Last weekend marked the fifty-third anniversasry of the creation of Flag Day as an annual observance. Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the American flag on June 14, 1777, although the modern observance dates to 1885, when Bernard Cigrand, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, had his class celebrate "Flag Birthday". Almost simultaneously, a former socialist minister named Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance at the behest of James Upham, publisher of The Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine, in a dual effort to promote an idea of nation unity and make a few bucks selling flags; until then most schools displayed states, rather than the national flag (which was largely used by the military). Last weekend also marked the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Office of War Information. The OWI — an offshoot, oddly enough, of the Farmer Services Administration — took thousands of black and white and color photographs of America’s war mobilizations efforts, designed America’s war posters, recorded rumors and jokes about the war, and monitored Hollywood.
In Richard Hofstadter‘s excellent essay "Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny", Hofstadter lays out some of the underpinnings of the American movement towards imperialism, which started in the nineteenth century. World War I had been an unpopular war, however, and America still maintained a strong isolationist streak. Charles Lindbergh wasn’t alone in resisting American entry into the Second World War; after the Japanese sinking of the USS Panay in 1937, many Congressmen maintained that the Japanese action was an innocent mistake, a reaction that’s hard to square with either contemporary political attitudes or the way we picture the war sixty years later.
After Pearl Harbor, things changed. Jimmy Stewart (an early volunteer who led bombing raids for the Army Air Corps) was joined by Ted Williams (who flew combat missions for the Navy), Henry Fonda, and a host of other celebrities who thought they could best serve their country on the battlefield. Others stayed at home and propagandized (Ronald Reagan fought fascism by making an Irving Berlin musical). People like Frank Capra (whose Why We Fight films are completely in keeping with his other celebrations of America) and Chuck Jones and Dr. Seuss (whose Private Snafu was a sort of Army Goofus, illustrating how not to do things) contributed their artistic talents.
By and large, the movies are what we have left. But consider the 1942 explosion of flag covers on American magazines (link via cursor.org). It was probably a true outpouring of genuine patriotism, dispalying the flag and helping the government sell war bonds. On the other hand, the magazine industry was surely afraid of paper rationing, the same rationing that would eventually help kill the pulps. Even when things are true and right, they needn’t be pure. Memories of the war are mutable, and they vanish. My grandfather (a navigator, a recipient of the Purple Heart) never told me a war story. The movies are what we have left, but the movies only tell a single truth.