In the spring and summer of 1941, the Second World War began to spiral into a truly global conflict. In 1940, the World War was, in reality, a combination of several regional conflicts around the globe and couldn’t truly be classified as a global war. In Europe, Hitler’s Germany had overrun most of the continent and stood along the Soviet Border in an anxious truce with Stalin’s Soviet Union. In Asia, the Japanese Empire had gained control over much of the eastern seaboard including vital points such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and the Korean Peninsula. Finally, in Africa, the Axis powers had invaded Egypt and were beginning to spread along the Mediterranean seaboard. In 1941, however, the major world powers that had been notably absent from much military conflict, the United States and the Soviet Union, would enter and merge these regional conflicts into the first truly global war.
On May 8th 1941, the escalation of war was very apparent in the media. The newspapers accounted for the merging of conflicts that soon came to a decisive point of decision, which was whether or not the United States would join the Allied forces. As well as supplying information about the war to many citizens, the media was an important weapon in itself. The swaying of civilian views on the war was vital for all countries involved in the conflict, and the best medium for this persuasion was the mass media. Newspapers from around the world reported, predicted (often incorrectly), persuaded and in some cases affected the events occurring in the war. From ads and comic strips, to articles and pictures, the newspapers of May 8th 1941, not only transferred information to the masses, but transformed the views of the masses, and in a part, the outcome of the war.
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In May of 1941, there was no visible end in sight to a war that was just continuing to expand. The European war was now in the skies and the seas as the Luftwaffe pounded British cities and factories, while the German submarines sank supply ships crossing the Atlantic. It was becoming clear that Great Britain was in desperate need of aid beyond just the supplies the United States was sending. There was growing internal and international pressure on the American government to intervene in the war, and the media swarmed around the possibility. Then on May 7, 1941, the American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, delivered a speech to congress forecasting possible American intervention in the war. This sent shockwaves around the globe as the allied and axis powers responded to this potential shift in the global conflict. In London, Stimson’s speech was somewhat altered into the headline “We will be at war soon, says Washington”. Perhaps this headline was used as a gimmick to sell papers to a nation desperate for some good news, or perhaps it was used as a motivational tactic, but either way, there was a visible spin put on the story by the British Press. In Vancouver, the media seemed to corroborate the British press release by stating the headline “The U.S. on Verge of War” , but after a closer look the paper seemed to retract the headline by stating that this was a belief among “The top flight of Washington Columnists” and not of anyone with actual political power. Still, the article states that these columnists “Know more of what is going on in the highest government circles than do most cabinet members”. Stimson’s speech may have seemed significant to Allied media sources, but there was a much different story told in the government-controlled media of the Axis powers.
Stimson’s speech evoked a much different response from German and Italian papers since both countries were wary of American intervention in the war. The Associated Press ran the headline “Nazis Assert Stimson Plea is War Threat” in which they outline the Nazi reaction. Hitler apparently dismissed Stimson’s speech as “the product of ‘mental disturbance'” and the German press, strictly a propaganda distributor, said that Stimson hadn’t “the slightest idea about real happenings in Europe”. In Italy, The Stefani, the official Italian news agency corroborated the Nazi view and likewise dismissed Stimson’s speech as insignificant. The New York Times claims that The Stefani didn’t even annotate the speech and “instead of giving readers a fair summary of Mr. Stimson’s address, ridicule[d] it in a half-column of polemics.” Clearly, both opposing media views construe and manipulate one story into two very different accounts, neither of which are very accurate. Japan by this time had already signed a pact with Germany and Italy, yet remained a U.S. trading partner, so Stimson’s speech also held some significance with them. The Washington Post ran the headline “Expected U.S. Moves Make Japan Uneasy”. However, the article contained no primary Japanese sources except rumors of “increasing uneasiness over their relations with the United States”. The interesting point about the Japanese article, however, is not its’ contents, but its placement; on the seventh page. Judging from American media sources and their lack of Japanese coverage, Americans believed there was no present or even imminent danger from the Japanese Empire, perhaps a sign of American overconfidence judging from what occurred at Pearl Harbor eight months later.
Aside from straight forward news articles and editorials, the newspapers of World War Two used pictures and comic strips to illustrate and often misconstrue events in and around the war. Often there were pictures of smiling soldiers such as the one to the right (Figure 1) , whereas pictures of bloodied and shell-shocked soldiers, which would have shown the reality of war, were noticeably absent.
This is an understandable use of propaganda since citizen and military morale alike couldn’t possibly benefit from seeing the death and destruction that was actually taking place, so instead, soldiers are viewed as fearless, victorious and heroic. However, whenever photos of the enemy are shown, soldiers are often dehumanized to create a feeling of fear and hatred of a “war machine” such as the photo to the right showing a German parade in Athens (figure 2). Again, this clearly illustrates the use of the media as a motivating factor for war, rather than just a news medium.
Comic strips were used extensively in World War Two in order to, like many of the pictures, dehumanize war and create a false idea of what war was actually like. As well, some comic relief was undoubtedly welcome after pages and pages of serious information, such as casualty numbers and battle reports. In May of 1941, Iraq, a British controlled area, was under siege from Axis powers eager to get their hands on much needed oil. Hitler was depicted in several comic strips as the “Thief of Baghdad” coming to steal away allied oil. Below are two variations of the same idea for a comic strip printed in the Vancouver Sun (figure 3) and the New York Times (figure 4)
In both strips Hitler is seen as a bumbling thief, a propaganda tactic used to make the enemy look foolish to readers. The comic strips of World War Two were very similar to the political cartoons found in contemporary media sources. Through the use of humour, the media could dictate viewer’s conceptions of political leaders or groups, and thus undermine that leader’s credibility.
Perhaps the most obvious of all media propaganda used in World War Two were the advertisements found in newspapers. In 1941 the Canadian and British papers were filled with recruiting ads for the armed forces, since, unlike the United States, both countries were already heavily involved in conflict. However, beyond the blatant recruitment advertisements that had little in terms of concealed meanings, bar the misleading illustrations of heroic and fearless warriors, were the regular advertisements for everyday household items. These advertisements contained straight forward references, vague allusions or even slightly subliminal undertones relating to the war. For example any actual information in the advertisement to the right (figure 5) for an antiseptic is overshadowed by the highlighted selling phrase “No peace for the wicked” . The statement in the advertisement has little to do with the actual product but hopes to gain profit by capitalizing on the ongoing war by linking “wicked” infected cuts and scrapes with the wicked Third Reich. Minor allusions like these were very common and profitable since buyers assumed on some level that any product that was connected with the Allied cause was worth buying. Advertisers portrayed the idea that buyers were somehow supporting their troops and doing their duty by purchasing their products.
In other cases such as the advertisement to the right (figure 6) , there were advertised products directly related to the war. The headline of the bold and capitalized phrase “HITLER CAN BE STOPPED” jumps out and grabs the reader’s attention instantly since Hitler was a name that could evoke interest out of nearly any citizen. Only after the advertisers draw the reader’s attention with this phrase do they actually state what they are selling, in this case a book about the war. For many industries, war can be used as a very effective selling point since advertisers can draw upon one common appeal that is unique in a war time period; the belief in eventual victory.
Given the evidence, the media of World War Two was clearly far more than just a news medium. Although one of the key factors behind journalistic integrity has always been to avoid involvement in a story, the media of World War Two was not only involved in, but strongly affected, the events of the Second World War. Every country involved was guilty of using mass propaganda to brainwash whole societies into believing that what they were doing was right. However, the sources cannot be dismissed as useless accounts simply because of heavy bias. It is the contrast and comparison of extremely different accounts of the same situation that illustrate just how important the media was during World War Two.