The Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures was the US government’s first formal office for liaising with Hollywood for specific propaganda purposes, and the first to write a manual for the movie industry, about how the government wanted film makers to help win World War 2. I recently happened upon this manual, which is the perfect illustration of the paradox (a.k.a. lie) that Western democratic states are Western and democratic, and hence don’t produce propaganda. Even when they write manuals teaching Hollywood to make propaganda.
While the US military worked with film makers since the 1900s, from before Hollywood was even Hollywoodland, they didn’t set up dedicated offices until after the war. Likewise the FBI’s relationship with the movie business began in the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until after Hoover’s death in the 70s that they actually had a specific unit for handling the entertainment industry. WW1 came a little early for an office for movies alone, but by the time WW2 rolled around it was the must-have for violent, empire nations. The Nazi consul in Los Angeles was at it, so the American government got in on the game as well.
Who Were the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures?
As outlined by Tanner Mirrlees in Hearts and Mines: The US Empire’s Culture Industry:
Hollywood also helped the United States fight the Second World War. Two years before the OWI was formed, the Production Code Administration (which enforced the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor Will Hays) had set up the Motion Picture Committee for Cooperating for National Defense in order“to evaluate requests from government public relations offices and to makeappropriate facilities and technical advice available”.
Hollywood studios, including Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, andMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, agreed to support US aims should it enter the war. Before the United States’ entry into the Second World War,Harry Warner, the head of Warner Bros., pledged to directly support the USstate’s public diplomacy effort. Warner said, “Our company is about to startthe largest program of pictures for the government that has ever been madeby any company in the industry”.
In 1942, the OWI formed the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) to network with Hollywood,which was regarded as an “Essential War Industry”. “The motion picture,” said OWI head Elmer Davis, is “the most powerful instrumentof propaganda in the world, whether it tries to be or not”. He continued, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized”. With the support of Hollywood studios, the BMP produced, indirectly censored, and distributed war films to US and international theatres.
By working with the OWI, Hollywood secured government support for its trade interests abroad. The OWI annually selected forty Hollywood feature films and then distributed them in neutral foreign states, thereby helping Hollywood gain a foothold in the European film market. The OWI allowed Hollywood films to “be shown in the theatres behind the lines ofthe victorious US troops: first in North Africa, then in Italy and France, and later in all liberated areas”.
Clearly, old Elmer realised the power of movies to shape feelings and public opinion, perhaps the unique power of movies to accomplish these aims. However, the OWI maintained that it was not a propaganda organisation, and Motion Picture Bureau Chief Lowell Mellett stated that ‘There is nothing in any part of our operation that can possibly be construed as censorship.’
And yet, between its founding in 1942 and the end of the war in 1945 the Bureau reviewed 1,652 scripts, making changes to alter or remove anything it deemed a negative depiction of the US, including any portrait of the American public as ‘oblivious to the war or anti-war.’ They blocked re-releases of Kim and Gunga Din, apparently due to the government wanting to appear anti-imperialist, and tried to project the image of America as a liberal, free society where the common man was treated decently.
For example, the manual states:
We must emphasize that this country is a melting pot, a nation of many races and creeds, who have demonstrated that they can live together and progress. We must establish a genuine understanding of alien and minority groups and recognize their great contribution to the building of our nation. In this war for freedom they fight side by side with us.
And yet, many of the films approved by the OWI’s film bureau were deeply racist, referring to the Japanese as ‘apes’ and ‘monkeys’, let alone the endless use of the term ‘Jap’. So where does this progressive, liberal internationalism end and the dehumanising, state-mandated bigotry begin?
Shaping Mass Opinion is Not Government Propaganda?
The paradoxical nature of the OWI being simultaneously a peace-loving, liberal internationalist organisation and a warmongering state propaganda institution are laid bare throughout the documents. The manual states their position:
We believe that mass opinion is intelligent and will support an intelligent program — if informed. The people will support a program of decency and integrity, idealism and enlightened selfishness — if adequately informed.
So: people are smart and moral and will do what we want, if we sufficiently propagandise them? But if the people have to be propagandised in order to become smart and moral – at least in the OWI’s view – then they must start out as something else. Their pre-propagandised state cannot be intelligent and supportive of a program of enlightened selfishness, otherwise why is there any need to ‘inform’ them?
Another passage claims:
The Government of the United States has an unwavering faith in the sincerity of purpose and integrity of the American people. The American people, on the whole, are not susceptible to The Strategy of Lies. They prefer truth as the vehicle for understanding. The government believes that truth in the end is the only medium to bring about the proper understanding of democracy, the one important ingredient that can help make democracy work. Axis propagandists have failed. They have not told the truth, and their peoples are now beginning to see through this sham. If we are to keep faith with the American people , we must not resort to any devious information tactics. We must meet lies with a frontal attack — with the weapon of truth.
And yet, the OWI naturally included the War Department when reviewing scripts, and especially when deciding whether to allow movies to be exported to foreign markets.
The review system allowed for the removal of any information that the military authorities deemed too secret for the public to know. This included any images of dead American soldiers, or of black and white soldiers fighting side by side, both of which were successfully kept out of the view of the public during much of the war. So much for informing an intelligent public so that they support a program of decency and integrity.
Among the numerous themes listed in the manual and the Film Branch’s fact sheets were the promotion of the US government’s rationing policy, which began on specific items but by the end of 1943 covered most everyday consumables and durable. One of the fact sheets states:
Americans are patriotic. They are eager to help the war effort. But they do not realize that a production crisis exists today because of the shortage of raw materials. They have been told, yes. But today they are being deluged with words — slogans, campaigns, exhortations. They have not seen with their own eyes, the what, where, how and why of raw material shortages. They can see them, be convinced, be made to understand their part as individuals in the war program, be stimulated to a tremendous new effort that will carry us to victory. How? Through motion pictures.
Short films such as Prices Unlimited began popping up, some produced by the OWI themselves, some by friendly studios. They depicted what it would be like if the government lifted all rationing and price restrictions, as a means of encouraging the audience to go along with state-enforced poverty in the name of war.
Our Propaganda Isn’t Propaganda
Military veteran (and Vietnam war propagandist) Ralph Donald observed in Hollywood Enlists!: Propaganda Films of World War II:
Those few Americans who have seen the 1938 Nazi hate documentary The Eternal Jew would undoubtedly call it propaganda. That insidious film was designed to prepare the German people to accept the Nazis’ eventual slaughter of six million Jews. Most Americans would be comfortable describing a North Korean newscast as propaganda, as we believe the citizens of that country receive only their government’s altered version of the facts. The reality has been filtered and edited through their closed media system to serve the interests of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Basically, most Americans believe that propaganda is only practiced by evil people bent on circulating anti‑American thought. And because it’s anti‑American, such messages are also assumed to be a pack of lies.
But these very attitudes might well have been learned through what can be called “American propaganda.”
Much of the world certainly thinks so. When they are inundated with the flood of intentional and unintentional messages about American culture, thought, and values in the media products that America exports to them, folks in other countries have a name for this phenomenon: they call it “cultural imperialism.” Because the United States is by far the world’s biggest exporter of media, Americanism penetrates and affects most media markets around the world. Even in countries like Iran where consumption of American media is officially discouraged, bootleg American films, TV shows, and music find their way to the people. Add to that ongoing Voice of America broadcasts into Iran telling the American story in their native Farsi.
As Donald’s book goes on to demonstrate, the WW2 generation were subject to an especially large and acutely well crafted wave of films that convinced them of this hypocrisy – that propaganda is the product of evil dictatorships, not democracies. And yet, the US is the world’s media nation, running more international influence campaigns than any other country. One might argue that the domestic population in North Korea is more heavily and strictly propagandised than the population in the US, but no one actually knows how to measure such things, and North Korea’s international propaganda is largely non-existent, whereas the US movie, TV and video games industries are the largest in the world.
Thus, might we say that movies are not only the greatest propaganda instruments ever created, but also the greatest meta-propaganda vehicles? If this not the implication of Elmer’s statements above? Was the underlying propaganda mission of the OWI, or at least the effect of their work in Hollywood, to establish the hypocrisy and double standard explained by Donald?
Certainly, the OWI were batshit. In one passage of the manual, explaining who the enemy is, they say:
The enemy is not just Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese war lords. The enemy is much bigger and older than the Nazi and Fascist parties. The enemy is militarism — the doctrine of force, the age-old idea that people cannot coinhabit the earth unless a few men dominate all others through physical force.
Their answer to the doctrine of force was to sufficiently inform the US public so they supported a war – which is always intended to dominate others by force. Indeed, the OWI’s efforts laid the groundwork for the creation of the Department of Defense and the large, permanent arms industry that Eisenhower referenced in his notorious address on the military-industrial complex.
Therefore we can say, with extreme confidence, that the OWI aided, rather than opposed, militarism. But was that always the intention? Were they a Trojan Horse, claiming to be pro-peace and democracy while adopting the practices and mentality of a fascist state? Or is this just another manifestation of the abject contradictions in all liberal internationalism?
This is a question on which reasonable people can disagree, but for my money it isn’t an either/or choice.