How Hollywood became the unofficial propaganda arm of the U.S. military

Moviegoers likely have little idea just how close Hollywood was to the propaganda arms of the U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency, experts say — a relationship which helped shape favourable perceptions of America and its war efforts, starting during the Second World War, through the Cold War and beyond.

Second World War launched Hollywood into a propaganda war that continues to this day

American soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division stand beside a poster advertising the film My Reputation, starring Barbara Stanwyck. The film made in 1944 was shown to U.S. troops before its 1946 release. Over the last 70 years, Hollywood movies have functioned as the unofficial — but massively influential — propaganda arm of America's war efforts. (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

** Originally published on May 11, 2020. This is the first of a three-part series on IDEAS called Myths on Screen: Hollywood at War.

When the United States entered the Second World War, it wasn't just young men and women who enlisted.

Hollywood also signed up, says Tanner Mirrlees, an associate professor of communication and digital media studies at Ontario Tech University.

Where previously the burgeoning movie town had been producing frothy films made to distract and entertain, the onset of war meant that it would now get into the business of persuading Americans to support the war effort, said Mirrlees, who's also written several books about Hollywood's cultural empire, including: Hearts and Mines: The U.S. Empire's Culture Industry

The U.S. Office of War Information had a unit dedicated exclusively to Hollywood, the Bureau of Motion Pictures, Mirlees says.

Between 1942 and 1945, the Bureau reviewed 1,652 scripts, revising or discarding anything that portrayed the U.S. unfavourably, including any material that made Americans seem "oblivious to the war or anti-war." 

Italian-American film director Frank Capra served as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army during World War II. He also directed Why We Fight, a series of seven documentaries commissioned by the U.S. government during the war. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"The head of the Office of War Information was Elmer Davis who said, 'The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people's minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they're being propagandized,'" Mirrlees said.

Hollywood had received its marching orders from the military, and during the war, he says, "people who'd been trained to sell soap, cereal and home appliances were now being enlisted by the state to sell war to the American public." 

No country in the world churns out as many images of itself as the military hero… like the United States does. That is a unique cultural phenomenon.- Tanner Mirrlees, associate professor, Ontario Tech University

Historians and other academics point out that arrangement was the beginning of a uniquely American mission that continues even now. Relationships forged between U.S. government agencies and Hollywood during the Second World War and Cold War shaped how stories about the military are still being told. 

"Many of [Hollywood's] films are embedded in the American military. And made to glorify the American military," Mirrlees said. "No country in the world churns out as many images of itself as the military hero… like the United States does. That is a unique cultural phenomenon." 

Shaping popular opinion

Films were, and are, the perfect vehicle for shaping popular opinion, largely because seeing a movie provides such a galvanizing, shared experience. 

In the 1940s, "something like 90 million Americans [were] going to movies every week," said Dan O'Meara, a political science professor at the University of Quebec and the co-author of Movies, Myth and the National Security State. 

"We tend to forget in this age of the internet and Netflix that watching movies in a pre-television age … when movies were the most important aspect of public entertainment — that you would go, sit in the dark surrounded by hundreds of others seeing the same films across America at the same time.

"And all of the emotions evoked on screen were shared communally."

Historian Tony Shaw says Cecil B. de Mille's 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, is an example of soft propaganda. 'DeMille is wanting people to draw links between that biblical story and what's happening in politics of the 1950s.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The U.S. government wanted to ensure those shared, communal feelings supported America's participation in the war, in part, because it worried that its enemies would expose negative aspects of American society to Americans themselves, says Nick Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, who has written several books on the history of propaganda. 

Fuelling that anxiety was the fact that until the Second World War, the U.S. had never been threatened from the outside, says O'Meara.

"There was this sense of security, given its immense space — and the fact that it was surrounded by seas on two coasts… that no foreign power could realistically attack the United States. The advent of air power… Pearl Harbour … changed that."

Propaganda in the form of popular entertainment could help supplant panic and doubt with pride and heroism.

A different kind of 'war hero'

Though he never saw combat himself, John Wayne was a kind of Second World War hero, starring in countless films including, They Were Expendable and Back to Bataan.

"Americans can tell the story of World War II in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. British people are the same. We love hearing stories about World War II because we like to think of ourselves as the good guys," Cull said.

"To me, there are many complexities in the story, including the treatment of Japanese Americans, for example, or the dropping of the atomic bomb or the failure to understand the Holocaust and to react appropriately. But Hollywood manages to find ways of making Americans the good guys, Nazis the bad guys... all's right with the world. It can be turned into a very affirming … very bankable narrative." 

Although actor John Wayne was well known for his roles in Western movies like The Searchers, where he's seen playing Ethan Edwards as in this photo released by Warner Bros., he also starred in numerous movies about the Second World War. (AP/Warner Bros.)

That narrative continued with Hollywood's approach to later conflicts, including the Vietnam War. A case in point, another famous — or infamous — John Wayne movie, The Green Berets.

What's little known is that Wayne personally wrote to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to ask the government to help him make a propaganda film about the conflict in Vietnam, said Mirrlees. The Pentagon supplied props and military bases for the movie and retained final script approval.

It was later learned that atrocities attributed to the North Vietnamese in the film were actually committed by American troops during the war.

This imperative to cultivate a sense of external threat to America — bad guys from abroad — would continue to be financially bankable and politically expedient as a storyline throughout the Cold War as well.

'Scaring the hell out of Americans'

Where previously every major war involving the United States would be followed by dramatic cuts to military spending, there was after Vietnam the ascendancy of the idea of a "national security state," one that needed to stay on high alert, says O'Meara. 

"And this began to inculcate within the American public this notion that: 'Oh my God, there is a permanent and perpetual threat… that we are threatened by something that the bureaucrats called communism'."

Hollywood apparently held lessons for politicians as well. When U.S. President Harry S. Truman tried to get increased military spending through a hostile Congress, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg advised him to "scare the hell out of them," O'Meara said.

"And Hollywood played the vital role in 'scaring the hell out of Americans.'" 

America's message-controlling tentacles reached outside of the U.S. as well. The 1954 Doolittle Report commissioned by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower urged that no one should stand in the way of developing an aggressive, covert, psychological and paramilitary organization, O'Meara says. Its missions ranged from efforts to topple elected governments in Iran and Guatemala to swaying minds in cinemas around the world.

George Orwell's Animal Farm is one example. Made in Britain, the hit feature-length animated film based on Orwell's novel was eventually shown in classrooms across the globe. 

Animator Eddie Radage sketches pigs on a farm in Hertfordshire in 1953 in preparation for his work on the animated film of George Orwell's book Animal Farm. (John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

It wasn't until four decades later, when Cold War historian Tony Shaw was going through archives about the classic novel, that it came to light that the CIA secretly purchased the film rights, and subsequently turned the story into a propaganda project, entirely revising the ending so the pigs — who represent communist masters — are overthrown by the other animals on the farm. 

"This [rescripting] was intended by the CIA to act as some sort of symbol or inspiration for revolution" among people living in Eastern Bloc countries against their communist leaders, says Shaw. "But it was equally designed for the soft left in Western Europe."

While the novel Animal Farm was "exceptionally popular" among literary critics and the intelligentsia, "most ordinary people who saw the film wouldn't have read the book," he says. 

The filmmakers, husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, knew there was American investment in the film, but didn't know they were essentially working for the CIA, Shaw says.

"Both were regarded as social democrat left-wing characters and would not have been happy to be seen to be dupes of the American government." 

Written by Brandie Weikle. Documentary produced by Mary O'Connell, with archival research by Jean Dalrymple.

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