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Americans and the Holocaust


Propaganda and the American Public

For most Americans today, the term propaganda brings to mind lies, brainwashing, and tyranny. Yet, like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the United States saw a great increase in the use of political messaging in the early twentieth century. As this collection demonstrates, both Germany and the United States employed propaganda to influence American public opinion about Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust.

The documents, illustrations, and recordings assembled here are examples of propaganda distributed by both the United States and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Taken together, they show how wars are not only fought with weapons, but also information and messaging. Armed with propaganda, both governments sought to influence American citizens' opinions and secure public support in a time of conflict.

Although the concept of propaganda1 dates back to ancient times, it first gained widespread use as a tool for mass persuasion during World War I (WWI), when all the warring powers used it to motivate their populations and weaken their enemies. 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 congressional and public criticism after the war. Concern arose over the fact that wartime propaganda had worsened widespread suspicion of and discrimination against individuals and groups not deemed to be "100 percent Americans." Later revelations about the fabricated nature of many "atrocity stories" during the war made Americans more skeptical about propaganda.

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

During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, Congress, and many other Americans remained fearful of propaganda in the years preceding the Second World War. 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, which 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, which required persons "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 the new Germany in the United States. Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda and Public Englightenment identified propaganda campaigns as an effective means to counter negative press reports about the regime's violence against political opponents and Jews. By the end of the 1930s, as Nazi Germany drove Europe into war, a new goal was added: 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 the Reich while making an appeal to American antisemitism.

Throughout the 1930s, Americans grew fearful of Nazi, Soviet, Italian, and Japanese propaganda in the United States.5 Yet they also believed that Great Britain and Jewish leaders and organizations were using propaganda to draw America into the Second World War. Isolationists like the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh made headlines by accusing American Jews and FDR of being pro-war agitators. That year Congress launched an investigation into the film and radio industry to determine if Jewish moguls in Hollywood were promoting pro-war propaganda as entertainment to direct public opinion and foreign policy.

Educators, too, 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 current politics, the IPA provided teachers and students with materials to make them more critical consumers of information. A leaflet included in this collection, "Hitler Wants You to Believe...," worked to the same effect: readers were warned to be skeptical of rumors spread by the Nazis and their allies.

Despite his reservations about 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 "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 the Nazis’ capacity for brutality. While the purpose behind such accounts was to supply the public with "all the facts about the war and the enemy," it could also stir outrage and action.

Beyond casting light on the dangers posed by the Axis powers, American propaganda focused on encouraging participation in the war—whether through employment in the armaments industry, conservation of valuable resources, or service in the armed forces. Recruitment posters like the one featured here touched upon patriotic themes to generate enthusiasm for joining the military.

As information about the Holocaust and other Nazi mass atrocities came to light, some concerned Americans sought to publicize these crimes in order to generate public and governmental action. America's official propaganda agencies, too, remained wary of promoting stories about Nazi crimes out of fear that they would be dismissed as "atrocity stories" like those that circulated after the First World War.

The shock that many American soldiers experienced when they encountered the concentration camps in 1945 quickly led to concerted military and governmental action to publicize Nazi crimes. A short film created to expose the horrors of Nazi camps—and to ensure that they were not dismissed as mere propaganda—appears in this collection. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's appeals to Washington in April 1945, imploring journalists and members of Congress to visit the Nazi death camps, were an attempt to ensure that such horrific atrocities would never be again attributed to "propaganda." 

Propaganda—whether in the form of artwork, radio and television broadcasts, or print media—provided both Nazi Germany and the United States an important tool for communicating and promoting official policies and actions during the Second World War. 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; "The Engineering of Consent," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 250, Communication and Social Action (Mar. 1947), 113-120.

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."

All 15 Items in the Propaganda and the American Public Collection