20 Unnerving American Propaganda Posters From World War II

Image: Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board

During World War II, Americans faced huge danger in the Pacific and on the battlefields of Europe. One weapon that the U.S. government was quick to deploy was propaganda. Posters exhorted American soldiers and civilians to do everything from joining the armed forces to avoiding waste and working harder. These posters often achieved their objective using shocking messages and disturbing images. Here are 20 posters that are guaranteed to unnerve you.

20. Avenge Pearl Harbor

It was December 7, 1941 when 353 Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval base on Hawaii. The surprise attack killed 2,403 Americans and wounded another 1,178. The following day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. This poster reflects America’s anger and the determination to wreak revenge.

Image: Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board

19. Make him pay for that day!

The date of the Pearl Harbor attack became a rallying cry for the American people. The slogan of “Make him pay for that day,” meanwhile, is a call for revenge. And how the Japanese should be made to pay for the surprise attack is in fact illustrated very clearly with the blood flowing from the calendar.

Image: James Montgomery Flagg

18. I want you for U.S. Army

If ever a poster could be called iconic, then it’s this one. Uncle Sam – U.S. – demands that Americans do their bit by joining the army. This poster was in fact originally used during World War I, but it was revived for the Second World War.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

17. Bring him home sooner… join the WAVES

A sweetheart bids an emotional farewell to a sailor, about to embark on his ship for a tour of duty. The poster is in fact a recruitment tool, calling for women to join the war effort. The WAVES was the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and it was the women’s section of the Naval Reserve.

Image: Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board

16. All out for victory

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Like many other World War II posters, this one is concerned with encouraging workers to boost their productivity to help the war effort. This one is marked with the name of the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation and shows molten steel pouring down on the heads of Hitler and Emperor Hirohito.

Image: Packer

15. Hidden mistakes cost lives!

This is another poster concerned with American industry. The familiar symbol of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand here represents the idea of faulty work in the factory being covered up. Such mistakes, the poster ominously reminds, can be fatal.

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Image: Office for Emergency Management

14. Go ahead, please – take day off!

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Once more, we have a poster that is aimed at the home front rather than the battlefield. America’s industrial might was key to the country’s war efforts, and this poster reminds its audience that taking a day off work would ultimately benefit the Japanese enemy. The overtly racist caricature of the Japanese soldier, meanwhile, is characteristic of wartime attitudes.

Image: Packer

13. Knifed!

Taking time off work will not only benefit the Japanese war effort: in fact it’s a stab in the back for your fellow citizens and for freedom, this poster contends. The graphic depiction of the Statue of Liberty being knifed in the back sends a powerful message to the “willful absentee.”

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Image: Office for Emergency Management

12. Put at least 10% of every pay into war bonds!

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Fighting a world war requires huge amounts of cash, and Americans were encouraged to help out by investing their earnings in government bonds. The American people in fact responded enthusiastically, raising an astonishing $185 billion during the war.

Image: Office for Emergency Management

11. Fruit you waste

Battling waste, and the need for efficiency at home, was another common theme in wartime posters. Here, the wasting of fruit is directly connected with injured soldiers dying on the battlefield. To explain the connection, the poster includes a message on Vitamin C and its power to help heal wounds.

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Image: Office for Emergency Management

10. This is Nazi brutality

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This poster has a starker message than do many others. It describes an especially horrific Nazi atrocity: the Lidice massacre. Nearly all of the men, women and children of the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice were murdered by the Germans as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Image: Office for Emergency Management

9. This is your war!

It seems that the American authorities were obsessed with encouraging workers to strive harder. Here, the ravening, two-headed monster of German and Japanese aggression tears down the Statue of Liberty – a frequently used symbol in wartime posters. American industry is the weapon that will defeat the monster, as symbolized by a hefty spanner grasped in a muscular fist.

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Image: Anton Otto Fischer / Office of War Information

8. A careless word… a needless loss

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Security was a constant concern for the authorities during World War II. There was a widespread fear that there were spies in the U.S. who would pass on information to the enemy, given half a chance. This poster shows the potentially terrible consequences of careless talk – the destruction of an entire ship.

Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

7. Stamp out black markets

During the war, consumer items as diverse as typewriters, silk, lard and canned milk were rationed in America. As with all rationing systems, this consequently led to the formation of a black market. However, the government was determined to “stamp” this out – as this poster shows.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

6. They did their part

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In one of the war’s many tragic stories, the five Sullivan brothers depicted in this poster were all killed. The five served on the USS Juneau, a light cruiser that was sunk during the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal after being twice hit by torpedoes. The brothers are now commemorated by a museum in their hometown of Waterloo, Iowa.

Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

5. Your scrap… brought it down

This appeal for scrap metal was part of a wide-ranging campaign to avoid waste and reuse resources that the U.S. government conducted during the war. This poster promotes the idea that the handing over of scrap metal could lead directly to the downing of enemy aircraft.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

4. When you ride alone you ride with Hitler

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This distinctly spooky poster is another of those encouraging the avoidance of waste and the careful use of resources. Gas was scarce and rationed, as were car tires – so automobile trips with just one person were strongly discouraged. After all, it would be almost as bad as giving a ride to Hitler, himself.

Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3. We French workers warn you…

This poster offers a blunt warning of what life would in fact be like in an America occupied by the Nazis. The warning comes from French workers who, of course, had first-hand experience of German occupation. “Slavery, starvation and death” subsequently awaited those defeated by the Nazi war machine.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

2. Death never takes a holiday

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This macabre poster is aimed at the American workforce. Taking a holiday, it suggests, is in fact a frivolous indulgence, considering the threats facing the nation. The dead soldier, furthermore, offers a grave admonition to anyone considering taking time off from the serious business of winning the war.

Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1. Don’t let lice make a monkey out of you

During wartime, the government didn’t hesitate to get involved in almost every aspect of Americans’ lives. This in fact even included personal hygiene. Indeed, body lice could be a real health hazard and especially so for troops in the field where hot and cold running water were seldom to hand.

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