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Image of man holding a rifle astride a cougar.
Travel? Adventure? Answer - Join the Marines! Enlist to-day for 2-3 or 4 years / / James Montgomery Flagg. 1917

Analyzing Propaganda’s Role in World War I

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This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence. For more WWI resources, download the Teaching World War I with Primary Sources Idea Book for Educators from HISTORY.

Are you tired of the same routine, day in and day out? Sick of tilling the fields or sweating in the factories? Join the United States Marine Corps!…but expect to be shipped to France to fight in the trenches.

The use of military recruitment posters and other forms of propaganda may be nothing new to students today; they see ads and pop-ups on social media and elsewhere. At the start of World War I, however, posters offered a powerful tool to reach and influence citizens of every social, educational, and racial background. Propaganda posters sought to rally the fighting spirit on the home front, raise money for war bonds, and create a sense of togetherness across a vast and diverse nation. Artists crafted posters to reach people on multiple levels, often in subconscious ways, to compel them to action by challenging any resistance as unpatriotic and even sympathetic to the enemy.

Start a class about World War I with Fred Spear’s Enlist poster. Give students a couple of minutes to observe the image and create a list of their reactions to details in the poster. Some might be drawn to what the woman is wearing or notice that she is holding a baby close to her. Invite students to share what they think is happening in this image (or has just happened). Distribute the bibliographic information only after several students have shared their thoughts. After students learn that the poster was created in response to the sinking of the Lusitania (1915), allow them to revise their interpretation of the poster and to write a short paragraph interpreting the poster and the techniques the artist used to elicit a reaction.

Introduce Harry Hopps’ Destroy this mad brute (1917) poster and allow time for students to list their reactions. Comparing it to Enlist, students might identify that the message of each poster is the same: enlist. However, the approach and the methods of encouraging enlistment are vastly different.

Enlist / Fred Spear. 1915 or 1916

Destroy this mad brute Enlist – U.S. Army. 1918

As students become comfortable with evaluating propaganda posters, consider asking them to select a poster or two from the Library of Congress online collections for close analysis and to better understand the evolving public opinion of American involvement throughout the war. Students could identify the message, the target audience, any subtext, and how the artist is trying to convince the audience to accept the message. To learn more about the prevalence of posters in society at the time of WWI, and the iconic WWI poster featuring Uncle Sam created by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, students might watch this video by Library of Congress Curator Katherine Blood, featured in the Teaching World War I with Primary Sources Idea Book for Educators from HISTORY.

How do you support students when they analyze propaganda?

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Comments (2)

  1. This is a lesson that is particularly important in today’s political climate.

  2. I am beginning to develop a lesson with an eye toward gender equality and the pre-existing gender stereotypes. The portrayal of women within the war propaganda is a nice magnifying glass into the commonly accepted role men they believe they have as protectors of purity of the women.

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