Watching Out for Your Friends: 1942 Guidance for U.S. Propaganda in the Pacific During World War II

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

As numerous scholars have demonstrated, World War II in the Pacific had a distinct racial aspect to it.[1]  The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor reinforced a long-standing strand of American racial animosity towards the Japanese.  That was further reinforced during the war as news of events such as the Bataan Death March and the general ill-treatment of prisoners of war and the viciousness of the jungle fighting became known.

Given what can only be considered a multi-racial Allied coalition fighting the Japanese, any U.S. propaganda using race as part of its anti-Japanese message ran the risk of demonizing and denigrating its Asian allies as well as the Japanese.  Recognizing this, a month after the U.S. entered the war, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent the following guidance to Coordinator of Information William J. Donovan (RG 208, NAID 630052).  Hull sent this memorandum to Donovan because at the time the Coordinator’s office was responsible for U.S. international propaganda activities outside the Western Hemisphere.  In June 1942, those propaganda activities were transferred to the newly-established Office of War Information which carried on and greatly expanded that type of work.

OWI.Race issues.1
Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Coordinator of Information William J. Donovan, January 8, 1942 p1, file State Department, Records of the Historian, Entry 6B: Records Relating to the Overseas Branch, 1942-1945, RG 208
OWI.Race issues.2
Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Coordinator of Information William J. Donovan, January 8, 1942 p2, file State Department, Records of the Historian, Entry 6B: Records Relating to the Overseas Branch, 1942-1945, RG 208
OWI.Race issues.3
Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Coordinator of Information William J. Donovan, January 8, 1942 p3, file State Department, Records of the Historian, Entry 6B: Records Relating to the Overseas Branch, 1942-1945, RG 208

Despite this guidance, as the war progressed, negative stereotypes of the Japanese entered U.S. propaganda.  For example, many posters depicted Japanese officials as glasses-wearing and bucktoothed.  Efforts were made to aim that propaganda directly at the Japanese to avoid offending allies but whether that was totally effective is not clear.


[1] For one example, see John Dower, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR.

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