Myths and censorship during World War II

By Josiah Callaghan

There’s history and then there’s the retelling of history. The retelling of history can be used for many purposes depending on whose telling it and what their agenda is.  Often historians, reporters and the media, “Forget the ugly and magnify the good things.” (pg.428) In retelling history, people will either pull negative or positive things to prove a point or they will make up, fabricate or exaggerate things to make something appear a certain way. World War II is a perfect example of when theses mythmaking occurred both during and after the war.

While both WWII and the Vietnam war involved atrocities such as Napalm, the killing of innocent civilians, low morale among soldiers and soldiers being ostracized when they returned home, all these are things that we normally associate with the Vietnam war. Somehow when its comes to World War II, the retelling as omitted the negatives and exaggerated the positives, resulting in WWII becoming the “Good War.” (pg. 429)  World War II became the “Good War,” for several reasons. First, the use of mass media, such as radio and movies, was a major factor in painting the war in a positive light.  The boom of radio and movie industries during the 1940’s created a regular and eager audience for glamorization of the war. 28 million Americans had radio’s and over 90 million attended movies weekly during the peak of World War II.  Both the radio and movie industry often focused on American heroism and patriotism, while portraying the enemies as “cruel, devious and unprincipled.” (pg. 434) Not only did media play an important role in creating the “Good War,” but journalism and government censorship as well. Surprisingly, many journalists including author, John Steinbeck, skewed their stories and reports by not reporting on disturbing or negative aspects of the war, such as the terrible conditions that the troops had to endure. Walter Cronkite submitted a story detailing how the U.S. Air Force had bombed German targets blindly despite thick cloud cover, which challenged the assumption that American bombs were released with more precision and only on military targets. However, his report was withheld and was not printed. On the other hand camera crews scripted scenes of both General MacArthur and Eisenhower in photo shoots to enhance their images as if they were Hollywood celebrities. Paralleling the governments view, “Eisenhower saw reporters as part of the army and expected them to report the news as loyal soldiers…and not as independent observers.” (pg. 433) During the war, there were several government agencies such as the, Office of Censorship, whose job was to filter communications, information, publish propaganda in favor of the war and clean up negative images and aspects of the war for the public. Some examples of censorship included the silence about atrocities of the U.S. military, including the beating and killing of African-American soldiers by other U.S. troops.

So why were these types of things done during the war?  World War II required a lot of support and sacrifice from the civilian population, but also the industries of manufacturing, agriculture and so on.  There was a significant need to sustain the support and motivation of the civilian population in making many sacrifices for the war effort. Furthermore, the war was actually highly beneficial to the American economy. The United States was only nation to experience economic prosperity during World War II. The GDP for 1940 was $97 billion, but by 1944, it had risen to $190 billion. “Americans weekly wages also increased from, $25.20 in 1940, to $43.39 in 1945, which was an increase of 72%.” (pg.431) Unlike the other nations engaged in World War II, the United States was the only nation that did not experiences invasion or regular bombing, which separated many people, both civilian and military from the reality and actual physical experiences of war. In fact America had changed tremendously from the Depression Era, to a vibrant and prosperous nation, and the war to many people became an exciting and positive change for many. Russell Baker said that, “World War II for a time, gave Americans a sense of belonging, of community, as they were caught up in the war fever.” (pg. 431) It is also true that many Americans truly believed that the Japanese and the Germans were so obviously evil. The evil of these nations showcased the goodness of America and to many Americans it was seen as a war between good and evil, with America representing all that was good and moral.

In spite of the effective way that the myth of the “good war,” was created, the war was anything but good.  Even though both during and after the war many people believed and continue to believe that it was a “good war,” that is just not the case.  Some of the not so glamorous realities of World War II that are conveniently left out include; area bombings, the high rate of nervous breakdown’s among American soldiers, the killing of prisoners and defenseless soldiers and the raping of women by American soldiers. Discrimination also occurred significantly among the armed forces during the war. Many retuning soldiers, especially wounded ones often felt  “treated like scum” and many people would even wash their hands after greeting wounded soldiers as if they were diseased. (pg. 432) The war had a significant impact on domestic life in the United States as well. Many rural farms and small business’ failed and gave way to the rise of giant corporations. There were record numbers of hospitalizations for mental health issues. “According to a poll in 1946, the majority of adults felt that teenage behavior degenerated during the war.” (pg. 432) Even the divorce rate increased to 600,000 by 1946. All of these statistics shatter the myth that everything was so much better back then and many of these happenings are things that we only associate with the Vietnam era.

World War II has often been called America’s best war and both historians and popular media have perpetuated this misunderstanding. As Americans, it is easy for us to look at these events as a moment that exemplified our national strength and brought us together. While this may be true, much about World War II remains untold or exaggerated and the fact remains that war is war, as even Dwight D. Eisenhower said it himself, “War settles nothing.” However, when the past becomes distorted and exaggerated, it loses its reality, “it cease to be real history, it becomes what we call myth…” (pg. 429). When history becomes warped it loses its own identity and becomes a tool for propaganda and control. We must never forget the courage and sacrifice of those who died fighting in World War II, but we must be careful not to ever over-idealize any war, because real misery and tragedy are part of war. Consider the words of Thomas Jefferson as you ponder the reality of World War II, “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

Sources:

Stoler, Mark A., and Melanie S. Gustafson. Major Problems in the History of World War II. 1. 1. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 472. Print.

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