Courtesy of Kenneth W. Rendell, Museum of World War II, Boston
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U.S. forgers distorted Hitler’s image on stamps like this one, which mimicked a real German stamp of Hitler. These fakes were placed on mail that was air-dropped into Germany as a form of covert propaganda.

Courtesy of Kenneth W. Rendell, Museum of World War II, Boston

Inside America’s Shocking WWII Propaganda Machine

More than half a century ago, the U.S. used provocative posters and fake news to influence its soldiers, its citizens, and even its enemies.

The United States was about six months into World War II when it founded the Office of War Information (OWI). Its mission: to disseminate political propaganda.

The office spread its messages through print, radio, and film—but perhaps its most striking legacy is its posters. With bright colors and sensational language, they encouraged Americans to ration their food, buy war bonds, and basically perform everyday tasks in support of the war effort. In one, a woman carrying her groceries is compared to soldiers carrying guns. The poster implies that by walking instead of driving, she is doing her patriotic duty, since “trucks and tires must last till victory.” (Read “WWII Ads Pushed Products No One Could Buy.”)

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Posters about dutiful sacrifice may inspire nostalgia today, yet the U.S. also created posters that can seem a bit shocking to modern eyes. Venereal disease posters told male soldiers that every attractive woman was a potential “booby trap” (yes, they went there). Others warned, in quite dire terms, against something called “careless talk.”

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Both the Allies and the Axis powers feared that leaked information could sabotage their troops. With that in mind, the OWI in the U.S. and Joseph Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry in Germany produced posters urging people to keep sensitive information to themselves, lest enemies overhear.

According to Stephen G. Hyslop, co-author of the National Geographic book The Secret History of World War II, the OWI struggled to find the best way to convey this message. As an example, he points to a poster that depicts a mysterious figure in a German helmet and warns “He’s Watching You.”

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This U.S. poster emphasizes the lethal consequences of “careless talk.”

“The point of the poster is it’s a German soldier” who could overhear what you say, Hyslop explains, but its message was a little too subtle. “It was actually used in war factories and it gave workers the impression that they were being watched.”

Consequently, the U.S. began to favor posters that didn’t mince words. In one of these, a woman’s image appears alongside the words “WANTED! FOR MURDER. Her careless talk costs lives.”

Even though it got right to the point, the message was still a bit strange. Most civilians didn’t have access to sensitive military information, yet the images telling them to zip their lips were pretty aggressive.

“If you compare the [U.S.] propaganda in the totalitarian countries like fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, [the latter] might tend to be more sensational and more threatening,” Hyslop says. “But I find a number of the ones that were produced in the U.S. and Britain also go pretty far in that direction and do create a feeling of, ‘Are the authorities on my side or are they after me?’”

The OWI’s propaganda was made for people at home and abroad, and it was always clear that these messages were coming from the U.S. government. However, the U.S. did have another propaganda arm. Unlike the OWI, it produced propaganda specifically for the enemy, and made it look like this propaganda was coming from inside the enemy’s country.

Attacking Enemy Morale

The U.S. wasn’t the first to use propaganda that hid or misrepresented its source. In 1939, Germany’s Propaganda Ministry joined with the country’s Foreign Ministry to establish the Büro Concordia. This office transmitted radio messages to France, Britain, and other countries that appeared to originate from inside those nations.

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An Allied sailor is drowning at sea. Why? Because someone talked!

Along with Britain, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) responded with its own “black propaganda,” as the practice was known. One mission, called Operation Cornflakes, involved dropping mailbags into Germany containing fake newspapers that looked as if they were made by Nazi resisters rather than OSS operatives. Some of the mail bore stamps with a picture of a deathly, skeletal-looking Hitler with the words Futsches Reich (“Ruined Empire”).

Like the Büro Concordia, the Allies also transmitted radio messages that appeared to come from inside Germany. Compared to dropping mailbags, this was actually an easier way to get information into the country, Hyslop says.

The thoughtful reader will notice that three-quarters of a century later, technological advances have made it even easier to sneak information into a country without going there yourself. As an example, Hyslop points to Russia’s use of the Internet to spread propaganda during the U.S. election.

“The Internet is perfect for it, because you just don’t know where things come from,” he says.

Could this mean that when future scholars write history books about our current era, they’ll be illustrated with political Internet memes, just as today’s history books are with propaganda posters? It’s not unthinkable. For who of us can tell what memes may come?