"But the most widely shared feature of the innumerable visual images created in the United States during the war years was their intention to present the conflict between the Allies and the Axis, and other war-related issues, in legible, unambiguous terms."
"Had Americans seen more of World War II they would have had less war to see in Vietnam."
George H. Roeder, Jr.
The Censored War
World War II
World War II saw newspapers and radio reign supreme in war coverage, and not coincidentally, it was also one of the most popular wars in American history. Even when the homefront was battle weary, there was a general consensus in the country that people were fighting for a common goal -- to aid American allies in Europe and defend their interests in the Pacific arena.
The government, acknowledging strong isolationist feelings in the country, tried to emphasize the importance of the war's aims. "In 1941, the United States went to war under the banner of 'the people's war.' The Roosevelt government's rhetoric and imagery invoked a democratic inclusiveness in contrast to the Axis' exclusivity and domination. The byword for the war effort became 'unity' (O'Brien, 25)." World War II was a war of consensus building. One factor aiding this effort was certainly the end of the Great Depression, which the county was suffering under when it entered the war -- only its involvement ended the economic nightmare once and for all. Another was a constant stream of war propaganda designed to keep public opinion high and morale good.
In the midst of administrative efforts to create unity, the press was no exception. The main pipelines of information for the American public were newspapers and radio. Radio in particular came into its own during the war. "Television with its great potential as a news medium was about to spring half-grown from the forehead of its sire, and World War II was to be radio's hour of greatness in the light of history (Wood, 13)." Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting from London, told an American public the story of the war and tried to paint the picture with words.
Newspaper reports, which had to pass censors, were typically dispatched from the front like this one, "This is it! D-Day and What Followed" by New York Herald Tribune correspondent Joseph Driscoll. He emphasized the bravery of the troops. "Francis marveled at the courage of his fellow Americans. 'I saw boys wounded and lying around for hours without even a moan out of them' (Stenbuck, 161)" Even when newspaper reports tried to tell of the carnage and human loss in the war, thanks to censorship by the Office of War Information, they lacked the pictures to do so.
Both radio and newspapers were mediums which did not have the same power television images did in creating dissention among the public. Radio did have some similarities to television. It was a medium that made a more personal connection with its audience because it literally spoke to them and it was a means of relatively instant communication. Yet the disembodied radio voice speaking to the audience had to emphasize the story aspect of the news and did not have television's power to hit the public with the visual reality of war's human tolls.
Television was not a player in the second world war. In the middle of the war, 1942, there were only 8,000 television receivers in the nation (Wood, 14). But people recognized the power of images to turn public opinion. Part of the reason for the war's continuing strength on the homefront was the OWI's ability to suppress pictures of the American dead for the first two years of the war. "In these [popular collections of photographs], no matter how severely wounded, Allied troops are never shown suffering what was termed, in the Vietnam War, traumatic amputation. Everyone has all his limbs, his hands and feet and digits, not to mention expressions of courage and cheer (Fussell, 269.)" When they finally released more explicit pictures it was a calculated effort to bolster support for the war because the public was war weary. They needed to maintain a desire to fight.
Print and radio reports in World War II, while of course not all positive, were denied the impact that images would have given them. Without uncensored, visceral images, they centered around a more detached narrative. When the Vietnam War erupted, however, the difference in how the public perceived the two events considering the media's use of images, was readily apparent.