On this Labor Day, we revisit the role propaganda posters played in helping America win WWII. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government realized that the production of war material was going to be crucial to its success in fighting both Japan and Germany.

The government also recognized the lingering resentment that existed between labor unions and factory management that stemmed from the constant; and at times, violent labor disputes of the 1930’s. Production was essential to victory, and to get the most of American industry, the government turned to clever advertising campaigns that harnessed popular pro-war sentiment.

Posters were used to urge American workers to set aside their differences with management and make personal sacrifices in support of the war effort. Many posters relied on patriotic imagery, bold typography, and dramatic phrases designed to boost morale; while persuading workers to suspend union rules, work more, and to do whatever it took to increase production.

Left: A propaganda poster from 1942 encouraging unity between labor and management of GM. Right: Do you recognize those faces?

Left: A propaganda poster from 1942 encouraging unity between labor and management of GM.
Right: Do you recognize those faces?

Although the government initiated the campaigns, corporations and labor unions soon followed suit and began to produce their own propaganda posters. In 1942, GM encouraged its work force to unite with management to meet the challenges of war production. Capitalizing on the pro-war sentiment, they produced their own poster that showed both labor and management rolling up their sleeves to meet production demands. Like many other corporations of the period, GM also used propaganda posters to gain and exert more control over labor than was previously possible during the prior decade.

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Perhaps the most recognized poster of the era, “We Can Do It!” was produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric. Miller, a graphic artist, was hired by Westinghouse’s War Production Coordinating Committee to create a series of posters that were displayed to Westinghouse factory workers.

J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster from 1943

J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster from 1943.

Often mistaken as a poster used to recruit women workers to join the war effort, the poster only appeared before Westinghouse workers in February, 1943. It wasn’t until it was rediscovered, and given new meaning in the early 1980’s, that it assumed its current standing as the most recognized poster representing American labor.

Arguably the most iconic and successful propaganda campaign ever waged by one nation, the posters that hung from public areas and factory walls successfully compelled ordinary Americans to do extraordinary things.


Photo Credits: Wikipedia Commons


 

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