By its very nature, propaganda distorts the truth or tells outright lies. It targets our basest impulses—fear and anger, flight or fight. While works of pure propaganda may pretend to make logical arguments, they eliminate nuance and oversimplify complicated issues to the point of caricature. These general tendencies hold true in every case, but nowhere, perhaps, is this gross exaggeration and fear mongering more evident than in times of war.
And while we’ve all seen our share of wartime propaganda, we may be less familiar with the decades-long propaganda war the U.S. and Western Europe waged against socialism and Communism, even decades before the Cold War era. It may surprise you to learn that this offensive began even before the start of World War One, as you can see above in a British Conservative Party poster from 1909.
Representing socialism as an ape-like demon strangling some sort of goddess of “prosperity,” this striking piece of poster art sets the tone for almost all of the anti-Communist propaganda to come in the wake of the Russian Revolution. At least since this early graphic salvo, Communists and socialists have generally been depicted as terrifying monsters. See, for example, an early, post-WWI example of Russian anti-Communist propaganda above, portraying the Communist threat as an apocalyptic horseman of death.
As the perceived threat increased, so too did the scale of the monstrous caricatures. In the post-WWI era German and Norwegian posters above, Godzilla-sized Communists lay waste to entire cities. Below, in “Bolshevism Unmasked,” an example from the Second World War, the skeletal Communist destroyer straddles the entire globe.
Occasionally the racial dimensions of these depictions were explicit. More often, they were strongly implied. But a 1953 Cold War example below is particularly unsubtle. Showing a scene literally right out of a schlocky Paramount horror film, featuring actress Janet Logan, the text tells us, “In case the Communists should conquer, our women would be helpless beneath the boots of the Asiatic Russians.” At the top of this rather lurid piece of agit-prop, we’re also told that “many American men would be sterilized” should Russia win the “next world war.”
In the 50s and 60s, pop culture media like film and comic books lent themselves particularly well to anti-Communist propaganda, and they were exploited relentlessly by government agencies, production companies, and corporations. Films like I Married a Communist (below) and The Red Menace (top), both from 1949, offered sensationalized pulpy takes on the red scare.
In these peak Cold War decades, anti-Communist sentiment flourished as the U.S.’s former ally the Soviet Union became its primary enemy. Comic books provided the perfect platform for the broad strokes of anti-Communist propaganda. As psychiatrist Fredric Wertham waged war against the corrupting influence of comic books, advertisers and the government found them increasingly effective at spreading messages. “If there was any entity that believed in the power of comic books to indoctrinate and instruct as Wertham did,” writes Greg Beato at Reason, “it was the U.S. government.”
But private entities did their share in the comic book war against Communism as well. Witness a particularly wild example, Is This Tomorrow?, above. Published by the “Catechetical Guild Educational Society” in St. Paul, MN, this 1947 comic implicates government regulation of business, social welfare programs, anti-religious sentiment, and “people giving up their silly ideas about ‘sacredness’ of life” in a fiendishly orchestrated plot to take over America. Workers who embrace Communist doctrine are little more than dupes and pawns. You can read the whole feverish scenario here.
These cartoon scare tactics may seem outlandish, but of course we know that red scare propaganda had real effects on the lives and livelihoods of real Americans, particularly those in the arts and academia. Freethinking, left-leaning creative types and intellectuals have long been targets of anti-Communist paranoia. The American Legion Magazine cover above illustrates the fear—one still very prevalent now—that college professors were bent on corrupting young, malleable minds. “Parents,” the magazine states, “can rid campuses of communists who cloak themselves in ‘academic freedom.’” At the height of the red scare, many college professors, like Stanley Moore at Reed College, were dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee and summarily fired.
More confident, it seems, than the propaganda of previous decades, the Cold War variety shrunk the Communist threat back to human dimensions. But Communists were no less monstrous than before—only more insidious. They looked like your neighbors, your co-workers, and your children’s teacher. Instead of purveyors of brute force, they were depicted as devious manipulators who used ideological machinations to pervert democracy and cripple capitalism. As in the American Legion college professor cover story, education was often posed as the cultural battlefield on which—as the heated Canadair ad above states—“Communism could take the citadel from within” by spreading “doubts about the old ways” and insinuating “ideas of atheism, regimentation and false idealism.”
Post-WWII, of course, the greatest threat was not a full-scale invasion—it was total nuclear annihilation. It was a grim possibility—as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove satirically pointed out—in which no one would win. Web Urbanist points us toward one particularly chilling and dishonest piece of propaganda distributed by the government. In the poster above, we are assured that “After total war can come total living.” Unless the happy couple is gazing out over a manicured suburb in the afterlife, this scene of “total living” post-nuclear war is absurd given the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nevertheless, what the poster depicts is an analogue of the Soviets’ totalitarian ethos—it’s a future of total ideological purity, in which the Earth has been cleansed of the hulking monstrous hordes of Communism, as well as, presumably, the crypto-Communist teachers, artists, intellectuals, and bureaucrats who threaten from within.