Arsenal of Democracy: World War II War Posters

By Tom Laemlein
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Arsenal of Democracy: World War II War Posters

September 1st, 2020

6 minute read

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, America was only beginning to recover from the Great Depression. By September 3rd, Britain and France had declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. In the United States, more than 70 percent of the voting population wanted nothing to do with another European conflict.

The BAR starred in this World War II war poster heralding American air power. Images: National Archives

Throughout the 1930s, America had stayed out of the many conflicts around the world: The Spanish Civil War, Japan’s invasion of China and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. The growth of fascism and communism in Europe, along with the aggressive expansionism of the Japanese empire, was concerning to many Americans, but not so much as to move the nation from isolationism.

The M1 Garand became an enduring symbol during the war and was featured in this early design.

When Germany attacked Western Europe on May 10, 1940, it took only six weeks for Nazi forces to subdue Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France, as well as to drive the British Expeditionary Force off the continent. England stood alone.

American industry provided American forces with the best equipment, and more of it, than any other combatant nation.

Americans were shocked by Germany’s sudden and complete domination of Western Europe — Hitler had become much more of a threat than anyone had anticipated. President Roosevelt had consistently warned against the dangers of Nazism, but during an election year, with the economy still weak, America was not ready to commit to war. America did expand its tiny armed forces through the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, but the U.S. military was quite small compared to European forces at that point.

A rather youthful-looking General Douglas MacArthur cast as an iconic American hero in this war poster.

When Roosevelt was reelected in November 1940, he did not receive a mandate to go to war, but the President did take America to a position of strong support for England while maintaining neutrality. By 1941 he proclaimed America as the “Arsenal of Democracy” behind the new Lend-Lease Act. Through Lend-Lease, America would provide weapons to its allies without direct payment.

Meanwhile, Germany pressed on, and by December 1941 German troops had taken Yugoslavia and Greece, secured the island of Crete, driven the British back in North Africa and laid siege to Tobruk. Even worse, Hitler’s troops had invaded the Soviet Union and had advanced all the way to the gates of Moscow.

A particularly dramatic image promoting absolute communications security and secrecy. Note the M1 Carbine.

War Comes to America

Ready or not, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake Island and the Philippines brought America into World War II. America’s commitment to neutrality lasted right up until she was suddenly and brutally attacked by the Empire of Japan. On December 11th, in keeping with their Axis agreement with Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Freedom and the sanctity of life around the world was threatened and America would come to its defense.

U.S. troops fight for a jungle beachhead with a Browning M1917 .30 caliber machine gun.

America’s level of commitment to defeating the Axis Powers was absolutely Herculean. Industries across the United States quickly revamped, retooled and expanded to make good on President Roosevelt’s promise of the Arsenal of Democracy. To bring forth a massive wave of national attention to the war effort and to keep productivity high throughout the war, America’s propaganda machine went into overdrive (to see the war posters of World War I, click here).

GIs charge ashore carrying M1 rifles while tanks land in the background.

New Kind of War

World War II introduced the idea of a global war based in conflicting ideology. Compared to the First World War, there was no difficulty in identifying the enemy or motivating Americans to fight against fascism. For the duration, the American propaganda war was focused on establishing and maintaining momentum through the long years and despite the losses. Posters focused on several key issues:

  • Recruiting for the armed forces
  • Maintaining industrial productivity
  • Encouraging continued sacrifices on the home front
  • Maintaining morale
  • Promoting the purchase of War Bonds
The great Norman Rockwell captured the essence of the hard-working U.S. machine gunner in a tattered uniform, firing a Browning M1917 .30 caliber machine gun.

Icons of American Firepower

During World War I, many works of U.S. government poster art displayed firearms as the symbols of American pride, ingenuity and technology. Many of these weapons became iconic images and enduring symbols of America’s growing military might in the World War I and the immediate postwar era.

For the most part, American motivational materials didn’t shy from the grim realities of a world war. Losing was not an option.

With World War II came many new small arms, along with some from World War I that remained in U.S. service. The semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle (adopted as the standard U.S. service rifle during 1936 — to read more about this, click here) was featured in poster art more than any other weapon. Through its performance on the battlefield and its recognition on the home front, the M1 rifle became an enduring symbol of America’s victory in World War II.

American industry never took its foot off the gas in World War II. By the beginning of 1945, U.S. logistics were crushing the Axis.

In the early stages of America’s involvement in World War II, the M1903 rifle was regularly seen, as the iconic Springfield rifle remained an important combat rifle for U.S. troops through 1943.

The Browning M1917 was a highly effective machine gun and it was represented in wartime posters.

Meanwhile, the .30-caliber Browning M1917 water-cooled machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) — both introduced in World War I — were frequently featured. (To learn more about the BAR, click here.) The M1911 pistol remained as the U.S. service pistol, retaining its title as the most powerful military handgun in service.

As the war progressed, the U.S. Army began to celebrate its many branches.

Other new American firearms made their way into the posters, particularly the M1 Carbine (to learn more about the M1 Carbine, click here). Occasionally the Browning M1919 .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun appeared, along with lesser-known weapons like the Reising M50 .45 caliber submachine gun.

The M1 Garand was described by General Patton as “The greatest battle implement ever devised.”

But not every one of your favorite guns were represented. Two famous firearms notably absent in wartime posters were the Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun and the M3 “Grease Gun” submachine gun.

The M1903 Springfield rifle remained in frontline service much longer than many people think.

Conclusion

Regardless of which weapon they showed, U.S. wartime posters instilled workers with pride, and attracted recruits with the confidence of superior American firepower.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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