Exhibit shows how propaganda art aided World War II effort
While soldiers fought on the front lines, artists contributed back home.
In World War II, all sides used propaganda to aid their fight, from cartoons, to magazines, to movies. An exhibit at the National Museum of the Pacific War’s Temporary Gallery showcases how these affected and contributed to the cause.
Gregg Philipson has been collecting pieces of this esoteric art genre since he was a child. He now has one of the largest-known private collections. The exhibit at the National Museum of the Pacific War was a part of the monthly First Friday Art Walk and Philipson gave a talk about his passion.
“We have a story to tell,” said Philipson, who lost many relatives during the war to the Nazis. “We need to keep this story alive to show the dangers of hate, bigotry and apathy.”
“Propaganda was used to increase support for the war effort,” he said. “Remember, we were isolationists before Pearl Harbor was attacked. The war had been going on for some time.”
Art was used for enlistment, buying war bonds to fund the fight, and even for recycling, materials so those back home would share in the sacrifice. “Even milk bottles had propaganda, such as messages to ‘buy war bonds,’” he said. “It was very important part of raising money for the war.”
Both Allied and Axis powers used political propaganda. Japan dropped leaflets and used radio broadcasts to taunt Allies with misinformation. Hitler’s minister of information, Joseph Goebbels, controlled press, radio and film to promote fear, hatred and violence. Antisemitism was also pushed through caricature drawings of Jews.
As the U.S. entered the war, its artists were used. There was Dave Breger, whose cartoons were credited with creating the term “G.I. Joe”; Arthur Szyk, a prolific, Polish artist whose meticulous art work showed the best and worst traits in all sides; Milton Caniff, later known for his “Steve Cannon” syndicated cartoon strip.; Bill Mauldin’s “Willie & Joe” comic won a Pulitzer Prize for showcasing what the “grunts” went through in the fight.
Walt Disney also pitched in, using his studio and famous characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to promote everything from gas rationing to war bonds.
And another artist, Theodor Geisel used his unique skills in posters and cartoons to raise awareness of malaria, support the war and help Americans get past race and fight collectively. He would later become known as “Dr. Seuss.”
In 1942, the Office of War Information was founded with the goal of producing and distributing propaganda. Philipson’s collection shows American examples, but also features artists from other countries.
So how did Philipson get involved in this esoteric pursuit?
“I had an uncle killed in action in 1944 in France,” he said, adding that many other relatives of he and his wife were killed by the Nazis. “My mother and my grandparents pleaded for me to keep his memory alive.”
Philipson said he was a business executive at the time and traveled frequently. That gave him time to research and find a lot of his propaganda collection from antique shops and individuals, “every walk of life,” he said.
The collector speaks around the globe and lends his collections to exhibits. At one talk in China, the locals told him of how the Japanese committed war crimes by testing chemical weapons on Chinese civilians.
He said his collection is one way to make sure the country never forgets the war or those who sacrificed all or the evils cast upon the world’s population.
“This helps me speak for people that can no longer speak for themselves,” he said. “One way to do that is to rescue the evidence, so we do not forget.”