American Propaganda in the 20th and 21st Centuries
During the 20th Century Yanks and Reds were not the best of Pals
The USA is a big country made up of many states. Efforts on radio, television, magazines and the internet continue to aid the average American in feeling that he is an important part of a greater whole. This is done by propaganda.
Getting the average American to feel that accomplishments made by Americans are also his or her accomplishments is also good propaganda. During WW2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War propaganda films were used to not only justify America's part in the war but to get the whole country behind the war.
The propaganda films starring John Wayne are well known. The ones he was involved in during the 2nd World War were very successful. He took some flak for the 1968 film about the Vietnam War, The Green Berets.
One criticism that was leveled against the Duke at the time was the fact that he had never been in real combat and yet he was instrumental in getting young Americans to go to Vietnam and risk their lives. At the time John Wayne even starred in a documentary in which he laid out the reasons why the Commies had to be pushed back in Vietnam. In it the USA were naturally the good guys and the Commies the rotters.
Were the enemy in Vietnam that red? Some people came to believe that the Vietcong were Nationalists rather than dead set Communists and were using Communism to get their country back from the West. Whether this is true or not is still debatable but it is the direction the protesters of the war took and still take. The truth is that the people of the USA didn't know enough about Vietnam before the war. The same can be said for Australia. Generally speaking, propaganda works on the emotions rather than the intellect even when there is some truth behind it.
A Land Where Everything is Possible
THE AMERICAN DREAM
There are of course many American dreams. The one that resonates with a lot of Americans, however, is the one where they go from their present position in society to millionaire or, for today's dreamers, billionaires.
There is the general belief that the USA is a classless nation. This is not entirely true. What people who are in the know do understand is that class in the USA isn't based so much on what your ancestors have done but more on what you are capable of doing. If you have the right knowledge, skills and daring you can go far. You can also make it to the top then go into a tail spin, crash and burn.
F. Scott Fitzgerald examined this latter phenomenon in his novel The Great Gatsby (1925). For Gatsby the allure of Daisy, the woman he met when he was not well off, leads him eventually to his doom. He longed for her and, after making himself wealthy, sought her despite the fact that, in the interim, she had married. In the end it turned out that the quest for Daisy was actually better than the prize of Daisy.
During the Prohibition era in the USA, gangsters saw their collective opportunity and became millionaires overnight by making and then pushing illegal alcohol. They were able to get away with so much because the people in general were not on the side of the law. It was a hard sell. Only on the occasions when the illegal stuff sent people blind, mad or dead did the public react against the gangsters.
Even then it could be argued that the bad alcohol was only out there in quantity because drinking alcohol had been banned. If you take away the ban then the gangsters wouldn't be able to sell their rot gut at a profit. Besides, not every drop of alcohol the gangsters sold was cheap, nasty and potentially lethal. When the Great Depression hit the law against drinking alcohol became even more unpopular.
I keep referring to drinking alcohol because there were forms of alcohol which were legal and in great demand. Alcohol was used in cleaning, in perfumes and as a preservative agent. Hence even in banning drinking alcohol there was no real way of banning alcohol altogether from commercial use. Added to this is the fact that alcohol is easy to make and to distribute.
In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt lifted the ban on alcohol. He did it not only because he knew it would be a popular move but because the revenue he could raise from taxing drinking alcohol would help the government out of the financial black hole it was in.
Like Australia in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the USA became known as the land of inventors and inventions. If you could think it up first and patent it then you might just become that millionaire you have always wanted to become.
If you joined one of the branches of the armed services there was a chance that someday you could make the highest rank. Though the odds are heavily against virtually all Americans, there is also the chance, if you are a citizen, that you will someday be president of the USA.
People migrated to the USA in the 19th Century and early 20th Century from Europe not only to escape persecution but in answer to the promise that if you do become an American then many things are possible. You could have a job working on a skyscraper one day and, after saving up for it, be the owner of that little shop you have always wanted to own. Many migrants coming into the USA found Lady Liberty a comforting sight. Though a statue, she was a French gal who had made it big in New York and is still considered to be really something.
For a long time Hollywood was part of the American dream. Just by being in Hollywood you might get discovered and become a popular movie star. The famous Australian actor Errol Flynn started his acting career playing a corpse. He was taken to Hollywood where his ability to become a star was recognized. Legend has it that Jane Russell was discovered in a dentist's office. Of course the star system that nurtured Flynn and Russel has gone the way of all things. Even so, everyone who has a bit role in an American movie or television show dreams of being picked up for a major role and sometimes it does still happen.
While the general public did it tough during the Great Depression stars tended to live exceptionally well. Was the general public outraged by this? The answer is no because many members of the public could dream of being discovered and living a better life.
Today the desire to make money is still there. Greed, however, is no longer good but dangerous. The banks are no longer to be trusted the way they were as little as a decade ago. The stock market is not the place for the amateur. Profit on the purchase of land or housing is no longer seen as a sure thing. The propaganda relating to greed and other people's wealth being good for everyone has since been dispelled.
The Explorer, the Cowboy, the Gunslinger, and the Railroad
The Western is uniquely American. The idealized West of the late 19th Century USA became the Western. Even today when Americans talk of freedom and standing up against injustice they look to their idealized West for inspiration.
Much has been made about explorers and tough men of the wilderness such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Also much has been made out of the outlaw left-handed gunman, Billy the Kid.
Presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) made much of their experiences in the West to win over the public. Even though Roosevelt started his presidency well after the real Wild West had just about ended, the image of the cowboy and the gunslinger persisted to such an extent that even being out West for a time brought much interest to anyone standing for president.
Teddy was a cattleman with property in the Dakotas for a time and this added to his reputation as a real stand up fellow. Born a weakling with pep, he battled all his life to get over his physical weaknesses and spending time with cattlemen at the right time in history helped a bunch.
After the horrors of the American Civil War (1861-1865) there was a general push West. Men who had lost everything in the war were looking for new territory where they could get a second start. 'Go West, young man and grow up with the country' was first coined by John Soule in 1851 and made much of by Horace Greeley. People took it to heart.
The cities of the east were getting crowded and in the south a lot of people were doing it tough on account of having lost a truly bloody war. Hence the West offered hope and the chance for many to ride tall. It also smacked of freedom where a man could spread his wings and be himself. How much of this was proven to be true is for history to decide but certainly from the 1870s onward it has been backed up with a lot of spin.
In the recent television series Hell on Wheels, we see the push to create a railway that unites the country. Much is made of the American Civil War and how it still affected the people who fought in it. Andersonville, the place of horror where northern prisoners of war were kept by the south, gets a mention and is to some extent responsible for the growing madness of one of the main characters.
Generally speaking, the Western takes up the period in American history just after the American Civil War and just before the First World War. It was the time of the cowboy and the gunslinger. It was when the big cattle drives became a profitable concern, especially for Texans. The drives were prompted by the need for beef in the major cities of the east and they eventually came to an end when the railroad made them no longer so necessary.
It was also the period of the last of the Indian wars and of the last of the big gold strikes.The frontier was shrinking and, along with it, the way of life of the so-called noble savage. This was pushed forward by the destruction of the great herds of buffalo that used to roam the plains. There were settlers and forts. There were treaties that were mostly dishonored but not by the Indians.
Out of all this came a style of writing and also of cinematography not to be developed anywhere else in the world. The people of the East became fascinated with the West even as the features of the West they were most enthralled by were on the way out, to be lost to reality forever. In the 19th Century there were Wild West shows that featured cowboys, sharp shooters such as Annie Oakley, covered wagons and Indians pretending to go on the war path to be stopped naturally by the cavalry. Moving pictures started up in the late 19th Century and in time to at least capture Annie in her prime as a rifle woman.
As the real Wild West went the way of all things, the romanticized West came very much into its own. It started with news reports that made their way into eastern newspapers and the cheap paperbacks that built the reputations of both outlaws and lawmen. Some of the stories told about them were true, some were partly true while others were good value reads without a lick of truth in them. Even so, they helped form part of what we now may consider to be the American character.
From the early silent days onward, Hollywood saw the value in a good Western and in Western heroes viewers could relate to. There was Tom Mix then Hopalong Cassidy. Westerns such as the Lone Ranger did well on the radio. Then there were the Western movie serials and finally the Western television shows. One of the most popular of the western television shows was Rawhide.
Cowboy entertainers such as Will Rogers helped to form public opinion and, in his case, ease the nation's pain when it came to the Great Depression.
The USA, even today, can easily be identified with the ideals that grew up out of the Western. John Wayne, for example, spoke for many a fan when he said: "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
In the film High Noon (1952),starring Garry Cooper, the loneliness of making a stand against wrongdoers is examined as is the plight of the individual in the right against a town full of people basically in the wrong. The idea that a single individual can make a difference is very American.
The term skyscraper is American and it does fit. There are buildings that literally scrape the sky. The first of the USA skyscrapers was put up in Chicago. Unfortunately this example was pulled down some time ago. Even so, Chicago still has some fine examples of early skyscrapers.
The most famous of the USA skyscrapers is the art deco masterpiece, the Empire State Building. It can be found in New York and also in quite a few movies and television shows. From the time of its creation to today it has been a symbol of the can do spirit of innovation and industry that is so much a part of the American dream. When Doctor Who and the Daleks came to New York in the 1960s in a British television episode naturally they visited the Empire State Building. In more recent times Doctor Who and the Daleks have made a return visit to the Empire State Building.
In Sleepless in Seattle (1993), starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the two lovers finally get together thanks to the prince of buildings. During the Great Depression and in the 1980s when the Big Apple (New York) was suffering from financial woes, the skyscrapers were there to give hope and promise to millions of Americans.
The skyscraper became the modern American symbol of standing tall. No wonder the Twin Towers were targeted by those who wanted to strike at the heart of what being American is all about. The skyscraper is also symbolic of capitalism and growth through commercial ventures. Just as castles and palaces continue to symbolize the power of monarchy or rule through hereditary, the skyscrapers are about companies, stocks, stockholders and the self made man or woman.
President George Bush's dodgy, though not at the time illegal, dealings on the stock market were being revealed when 9/11 occurred. It can be said that Bush used what happened to the Twin Towers to take attention away from his dodgy dealings and put them elsewhere. If not for the attack upon the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the flaws in the weapons of mass destruction argument might have been revealed earlier. If the USA wasn't so prepped up for war there might not have been a war in Iraq. Sure, the people responsible for attacking the heart of the USA had to be dealt with but the less glamorous and more effective way would have been through various security agencies. Stealth and an understanding of the enemy was called for. In other words, a sharp stick rather than a sledgehammer response.
SCIENCE AND SCIENCE FICTION
In the late 19th Century, England and France were the countries most responsible for great scientific studies and development. England and France were also the places to find exceptional science fiction writers.
The Wright brothers may have invented the first airplane but the development of the airplane was quickly taken up by Britain, France and Germany. During the First World War not a single American type of airplane was used on the Western Front. There were American aces but they flew British and French planes.
By the mid-1930s the USA was playing catch up in terms of plane design. The USA was also starting to lead the way in terms of science fiction. This was due in part to cinema and also the pulp magazine explosion.
The idea of landing a man on the moon is very old and in fact predates science fiction. Even so it and other notions of space travel were taken up with some pep by American writers from the 1930s onwards. Americans came to label the USA as a country of science and innovation. In the 1930s this was becoming true. By 1969, it was difficult to dispute since the USA actually did land a man on the moon.
At the beginning of the 2nd World War, the USA had inferior fighter planes to both the Japanese and the Germans. They did, however, not only catch up but surpass both the Japanese and the Germans in this area. By the end of the 2nd World War, American fighter aircraft could only be considered first class. The Hellcat, for example, was an American fighter plane that easily took out the Japanese Zero in the Pacific theater of the war. One of the reasons for this ability to catch up and surpass was the industrial might the USA was able to bring to their war effort. The USA, however, was slower at developing a jet fighter than either Great Britain or Germany.
In 1945, the American creation and use of the atomic bomb heralded in a new age of both science and science fiction. By this stage the USA was definitely a super power to be reckoned with.
Soviet Russia, America's ally during the 2nd World War, swiftly became America's main Cold War enemy. When the Russians got the atomic bomb there was a great fear that eventually an atomic war would ensue. What happened instead was a series of small wars and a build up of weapons never to be used. The USA stood for Democracy and Capitalism. The Soviet Union headed by Russia was Communist.
Why wasn't there an atomic war? My theory is that because religion, and therefore religious fanaticism, wasn't involved on either side in the conflict compromises could be made. Eventually Russia lost the Cold War but at a great cost to both the Soviet Block countries as well as Russia. There were also cities in the USA that did it tough in the Cold War years because funds that should have been spent elsewhere were being diverted to stockpiling horrific weapons.
Early USA propaganda films on atomic weapons made in the 1950s had it that if you were at school and an A bomb or missile carrying an atomic payload was about to hit close by then there would be some protection in ducking under your desk. Of course this is nonsense and certainly the scientists at the time knew this to be so. Still the public, especially the children, had to be told something that was in some way reassuring. A decade later there was at least one British film made that told the truth as it was known back then on what an atomic strike on a major city would be like.
By the mid-1960s science fiction television shows such as Star Trek envisioned a time when the world would be united and humans would find new adventures on other planets. Some Americans were using science fiction to broker for peace and good will among nations.
There have been some clashes over the years between science and religion. The Scopes Monkey trial of 1925 is a good example. It is hard to believe that in the 1920s, in a country as industrialized as the USA, that a teacher's right to teach the theory of evolution would be in dispute and lead to a court case. Today clashes between science and religion continue in the south of the country. In fact there has been renewed attacks against Darwin and his theory of evolution. This goes against the notion of the USA being a nation in the scientific know and generally gives the impression that at least some parts of the USA aren't quite as clever as they need to be. Even so, science is still very much at the heart of how Americans see themselves. NASA continues to feed Americans and the rest of the world the belief that the USA is for science in a big way.The USA is, of course, a large country. Where science might be going full thrusters in some states, it may be dumbing down in others.
DDT KILLS INSECTS
DDT - SCIENCE MARCHING FORWARD
Created by Othmar Zeidler, an Austrian, in the 19th Century, DDT is a chlorine based synthetic pesticide that many people in the 20th Century thought would change their world for the better. From 1940 to 1980 DDT was extensively used for controlling insects such as mosquitoes. It seemed to be the answer to diseases carried by insects and to eradicating pests that attack cash crops. During WW2 the USA used DDT powder not only on American soldiers to kill lice but on civilians in Europe, especially in Italy. After the war ended the USA churned out lots of DDT for domestic as well as international use. It was advertised as science on the march. It helped promote the USA as a forward thinking nation based strongly in useful science. It started out as good propaganda.
In the American romantic comedy Forever, Darling (1956), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the use of DDT is praised.
Unfortunately, there were side effects to DDT that did not really become well known until the 1960s. DDT not only killed insects but it also affected bird life. When it became known that certain birds were producing eggs that had poor quality egg shells, thanks to DDT exposure, other creatures were then examined. The discovery that small mammals exposed to DDT were not developing into maturity the way they were supposed to lead to the question of what the stuff was actually doing to humans. It turned out that high concentrations of DDT could affect people growing up with it in a bad way both physically and mentally.
In the end the good that could be derived from DDT could not be outweighed by the harm. Its use in the Western World came to an end. It was evident then that, when it came to science, a lot of care was needed before a product should be given the tick of approval. Today the USA is very careful when it comes to producing and promoting new insecticides.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION UNDER THREAT
FREEDOM OF RELIGION
Freedom to worship however you want to do so has been one belief dealing with the USA that got well and truly tested in both the 19th and 20th Centuries. In the south it is being tested today.
Was there ever freedom of religion in the USA? And is there freedom of religion today? Well, absolute freedom in this area simply wouldn't work and, what's more, it couldn't happen. People, for example, who believe in the eating of their own dead would not be allowed to do so when such acts would obviously go against both other religions and laws that have been on the books since before they theoretically came to the USA. The KKK has claimed at times to be a Christian organization but any religious beliefs members of such an organization have do not and certainly should not be a protection for them when they terrorize people or generally go against what is accepted as lawful. Hence freedom of religion must have its limitations in any reasonable society.
In past centuries the Mormons were persecuted in various parts of the USA. At one time they had to flee to Utah and create their own city out of the wilderness, Salt Lake City. The belief that a man might have more than one wife was a stumbling block in terms of acceptance for other Christians when it comes to the Mormons.
Jews fleeing persecution in Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries, generally found the USA a haven. It wasn't perfect but what persecution there was for them in the USA happened to be mild compared to what had experienced elsewhere. New York was particularly accommodating. For them the USA was indeed the land of freedom and opportunity. It was in stark contrast to Russia in the 19th and early 20th Centuries and also fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
In the 20th Century and our present time, Muslims fleeing persecution have sought safety in the USA. Thanks to Muslim terrorist activities elsewhere in the world plus 9/11, the ones who want peace have a tough time of it in the USA, Australia and Great Britain. Unfortunately, it is hard to weed out the terrorist sympathizers from those truly wanting to be good and thus have freedom of religion. The notion of putting something Muslim where the Twin Towers once stood has not helped matters. In fact, such ideas galvanize many Americans against Muslims.
It should also be remembered that in the 1960s there was an African American movement of rejecting Christianity as the slave owners religion and adopting the Muslim faith instead. So Muslims living in the USA isn't as recent a happening as some people might think.
As with most religions, you have your good and you have your bad representatives. In Australia there are still strong memories of the Bali bombing, which killed Australian and Americans, and also of young women being picked on by a Muslim gang along a beach at Cronulla, New South wales for daring to wear bikinis in their presence. Unfortunately, when you are faced with intolerant behavior you naturally turn a little intolerant yourself. How things will work out for Muslims who want only peace and freedom in the USA, Great Britain and Australia is very much up in the air. In recent years there has been an upsurge in Christian fanaticism in the American south which coincides with an upsurge of Muslim fanaticism throughout the world. The upshot, of course, is that there are still good Muslims and Christians in existence.
The USA was founded on Christian belief but has generally been accommodating to people with other beliefs. How accommodating the USA will be or can afford to be in this regard in the future is an unknown.
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
The idea that a person should be thought of as innocent until proven guilty used to be at the heart of how Americans viewed and, indeed, experienced their legal system. Efforts were made in the 20th Century to protect the rights of the innocent against unfair imprisonment.
Films such as The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda, illustrate what can happen when the police do not act in accordance with the spirit of the law and an innocent man, mistaken for a criminal, has his life turned upside down. The emphasis here is to be fair to the accused no matter who they happen to be.
In the film 12 Angry Men (1957), starring Lee J. Cobb, one juror in a murder trial is unconvinced by the evidence presented. The lad on trial looks like a killer but looks can be deceiving. In going over the facts to satisfy the one hold out juror, much emerges about both the other jurors as well as the evidence against the accused. In the end, it becomes obvious through facts that the lad, whatever his background, could not have committed the crime at least in the way the prosecutor claimed he had. It was a movie that questions the jury system and, at the same time, points out the fact that, in some instances, the right man in the right spot can make a difference.
During the 2nd World war it was the Nazis that had show trials where the accused was already considered guilty before the trial even starts. The same thing for the show trials of the Starlin era in Soviet Russia. Part of the propaganda in the USA has been the fact that there are no show trials in the USA. There were, however, trials in the USA in the 1950s that cut close to being show trials. What does this mean? It means basically that Americans need to, at times, stand up for the principle that a man or woman should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
There was a time when due process in America meant that someone could only be held by representatives of the USA government for a very limited time without charges being leveled against them. Should terrorists have the same rights as regular citizens you ask? I would say no but it should be up to the prosecutor to prove that the person is, in fact, a terrorist.
In the television series JAG the question of how to handle terrorists or those accused of terrorism has been intelligently examined. Should there be torture? Well, during the 2nd World War, the Cold war and the Korean War propaganda movies made in the USA had it that only the bad guys used torture and Americans, being the good guys, don't do that sort of thing. Unfortunately, in recent years, torture has been used by Americans and this is a rather sad thing.
I hope you have enjoyed the read. The USA is a great country and I can see that it has a great future. Propaganda was at the heart of getting Americans ready for WW2 and also in giving importance to science and innovation in the years after the war. Science is not fool proof but it is still the way forward into a brighter, possibly better future.
More by this Author
The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge of Courage, A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, Brave New World, 1984, Story of O, Tender is the Night, Wasp, Dune, Twilight Healer, A Study in Scarlet, Dracula, Jazz.
The 20th Century, Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Cold War, H. G. Wells, A Woman of Mars, The Hulk, Ian Fleming, Tarzan, A Clockwork Orange, Agatha Christie, Biggles.
Australian Propaganda from convict origins, to outlaws, to World War One, to populate or perish. Racism, Reverse Racism, sexism, loose lips sink ships, Muslims, Christians, bikinis, The Simpsons, USA