Enemy, Images of

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The way that people visualize the enemy during wartime often has little to do with the actual reasons for the war or the actual character of the enemy. The images of the enemy that dominate the public mind reflect the limited information available to the public, the public's collective predispositions, and elite strategies to shape opinion, including government propaganda and political debate. The specific images of the enemy that are presented in official propaganda reflect the government's judgment as to the best way to build and maintain support for the war effort. Enemies are routinely portrayed and viewed as cruel, treacherous, barbaric, or inhuman, and enemy motivations are almost always oversimplified and delegitimized. Scholars have long debated the reasons for these negative images, whether rooted in human psychology, the survival instincts of both individuals and societies, ethnic and racial prejudice, or manipulation by authority figures. In general, scholars agree that images of the enemy are rooted in nonrational sources and may have dysfunctional effects.

There is significant variation among the types of enemy images that emerge in different places and times. In

the American context, images of the enemy seem to be formed both by American political values and by national stereotypes. American leaders have generally framed wars as fights for American political and social ideals, such as democracy and freedom. But these abstract goals have often been filtered through stereotypes that portray specific adversaries as "naturally" undemocratic or totalitarian. For example, during World War II, the Japanese were portrayed as militaristic and fanatically devoted to a totalitarian regime, an image that built on both American political values and national/racial stereotypes. However, it is probably more accurate to characterize the foreign policy motivations of both mass publics and élites in the United States as a complex blend of idealism and pragmatism. American images of the enemy are probably correspondingly complex in both source and effect.

the spanish-american war and the philippine insurrection

The early history of the Spanish-American War (1898–1899) was marked by American sympathy for the Cuban insurrectionists, whom many Americans viewed as freedom fighters opposing a colonial power just as had the early American revolutionaries. As the American press reported and often exaggerated the brutal anti-guerrilla tactics of the Spanish, Americans soon came to hold a view of Spain as a decadent, cruel, and tyrannical Old World empire that was heir to the worst European traditions, including monarchy and popery (a term used negatively to identify Roman Catholicism). When the American battleship Maine sank in Havana's harbor after a mysterious explosion, American newspapers built up a powerful patriotic frenzy, creating pressure on the U.S. government to go to war against Spain. President William McKinley and other American leaders justified the ensuing war as a war for freedom and human rights.

Victory in the war brought the United States new territories, including the Philippine Islands. The U.S. government now faced a dilemma as to what to do with the inhabitants of these territories. At first, American views of the Filipinos were benign but condescending. The notion that they were childlike and unfit for self-government was used to justify plans to colonize the Philippine Islands in order to civilize and democratize Filipino society. As a rebel insurgency against the United States gained momentum, however, American leaders branded the Philippine insurgents as thugs, brigands, and bandits, and refused to recognize their political aspirations and motivations as legitimate. As the guerrilla war continued (from 1899 to 1902), the United States found itself in an ironic position: although it was dedicated to a liberating and civilizing mission, it was forced to fight a brutal guerrilla war using some of the same tactics that it had criticized Spain for using in Cuba just a few years before.

world war i

During World War I, public attention and a powerful government propaganda effort focused on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson framed World War I ideologically as a battle for peace, democracy, and national self-determination. Kaiser Wilhelm and other German leaders were portrayed as undemocratic, militaristic aggressors. A variety of official and unofficial organizations made the case for war by means of propaganda posters and speeches. The Four Minute Men, a quasi-official speaker's bureau, gave speeches portraying Germany and the Germans themselves as cruel (referring to German atrocities against American shipping and against Belgian civilians), treacherous, and even as un-Christian because of Germany's alliance with Ottoman Turkey, a Muslim country. Anti-German propaganda led to broad suspicion of German immigrants and German-Americans at home and to a movement for "100 percent Americanism." It also contributed to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1918, which restricted immigration and freedom of speech.

world war ii and after

Like World War I, World War II was mostly framed as an ideological battle between freedom and totalitarianism. However, important differences separated official and popular views of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. For the most part, official propaganda about Germany focused on the ideology and leadership of the Nazi party, and tended to portray the German people as the victims of their government. By contrast, the portrayal of the Japanese enemy as cruel, treacherous, and subhuman extended to the Japanese population itself. Accordingly, American troops in the Pacific felt free to fight a war of annihilation, while at home American authorities felt justified in placing Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in internment camps.

After 1945, appeals to traditional American political values and national and racial stereotypes would continue to characterize images of the enemy in the Cold War era. Whether future images of American enemies will be less vulnerable to racial biases, however, remains an open question.


Aho, James Alfred. This Thing of Darkness: a Sociology of the Enemy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Herle, Vilho. Enemy with a Thousand Faces. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Keen, Sam. Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

Lehmkuhl, Ursula, and Fiebig-von Hase, Ragnhild, eds. Enemy Images in American History. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1997.

Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt. 1922.

McDougall, Walter. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Seabury, Paul, and Codevilla, Angelo. War: Ends and Means. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Zaller, John. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Alfred Saucedo

See also:Allies, Images of; Propaganda, War.