The Dirty Dozen: 13 Influential Political Propaganda Pieces in History

Trying to define the word “propaganda” is like trying to herd cats into a box. You get one in and the rest slip away. One person may feel that propaganda advances a negative or deceitful message while another person would argue that it can be used to advance positive endeavors. But at its root, propaganda is a tool to get a message across. For this list, FTKC is taking a look at the 13 most effective uses of political propaganda, including the good, the bad and the ugly, and we will be looking at all sources of print propaganda, not just posters. We will not be looking at social causes like MTv’s “Sex Is No Accident” campaign or various blood and organ donor drives, noble as they may be.

Sex Is No Accident: Always Use a Condom

Sex Is No Accident: Always Use a Condom

#13 “Captain America: Commie Smasher” (1954)


This is not your grandparent’s Captain America. Seriously. Steve Rogers, AKA the Captain America of today’s multi-million dollar movie franchises, is still frozen somewhere beneath the North Atlantic in 1954. This is William Burnside, a Captain America fanatic and U.S. historian–PhD in Captain America, essentially–who discovers the secret formula for Cap’s serum while studying in Germany. He didn’t just become the Captain by taking the serum, but he gets a face lift to look like Steve Rogers. Obsessive much? As the new Captain America, Burnside takes on a new enemy in the Communist threat–a real, tangible scare for America in the early 1950s. But, because he was not exposed to the vita-rays to control the serum’s effects, Burnside slowly goes insane. And, paralleling the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Burnside becomes a menace to society and his war against Communism devolves into paranoid hysteria. Not bad for a comic book.

#12 “How to Tell A Chinese From A Jap” (1941)


If the point of propaganda is to manage the collective attitudes of a group through the careful manipulation of images, stereotypes, and symbols, this Time Magazine piece earns an A+. The PSA from Time’s Dec. 22, 1941 issue helps its readers better identify the differences between a “Chinese public servant” and a “Japanese warrior”. See, you are already seeing the difference. The Chinese help the public, the Japanese? Well, they just bombed Pearl Harbor. Those darn warriors. The Chinese man can be differentiated from the “Jap” because the “Chinese wear rational calm of tolerant realists. Japs, like General Tojo, show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics.” In another PSA cartoon, linked here, the “Chinese smiles easily–while the Jap usually expects to be shot…and is very unhappy about the whole thing.” I suppose the message really is to just be happy!

#11 “Enlist” (1917)


The message here is clear: Don’t ever let a helpless woman die while cradling the lifeless body of her infant child as they sink into the frigid, murky depth of the ocean. In this Fred Spear enlistment poster, the viewer is reminded of the horrors of the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). Visually, this is probably the most powerful piece in our list. The helpless woman, one of 128 Americans killed on the Lusitania–conspicuously absent from the image–is draped in a white dress (purity) and her face shows a submission to the horrors of war rather than a struggle for survival. The murky green background lends to the depressing, somber tone of the piece.

#10 “Once a German–Always A German” (c. 1918)


Nothing says You are a horrible person better than an image of you bayoneting small infants. This poster from the British Empire Union was created by David Wilson to remind the British public of the atrocities that the Germans had inflicted during World War I, and to not hire German citizens and to boycott all German goods. Wilson played with dark stereotypes in this piece–a German with two sides: as a suave businessman, and a ruthless, drunken killer–but he also reminded the British, as well as anyone else viewing the poster, of the realities of German horrors by including a vignette of martyr Edith Cavell’s grave with the caption “1914 to 1918. Never Again!”, and of the sinking of British ships by German U-Boats.

#9 “Take the Road to Defend the Motherland” (1972)


Communism is known for its unapologetic use of propaganda and the communists of North Vietnam were no different. Ho Chi Minh understood the significance of rallying the populace via vibrant, heart-stirring messages and to do this he recruited men like Phan Thanh Liem. Liem created “lên đường bảo về tổ quốc” while living in the DMZ. “For seven years I worked and lived a miserable existence in the narrow tunnel of Vinh Linh in Quang Tri province as the US bombers attacked. Every day I witnessed the sufferings and death of innocent people.” And it worked. At the height of the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh trail, a complex network of secret roads and tunnels saw as many as 20,000 soldiers using the road network a month.

#8 “Red Army Soldier, Save Us!” (1942)


Sometimes, the simplest images have the greatest impact. Victor Koretsky’s Soviet piece, which came out after the Soviets watched the Nazis steamroll into the Motherland in 1941 and after a number of military setbacks in 1942, shows a mother and child at the sharp end of a bloody Nazi bayonet with flames roaring in the background. The piece was so inspiring that soldiers wrote Koretsky from the front lines telling him that they “kept his poster folded in the left-hand top pocket of their uniform, next to their heart, just as icons had been kept by their fathers before them.”

#7 “Liberators” (1944)


When in doubt, overkill. The Nazi Party’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda controlled all forms of media in Germany and was responsible for promoting Hitler’s vision of German culture and the threats that Western culture brought. In “Liberators”, Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machinery drew on every possible anti-American stereotype available. Every negative aspect of American society was depicted. From racism (KKK hood and African-Americans in a cage), to pro-Semitic support (Star of David), to American’s treatment of women as sex symbols and the Native Americans. Even American greed (boxing glove with cash bag) and violent culture (prison garbed arm with machine gun) are tossed in. According to the Nazis this creature was supposed to do good for European culture, all at the mercy and will of the indiscriminate American military violence.

#6 “You Have Struck A Rock” (1981)


Not all propaganda is created by the State in order to persuade the citizenry. Case in point, the work of the Medu Art Ensemble comprised of a group “cultural workers” who fled to Gaborone, Botswana to escape apartheid and censorship in South Africa. This poster was created by American born Judy Seidman for the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s Day march in Pretoria which protested the South African government’s oppressive pass laws. The woman in the poster depicts the struggles of all women, but her determined, resolute face and broken chain on her arm show that women will triumph. The Medu Art Ensemble was a cultural think tank who believed that art should not be stuck in gallaries for only the elite to see, but on the streets, on T-shirts, and on posters. Most importantly, they believed that if their art was going to be relevant in any way it should be relevant to the anti-apartheid struggle across the border in South Africa. By 1982 they had evolved into a powerful force. So powerful that the ensemble was seen as a threat to the South African government and in 1985 the SADF raided Gaborone and killed 12 members of the community and essentially extinguished the Medu Art Ensemble over night.

#5 “El Arcoiris” (1988)


Never underestimate the power of persuasion. Maybe Augusto Pinochet should have heeded that advice. In 1988, after fifteen years of a brutal dictatorship in which over 3,000 of Pinochet’s political opponents had “disappeared” and ten times as many were tortured and raped by the Junta’s secret police, Pinochet had announced that a he was going to hold a plebiscite just so that the people of Chile could tell him how much they loved him by reelecting him to another eight years of ruthless leadership. The “No” campaign, comprised of over 15 opposition groups, had a tough task ahead of them: Convince the people of Chile that 1. The vote was legitimate; 2. They were not going to be harmed by casting a ballot; and 3. The results of the vote would be upheld by Pinochet. But Pinochet was not going to go down easily. Pinochet’s henchmen beat farmers who appeared in “No” commercials, and a musician was fired from her job among other forms of violence. Ultimately, on Oct. 5, 1988, the people of Chile told Pinochet “no” and he was ousted from power.

#4 “The Sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought Illuminates the Road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966)


If you are going to run a country you might as well make sure everyone knows who you are. Especially if your “thought” is one of the founding pillars to the entire ideology that will support the nation. As the Great Teacher, Great Leader, and Supreme Commander, Mao Zedong’s writings and thoughts were the key for China to stave off the influences of capitalism and to keep the peasants from falling back into feudalism. Often, as in this work, Mao is seen as the sunlight–the life giver–to a larger-than-life, stereotypically “masculinized” peasantry and the means to a perfect future.

#3 “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” (1915)

Daddy,_what_did_You_do_in_the_Great_War- (1)

Definitely not your typical propaganda piece in its artistic flourish and detail, “Daddy” tugged on the heart strings of men in England through its appeal to family and country. At the start of World War I, Britain’s army, though a professional unit, was small and comprised of volunteers. Conscription didn’t start until 1916 so England relied on able bodied men to recruit themselves. As evident from this War Office poster created by Arthur Gunn and illustrated by Savile Lumley there was great social pressure placed on men to volunteer and an equal amount of ostracization heaped upon men who were seen as “shirkers” and cowards. This work stands apart from nearly every other piece of propaganda in its sophisticated imagery and color to weave an emotional tapestry that help England raise an army and win a war.

#2 “I Want You” (1917)


Easily one of the most recognizable images in media today, this Uncle Sam poster is unabashed, full throttle patriotism. Though the Uncle Sam imagery had been a part of the American consciousness since 1812 and a Troy, NY meat packer named Samuel Wilson, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that he was given his trademark white beard and stars and stripes suit in Thomas Nast’s editorial cartoons. However, it took artist James Flagg to elevate Uncle Sam to pop icon. Over four million copies of the poster were printed from 1917 to 1918, and it was reproduced for recruitment purposes during World War II. Flagg almost dared every man in America to stare back at his stern faced Uncle Sam with his finger drilling into their chest, look him in the eyes, and say, “No thanks, I’m staying home.”

Honorable Mentions

“We Can Do It” (1943, J. Howard Miller)


“Spaniards Search Women Aboard American Steamers” (1897, Frederick Remington)


“Che” (c.1967)

“Destroy This Mad Brute” (1917, H.R. Hopps)


and now,

#1 “The Persuasive Eloquence of the Sunny South” (1861-1865)

Persuasive eloquence

While not a poster, this Civil War era patriotic cover (an envelope featuring images or slogans) probably did more than any other propaganda piece on this list, reached a wider audience, and turned the tide of a nation. Despite the efforts of Northern abolitionists, most Northerners wanted nothing to do with the slavery question, or free blacks or free blacks in general. Most whites resented the free black as a person who would take their jobs. Political parties like the Free Soilers formed in the North to keep newly opened lands in the West free… not economically, but free from blacks. During the Civil War, draft riots broke out in New York and even black orphanages were set ablaze when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionists in Ohio were killed and abolitionist newspaper offices were burnt to the ground. Even Lincoln admitted, at first, that fighting the Civil War was not to free the slaves but to preserve the Union. Patriotic covers like this one were instrumental in persuading the North of the horrors of slavery and the need to fight the Civil War.


Do you agree with our list? Which propaganda piece do you think deserves a place in the rankings? Leave your ideas in the comments, and be sure to hit the follow button at the top to keep up with From The Kitchen Cabinet (FTKC) and for more Dirty Dozens and other articles where we explore the lessons from history.


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