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Americans and the Holocaust


Propaganda and the American Public

For many people, the word "propaganda" brings to mind the lies and misinformation created by totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany. However, propaganda also shaped public opinion in the United States during the 20th century. These sources show how Nazi Germany and the US both used different kinds of propaganda messaging to influence Americans' attitudes about Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust.

The documents, illustrations, and recordings featured here are all examples of different types of propaganda—created and distributed by both the United States and Nazi Germany—that targeted the American public in the 1930s and 1940s. They illustrate how wars are not only fought with weapons, but also with information and messaging. Armed with propaganda, both governments tried to shape American citizens' opinions and secure public support in a time of conflict.

Although the concept of propaganda1 dates back to ancient times, its first widespread modern use occurred during World War I. The warring powers used propaganda to motivate their own populations and to weaken their enemies' will to fight. Like the tank, airplane, and battleship, propaganda became an essential and powerful weapon in modern warfare. Its supporters argued that it could shorten wars and ultimately save human lives by convincing the enemy to surrender.

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President Woodrow Wilson established the first US propaganda agency in 1917,2 a move that received strong criticism after the war. Concern arose over the fact that wartime propaganda had deepened widespread suspicions of—and discrimination against—many marginalized people who were accused of not being "100 percent Americans." Later revelations about the fabricated nature of many so-called "atrocity stories" during the war made Americans more skeptical about propaganda.

A public debate in the United States concerning the effects of propaganda emerged shortly after WWI. In the 1920s and 1930s, scholars in America and Europe published the first scientific analyses of propaganda and its functions.3 Some commentators feared that now Americans were living in an "age of lies" that threatened democracy and freedom of the press by distorting and falsifying the news.4

During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, Congress, and many private citizens remained fearful of propaganda in the years before World War II. Concern over foreign influence in American politics emerged with renewed strength. Beginning in 1934, Congress began investigating Nazi Germany's propaganda efforts in the United States. This led to the creation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1938. That same year, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring people who were "employed by agencies to disseminate propaganda in the United States" to register with the State Department.

Soon after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, senior Nazi official Joseph Goebbels began working to create a positive image of Germany's new regime in the United States. Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda and Public Englightenment focused on countering negative reports about the regime's violence against Jews and political opponents. A new goal was added by the end of the 1930s as Nazi Germany drove Europe into war—encourage isolationism in America and keep the United States out of the conflict. A Nazi pamphlet included in this collection—recovered by an American college student—attempts to paint a favorable image of Germany while making an appeal to American antisemitism.5

Throughout the 1930s, Americans grew fearful of Nazi, Soviet, Italian, and Japanese propaganda in the United States.6 Many people also believed that Great Britain and Jewish leaders and organizations were using propaganda to draw America into WWII. Isolationists like the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh made headlines by accusing American Jews and President Roosevelt of being pro-war agitators.7 That year Congress launched an investigation into the film and radio industry to determine if Jewish people working in Hollywood were promoting pro-war propaganda in an attempt to direct public opinion and foreign policy.

Educators also worried that Americans could fall prey to propaganda. As a result, schools began to teach students how to identify propaganda. The newly created Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) continued these activities. Using examples from politics, the IPA provided teachers and students with materials to make them more critical consumers of information. A leaflet included in this collection titled "Hitler Wants You to Believe...," also tried to show Americans how to see through Nazi propaganda. Readers were warned to be skeptical of rumors spread by the Nazi regime and its allies.

Though wary of the dangers of propaganda, President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. The agency coordinated the government's messaging about the war effort through film, radio, newspapers, posters, and pamphlets. OWI officials wanted to avoid the mistakes of the past war by toning down so-called "hate propaganda." They stated that the OWI "must give the people a truthful, clear, and uncompromising picture of the enemy." This task, they maintained, was impossible without providing a "frank account of what the enemy does." One OWI poster featured in this collection—released following the 1942 murders of hundreds of innocent Czech civilians—reflects horror and dismay at Nazi brutality. While the purpose was to inform the public about "all the facts about the war and the enemy," these accounts were also intended to stir outrage and generate action.

US propaganda during World War II did not only expose and highlight the dangers posed by the Axis powers. American propaganda also focused on encouraging participation in the war—through employment in the armaments industry, conservation of valuable resources, or service in the armed forces. Posters like the one featured here touched upon patriotic themes to generate enthusiasm for joining the military.

As information about the Holocaust came to light, some concerned Americans sought to publicize these crimes in order to generate public and governmental action. But America's official propaganda agencies hesitated to promote stories about Nazi crimes. They feared that they would be dismissed as "atrocity stories" like those that circulated after World War I.

The shock that many American soldiers experienced when they encountered the Nazi concentration camp system in 1945 quickly led to actions publicizing Nazi crimes. A short film created to expose the horrors of Nazi camps appears in this collection. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's remarks in April 1945 implored journalists and members of Congress to visit the killing centers themselves in order to bear firsthand witness and to ensure that these crimes could never be dismissed as propaganda.

Whether through artwork, radio and television broadcasts, or print media, propaganda provided both Nazi Germany and the US important tools for communicating and promoting official policies and actions during World War II. No major power recognized this more clearly than the Third Reich, but the United States also used propaganda to advance its war aims. Indeed, in the battle for Americans' hearts and minds, it proved perhaps the most powerful weapon.

In this collection, propaganda is defined as biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior. It can be spread by governments, political parties, or private organizations to advertise a particular cause, movement, candidate, or nation. It generally plays upon emotions, selectively omits information, and succeeds when its targeted audiences respond positively to its messages.

For more information on the roots of American propaganda, see Alan Axelrod, Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

For an interesting discussion of this public debate, see Erika G. King, "Exposing the 'Age of Lies': The Propaganda Menace as Portrayed in American Magazines in the Aftermath of World War I," Journal of American Culture, Vol. 23, Issue 2 (June 2000), 17-23.

“Propaganda—Asset or Liability in Democracy?" America’s Town Meeting of the Air, Series Two, Number 22, April 15, 1937 (New York: American Book Company, 1937), 12-14; for additional information on Bernay’s views on propaganda, see also Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928); "Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How," The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 6 (May 1928), 958-971; "The Marketing of National Policies: A Study of War Propaganda," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jan., 1942), 236-244; and "The Engineering of Consent," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 250, Communication and Social Action (Mar. 1947), 113-120.

For more on antisemitism in the US, see the related collection in Experiencing History, Nazi Ideals and American Society.

Officials also warned of a so-called "Fifth Column" that was poised to sabotage industry and terrorize the population. The term "Fifth Column" dates back to the Spanish Civil War, and is attributed to Nationalist general, Emilio Mola, who reportedly announced that he was sending four military columns to advance on Madrid and had one column of sympathizers and agents operating inside the city to aid the revolt. It quickly entered into the popular vocabulary through the world press, film, and a play of the same name by Ernest Hemingway. For more, see the item in this collection, Roosevelt's Address on the "Fifth Column."

For more on Americans' perceptions of Lindbergh, see the related items in Experiencing History, Letter from Yale Students to Charles Lindbergh and "'Now We Think ---- .""

All 16 Items in the Propaganda and the American Public Collection

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