AMERICANS WERE NOT eager to enter the European war; in fact, during his reelection campaign in 1916, President Wilson ran on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Once war was declared in early April 1917, however, things had to change. The government’s first task was to convince citizens that they must support the war effort without reservation. Propaganda – defined as “information used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view” – was its primary weapon in this phase of the war.
Some historians claim that World War One was won by propaganda. It was certainly the first war in which (a) mass media kept Americans informed about what was occurring on the battlefields, and (b) propaganda was used systematically as a way to significantly impact public opinion.
President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information – comprised of the Secretaries of State, the Army, and the Navy – produced films, commissioned posters, published books and pamphlets, purchased newspaper advertisements, and recruited business men, preachers and professors to serve as public speakers at the local level. The committee emphasized the message that America's involvement in the war was essential in order to save the world from certain destruction. Every message was anti-German and pro-American.
WAKE UP AMERICA DAY
New York City came up with its own way to wake up its citizens from their complacency: they combined Wake Up, America Day with Patriot Day (a holiday honoring the Revolutionary War) on April 19, 1917. The event began at midnight when a woman dressed as Paul Revere rode through the streets on horseback summoning “the men of America to take up arms in the new strife for human liberty.”
One of the biggest backers of Wake Up, America Day was artist James Montgomery Flagg. He designed two posters for the event: one featured a sleeping Lady Liberty clad in stars and stripes, and the other sported a female Paul Revere-like character. Flagg also designed all the floats for the Wake Up, America Day parade, which was viewed by over 60,000 spectators).
A REVITALIZED UNCLE SAM
Flagg was one of the most influential men in America during World War One. Take his reimaging of Uncle Sam, for example. According to legend, the use of the term Uncle Sam to denote America and/or its government came into use during the War of 1812 (he was supposedly based on a Troy, New York, meat packer named Samuel Wilson). Afterwards, Uncle Sam was popularized in the 19th century by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, considered by many to be “The Father of the American Cartoon.”
The colorful Uncle Sam we know today, created by James Montgomery Flagg, appeared in 1916 on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly. Thereafter, he seemed to be everywhere: on the covers of magazines and sheet music, in product advertisements and – of course – on propaganda posters.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 2017 through December 2018
Detail from Poster, "Wake Up America," 1917 (LOC)
State Historic Site