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American Cold War Propaganda: Posters & Films

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.

This lesson explores examples of propaganda produced by American media and politics during the Cold War. First, we will examine pro-nationalist messages in posters and films. Then, we delve into the fight against communism.

What is Propaganda?

You may already be familiar with the famous images of American pride associated with World War II. Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam symbolized strength, honor and tradition. Films like Why We Fight, a documentary series produced by the American government, served to shore up support for Army and Industry during the war.

rosie

These are all examples of propaganda, media that promote a biased view on an issue. Films, television programs, and posters disseminate pro-nationalist and scandalous messages by painting an issue in black and white, leaving no room for an opposing point of view.

While the use of propaganda was strong during World War II, it did not die out when the white flags were raised. The era that followed was called the Cold War, which began around 1946 and lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In many ways, it was a war fought through media messages and propaganda.

Pro-Nationalism

Marvel's Avengers franchise has made the character of Captain America ubiquitous. This recognizable figure, with his chiseled abs and patriotic red, white and blue uniform, has its origins in the 1940s and 1950s: the superhero type All-American young man. The noble war hero symbolizes American pride. His strong posture parallels the strength of the nation.

Along with the image of the proud and powerful war hero, Cold War propaganda disseminated traits of prosperity, freedom and plenitude through the wholesome American 'way of life.' The key image in support of this ideal came in the form of the All-American family.

The Cleaver family in the television show Leave it to Beaver, 1957-1963
Leave it to Beaver

Television and advertising played key roles in constructing the image of an ideal American way of life. Take for example television shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), Father Knows Best (1954-1960), and Lassie (1954-1973). These shows portrayed the All-American family. It included two married parents, two kids, and all the modern amenities you would expect in a suburban household. A key component of the ideal family unit corresponded to capitalist values.

In addition to television's image of the All-American family, magazines spread illustrations of Norman Rockwell-eqsue small town America: scenes showing teens sipping milkshakes, the church cookout, and the Thanksgiving dinner. The sun shone brightly, the pantries were stocked, jobs were plentiful, and people were content. These sorts of images extended the established mythology of the American dream.

These propaganda functioned to shore up support and national pride by projecting an image of prosperity, freedom and strength. In many ways, however, these images were fantasy. They contrasted and conflicted with many American's real life. Despite what you see in the media, the Cold War was not a prosperous time for many Americans.

Combating the Threat

In many respects, the Cold War was fought on the pages of magazines, on television, and on the movie screen. American politicians spread anti-communist propaganda in their speeches. No one was more outspoken than Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. The eponymous McCarthyism was the leading force in the Red Scare, a cultural and political battle against communism in America. McCarthy used political force to spread propaganda about the threat of communism.

It had the effect of creating a culture of fear and paranoia, rallying the idealized image of wholesome and patriotic Americans against deceitful and corrupt Communist 'spies among us'. In one historic 1950 speech for example, McCarthy stated, ''In my opinion the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.'' By making people suspicious of each other, the Red Scare became effective in promoting patriotism through paranoia. McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. Their mission was to sniff out communist sympathizers and spies. Like the Spanish Inquisition, it labeled anyone a communist who sympathized with socialist beliefs.

Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, right, at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations
Mccarthy

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American Cold War Propaganda: Posters & Films Quiz

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What types of films served as both entertainment and allegories of communism during the Cold War?

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