December 7, 1941. “Day which will live in infamy,” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the weeks and years of war following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States official involvement in World War II, a wave a patriotic propaganda hit communities. Recruitment posters, warnings and reminders, encouragement to buy war bonds, rationing motivation emblazoned short messages with memorable images.
Since the first time I studied World War II, I’ve been interested in this “war art.” It says a lot about attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. One thing I find particularly interesting: the historical themes in this now historic posters. People were motivated by words and historical stories from the decades of American history which preceded the 1940’s. There are examples of Civil War imagery and stories in some of the posters, but today one particular illustration stands out:
This war poster shows the battle torn flag from Pearl Harbor, but uses Lincoln’s words from a different war to give added meaning and resolve. It evokes the fear, the hatred, and the determination felt by Americans following the December 7 attack while pairing it with the resolve to rise from the losses with a new resolve echoed from 1863. Once again, a phrase from the Gettysburg Address took on new meaning though still firmly rooted in Lincoln’s original ideas and a deep sense of patriotism.
The original photo which likely inspired the poster reveals an American flag flying over Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor after the attack. Thousands of miles from Gettysburg and seventy-eight years since Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address, a common chord was still struck. A nation reeled from the loss of life and needed the motivation to continue or enter a conflict. Just as Lincoln evoked memories of the founding fathers creating a nation “conceived in liberty”, Americans looked back to words and attitudes from the Civil War to find guidance and inspiration in the dark days of World War II.