights included having to fight for the liberties it secured:
Smith: Why, the more these amendments make us free, the more they'll be hated by those who don't want freedom because it spoils their game....
Friend: You mean to say we're gonna have to fight all over again to keep our independence? Hope it don't get a habit.
Smith: I hope it does! It's a pretty good habit to get into, fightin' for your rights. There's always somebody waitin' for a chance to steal valuables -and if freedom ain't a valuable, I don't know what is.
We Hold These Truths brought Corwin national recognition and made him an immediate candidate for the production of a larger propaganda series that the OFF had in mind in early 1942. Archibald MacLeish, who headed the propaganda agency at the time, and Lewis, who led the Radio Division, succeeded in signing Corwin up for the job and convinced him to start the series as soon as possible. The series-called This Is War!-premiered on Valentine's Day of 1942. For the next thirteen weeks, the half-hour program was heard every Saturday at 7:00 p.m., EST, broadcast by all four networks simultaneously over more than seven hundred stations. The scheduling as well as the national four-network hookup were unique for a government series and were not repeated throughout the war (except for FDR's fireside chats). The program was also shortwaved in seven foreign languages.
As the first show, "America at War," indicated, the series was candid, direct, and hard-hitting: "What we say tonight has to do with blood and bone and with anger, and also with a big job in the making. Laughter can wait. Soft music can have an evening off. No one is invited to sit down and take it easy. Later, later. There's a war on." The show was direct in addressing the American audience and in its incitement of hatred for the enemy. "What is the enemy? We know what we are, but what is the enemy?" the film star Robert Montgomery rhetorically asked his audience in this first episode. Then he answered his own question:
The enemy is Murder International, Murder Unlimited; quick murder on the spot or slow murder in the concentration camp, murder for listening to the short-wave radio, for marrying a Pole, for Propagation of the Faith, for speaking one's mind, for trading with a non-Aryan, for being an invalid too long.... The enemy is a liar also. A gigantic and deliberate and willful liar.
Corwin referred to popular images of enemy atrocities, not much different from German atrocity stories during World War I: "The enemy is laughter over the bloody stump, the cold smile of the officer watching while the hostage digs his own grave, the coarse joke over the girl just raped. The enemy is the torture gag, officially approved, given the nod by the High Command."
Corwin wrote only six of the thirteen shows, yet he established the overall character of the series. Not all of the episodes were as harshly worded as the first one, and most tried to put the current conflict in perspective. Americans were reminded of heroic battles of the past, of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They were warned not to become stooges for the Nazis by passing on rumors, and they were candidly prepared for the sacrifices to come, including the possibility that many Americans would die in the fight. As poet Stephen Vincent Benét told his audience in the fourth show, entitled "Your Army":
Men are going to die-very good men are going to die. They are going to die in the jungles for the shape of a Virginia field and the cross-roads store back home-they're going to die in the cold, for the clear air of Montana and the smell of a New York street....
And-what are we going to do, sitting here at our radios? Squabble some more? Write letters to the papers? Curse out the Government? Spread the lies that divided a people? ... There's bad news now, and there's going to be bad news for quite a while. The Army knows that. Our enemies aren't pushovers-they are skillful, savage and relentless. They have trained for years for this chance to enslave the world-and that's just what they mean to do.
A confidential survey conducted by the Hooper polling firm for the OFF showed that This Is War! had garnered very respectable ratings. For the first seven episodes, they fluctuated between 19 and 24 percent, or an approximate average audience of twenty million listeners per program. Apparently, Americans, frightened by the war and reached in large numbers through the four-network hookup, were willing to give government propaganda another chance. Moreover, the report also suggested that many listeners had not been turned off by this propaganda, since the majority of those tuning in for the seventh broadcast had listened to at least one previous episode.
Yet judging from some audience responses, which Corwin read on the last broadcast, "Yours Received and Content Noted," even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans remained skeptical of propaganda. "Must you reach into our living rooms and remind us of the facts of death?" asked one listener, Ethel Meriden. "I believe the purpose of your program is to arouse hate among the millions of your listeners," Mrs. M. Hansen wrote. "This is wrong." Others objected to the demand for sacrifices: "For years, before the war, I was up against it," wrote Henry J. Miller, referring to the hard times he had lived through during the Great Depression. "I was out of a job most of the time, but now I've got work and make a little money.... Why shouldn't people like me who've never had the good things of life be permitted to make up for lost time?" These critical listener responses and the continued reluctance many Americans felt toward propaganda suggest that the series was at best a mixed success.
If the popular vote was undecided, the political response was clear: the series did not play well with FDR's political opponents. One constant suspicion among Republican and conservative politicians was that FDR and his New Dealers would twist government propaganda to promote their own political vision. As This Is War! demonstrated, their fears were well justified.
Excerpted from RADIO GOES TO WAR by GERD HORTEN Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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