“I’m Counting on You” by Leon Helguera: A Mexican Artist Puts His Stamp on Uncle Sam

This is the first of three posts about the Uncle Sam poster for the Security of War Information campaign.

Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

In 1943, Mexican born artist Leon Helguera was commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information to design an illustration featuring an image of Uncle Sam with his finger to his lips gesturing for silence. This resulted in the “I’m Counting on You!” poster (below) which was distributed in August of that year:

Poster of Uncle Sam holdings his finger to his lips in a gesture of silence with the text "I'm Counting on You! Don't Discuss: Troop Movements, Ship Sailings, War Equipment.
I’m Counting on you! Don’t Discuss: Troop Movements, Ship Sailings, War Equipment. (NAID 513825), first released summer of 1943 (click here to open a PDF with the August distribution plan).

The Office of War Information (OWI) was the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda agency during World War II and this poster was designed for its Security of War Information campaign, more commonly known as the “Hush-Hush,” “Controlling Careless Talk,” or “Don’t Talk” campaign. This program included the creation and distribution of many posters in the vein of “Loose Lips Might Sinks Ships,[1]” as well as cartoon strips, motion pictures, and radio programs that were created to inform Americans about the necessity not to divulge information that might aid the enemy during the war. However, only Helguera’s illustration of Uncle Sam, reproduced in posters and other print media, would attain recognition as the official insignia for this nationwide effort.

In response to a request from Helguera, OWI confirmed this in a letter to him on July 4, 1944, acknowledging his contribution and the significance of his work:

Letter from Emmette V. Graham to Leon Helguera, July 4, 1944.
Letter from Emmette V. Graham to Leon Helguera, July 4, 1944.

Born in Mexico in 1899, Leon Helguera came to the United States at the age of 17 and by 1930 he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Professionally, he worked as a commercial artist in New York City and, prior to designing the Uncle Sam poster was commissioned by OWI to design posters to appeal to Spanish speakers in the Southwest (See Americans All by Leon Helguera: Appealing to Hispanics on the Home Front in WWII), and a 2-cent postage stamp honoring the United Nations. Additionally, during this time he served as president of “Los Panamericanos,” a social club in New York City whose goal was to foster friendship, cooperation, and unity between the people of the U.S and Latin Americans.[2] In subsequent correspondence with the chairman of the security committee, Helguera expresses his desire to serve as a bridge between his two countries:

In letters dated July 18 and August 11, 1944, Helguera writes enthusiastically about the potential for promoting positive relations between the U.S. and Latin America that could be made from the fact that he, a Mexican citizen, designed an “Uncle Sam” poster that became the official insignia for a U.S. government campaign. He floats ideas- given to him by a friend and another from OWI’s art director- of ways to exploit this for maximum press coverage. The suggestions include a photo opportunity with the Mexican Ambassador upon receiving an award, perhaps signed by the President himself, on the occasion of the “billionth” reproduction of the symbol. While this number is fanciful, Helguera’s Uncle Sam was indeed reproduced into the millions by the government and many times over by private companies who used it in their national advertisements, making it quite ubiquitous over the course of 1943-1944.[3] Following are some examples of its many incarnations beyond the poster.

As the logo on the cover for “How Industry Can Cooperate with the Government Campaign on Security of War Information.” Sent to 14,000 advertisers and advertising agencies in December 1943,[4] this pamphlet includes a description of the security program and how private industry can participate. The third page introduces the insignia and more examples of how to use it appear on the fifth page.

As inserts intended to be delivered with Army and Navy allotment checks (1,050,000 inserts were printed in November 1943 but due to a delivery problem they were not sent as intended with the December paychecks).

On the back of Schrafft’s menus which ran in New York City, January-February 1944.

As a poster within a poster for Alcoa featuring their mascot, Alcoa Al; it also makes an appearance on the masthead of an Alcoa factory newsletter in July 1944. This poster is signed Don Buck.

Poster featuring Helguera's Uncle Sam poster and Alcoa Al

As advertisements in major newspapers and magazines:

Advertisement for Broderick and Bascom Rope Co., as it appeared in Newsweek, Business Week, Time, and Fortune magazines in February- April 1944. Pictured Newsweek, February 28, 1944.

In the New York Journal American on May 6, 1944, with the phrase “The Less Said, The Less Dead” in place of “I’m Counting on you! Don’t Discuss: Troop Movements, Ship Sailings, War Equipment.” This appeared in 15 Hearst newspapers, circulation 7,660,668.

Entry 59,box 193, Hearst Newspapers.2

Finally, in August 1944, Helguera’s Uncle Sam appears in an advertisement for Acme Breweries which includes the usual appeal to guard against careless talk but has an additional message calling for unity and tolerance: say no word that might stir up strife and disunity among our Allies in other countries or encourage social, religious or racial intolerance here at home. This advertisement appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Examiner, combined circulation of 1,196,959.

RG208E59Box193liquor_Distribution_acmebrewing

It is unknown if Helguera ever received the recognition that he asked for in his correspondence above. But from what we know about him – his posters for Spanish speakers in the Southwest, the United Nations stamp, his association with Los Panamericanos, and the sentiments he expresses in his letters to OWI regarding his story as a Mexican who has contributed to the war effort – one can imagine that Leon Helguera was pleased to see his illustration of Uncle Sam appear alongside such a call for unity and tolerance.

And yet, considering the widespread use of the insignia, it may come as a surprise that at its inception the poster faced a series of setbacks and once distributed it encountered further troubles.

Next: The Uncle Sam “Hush” Poster and the One That Never Was!


Notes:

All documents, images, and related information in this post, except where otherwise noted, are from the series: Records Concerning War Information Programs, 9/1/1942 – 7/31/1944, (NAID 720160). Office of the Program Manager for the Security of War Information Campaigns. Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

[1] The poster “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships” was distributed by Seagram Distillers Corporation in 1942, prior to the official creation of the government’s Security of War Information campaign.

[2] The Pan American, “Pan Americano in Action!” May 1944, Vol. V, No. 2. pp.17-18.

[3] Based on various memorandums there is a discrepancy regarding the government numbers for the August distribution of the poster: Memorandum from Albert L. Ramsay to Catherine Lanham, July 6, 1943, accounts for 1, 087,000 (this predates August 1943); Memorandum from R.D. Mathewson to Catherine Lanham, January 11, 1944, accounts for 1,163,200 and an additional 200,000 for August 1943; and in Distribution Plan for OWI-78 “I’m Counting on You” distributed in August (no year), accounts for 1,059,259. This last one is from a folder titled “August Poster-I’m counting on you 1944.” Based on this last example, it is possible a second run of over a million posters was printed in August 1944. Unable to locate an exact total because of the conflicting numbers, I will rely on the Letter from Emmette V. Graham to Mr. Leon Helguera, July 4, 1944, which states “a year ago the Security of War Information Committee distributed well over a million copies” of the Uncle Sam poster (this document appears in the blog post).

[4] Catherine Lanham to Members of Security Committee, Dec. 13, 1943. General Correspondence, Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau. Office of the Chief, Record Group 208, (NAID 4751541).

Leave a Reply