These sixty-one posters, printed between 1941 - 1946, are a sampling of more than 200 World War II posters printed by the federal government to help mobilize American home front opinion for the prodigious efforts of production demanded of a war fought on two fronts.
The posters have been in the collections of the New Hampshire State Library since they were printed. The posters came to the New Hampshire State Library because of its designation as a Federal Documents Depository Library. Founded in 1717, the State Library has been a Federal Documents Depository Library since the United States became a new nation.
"Unifying A Nation" opens on December 7, 2001, the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The bombing on American soil significantly altered American public opinion; Sunday, December 7, 1941 was called "a day of infamy" by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that characterization has stood the test of time. Our generation has recently gone through another great bombing on American soil, in New York City, and Tuesday, September 11, 2001 will also become a "where-were-you-when" day, a day marked by an historical bolt of lightning that has permanently etched our memories. "Unifying A Nation" tells a story of how America was rallied to a common cause in a time of crisis; the story is appropriate not only to 1941, but also to the crisis of our own time. "Unifying A Nation" did not begin with this parallel in mind, however. When Van McLeod, New Hampshire Commissioner of Cultural Resources, first proposed this exhibition, the primary goal was to showcase a part of the New Hampshire State Library's permanent collections which had not previously been exhibited. The recent attacks in New York City have added a sense of immediacy to the exhibition that was unplanned. As these lines are written America is once more filled with talk of war. It is our hope that viewers of "Unifying A Nation" will see these posters and their messages with an eye toward how we are mobilizing for war in our own time. In 2001, as in 1941, we remain a continental economy, with widely varying economic, political and social interests. Our variety must be recognized and our rights respected, even as we work to bring together our many different strands at a time of impending war. The motto on our national coinage - E Pluribus Unum, "Out of Many, One" - reminds us of our multi-national, multi-ethnic past and present.
The Second World War was a conflict that involved virtually every part of the world. The Axis powers - Germany, Italy, Japan - had acted more or less in tandem since1936 to regain territory lost or to expand territorial claims after the 1919 - 1920 peace agreement ending World War I. The Allied powers that finally unified in opposition against the Axis powers - France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China - initially focused on their own internal affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. Substantial post-war economic and social disruptions of the 1920s and 1930s kept the future Allies focused on their own economies and the wellbeing of their own peoples. In America, the Great Depression (1929 - 1939) meant that many if not most Americans ignored the National Socialist agenda of Adolf Hitler, Germany's leader after 1933. In 1935 Japan unilaterally abrogated a regional arms agreement and began to rearm, and to pursue military adventures in Asia, which still resonate to this day. And in 1935 - 1936 Italy invaded Ethiopia, in violation of economic sanctions against Italy imposed by the League of Nations. Isolationism in America remained strong despite all these efforts to overturn the results of World War One, however. There was a growing sense that America might not be able to avoid involvement, and in September 1940 the U.S. House of Representatives authorized the first peacetime conscription to help its Allies in Europe. But the Selective Training and Service Act only authorized the call-up of 900,000 men aged 21 - 35, and the call-up was only for a year. America was cautious about its involvement in foreign wars. Many Americans still believed they were protected by oceans on the east and west, and by friendly states on the north and south, and that they could somehow avoid war abroad.
Had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 American isolationism might have had a longer lasting impact on World War Two. But Japan wanted to cripple what it saw would be its most powerful opponent in a Pacific War. American military installations were attacked on December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) and December 8 (Manila, The Philippines). American opinion rallied for war on two fronts. War in Europe ended May 7 - 8, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Germany and ratification of the terms of surrender; the Japanese signed a formal surrender on September 2, 1945, after the atomic bomb had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and August 9, 1945).
President Roosevelt was concerned that American public opinion would not support war on two fronts for an indefinite period. On June 13, 1942 Roosevelt recast the Office of Facts and Figures (established in October 1941) as the Office of War Information (OWI). President Harry Truman abolished OWI by executive order at the conclusion of World War II (August 1, 1945); but for the duration of American involvement in World War II OWI influenced and educated the American public about the war through creative use of posters, movies, radio and newspapers. The OWI became the clearinghouse for all domestic American war news. OWI posters, seen in this exhibition, were designed to keep Americans focused on the strong production efforts needed for a war fought on two fronts with no end in sight. Volunteer groups saw that these posters were on display throughout the country, and the government recognized the importance of these volunteer groups in keeping Americans focused on the war effort.
Although the widespread distribution of posters kept American aware of the country's needs for wartime production, posters could not compete with radio, for influence on popular opinion. The exhibit soundtrack culled from 1940s broadcasts makes clear how important control of the airwaves was to the American government. President Roosevelt was himself an excellent communicator on radio, and his "Fireside Chats" during the war were listened to by families in an era when television did not yet exist. The President spoke of the challenges facing the country and how the government was working to meet those challenges. He wanted cabinet officers and agency heads to explain their work to the public, and "Town Meeting of the Air" became an hour-long staple of radio programming. Leading newscasters served as interviewers, in carefully scripted programs so that nothing sensitive would be inadvertently revealed. It worked because it was radio; whether television could handle that format today is at best doubtful.
As this exhibit took shape, the means and themes that characterized the American home front information effort became apparent. Emotional and compelling, the posters and other media stressed such topics as production, conservation of resources and raw materials, and protecting home and loved ones. The poster message had to be instantly understandable, and poster images had to reinforce text, and vice versa. The posters shown in "Unifying A Nation" have been selected from New Hampshire State Library collections for their mixtures of successful artistic impression and effective design.
Beyond their value as propaganda and as a popular art form, America's World War II posters serve as a testimonial to our nation's continuing image of itself as a shining democracy. These posters are authentic documents from our past, but they portray values and assumptions we have always held. Whether it is the enduring legacy of principles left by Franklin Roosevelt, the artistic achievement of Norman Rockwell and other artists, or the simple patriotic symbols of our flag and our Statue of Liberty, these posters embody the concepts of democracy and human compassion that bind us together. We hope you enjoy this exhibition, and that the posters and soundtrack reawaken appreciation of how America's government and home front worked together at a time of great national crisis.
New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources
Department of Cultural Resources
Administrator of Operations
New Hampshire State Library
Department of Cultural Resources