War, Art and The Narrative of America
In an address to Congress on December 8th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described December 7th as “a date which will live in infamy.” The decimation of the US Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor led Congress to declare war against Japan and within days, Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy, were at war with the United States. For the next four years, the US fought European fascism on one front and Japanese imperialism on the other in a world war that ended when Truman ushered in the Atomic Age by dropping the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On the same day as Roosevelt’s speech, prominent American folklorists deployed to the streets to capture immediate reactions to the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Alan Lomax, the head of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song, sent a telegram to colleagues around the nation to ask “the man on the street” about their reactions to the attack. Ordinary people from housewives to janitors expressed fear, outrage and super patriotism about the attack on the home front. Six months later, the newly formed Office of War Information- a propaganda agency of the government- capitalized on this public sentiment, publishing pictures and materials that celebrated American patriotism.
The New Deal prefigured this war effort by creating the infrastructure that made dispensing federal mandates (and propaganda) to the public efficient. The New Deal relieved the economic suffering caused by the Depression, recovered the economy and reformed the free market system by implementing federal regulation. It was a watershed in federal expansion, and despite the massive regulation, on the eve of WWII, unemployment still hovered between 18 and 27% in parts of the nation.
It was WWII- not the New Deal- that caused economic recovery.
In addition to creating federal infrastructure, the New Deal crystallized Americanization efforts started during WWI and used in WWII. In 1917 when the US entered WWI defining what it meant to be American took on monumental import, and the Americanization Movement aimed to define American nationalism as a counterpoint to anti-democratic ideologies abroad.
During WWI it was Bolshevism (communism) and by WWII, European fascist ideologies like Hitler’s Nazism and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Writer Edgar Allan Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” Hitler is one of those words, and fascism is another. Between WWI and WWII fascism emerged in multiple forms across Europe and later Asia. The extremism of fascist regimes stemmed from the desperation of the era when depression, mass poverty and unemployment defined the times. Stalin starved Ukraine into submission and purged opposition, and Hitler bestowed on the children of purged opponents entirely new identities that erased the legacy of the parent.
Add to this eugenics. Eugenics hit a high mark in the 1930s. In the US, forced sterilization of criminals, the criminally insane, the mentally ill and “undesirables” was commonplace in prisons and mental institutions.
In Germany Hitler’s state run breeding program, Lebensborn- started in 1935 to combat the high rates of abortion in the interwar period- produced approximately 20,000 children born and raised by the German state in the ten years of its operation.
And genocide was a solution to problems.
Nazism killed approximately 20 million people, Stalinism 40 million and later Maoism in China, 60 million of which 40 million starved to death in the 1960 famine caused by the state led program to kill the sparrows, a program that produced an ecological disaster just 60 years ago. The literature of the era revealed that writers were acutely aware of the censorship and inhumanity of fascist regimes and produced macabre narratives like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm.
Americanizing was not an easy process as many parts of the nation suffered from illiteracy, poverty, weak public education and localism. The New Deal was instrumental in propagating ideas about democracy through art and literature, and both FDR’s Works Progress Administration and the Treasury Department funded thousands of public art projects in the interwar period that revolutionized the state’s use of public space to promote American nationalism through the visual arts. A broad, disparate movement of intellectuals, artists, writers and educators conveyed through their works the idea that true democracy was only possible when Americans embraced a common humanity. This was a propaganda campaign as well as a relief effort (it put to work unemployed in the arts and media) that transformed the relationship between the states and the federal government.
Although freedom and equality were under attack from many sides- the dehumanization of eugenics, the rise of European fascism, the inhumanity of war abroad and racist violence and discrimination at home- federal art was emblematic of the values inherent in the narrative of Americanization. This was a matter of nationalism and national security as Hitler’s theft of European art was a systematic part of Nazi conquest that weaponized art. By confiscating the artistic symbols of nationalism in Nazi-occupied countries and either appropriating them as German or destroying them, the Nazis used theft and destruction as a tool of war to erase national heritage. Federal art was a primary mechanism of combating insidious foreign ideologies while promoting Americanization before, during and after WWII.
Whether post office murals, man on the street recordings or photographic images, the visual arts from this period are cultural texts that archive American memory and remind us to remember history.
“Our past and present existence is a mirror from which spill both deception and truth.” Mario Luzi, “Poesie” 1946