|An Appeal to Fear Ain’t Nothin’ New:
George W. Bush’s Middle East War Rhetoric and Territoriality in American Propaganda Films of World War II
Ralph Donald examines the similarities between the rhetoric found in war films of the World War II era and the rhetoric used by President Bush in America’s wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and against Saddam Hussein and in Iraq. He compares the propaganda appeals used by the makers of popular Hollywood feature films during World War II to the speeches in which President Bush attempts to persuade the American people to support his wars against Al-Qa’eda and Iraq.
By Ralph R. Donald, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville
|World War II and the Territoriality Appeal
It’s All Propaganda
Movies Are Propaganda
Territoriality in Film Propaganda
Threats to Our Way of Life
Threats to Our Loved Ones
In the World War II-era feature propaganda film, China (1943) on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, an American named Jones (Alan Ladd) stages a climactic debate with a Japanese general. The Japanese officer boasts:
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly September 12, 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush said:
From the outset of his evolution, Homo Sapiens has been a territorial creature who instinctively defends his property against outsiders. (Ardrey 1) In the history of war rhetoric in the United States, appeals to defend ourselves against an invading “other” have been popular ploys. In World War II, American popular film was awash with films that implied or even clearly outlined a real threat to the nation, American homes, families, religious freedoms and the American way of life. The territorial imperative, as Ardrey referred to his theories and his book, was a primary appeal of 1940s American war propaganda. And in subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam, the appeal to fear to defend the homeland against the potential of communist attack and takeover continued. A popular approach to invoke territoriality was based on a speech in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which he introduced the “domino theory” to war propaganda. Actually a hypothesis, not a theory, what has been nonetheless called the “domino theory” postulated that if the march of communist takeovers was not stopped in those Asian countries, one-by-one -- like dominoes – these countries would fall to the communists, as would their neighbors, and eventually America would be cut off and endangered by the forces of a “red” world. (www.coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/domino.html)
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan used Eisenhower’s domino theory to justify American involvement in both legal and illegal anti-communist activities in Central America and Caribbean countries.
But for the sake of brevity and focus, and also because President George W. Bush often tries to connect the current crisis with the dangers facing the U.S. during World War II, this essay limits its discussion to an examination of the similarities between the territoriality appeals found in war films of the World War II era and the immediate present (America’s wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and against Saddam Hussein and in Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001). First will be an analysis and description of territorial propaganda appeals used by the makers of popular Hollywood feature films during World War II. And to show that an effective propaganda ploy has no expiration date, these appeals will then be compared to those found in speeches in which President Bush persuades the American people to support his wars against Al-Qa’eda and Iraq.
In one of his famous “Fireside Chats” on radio to the nation on Dec. 9, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded citizens that America was in trouble, and was forced by ‘unprovoked” attacks to defend itself against a terrible enemy. F.D.R. said, “W e are now in the midst of a war, not for conquest, not for vengeance, but for a world in which this nation and all that this nation represents will be safe for our children. “ (FDR, 1941)
In an address from Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush, who often attempts, albeit sometimes without the grace of President Roosevelt, to draw parallels between FDR and himself, and between World War II and the present conflict, said much the same thing: “We fight, not to impose our will, but to defend ourselves and extend the blessings of freedom.” (www.c-span.org Sept. 11, 2002)
Americans often delude themselves into thinking that the U.S. President’s speeches or other red, white and blue media communication could not possibly be classed as propaganda. This is because the common U.S. news media’s definition of propaganda might be something like “lies told by demagogues and dictators.” However, accepted propaganda theorists such as Jacques Ellul agree that the term actually has a value-neutral definition. (10) Propaganda is, simply, mass communicated persuasion that keys on two important goals: forming new (or adjusted) attitudes, and urging its audience to action, to do something about these new attitudes. After all, American advertising does this, the nation’s political candidates' speeches are full of it, and the even the entertainment programs the people watch on television are replete with wholesome, American values – along with embedded product ads -- for audiences to imitate in modeling behavior.
There are only a few insignificant differences between the much-maligned word “propaganda” and the term “rhetoric,” the venerable and respected name for persuasive discourse. No less a scholar than the father of rhetorical criticism, Kenneth Burke, stated, "Rhetoric refers to the use of language in such a way as to produce a desired impression upon the reader or hearer." (265) Propaganda does not differ from, but only transcends rhetoric, in that the propaganda is always mass communicated, and often contains at least an implicit call for the audience to some sort of action.
Now that we have an operational understanding of propaganda, consider that quote from President Roosevelt earlier, plus another from actor Cary Grant in the World War II era film , Destination Tokyo (1944). Perhaps we can now accept the likelihood that in the world's opinion, if not America's, FDR's radio speech – and President Bush’s current oratory -- are examples of propaganda. Typical of the kind of statements embedded in Hollywood’s World War II films, consider Grant's speech, given to his crew after a popular crewman, Mike, died trying to save a Japanese flyer. This Japanese airman, instead of being grateful for his rescue from frigid Aleutian waters, stabbed the sailor in the back. Grant first explains that instead of roller skates as a birthday present, when the Japanese flyer was a child, he was given a dagger:
Was this merely a line of dialog from a movie, pure entertainment, escapism, peppered with a bit of flag-waving? Not according to English documentary filmmaker and film historian Paul Rotha. He wrote that all movies, American and otherwise, contain propaganda. (57-59) And, as in much territorial propaganda, the implication by comparison is that if the Japanese were to win the war, American children would be subjected to alien Shinto rituals instead of birthday parties with cake, ice cream and roller skates.
Writers on the subject, including Rotha, maintain that propaganda can be communicated in both explicit and implicit ways, by blatantly obvious statements as well as through subtle background stimuli. For example, a film such as Rambo: First Blood, Part Two (1985), exhibits moments when the message is as obvious as the serrations on Stallone's killing knife. When the Vietnam veteran is asked to return to Southeast Asia for a commando mission, he asks if "they’ll let us win” this time. America’s Vietnam guilt and anger is there on the screen for all to see and hear. But in the antiwar film M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman subtly communicates much more than the explicit, shocking hospital blood and gore. For example, while principal action goes on, the audience hears in the background a bored enlisted man announcing the evening's Dow Jones averages, featuring huge profits accumulated during the war by defense contractors such as Remington Arms and Dow Chemical.
Written and edited, as they were, to propagandize as well as to entertain, World War II’s feature films accomplished their objectives so well that they helped to forge an entire generation into one of the most ideologically-unified, singularly-minded populations in the history of the world. This was certainly a praiseworthy aim, considering the perilous world situation in the first half of the 1940s. But physicists tell us that every action has a reaction, every move has a consequence. This is also true of human persuasion. And in this instance, Hollywood and Washington saw fit to alter the attitudes of American citizenry with blindly nationalistic, unrealistic, ethnocentric, and even racist propaganda messages. But after V-J Day, an American population jubilant in victory, finding itself the dominant force in the postwar world, began to believe too much in its own exaggerated importance, its own racial and cultural superiority, and in a role for America in world affairs in which our country lives out its manifest destiny as the planet's omnipotent and all-wise peacekeeper. And then came Korea, Vietnam and now the morass of Iraq, George Bush’s Vietnam.
Consider two excerpts from President Bush’s speeches:
Ardrey’s book, The Territorial Imperative, makes the convincing case that as with lower species, man is a territorial creature who will instinctively defend his space against all comers. Independent evidence and argument far beyond the scope of this essay is required to completely validate all of Ardrey's territoriality theories, but I’ll confidently settle for the proof of usage: As evidenced by their most famous war orations of the past and President Bush’s current attempts at war rhetoric, American Presidents have believed territorial appeals to be highly effective, and have included them in nearly every war message ever presented to the American people.
A few examples: Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis insisted that the other's forces were out to usurp their territory, government and institutions. Using the always-handy domino theory, Lyndon Johnson maintained throughout the Vietnam War that American freedom itself was threatened, "so long as the forces of violence are allowed to pursue their wider pattern of aggressive purposes.” In promoting war with England in 1812, James Madison insisted that Britain's true intention in their bellicose naval encounters with U.S. ships was no less than total re-colonization of America. In all these speeches, this defensive instinct, this territorial imperative, is used to create a credible threat to our homes, families, our rights, our laws and our democratic way of life in the minds of the audience.
Ronald Reid has theorized that nations are more than willing to wage war when they "are persuaded that (1) their territory, especially the center of their territory, is endangered” (284). Reid maintained that since the War of 1812, the concept of American territoriality has extended to U.S. possessions on the high seas. Kidnapping of sailors and confiscation of ships by Great Britain were among the offenses that President Madison cited were grounds for declaring war. (278) Reid also notes that, especially in America, expansionism has negative persuasive appeal. However, "by portraying expansionism as defensive by depicting it as a response to an existing outside threat or an honorable effort to recover territory unjustly taken by outside forces at some point in the past," even unjustified American imperialism such as the war against Mexico and the Spanish-American war can be characterized as defensive. (280)
Analyzing any of Lyndon Johnson's speeches in August of 1964 shows how this same portrayal is accomplished in the latter 20th century. In a radio and television report to the American People following the "renewed aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin", August 4, 1964, Johnson said:
In the larger sense, this new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in southeast Asia. Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America. (495)
In a speech the next day at Syracuse University, Johnson assured his audience that
An excellent example of Ardrey’s theory of man’s territoriality is the first appeal from World War II films presented here: "The enemy threatens our democratic institutions and our way of life." As quoted earlier in the film China, the Japanese general boasts that “… the fate of Pearl Harbor will be the fate of all so-called free democracies that dare to oppose the Imperial Japanese Government. We and our allies, for the ultimate good of all nations concerned, have determined to establish a new world order.”
Similarly, in the 1942 film , All Through The Night, Nazi agent and gangster Conrad Veidt attempts to butter up gangster Humphrey Bogart, appealing to their supposed similarities:
Later in the film, in a speech to his fellow hoodlums urging them to help him fight the Nazis, Bogart answers the objection of one of the gang bosses, who argues that he doesn't care who runs the country as long as they leave him alone. But in this speech, Bogart makes it clear that the American traditions even gangsters cherish are under attack:
Or, as President Bush also remarked in an address to the nation on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks,
A scene in Action In The North Atlantic (1943) reminds audiences that they may not be able to count on the simplest components of the "American dream" if the Nazis have their way. The liberty ship's carpenter is asked why he went to sea. He explains:
Likewise, in his State of the Union address, Jan. 29, 2002, the “Axis of Evil” speech, President Bush, too, attempts to connect with FDR and World War II rhetoric: “America is no longer protected by vast oceans. We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad and increased vigilance at home.” (www.whiteouse.gov Jan. 29, 2002)
Similarly, in They Were Expendable (1945), old “Pop,” the American owner of the Filipino shipyard where American P.T. boats are being repaired, is offered the chance to join Rusty (John Wayne) and his crew to escape the wrath of the Japanese, who soon would occupy the area. But Pop, sitting on his front stoop and lifting a jug of whisky for a drink, says that he has spent 40 years building his shipyard, and "If I leave it, they'll have to carry me out." So he will wait for the Japanese with his jug and shotgun. Director John Ford, reprising the mournful harmonica rendition of "Red River Valley" from The Grapes Of Wrath, pulls back to a wide shot of the old man as he sits resolutely on his porch, smoking his pipe, unwilling to leave his home, and ready to doggedly defend the epicenter of his territory against those who would usurp it.
And on March 19, 2003, in his address to the nation at the outset of the war against Iraq, President Bush said,
In the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock film, Saboteur, Tobin, an enemy agent, explains to an American factory worker named Kane, who is wrongly accused of an act of sabotage that Tobin actually ordered, why a wealthy American with "society connections" wants to assist the Nazis in overthrowing the U.S. government. Tobin explains that Kane, being an average American, can't understand that to a rich man like himself, power is the only thing outside his grasp, and the American form of democratic government puts a limit on any one man's power. Therefore, he prefers the kind of totalitarian system the Axis would impose on this country, which might allow him greater privilege as a member of the ruling elite:
President Bush also warned against an individual or a foreign government acquiring coercive power over the United States and other countries in his speech in Cincinnati on the use of force against Iraq:
In Cry Havoc (1943), a group of nurses talks about the war, and how it all came to happen. One of them, Pat, is confused. Andra and Sue answer her.
In the same speech in Cincinnati noted earlier, President Bush also presents a grim fate awaiting the nation unless Saddam Hussein is stopped:
The second territoriality appeal is, "The enemy threatens our loved ones." In nature, animals that might run instead of fight will instead fight furiously when defending their young. In humankind, the instinct to protect our families is just as strong. To remind Americans of this, in combat films, there are scenes in which " home" is discussed, flashed back to, or brought to us in the middle of the battle zone (eg., in They Were Expendable, nurse Donna Reed visits a P.T. boat squadron’s officers for a dinner at their Philippine headquarters. Of course, her gentle presence reminds the men of their own sweethearts.
In Destination Tokyo, Cary Grant tells a sweet story of how proud he was when he took his young son for his first haircut, when the boy announced to all the men in the barber shop, "This is my daddy!"). These digressions remind not only the combatants, but the audience, that these sailors are risking their lives for a territorial purpose: the defense of their loved ones. Films such as Wake Island (1942), Destination Tokyo and Howard Hawks 1943 epic, Air Force, begin with Marines, sailors and an Air Corps bomber crew saying goodbye to their loved ones. These scenes aid immeasurably in bringing each man's ultimate war objective, the protection of homes and families, into clear focus.
President Bush’s speech on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks also reminds us that not just solders are on the firing line: civilians, including women and children, are threatened:
For those who lost loved ones [on Sept. 11], it’s been a year of sorrow, of empty places, or newborn children who will never know their fathers here on earth. For members of our military, it’s been a year of sacrifice and service far from home. For all Americans, it has been a year of adjustment, of coming to terms with the difficult knowledge that our nation has determined enemies, and that we are not invulnerable to their attacks. (www.c-span.org Sept. 11, 2002)
In World War II films, there are many more overt references to the consequences of Axis victory. For example, in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), when bomber pilot Van Johnson is asked why he considers it "OK to bomb Japanese people in Tokyo," he replies, “Because, I figure, it's drop a bomb on them, or pretty soon they'll be dropping a bomb on Ellen [his pregnant wife].”
Again in that Cincinnati speech, President Bush personalizes the danger to American civilians by demonizing the Iraqi dictator and describing his tools of terror and intimidation over his own citizens:
In both Air Force and Flying Tigers (1942), men listen to President Roosevelt’s famous "Day of Infamy" speech over short wave, and, via close-ups of them, we are privy to their thoughts about home. In Air Force, while listening to the speech, pilot Quincannon's (John Ridgely's) eyes dart to a little toy airman he has hung up in his bomber’s cockpit. His little son gave him the toy before he left home. Similarly, Flying Tiger "Mack" (Jimmie Dodd) listens to FDR, and stares at a picture of his mother, father, and relatives back home with a concerned look on his face. In Guadalcanal Diary (1943), there is a scene in which a Marine falls, mortally wounded. He reaches out his hand for his helmet, which flew off when he fell. In it is a picture of his wife and children. Director Lewis Seiler then cuts to a close-up of the helmet, as the dying man's hand comes into frame, touches the photo, spasms, and falls limp.
As in his “Axis of Evil” speech, President Bush has often made comparisons between World War II and his wars against Al-Qa’eda and Iraq . On one occasion, the 60 th anniversary of the Japanese surrender ending World War II, this attempt to justify current conflicts by favorably comparing them with World War II, are clear:
Sixty years ago this Friday, General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. With Japan’s surrender, the last of our enemies in World War II was defeated, and a World War that began for America in the Pacific came to an end in the Pacific. As we mark this anniversary, we are again a nation at war. Once again, war came to our shores with a surprise attack that killed thousands in cold blood. Once again, we face determined enemies who follow a ruthless ideology that despises everything America stands for. Once again, America and our allies are waging a global campaign with forces deployed on virtually every continent. And once again, we will not rest until victory is America’s and our freedom is secure.
(www.signonsandiego.com Aug. 30, 2005)
Quentin Reynolds' stirring "forward" narration to 1942’s Eagle Squadron contains more than an explanation that American aviators gallantly volunteered to fly for England before the U.S. was "stabbed in the back:"
In President Bush’s March 17, 2003, televised speech to the nation, he warned that Saddam Hussein and his sons had to leave Iraq within 48 hours or the U.S. would invade. He makes it clear that Hussein’s regime is also a threat to California, Texas, Oregon or Maine, and must be neutralized:
The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of Al Qaeda. The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other. The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat. But we will do everything to defeat it. Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety. Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed. (www.c-span.org March 17, 2003)
Although territorial disputes in the animal kingdom are usually settled when the invader is repulsed, Homo Sapiens is different. In human belligerence, repulsing the enemy attack on one’s territory is often followed by a vengeful counterattack on the territory of the invader. This punitive difference between humans and "lower creatures" is the third territoriality statement, "We shall turn the tables on the enemy, and threaten his territory."
There are two kinds of war, limited and total war. In a limited war, like the skirmish between an animal defending his territory and a temporary invader, the animal repulses the interloper and the battle is over. Then follows the reestablishment of some form of status quo. In contrast, a total war’s aims are to do away with the status quo: It results in the invasion of the territory of one of the belligerents, followed by regime change and the establishment of a new order. World War II was total war, followed by the creation of different forms of governments and new national boundaries for many participating nations on both sides of the conflict. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, FDR made it quite clear that the overthrow of the Japanese government would be the only result that would satisfy the United States. Frustrated with two successive wars instigated by Germany, America’s European allies would also insist on the total defeat of Germany. So the "reverse territoriality" that this statement applies is more than rhetoric: It is the desire and commitment of the major allied governments to overthrow the regimes of the Axis powers and replace them with systems less likely to re-instigate hostilities and again threaten the governments of the U.S. and its allies.
In the speech given by an RAF general at the conclusion of Eagle Squadron (1942), the final goal of the war is made clear:
As often stated, shouted and vowed by characters in World War II films, America did not start the fight, but the U.S. will be the one to end it with a vengeance. As much as this rhetoric sounds like boys sounding off in schoolyard fistfights, it’s used often by presidents and other chiefs of state around the world. As President Bush stated on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,
In the ruins of two towers, under a flag unfurled at the Pentagon, at the funerals of the lost, we have made a sacred promise to ourselves and to the world: we will not relent until justice is done and our nation is secure. What our enemies have begin, we will finish. (www.c-span.org Sept. 11, 2002)
In many speeches, President Bush warned that a change in regime in Iraq was the only reasonable outcome of the conflict. And in his speech 48 hours before Invading Iraq, once more drawing upon the sublimity of past rhetoric, Bush went so far as to predict, not unlike Cary Grant’s prediction about the roller skates, what Iraqis could expect after Saddam Hussein was deposed and his people are liberated:
So territoriality appeals at two levels. First, it taps into the "lower" instincts we share with the animal kingdom, and is satisfied when our sphere of influence, our domain itself, is no longer threatened. However, in today's world, many countries, led by the U.S., have developed a global sense of territoriality, which results in “defending our territory” quite literally anywhere. Also, at the "preventative" level, the human territorial being's intelligence allows him to think beyond the moment, to consider the future. Once attacked, Homo Sapiens has the ability to consider and plan to prevent further incursions by the interloper. This often takes the form of seeing to it that the enemy no longer has the ability to conduct such enterprises: This calls for, at the least, regime change.
We have seen how territoriality was invoked in World War II to make clear the threats to the American way of life posed by the Axis Powers. We have also seen how George W. Bush’s political handlers and his speechwriters, conjuring up similar thoughts and fears, found ways to compare the current crises posed by Al Qaeda and Iraq to that which was faced by the Greatest Generation. The war propaganda of President Bush’s administration and re-election campaign speechwriters was indeed up to the task, and the American people, hearing of these threats to their territory, responded in sufficient numbers to re-elect the President in 2004.
It’s not the purpose of this essay to debate individual truths and falsehoods in propaganda statements of the past or present. Rather, it’s to point out the relative lack of novelty in the incredibly successful contemporary use of territorial appeals to beat the drums of war – and, in doing so, to secure what all U.S. presidents want most of all: re-election. Most who have studied war rhetoric, both in the 1940s and today, have found in them a potent mixture of truth, half-truth and outright lies. And at this writing, indictments are ongoing, aimed at those who tried to obfuscate blame for and discredit criticism of such falsehoods as the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But for those who may have forgotten – or, in the case of our youngest citizens, never learned -- the lessons of the past, it is prudent to consider that the use of territorial propaganda appeals used by George W. Bush today is nothing new: only the times, the enemies and the rationale differ.
Ardrey, Robert. The Territorial Imperative . New York, 1971.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1931.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda, The Formation of Man's Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973)
Johnson, Lyndon B. "The President's News Conference of July 20, 1965", in The Public Papers of The Presidents of The United States, (Washington, D.C.: Office of The Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, 1965).
Reid, Ronald F. "New England Rhetoric and The French War, 1754 ‑ 1760: A Case Study in The Rhetoric of War", Communication Monographs, No. 43, (November, '1976).
Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, vol. 1941, (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1941).
Rotha, Paul. Documentary Film. New York: Hastings House, 1952.
President George W. Bush’s Sept. 11, 2002 televised speech to the nation.
President George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003, televised speech to the nation at the outset of the war against Iraq.
President George W. Bush’s March 17, 2003, televised speech to the nation 48 hours before the outset of the war against Iraq.
Public Papers of the Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954, p. 381- 390
President George W. Bush’s Oct. 8, 2002 speech in Cincinnati on the use of force against Iraq.
President George W. Bush’s Aug. 30, 2005 speech in San Diego’s North Island Naval Air Station on the 60 th anniversary of the Japanese surrender ending World War II.
President George W. Bush’s Sept. 12, 2002 speech to United Nations General Assembly.
President George W. Bush’s Sept. 20, 2001 televised address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, Jan. 29,2002.
President George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003 televised speech to the nation .
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