Seeing the modern world reflected back at them from 100 years ago was a sobering realization for the curators of “Posters and Patriotism.”
The new exhibit now open at the Museum of the City of New York features over 60 propaganda posters created to bolster public support for America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917. It was a deeply unpopular move, despite three years of brutal conflict already ravaging Europe, so the federal government had a thought: call in the advertisers.
“This is the great age of American propaganda,” says co-curator Donald Albrecht. “How do we use artists who are really very good at persuading people to buy Cream of Wheat to create the same psychological persuasion about supporting the war?”
Selling the war to the public fell to New York’s artistic community. The city was a natural choice, as home to the Society of Illustrators as well as numerous arts schools, magazines and newspapers. The Committee on Public Information was created just eight days after the U.S. officially declared war against Germany, commissioning over 2,500 posters in the brief 26 months of its existence until the end of the war.
They began innocuously enough, with the iconic “I Want You” poster of Uncle Sam and other posters urging citizens to enlist as a show of support for their country. But then the exhibit veers into the uglier tactics used to drum up public sympathy for the war: vilifying Germans.
For a nation of immigrants, it’s ironic that newcomers have never been particularly popular no matter where they came from. But the fear and persecution that these this posters inspired was different — just as being Muslim is equated with being as terrorist now by much of the Far Right and even members of President Donald Trump's administration, to be German was to be untrustworthy and liable to cause trouble in the U.S.
The posters depict Germans as apes and bloodthirsty Huns. In another, it's not difficult to see how a pair of combat boots with a silhouette of Germany on them above the words “Keep These Off the USA” could translate to German residents, too. And a dead woman and child at the bottom of the ocean evoke the Lusitania, the British ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, with one word: “Enlist.”
Suddenly, everyone was having to prove their patriotism, or be branded a traitor. “They were asking, ‘What does it mean to be an American? Are you trustworthy if you're from somewhere else, and should we let you continue coming here?’” says co-curator Steven Jaffe.
This propaganda campaign was so successful at stoking anti-immigrant sentiment that it led to the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, which turned away untold numbers of refugees fleeing Nazi violence before and during World War II. "As my graduate school teacher put it,” says Jaffe, “it's literally 20 years later directing people back into the gas chambers.
“Perhaps implicitly, we were trying to draw attention that while 100 years have passed, some of these issues haven't gone away, and in some ways have resurfaced.”