American Propaganda & Exceptionalism

By looking at the striking differences between the 1915 and 1918 editions of the Collier volumes, one can see how these publications worked as American propaganda meant to push ideas of exceptional power and preparedness. To begin, it is interesting to note that the 1918 edition is the only Collier volume to have a uniquely distinct foreward; even the 1919 edition, published after combat closed, borrows sections of explanatory text from the first and third editions. The difference in framing is apparent even in the first few sentences of these introductory texts:

  • 1915: The war of the nations, the most stupendous struggle the world has ever witnessed, is now raging along battle lines that stretch from the North Sea to the Adriatic and the Caucasus. Every great power in Europe is involved fighting upon one side or the other. 
  • 1917: The war of the nations, the most stupendous struggle the world has ever witnessed, now involves every continent and all the Great Powers on the Globe.
  • 1918: The Great European War had been in progress more than two years and a half when, on April 6, 1917, President Wilson signed the resolution that recognized a state of war existing between the United States and Germany, and the Great American republic threw its power and influence on the side of the Allies. Since that day, America has been busy training an army, and organizing her industries and her resources to make them effective in the great cause she has espoused. 
  • 1919 (direct copy of 1917): The war of the nations, the most stupendous struggle the world has ever witnessed, now involves every continent and all the Great Powers on the Globe. 

There is a clear difference in the way the 1918 edition frames the war. While the others frame all of “the great powers” as relative equals, the 1918 edition makes a point of distinguishing the “power and influence” of the US. This introduction well encapsulates the goal of this edition—to emphasize America’s strength and mobilization efforts. 

The 1918 edition features a heavy fixation on American military preparation, with content featuring American encampments at home surpassing content featuring American troops fighting abroad. For a volume with a self-stated mission of bringing the most accurate images of the war into American homes, this focus on domestic activity an ocean away from active combat should seem strange; however, in understanding this volume as a piece of propaganda, this inclusion makes perfect sense. Images like these are attempting to showcase the unique power of the American military in a few key ways. First, they show the extensive organization of American military mobilization—new infrastructure as well as the professionalism of its soldiers. For example, this image of “soldiers, tents, and kits, ready for inspection;” “it is required that the shelter tents be up and each soldier’s kit spread out so it may be examined. Regular soldiers and National Guardsmen were accustomed to this training before American went to war. In physique and general fine appearance, these men will bear comparison with the best armies of Europe. It is America’s belief that they will excel in military spirit and courage also.”

1918 volume, pg. 67. 

Second, they showcase the expanse of American resources: automobiles, motorcycles, aeroplanes, dirigibles, ships, naval mines, new weaponry, telephones, trained field medics. Third, they also emphasize the geographic spread of these troops—featuring camps from all over the US, from Newport to San Antonio to San Francisco. While not giving a number of exactly how many men this is, it is easily for a reader to make grandiose assumptions. Finally, many of these images work towards defining an “American character.” What is the stereotypical American soldier? Based on Collier’s, he is organized, masculine, athletic, resourceful, patriotic, and fun-loving, such as this “young soldier… hunting an opposum with a revolver.”

As a controlled environment, these camps at home were the perfect place in which to build these ideas; in contrast to the fronts in Europe, these are spaces where visuals can be easily manipulated. For example, take this image of the Secretary of the Treasury speaking to soldiers in Georgia which is almost cinematic in its framing. The crowd of soldiers, although defined below as being fifteen thousand in number, seems endless, organized but having no boundary within the camera’s lens; the speaker looks at the camera directly, a hand beckoning towards the large crowd, as he hovers above the men. A dominating perspective is created that is difficult to imagine. 

1918 volume, pg. 98. 

In addition, content from the 1915 volume that seemingly questions the war are deleted entirely after the US’s entrance. As a prime example, take this illustration of a destroyed, burning church. A woman sits sorrowfully in the forefront as a (presumably) military automobile drives past; above them hangs an emblem in which a cannon sits in between two skulls. The caption reads “the cross against the smoke from burning towns where Christian nations war upon each other,” a statement that is seemingly questioning the purpose of war as a whole; for the Collier volumes, this is an unusual moment of reflection that could even be interpreted as anti-war. The deletion of this illustration from the editions released after America’s entrance makes sense, as the framework it creates challenges these volume’s propagandic ideals: how can “the Great American republic” be in the right if both sides are in the wrong?

1915 volume, pg. 23. 

A practical metric to see this change in representing and framing the war can be found by looking at the differences in picturing dead bodies between the volumes. To the right is a graph that shows the numbers of these images in the four volumes, as well as the nationality of those concerned. The number of images of the dead in the 1918 volume are significantly lower than the rest. Further, while for the other editions death is shown as a common denominator on both sides, representations of death are limited to only include the enemy in the 1918 edition.

In the 1915 edition, the captions that accompany many of these images give messages similar to the illustration analyzed above: “It is pictures like these that tell the real meaning of war to the countries that engage in it” (1915 volume, page 138). In the 1918 edition, generalizations like this are not included, implicitly alleviating America from the grim implications of warfare. Through this choice of inclusion and exclusion, war can be easily painted—and interpreted—in a way that contrasts with reality. 

Also see the analysis page for Layers of Censorship and Illustration: Reality or Wartime Fantasy? 

Explore photos analyzed above in the Death & Mourning Gallery

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