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Art vs. Propaganda: How to Prepare the Public for an Indeterminate Course of Action

By Adrianna Abreu

"Movies have ceased to be an instrument of entertainment." --Senator Nye

[1] "One of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, instrument of propaganda is the movie," said North Dakota senator Gerald Nye. Films. They are entertaining, credible, interesting, and completely one-sided. So where does this one side lie when your country is on the brink of war with imperialist and communist nations? The answer: the movies participated in the general "steady, pervasive drum beat of preparedness information emanating from every popular source of public education" (Steele). 1930-1941 was a time when the eight major film companies in Hollywood began to use their power over eight million audience members a week to feed them their one-sided opinion of the necessity to prepare our country to intervene in the European war. A flood of comedy, drama, and war films began to flow out of the golden gates of Hollywood and into the theatres of America. Sergeant York was one of these films that saw a 17-million dollar gross because of its popularity. Yet, after its emergence on the silver screen, non-interventionists began to stir in anger claiming that this film and others were only propaganda for pro-war scenarios. Congressional hearings occurred in which both sides argued their justification. It was the film's reception, its message, and public opinion that answered the question of whether Sergeant York had a propaganda agenda or not.

[2] What makes a film propagandistic? A film can be deemed propagandistic when it only depicts and tries to convince the viewer on a specific point related to a political agenda. Traces of such apolitical agenda can be traced back to Roosevelt's early days as president, when he was after public confidence as the potential of going to war neared American shores. In August 1940 Warner Brothers offered their assistance directly to the White House to produce any film the administration wanted regardless of cost. The President and his administration utilized Hollywood to activate public awareness of the world crisis and inspire confidence in the government's ability to meet it. The administration wanted Hollywood to "emphasize the slogan ‘support the president in the emergency' and avoid controversy about individual measures, declarations of war, etc." (Steele). Richard Steele categorizes this as "informational propaganda," a way of sending facts of policy and reflecting administrative concerns through mass media.

[3] Informational propaganda is what drove home the message to audiences across the United States of the turmoil occurring overseas in Europe and the possible need for intervention there. "Americans did not want war, but they had identified the villains in the current struggle and were hardly likely to respond well to a balanced treatment of Hitler and his minions," says Steele, "Less justifiable was the absence of balance in the presentation of national issues offered by the national's major new commentators" (4). By the spring of 1941 the administration was clearly winning the propaganda war on the only front that wounded the battle for domination of the mass media. Yet, informational propaganda never gave away the agenda of the administration, since the administration was uncertain of what action should be taken. Senator Nye gave an anti-war speech in August 1941, declaring, "It is our business and our intention to stay out of that war. To stay out of it, we must oppose those who desire us in that war, and continue this opposition at every turn." Hollywood was sending its American public the message that anyone that opposed the war had to be a communist, or Nazi sympathizer, all things anti-Americana. "The truth is," said Nye, "that in 20,000 theatres in the United States tonight they are holding war mass meetings, and the people lay down the money at the box office before they get in."

[4] "Shorts" began to be produced as well as films dealing with aspects of "Americanism" and were screened across America. "What was needed, and produced," claims Steele, was a dull, steady, pervasive drumbeat of preparedness information emanating from every popular source of public education." Feature films depicting, pro-Americanism and anti-Nazism were being filmed on a rapid basis. And one of the films produced in this administration-controlling Hollywood era was Sergeant York: "Sergeant York capped an evolution in American motion pictures, that took them from being fearful of political subjects to being aggressively interventionist" (Koppes, Black 39) .

[5] Sergeant York was a film that represented everything Americana, a young man who was a lower-class farmer, not highly educated, but also a religious and good man. The film recounts the hero's odyssey from conscientious objection and draft resistance to glorious participation in America's earlier struggle against Germany. "By mid-1941 the movies crossed another threshold," add Koppes and Black, "Without making explicit policy judgments, they made telling interventionist pitches by analogy" (37). Sergeant York's iconic moment comes in the transition of York from pacifist to super-warrior when York discovers what sacrifice he must make to benefit the freedom of his country.

[6] Koppes and Black explain that Warner Brothers exploited the story of Alvin York for all it was worth, as you can judge by its release date near July 4. The real Alvin C. York was paraded and escorted down Broadway by an honor guard of World War I veterans to the premiering theatre. The theatre was filled with young men, women, and celebrities, including Eleanor Roosevelt. And "for young men who got the message that they, like York, should go off and fight for democracy," point out Koppes and Black, "the army was ready with an eight-page pamphlet on the hero and a hard sell of recruitment material" (39) .

[7] Sergeant York only took the interventionist side. Their conversation was not about the fact of war but that it was at that point so far away. Isolationists, on the other hand, were angered about Sergeant York, so while huge waves of crowds flocked to see the movie, they decided to go after the film industry. Unfortunately, according to Koppes and Black, "Their partisan bungling sabotaged what might have been an occasion for serious public reflection about the structure of the industry and its role in propaganda" (39). To the isolationists, 1941 was a year in which pictures were being produced to "drum the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions, turn their hatred into a blaze, fill them with fear that Hitler will come over here and capture them, that he will steal their trade, that America must go into this war -- to rouse them to a war hysteria"

[8] What is so important about Sergeant York and the reason why it stirred so many isolationists into anger and fury is the fact that all throughout the brief war scene, the film only depicts the heroic deeds of Americans and victory of America. There is no depiction of injured war vets, soldiers having limbs blown off and their bodies' shot to pieces -- all the horrors of war that should have sent the message of anti-intervention to its young male audience. In fact, after watching the film York himself told critics that there was too much killing. Sergeant York would be PG today, for the killing that occurred can be deemed a glorification of war and a comedic relief from the horror that faces the real soldiers on the front. There is no defense using the fact that Sergeant York is false in its telling because all the war scenes are factual and accurate. Yet, the film does not depict two members of York's platoon shot up so badly their bodies were barely recognizable or that out of a platoon of twenty including a lieutenant, only York and seven other men survived. All the real horrors of war were excluded, but when it came down to defending themselves, Warner Brothers issued the statement that Sergeant York is "a factual portrayal of the life of one of the great heroes of the last war. . . . if that is propaganda, we plead guilty" (Koppes and Black 44).

[9] The U.S. Senate "Moving-Picture and Radio Propaganda" hearings involved Warner Brothers and non-interventionists who concluded that Warner Brothers, in the period before WWII, was inserting pro-war and pro-war intervention messages through its films. President of Warner Brothers Henry Warner began his statement with "The charges against my company and myself are untrue" (Moving Picture and Propaganda). Warner claims that although his allegiance is towards fighting to uphold freedom, he leaves his trust in the President's decision. Laying the foundation of his beliefs, Warner then continues to argue that his pictures have no propagandistic message, even stating famously that "Sergeant York is a factual portrait of the life of one of the great heroes of the last war. If that is propaganda, we plead guilty." Warner argued that all his films were based on factual happenings and that he is only guilty of accurately recording history.

[10] Senator Nye and Senator D. Worth Clark were both involved and testified for the non-intervention side against the pro-intervention agenda the film companies were sending their audiences. Both claimed that some may consider their testimonies as pro-Nazism or un-American, but it was their duty to stop the major film companies from feeding propagandistic information to the American public. "If they lose sight of what some Americans might call the first interests of America in times like these, I can excuse them," says Nye, "but their prejudices by no means necessitate our closing our eyes to these interests and refraining from any undertaking to correct their error." Senator Clark argued that film companies were becoming a group that held the power of denying freedom of speech of those against what the film companies held as the right view. "At the present time they have opened those 17,000 theaters to the idea of war, to the glorification of war, to the glorification of England's imperialism, to the hatred of the people of Germany and now of France, to the hatred of those in America who disagree with them," Clark argued, "does anyone see a pictorial representation of life in Russia under ‘Bloody Joe' Stalin? They do not. In other words, they are turning these 17,000 theaters into 17,000 daily and nightly mass meetings for war." The hearings began on September 10, 1941, but were abruptly excused after Pearl Harbor was attacked and bombed on December 8, 1941, which sent the United States into war and dramatically ended the issue.

[11] Films are powerful. But the bottom line, as Steele says, is that films like Sergeant York were, "nonetheless, propaganda in that [their] intent and probable effect was to build public confidence in the collective national effort by providing evidence of America's growing military strength."