Propaganda, Politics, and the Personification of FDR: The Uncle Sam Poster Controversy

This is the third and final post in a three-part series on 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 October 1943, Representative Harold Knutson (R-MN) charged the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) with propagandizing for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term. Specifically, Knutson claimed that the poster “I’m Counting on You! Don’t Discuss: Troop Movements, Ship Sailings, War Equipment,” created by artist Leon Helguera for the Security of War Information campaign, portrayed FDR as Uncle Sam. To be clear, this is the same poster that replaced an earlier version OWI rejected for looking too much like Gen. George C. Marshall (see previous post).

Knutson’s attack on the poster was not an isolated affair but part of an ongoing fight between conservative lawmakers with the Roosevelt administration. While both sides were united in the effort to achieve victory in the war abroad, conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats opposed many of FDR’s domestic policies, especially programs created for the New Deal. Extending this argument to include activities of OWI, some Republicans criticized its propaganda efforts and cast it as a public relations outfit working towards obtaining a fourth term for the President. At various times throughout 1943 they took aim at anything OWI created that featured an image of FDR.[1] 

One example of this occurred in March 1943 when Congressman John Taber (R-NY) took to the floor of the House of Representatives to attack OWI, its director Elmer Davis, and specifically an OWI comic book illustrating the life of the President, claiming that this was “purely political propaganda designed entirely to promote a fourth term, and a dictatorship.”[2]

Taber and Davis sparred with each other on this topic in the public forum and directly through correspondence.[3] In a written response to Taber, the Director of OWI provided information about the comic book, explained that it was primarily intended for overseas distribution, made no mention of elections, and was printed in various foreign languages. Further, he said, there was no election propaganda intended, and none in his view was evident. He added:

“It is a fact, however, much as some may regret it, that Mr. Roosevelt is President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces. It is also a fact that as the head of our government his name has become a symbol all over the world for the strength of the United States . . . From a purely practical point of view it would be the height of absurdity for an agency conducting American propaganda abroad not to take note of this fact and employ it in the national interest.”

Anticipating further attacks on the agency, on March 18 Davis made public an order to OWI employees to avoid anything that would appear to favor a political agenda. In addition, Davis told his staff “that attacks of partisan political activity could be expected against OWI until the 1944 election.”[4]

Davis’ prediction proved correct. On Saturday, October 23, 1943, the Des Moines Register reported that Harold Knutson, Taber’s colleague in the House of Representatives, was targeting Helguera’s Uncle Sam poster and intended to mount an ‘illustrated lecture’ in Congress the following Monday showing two versions of the poster, one as it was created, and another with the whiskers and top hat of Uncle Sam removed to reveal FDR’s face. The article continued, that when reached by the reporter, Leon Helguera, explained that he did not intentionally create a resemblance to FDR, but allowed that subconsciously he may have had a mental picture of the president when he drew Uncle Sam. The following day the newspaper reprinted an abridged version of the story and reproduced the poster with a rectangular frame superimposed on Uncle Sam’s face to highlight the likeness. According to the article, Knutson said his display in Congress would show that OWI was propagandizing for FDR’s re-election.[5]  

Uncle Sam — Or Roosevelt” (recreation of how the poster appeared in the Des Moines Register, October 24, 1943.)

Curiously, there is no evidence that Knutson followed through with the attack as promised. The Congressional Record has no mention of it and a search of contemporary newspapers also turns up empty. Newspaper articles and documents relating to this issue after the date of the intended attack also do not refer to any event taking place.

Leon Helguera, on the other hand, went into action to set the record straight. In a letter that was published in the Des Moines Register on November 7, 1943, Helguera referenced their article of October 24, denied any attempt on his part to make Uncle Sam resemble President Roosevelt, and said a copy of his letter was being sent to the Office of War Information.[6] Separately, he addressed another letter directly to President Roosevelt, dated Nov. 7, 1943:

My dear Mr. President:

Enclosed please find a clipping from the Des Moines Register that presumes to accuse me of using you as a model for the first portrait (not caricature) of Uncle Sam made by a Mexican Artist.  

Nothing could have been farther from my mind when executing this poster.

But since the legendary figure of Uncle Sam symbolizes the many virtues and fighting qualities of the American people it would not surprise anyone if our worthy wartime president resembled him.  

As one who shares the admiration most Latin Americans have for your sincere pursuit of the Good Neighbor Policy, I suscribe [sic] myself as your faithful admirer.

[signed] Leon Helguera 

P.[S]. I’m sure you’ve seen this stamp, which I had the honor to design.

Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (citation below).

Helguera enclosed with this letter a clipping of the October 24 article from the Des Moines Register and a clipping from the New York Times of Tuesday, October 5, 1943, showing an advertisement for Gallagher & Burton’s whiskey that features the Uncle Sam poster as an image within their advertisement. 

A few items in this letter are worth noting: 

– Helguera’s letter is on the stationary of “Los Panamericanos de Nueva York,” a social club that stood for promoting amicable relations between people of the Unites States and Latin America. Helguera served as president of the club at this time.[7] 

– He also references the Good Neighbor policy, FDR’s policy not to intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries and America’s promotion of positive U.S.-Latin American relations. Helguera included himself as a supporter of the cause.   

– Helguera is quick to sing his own praises, pointing out that he is the first Mexican artist to make a portrait of Uncle Sam.[8] He also included a stamp he designed (which is no longer attached), most likely the ‘United Nations’ 2-cent U.S. postage stamp. As an avid stamp collector, FDR played a role in selecting the stamp (and hundreds of others during his term in office).[9]

The White House acknowledged receipt of this letter with the following response: 

Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (citation below).

The attack on the poster occurred amid a bitter budget debate in Congress as OWI was waiting to hear about a request for a $5,000,000 appropriation for its overseas branch, this after funding for its domestic branch was drastically reduced. On October 28, only five days after the Des Moines Register first reported about the poster, Elmer Davis pushed back against negative press coverage of his agency. Although not singling out Knutson or the poster affair – he had journalists in mind – Davis refered to those who criticize his agency as ‘small time fascists just beyond the reach of indictment.”[10] Testifying before Congress, Davis introduced letters from Generals Marshall, Patton, Eisenhower, and others who praised OWI’s overseas work in aiding the war effort. OWI’s request for the $5,000,000 was approved by the House. However, a minority report signed by four Republican members of the Appropriations Committee, including Rep. Taber, was critical and dismissive of OWI’s work abroad. On two consecutive days, November 4-5, Taber referring to OWI, said, “it has continued a stench under the administration of Elmer Davis,” and also included that OWI was distributing “campaign” buttons for a fourth term to soldiers abroad.[11]   

At this point there is no further word from Knutson, and Helguera had already sent his letters to the newspaper and President Roosevelt. But there is one more telling commentary from the press that earned an immediate and defensive response from Davis. Writing in the New York Times on November 9, 1943, journalist Arthur Krock used language to describe OWI’s situation that uncannily echoed the attack on the Uncle Sam poster just weeks earlier. According to Krock, OWI and its director must confront “the problem which their own methods have created – in the first issue of ‘Victory’ magazine, in the buttons with the President’s picture, in the White House biographies, all so lavishly distributed” by OWI. The problem being what will be the value of OWI’s propaganda overseas, so heavily invested in images of FDR, if there will be a change of administration as a result of the 1944 elections? Although Krock did not mention the Uncle Sam poster (which was created for a domestic audience), the words he used could easily be substituted into Knutson’s attack: the major policy of OWI “carried on by Elmer Davis, is the incarnation abroad of the United States and its war effort in the person of President Roosevelt … OWI must somehow overhaul their overseas propaganda to include the possibility that their personification of Uncle Sam will wear a different face after next November.” The following day Davis dismissed the notion in a letter to the Times.[12] 

The extant records of OWI in Record Group 208 at the National Archives in College Park, MD shed no light on Knutson’s attack on the poster. Even the letter that Helguera said he sent to OWI has not been discovered. As described above, Elmer Davis vigorously defended his agency against similar attacks on numerous occasions. With all that was going on simultaneously it is possible that the Uncle Sam poster controversy got lost in the fray or for some reason was deemed a lesser concern. The existence of Leon Helguera’s letter to President Roosevelt, located today at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, is a testament that it mattered to him.

Postscript:

In spite of what occurred, OWI hired Helguera to create yet another poster featuring Uncle Sam. “Cost of Living in Two Wars,” (NAID 514087), made for the Office of Price Administration, did not encounter any criticism, so far as we know.

Rep. Knutson attacked President Roosevelt once again, in September 1944, taking aim at his beloved dog, Fala. Knutson’s attack inspired FDR’s famous “Fala Speech,” which, contemporaries and historians have argued, had the result of invigorating his ultimately successful campaign for a fourth term. See the blog post, The Adventures of Fala, First Dog: The Case of the Dog Who Didn’t Bark on the Boat,” by FDR Presidential Library Director, Paul M. Sparrow, for more on the story.


Further reading: To learn more about the “Hush-Hush” campaign see “Terry and the Pirates” Spreads the Word on Security During World War II by David Langbart. For more on Helguera see Americans All by Leon Helguera: Appealing to Hispanics on the Home Front in World War II.


Thanks to the staff at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library for assistance with reference and providing images for use in this blog post. Thanks to Dara Baker for support and assistance on this project.


Sources:

The Life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, (NAID 961371), Series: Publications for Overseas Distribution, 1942 – 1945. Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch. New York Office. Bureau of Overseas Publications. Record Group 208. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

“Letter from Elmer Davis to Hon. John Taber, March 4, 1943, and enclosure”: Correspondence with Congress, 1942 – 1945, (NAID 629568), Office of the Director, Office of War Information. Record Group 208. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

“Letter from Leon Helguera to President Roosevelt, Nov. 7, 1943,” and “Letter from M. H. McIntyre to Mr. Helguera, Nov. 10, 1943”: OF 101-a: Box 6, Folder 5, Use of the President’s name for Advertising, 1943. Series: Franklin D. Roosevelt President’s Official Files, 1933 – 1945 (NAID 567634). Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY.


Footnotes:

[1] Winkler, Allan M., The politics of propaganda, Yale University, 1978, pp. 65-72. A few examples include: the first issue of Victory magazine, put out by OWI for overseas distribution, which came under attack in February 1943 for its portrayal of FDR.  Also, lapel clips distributed in the Middle East at the end of 1943 with FDR’s picture (see Congressional Record, Nov. 4-5, 1943).

[2] March 4, 1943, 89 Congressional Record, vol. 89, part 2 – House, pp. 1541-1542.

[3] “4th-Term Propaganda Is Blamed on the OWI but Davis Denies it,” The New York Times, pg. 7, March 5, 1943. “Congress Slurs Arouse Davis to Defense of OWI,” by Dillard Stokes, The Washington Post, pg.1, March 7, 1943.

[4] “Orders OWI Staff to Shun Politics,” The New York Times, p. 13, March 18, 1943.

[5] “Uncle Sam or F.R.? Poster is Under Fire,” by Nat Finney, The Des Moines Register, October 23, 1943, p. 14. “Uncle Sam – – – Or Roosevelt,” The Des Moines Register, October 24, 1943, p. 3.

[6] “Artist Denies Effort to Make ‘Uncle Sam’ Look Like Roosevelt,” The Des Moines Register, November 7, 1943, p. C-9.

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

[8] I strongly suspect that Helguera is distinguishing himself here from Antonio Arias Bernal, the famous Mexican cartoonist who was hired earlier in the war by the U.S. government to make posters for the war effort which included “caricatures” of Uncle Sam. See “Arias Bernal’s Trip to Washington”: a Mexican Cartoonist Joins the War Effort.

[9] “A United Nations Stamp: Tribute to the Allies, Due on Jan. 14 Will Be Followed by Four Freedoms Item,” by Kent Stiles, The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1942 p. X8.

[10] ”’Unfair’ OWI Critics Assailed by Davis,” The New York Times, October 28, 1943. Pg. 25.

[11] ”House Group Cuts Billion from Bill; OWI Fund Spared,” by Samuel B. Bledsoe, New York Times, Nov. 5, 1943, p. 1.

[12] “In the Nation: A Sharp-Horned Dilemma for OWI,” by Arthur Krock, New York Times, Nov. 9, 1943, pg. 20. “No OWI Dilemma, Davis Says: Answer to Mr. Krock . . .” Davis, Elmer, New York Times, Nov. 10, 1943, pg. 22.

2 thoughts on “Propaganda, Politics, and the Personification of FDR: The Uncle Sam Poster Controversy

  1. It is interesting that the comic book described FDR’s recovery from his polio as being “almost complete”. Obviously, that was factually incorrect.

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