Propaganda Posters and the Common Core

I don’t know if it says something about me, but I have always been fascinated with propaganda posters.  When I was in the classroom, I probably spent more time than I had to focusing on the various symbols, messages, and styles the US government used during World War I and World War II to gain support for the war effort.

Whether its message was easy to understand or difficult to decode, my students would have to analyze it.  Whether it used guilt, fear, humor or patriotism to tell its message, I was going to share it with students.  Whether it asked people to conserve wheat, join the army or buy more bonds, my students were going to investigate it.

Recently, my interest in these posters has been revived and refocused.  I was doing a bit of research to find National Archives documents related to the National Park Service for our Wednesday partner program, and I was struck by the frequent use of the Statue of Liberty in these posters.

While that alone might not be so shocking, I was surprised with how flexible she was as a symbol.  The Statue of Liberty was used by the government to encourage people to conserve wheat, buy war bonds, and work harder in factories.   The colors, slogans, and overall tone of these posters are even more varied. And I immediately thought these posters could be a good basis for an engaging Common Core task for writing an informative/explanatory text.

  • Explain how the Federal government used the Statue of Liberty as a symbol during World War I and World War II to build support for the war effort?  Cite specific evidence from the posters.
Food Will Win the War
Food Will Win the War (From the Records of the U.S. Food Administration)

Take this poster from World War I.  Above the Statue of Liberty is a patriotic rainbow, while behind lays a golden New York City skyline. In the foreground, there is a group of immigrants wearing traditional clothing.  The young man in front has his left hand on the older women’s basket of food while his expression and other hand seem to imply he is trying to persuade her.  Underneath the image are the slogan “Food Will Win the War” and the phrase “You came here seeking Freedom, You must now help to preserve it.”

The fact that this poster was translated into several languages (such as Italian and Yiddish) is not surprising because it has a very specific audience—recent immigrants to the US. The poster focuses on the emotional connection many of them had to the Statue of Liberty during their arrival in the United States to persuade them to support the Allied cause by conserving wheat. (You can find an online activity in which students analyze the English and Yiddish versions of this poster and investigate techniques used to urge Americans to conserve food on DocsTeach.)

That Liberty Shall Not Perish From The Earth
That Liberty Shall Not Perish From The Earth (From the Records of the U.S. Food Administration)

Contrast that positive scene to the bleak vision created by Joseph Pennell.  A decapitated and disarmed Statue of Liberty stands facing a ruined New York City.  Enemy airplanes and ships speed toward the city.  The skyline is ablaze in oranges, reds and yellows to represent fire and destruction.  Below the image, the text paraphrases Lincoln as it pleads for people to purchase bonds so “that liberty shall not perish from the earth.”

Over two million copies of this poster were printed by the government.  It uses fear to inspire its intended audience—in this case all Americans.  The specific message is to support the war effort through purchasing liberty bonds or else this might happen.  The Statue of Liberty is used here as a symbol of freedom that can be destroyed if we are not vigilant.  And much like its recurring use in such popular films as Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, and Cloverfield, a destroyed Statue of Liberty represents an apocalyptic world.

Several other posters created during both world wars would use the Statue of Liberty.  Though they might have different intended audiences, messages, and tones, they all looked her way for inspiration.

Which do you find most interesting?  How might you use them in the classroom?

More information about the Statue of Liberty is available from the National Park Service.  It is scheduled to re-open following damage sustained by Hurricane Sandy on July 4, 2013.

You can find posters from the world wars on DocsTeach and in the National Archives online catalog.


6 thoughts on “Propaganda Posters and the Common Core

  1. It seems you did a great job teaching before the existence of the Common Core. Maybe you should consider the drawbacks of the Core for teachersʼ autonomy and the future of the U.S. school system before unabashedly promoting it.

  2. Peter, thanks for your comments.

    The National Archives has supported teachers for the past 30+ years with resources and activities that help educators respond to changing standards and teacher expectations. So, I wrote this article to do just that–help teachers prepare for the expectations of the Common Core.

    Keep reading and keep sharing your thoughts!

  3. Chris,

    Thought the information was great…I think we should have a link to it from our web site.
    Keep up the good work!
    Yours in service,

    Ed Mucci
    Park Ranger STLI

  4. Chris,

    I’m sharing this with the teachers at my middle school. I’m always looking for examples of ways to implement CCSS lessons without rushing out and spending money on “CC-aligned” material. There’s a wealth of material available through the National Archives! Thanks for highlighting this lesson. I’m posting this on my page for great CCSS resources: .

  5. Propaganda is everywhere these days, on all forms of media blasting 24/7 stories, that all seem very coordinated with their messaging and timing. It used to be not as obvious, but these days it’s literally everywhere.

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