When Art Meets Army: The Dangerous Propaganda of World War II

When Art Meets Army: The Dangerous Propaganda of World War II
Posted June 8, 2017
Topics: The ArtsMilitaryDaily Life

By Kieran Robertson

Newark's Ralph Williams illustrated his letters home during World War II

Newark's Ralph Williams illustrated his letters home during World War II. Courtesy of Ohio History Connection

At first glance, it seems a little bit unusual to talk about art and war in the same blog post. Normally we talk about these two concepts as complete opposites- after all doesn't the saying go "make art not war?" However, if we examine the experiences of just a few Ohioans during World War II, we can see that wartime political artworks exaggerated and entrenched dangerous stereotypes about Japanese Americans. Unfortunately, this Anti-Japanese sentiment lead to the uprooting of many Japanese American families who were forced into internment camps.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, racist characterizations of Japanese soldiers and citizens flooded the daily lives of most Americans through propaganda and popular media. Drawing on decades of Anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, World War II propaganda focused on characterizing all individuals of Japanese descent as a dangerous, non-human enemy. Creators of popular propaganda images often drew Japanese characters as animals (often as rats) or with heavily exaggerated eyes and bright yellow skin. Examples of these stereotypes can be seen in the government-sponsored World War II posters below. (Both of these images are provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

It is easy to see how ingrained and commonplace Anti-Japanese stereotypes became for many Americans by examining the works of amateur artist Ralph Williams. In February of 1941, twenty-three year old Ralph Williams lived in Newark, Ohio, with his mother, stepfather, and many siblings and step-siblings. Williams clearly had a talent for the visual arts, and he hoped to one day work as a professional artist. However, Ralph decided to put off his career goals for a little while to register for military service.

Ralph Williams was assigned to serve in the 18th Coast Artillery at Fort Stevens, Oregon, during World War II. The Coast Artillery was essentially responsible for defending the United States and its citizens against any possible enemy fire.

Like most soldiers, Williams sent letters home to his family and friends. However, most soldiers weren't also aspiring artists. Using ink and water colors, Williams crafted detailed pieces of cartoon art on the envelopes that carried his letters home to Newark.

When Ralph Williams used his cartoons to comment on the war effort, he often needed to draw the enemy.  Sticking to his cartoon style, Williams borrowed some of the racist characterizations popular in wartime media and propaganda. Because these stereotypes had become so commonplace in the United States, Williams could expect that his friends and family would know exactly what his artwork was depicting.

It is very likely that Ralph Williams did not think carefully about the way he drew Japanese soldiers. This was simply how he had seen Japanese soldiers depicted again and again in American publications and posters. Unfortunately, Williams wasn't the only one viewing this racist war propaganda. Wide spread Japanese characterizations encouraged Americans to view all men, women, and children of Japanese descent as inherently dangerous- not just those men in uniform.

US propaganda poster depicting Japanese stereotypes

Library of Congress

Us propaganda poster depicting Japanese stereotypes

Library of Congress

Ralph Williams illustrated his letters home to Newark

Ralph Williams illustrated his letters home to Newark. Courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 as a means to protect "against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material." As a result, thousands of individuals of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States were forced to leave their homes and live in government-monitored internment camps. Because Executive Order 9066 allowed for actions to protect against espionage, it was possible to claim that all Japanese Americans could be working as spies and needed to be monitored.

The order does not mention Japanese Americans specifically- in fact the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. But German and Italian Americans were largely left alone during World War II. Before the war began, most Americans displayed a clear Anti-Japanese sentiment. These same prejudices were not widely held against German or Italian Americans. This difference in ongoing racial strife meant that most Americans willingly understood the difference between an individual German and a Nazi, but could not separate any Japanese individual from the dangerous racist characterization popular in wartime propaganda.

For example, the World War II poster below shows a Nazi hand with no added characterization- it is clearly human. What is threatening about the un-pictured Nazi attached to this hand is his ideology and values- he has no problem driving a dagger through the Bible. By attacking Nazi values, rather than inherent German traits, these posters allowed Americans to continue to separate the enemy from the German Americans living in their neighborhoods.

Most Japanese Ohioans were safe from the threat of internment camps. Generally only those Japanese Americans with an address West of the Mississippi River were forced to leave their homes. However Mae and Kingo Takasugi of Alliance, Ohio, were moved to Tulare Internment Camp in California in 1943.

The couple had only recently moved to Alliance in 1940 due to Kingo's new engineering job. However, California was still listed as their primary residency, so the Takasugis ended up on a list of Japanese Americans who needed to be moved.

Before Mae and Kingo left Ohio, their friend, Charles Buxton, took a photograph of Mae with her parasol. Mae left this parasol as a gift for Charles and his wife Elsie. The two couples maintained a friendship throughout the war and for the rest of their lives. After leaving the internment camp, Mae and Kingo settled back in Southern California.

Unfortunately, stories like Mae's and Kingo's were very common during World War II. By examining their story next to the art of Ralph Williams and the popular propaganda that flooded American's lives, we can see the power of art and media. Wartime propaganda- an artwork of its own kind- encouraged Anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States and forever altered the lives of the Takasugis. It looks like art and war have some things in common after all.

"This is the Enemy," a 1943 Office of War Information poster stirring up anti-Nazi sentiment. The poster shows an image of a Nazi hand driving a dagger through the Holy Bible. From Ohio Memory

This photograph shows Japanese American Mae Takasugi with a parasol, taken in 1943 by Charles Buxton in Alliance, Ohio. The photograph was taken before Mae Takasugi and her husband Kingo left for an incarceration camp in California. Originally residents of California, the couple moved to Alliance in 1940 for Kingo's engineering job. Because the couple still listed California as their place of residency, they were ordered to an incarceration camp in California in 1943, along with Mae's extended family. From Ohio Memory.

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