World War II, Images of
WORLD WAR II, IMAGES OF
The images that Americans saw during World War II not only shaped their attitudes toward the war but also influenced culture and national self-representations in the postwar period and later decades. In keeping with Office of War Information regulations, wartime posters, films, cartoons, and news photographs presented images of a culturally diverse but unified nation collectively working to win the war. Frank Capra's Why We Fight films, comic books, and government-issued posters all framed the war in terms of good versus evil, pitting the Allies and democracy against the Axis nations and Fascism. This polarized way of viewing the war, combined with the clear-cut victory of the Allied nations, contributed to perceptions of World War II as the "good war" and helped position the war as the nation's most commonly agreed upon moral reference point.
Although pictures of U.S. battle deaths, concentration camp victims, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima brought home the mass destruction and human costs of the war, the images that became most firmly etched in the nation's imagination were ones of victory. Capturing a key moment of American collectivism, triumph, and patriotism, Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima emerged as one of the most famous and enduring images of the war. Along with its various facsimiles, Rosenthal's "Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi" was reproduced on millions of War Bond posters, postage stamps, and newspapers, and became the subject of several monuments, including the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington Cemetery. Together with Hollywood combat films of the late 1940s like The Sands of Iwo Jima, Rosenthal's picture helped to foster a postwar "victory culture" that celebrated American valor and righteousness.
During the 1950s, images of World War II continued to influence American culture even as Cold War concerns were now shaping the presentation of these images. Popular novels, picture books, and documentaries about the Second World War offered familiar narratives of American victory, heroism, and moral certitude, but began to present former Allied partners in new ways. In keeping with growing anti-Communist sentiment, Time-Life's famous 1950 volume, Life's Picture History of World War II, minimized China's wartime participation and carefully handled Russia's contributions. NBC's twenty-six-part television documentary, Victory at Sea, which aired two years later, paired archival film footage with a dramatic musical score by Richard Rodgers and narration to portray American naval operations as grand triumphs. Along with best-selling World War II novels like Leon Uris's Battle Cry, these 1950s depictions of the war reminded Americans of past heroic moments to help them prevail in their new battles against Communism in Korea and elsewhere around the globe.
The generally straightforward and patriotic images of World War II in the 1950s gave way to increasingly complicated representations during the 1960s. Although Hollywood continued to produce epic World War II films like The Longest Day, which brought together a huge cast of stars for its heroic portrayal of the Allied invasion of Normandy, other popular texts began to highlight the madness and horrors of the war. Joseph Heller's 1961 novel, Catch-22, for example, uses dark humor and innovative narrative techniques to expose the bureaucracies, injustices, and tremendous human costs involved in the war. Catch-22 blurred the lines between sanity and madness, ally and enemy, and combatant and noncombatant. These themes were echoed in Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the protagonist has survived the firebombing of Dresden only to be kidnapped by aliens, and Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow, in which a nightmarish postwar world
is threatened by dark forces in control of missile technology.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, which offered Americans neither victory nor moral certainty, cinematic representations of World War II in the 1970s continued to challenge narratives of U.S. victory and invincibility. The 1970 release of Tora! Tora! Tora! marked the first time that Hollywood had incorporated the Japanese perspective as it chronicled the events leading up to and the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film also pointed toward a trend in presenting more objective images of the war. Widely shown in the United States and around the globe, Sir Jeremy Isaacs's twenty-six-part television documentary, The World at War (1974), offered viewers a balanced, global history of the Second World War that presented the realities of the Holocaust, the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and landings at Normandy in startlingly graphic ways. The 1976 movie Farewell to Manzanar, through the story of one family's struggles, highlighted the grave injustices perpetrated against 120,000 Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during the war.
Although cinematic and literary representations of the Vietnam War largely overshadowed narratives of World War II in the 1980s as the nation grappled with the physical, cultural, and political wounds left by the Vietnam era, some images from the Second World War made a comeback. For example, J. Howard Miller's famous War Production poster "We Can Do It!" was widely reproduced on pins, t-shirts, posters, and lunch boxes as members of the growing women's movement reclaimed "Rosie the Riveter" as a feminist icon. James Montgomery Flagg's World War I and II poster "I Want You" also enjoyed a resurgence when patriotic images of Uncle Sam and the flag regained prominence in the Reagan era. In contrast to the "bad war" in Vietnam, World War II and its images once again began to represent American ideals and its national character.
the 1990s and after
During the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, images of World War II once again filled the big screen and media outlets as fiftieth- and sixtieth-anniversary celebrations put the war back into the national imagination. Although epic films like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan reminded viewers of the immense human costs of the Holocaust and the Normandy landings, characterizations of World War II as the "good war" have remained popular. The National World War II Memorial's grand scale, placement, and design, for instance, ultimately work to celebrate American victory, valor, and unity and to portray the war in its original good-versus-evil framing. In attempting to secure the memory of the "good war," the National World War II Memorial and images like Rosenthal's photograph of the Marines raising the flag have helped to solidify World War II's status as the nation's most central moral reference point.
World War II, as memorialized in monuments, films, print, and art, has become a source of America's identity as a people and of powerful cultural icons that represent the country's values. Reinforcing images derived from other conflicts, such as the Revolutionary War and Civil War, World War II has come to symbolize the country as a moral, virtuous nation that eschews war but fights to defend liberty.
Beidler, Philip D. The Good War's Greatest Hits: World War II and American Remembering. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Dick, Bernard F. The Star-Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1985.
Maslowski, Peter. Armed with Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II. New York: Free Press; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993.