Political Indoctrination in the U.S. Army from World War II to the Vietnam War

Political Indoctrination in the U.S. Army from World War II to the Vietnam War

by Christopher S. DeRosa


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803224865
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 04/17/2009
Series: Studies in War, Society, and the Military Series
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Christopher S. DeRosa is an assistant professor of history at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

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Political Indoctrination in the U.S. Army from World War II to the Vietnam War

By Christopher S. DeRosa

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Anxious to Work Bodily Destruction Political Indoctrination in World War II

Shortly before the United States entered World War II, it set up a political indoctrination program for its draftees and volunteers. With little in the way of an inheritance from World War I, those who labored to counteract enlistees' flagging morale had to invent programs and procedures almost entirely anew. As in many other aspects of the nationwide undertaking, the creators of the war orientation program met their mission with an optimistic spirit of innovation. The army mobilized accomplished filmmakers, writers, and social scientists to craft occasionally stunning propaganda. It charged officers with the "indoctrination of hatred" in lectures to the troops. Implementation of the program revealed, however, that commanders often considered it a waste of time, and though troops enjoyed the films they sometimes found the weekly sessions oppressive. As the social scientists learned, these methods were only marginally effective. Propaganda, no matter how well made, could not overrule men's instinct for self-preservation.

After the fall of France in June 1940, and before the Germans turned on their Soviet allies a year later, the global peril was evident enough for the United States to raise an army forthe defense of the western hemisphere, if nothing else. Although dwarfed by the outpouring of patriotism after the empire of Japan's attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, the reintroduction of Selective Service in 1940 produced its own wave of patriotic and willing volunteers and draftees. However, it also swept into the ranks many reluctant citizen-soldiers who blamed their boredom, confinement, and endangerment on what they took as America's decision to fight Great Britain's war. On August 12, 1941, Congress voted, quite narrowly, to extend the soldiers' term of service past the original year. Some disgruntled draftees, believing that the extension was a breach of contract and convinced that the international situation was not really that grave, spoke openly of going "Over the Hill in October" when their initial year of enlistment ended. New York Times reporter Hilton Howell Railey investigated the matter confidentially for the army and claimed that such talk was alarmingly common in the camps.

Given the reports of significant discontent, Gen. George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, instructed the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations to prepare a lecture series for the soldiers on the purpose of the war. Given the prevailing attitude that morale was best maintained by the time-honored device of keeping soldiers busy, there was little in the way of an established apparatus to carry out Marshall's order. The decision to indoctrinate draftees politically thus came in response to this immediate morale problem rather than out of the army's past experiences. Nevertheless, the World War II programs had antecedents in America's previous wars.

Antecedents of Political Indoctrination

The army's political indoctrination programs always claimed a lineage reaching back to George Washington, who on occasion tried to raise his army's spirits with inspirational words invoking the political goals of the Revolution. Washington's distribution of pamphlets and other political speeches was opportunistic, rather than programmatic, morale building. The first nation in modern history to attempt to manufacture soldiers' political attitudes systematically was revolutionary France in the 1790s. To thwart counterrevolutionary activity in its armies, the government's Committee on Public Safety tried to educate the troops as to whom they owed their true allegiance. Soldiers received political journals, learned songs with patriotic lyrics, and attended ceremonies celebrating the revolution. With these tools, the government tried to undermine the soldiers' immediate loyalties, especially toward their officers and generals, and replace them with a purer, abstract devotion to the patrie.

Not until half a century later, in the American Civil War, did the United States became a nation-in-arms on the scale of revolutionary France. Associations of private citizens, concerned with soldiers' dedication to the Union cause, circulated pamphlets and newspapers in the armies' camps. At the same time the administration of President Abraham Lincoln made some limited attempts to curtail soldiers' access to hostile pamphlets and newspapers. The materials soldiers received, however, were not generated under government or army auspices. The North's political parties vied for soldiers' hearts, minds, and votes just as they would any segment of the electorate.

Democrats argued that men in uniform could not act as freethinking citizens. They feared a moblike "bayonet vote" that would uniformly favor the commander in chief. The Republicans, confident of their campaign's popularity with the troops (and, not inconsequentially, their superior ability to communicate with the armies), upheld the political integrity of the citizen-soldier. In their campaign materials Republicans flattered the soldiers' judgment and played on their contempt for Copperheads (peace Democrats). One of their 1864 pamphlets, entitled, A Few Plain Words with the Rank and File of the Union Armies, stated: "Napoleon wittily warned governments to 'beware when bayonets should learn to think;' but with us far from being a subject of fear, it is our glory and pride that the war for the Union has been upheld by a million of 'thinking bayonets.' ... This election touches you, because in becoming soldiers you did not cease to be citizens." Given these differing approaches, it was hardly a surprise that when they went to the polls the soldiers endorsed the Republicans' prosecution of the war to an even greater degree than did the civilian electorate.

The American military itself did not set up a program to indoctrinate troops politically until late in World War I. As in the Civil War, the government provided channels through which civilian propaganda could reach soldiers. In 1917, however, President Woodrow Wilson's administration did not merely pass on the products of patriotic leagues and party loyalists. It centralized control of the propaganda under its own agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), led by progressive journalist George Creel. The CPI produced films, pamphlets, posters, and slide shows that promoted American war aims and crafted a frightening portrait of the enemy. It deployed seventy-five thousand speakers, known as Four Minute Men, to cover the countryside, making four-minute speeches or singing patriotic songs. Early in 1918 the War Department asked the CPI to reissue some of the Four Minute Man presentations to company commanders to deliver to the troops. Creel remembered that "We went far beyond the request and furnished hundreds of officers with regular Four Minute Men bulletins as well as with the Committee's pamphlets. All were expected to make 'morale talks' to their men, yet nothing was done to aid them, and the publications of the Committee were their one hope." In 1917 and 1918 the CPI and the Signal Corps produced newsreels and longer films and sent them, "free of charge, to the encampments in the United States as well as to the picture-shows on the firing line in France."

The potential effects of military life on citizen-soldiers worried segments of the American public, and they urged the Wilson administration to guard against socially unacceptable behavior in and around the camps. In response the government set up the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA), an organization under whose umbrella various civilian groups (such as the Young Men's Christian Association and the American Library Association) strove to make army life more wholesome. Nancy K. Bristow, in her 1996 book Making Men Moral, located these moralizing efforts in the Progressive Era tendency of white middle-class Protestants to exalt their own value system as the American standard. Like the settlement houses established to aid immigrants, the CTCA simultaneously provided comforts to soldiers and demanded social conformity.

Political indoctrination was not a primary concern of the CTCA. Rather, its first mission was to safeguard soldiers' sexual purity. The fact that venereal diseases impaired military efficiency goes only so far in explaining the zeal that animated the organization on this point. As Bristow described it, the CTCA's methods for actively policing soldiers' sexual behavior included forming civilian leagues to harass camp followers and distributing pamphlets and films to dramatize the dishonor that befell sexually active men-a fate far worse than death on the battlefield. The CTCA discouraged drinking, close dancing, the reading of improper books, and the watching of improper movies. Never before had a civilian agency tried to exert such control over soldiers' lives.

Although many of the reform-minded organizers who flourished in the early part of the twentieth century feared that their social work would be thrust aside when America entered the war, some, including the CTCA officials, realized that the war would be a vehicle well suited for promoting their values. In this way the Great War and the progressives were made for one another. The administrators of the American Expeditionary Force and their civilian allies made unprecedented efforts to impose order on the process of raising an army. They created the Selective Service system to manage the flow of inductees, then sorted and rated the recruits with intelligence and psychological tests. Volunteers and draftees made up a sizable captive audience for experiments in citizenship training and social engineering.

Not all interested observers agreed with the CTCA's premise that camp life degraded soldiers. Prewar advocates of universal military training and service invited young men to their encampment in Plattsburgh, New York, with the idea that paramilitary training was a character-building experience. Some Plattsburghers, such as Theodore Roosevelt, claimed that mixing men in the training camps would help them overcome class and ethnic differences and forge instead a common identity as equal, democratic, and robust citizens. Former army chief of staff Leonard Wood was just as optimistic about the benefits for industry if universal military training could accustom a workforce to regimented life and condition it to obey orders.

Whether their purposes were democratic or undemocratic, supporters of the conscription movement assumed that the army could properly teach citizenship to Americans. Many progressives wanted American education to level class distinctions amongst students and bring them up as political equals. When the army assumed the role of a "school of the nation" through the World War I draft the goals of its civics training was quite different, however. Implicit in its vision was the idea that military discipline promoted good citizenship, not the other way around. This model was the opposite of philosopher John Dewey's blueprint for democratic education, which advocated teaching democracy by immersing students in its practice.

In May 1918 the army established its own Morale Branch to tend to the soldiers' mental well-being, with Brig. Gen. Edward Lyman Munson from the Medical Corps as chief. Since the previous January Munson had lobbied for a means to formalize the manufacture of enthusiasm.


Excerpted from Political Indoctrination in the U.S. Army from World War II to the Vietnam War by Christopher S. DeRosa Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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