Watch “Don’t Be a Sucker!,” the 1947 US Government Anti-Hatred Film That’s Relevant All Over Again

If you aren’t seri­ous­ly dis­turbed, even alarmed, that we in the U.S. have a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date from a major polit­i­cal par­ty who suc­ceeds by whip­ping up xeno­pho­bic fer­vor and telling us the coun­try must not only rein­sti­tute tor­ture, but must do “the unthink­able”… well…. I don’t real­ly know what to say to you. Per­haps more symp­tom than cause of a glob­al turn toward trib­al hatred, the GOP can­di­date has lent his name to a phe­nom­e­non char­ac­ter­ized by cultish devo­tion to an author­i­tar­i­an strong­man, ser­i­al false­hood, and easy, uncrit­i­cal scape­goat­ing. We needn’t look far back in time to see the his­tor­i­cal ana­logues, whether in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, at the end of the 19th, or dur­ing any num­ber of his­tor­i­cal moments before and after.

We also needn’t look very far back to find a his­to­ry of resis­tance to author­i­tar­i­an big­otry, and not only from Civ­il Rights cam­paign­ers and left­ists, but also, as you can see above, from the U.S. War Depart­ment. In 1947, the Depart­ment released the short pro­pa­gan­da film, “Don’t Be a Suck­er!”, aimed at mid­dle-class Amer­i­can Joes. Shot at Warn­er Stu­dios, the film opens with some typ­i­cal noirish crime sce­nar­ios, com­plete with con­vinc­ing­ly noir light­ing and cam­era angles, to visu­al­ly set up the char­ac­ter of the “suck­er” who gets tak­en in by sin­is­ter but seduc­tive characters—“people who stay up nights try­ing to fig­ure out how to take away” what the every­man has. What do naïve poten­tial marks in this anal­o­gy have to lose? Amer­i­can plen­ty: “plen­ty of food, big fac­to­ries to make things a man can use, big cities to do the busi­ness of a big coun­try, and peo­ple, lots of peo­ple.”

“Peo­ple,” the nar­ra­tor says, work­ing the farms and fac­to­ries, dig­ging the mines and run­ning the busi­ness­es: “all kinds of peo­ple. Peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries with dif­fer­ent reli­gions, dif­fer­ent col­ored skins. Free peo­ple.” Is this disin­gen­u­ous? You bet. We’re told this aggre­gate of peo­ple is “free to vote”—and we know this to be large­ly untrue in prac­tice for many, neces­si­tat­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act almost twen­ty years lat­er. Free to “pick their own jobs”? Employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion, seg­re­ga­tion, and sex­ism effec­tive­ly pre­vent­ed that for mil­lions. But the sen­ti­ments are noble, even if the facts don’t ful­ly fit. As our aver­age Joe wan­ders along, con­tem­plat­ing his advan­tages, he hap­pens upon a reac­tionary street­corner demogague harangu­ing against for­eign­ers, African-Amer­i­cans, Catholics, and Freema­sons (?) on behalf of “real Amer­i­cans.” Sounds plen­ty famil­iar.

The voice of rea­son comes from a nat­u­ral­ized Hun­gar­i­an pro­fes­sor who wit­nessed the rise of Nazism in Berlin and who explains to our every­man the strat­e­gy of fanat­ics and fascists—divide and rule. “We human beings are not born with prej­u­dices,” says the wise pro­fes­sor, “always they are made for us. Made by some­one who wants some­thing. Remem­ber that when you hear this kind of talk. Somebody’s going to get some­thing out of it. And it isn’t going to be you.” The remain­der of the film most­ly con­sists of the Hun­gar­i­an pro­fes­sor’s rec­ol­lec­tions of how the Nazis won over ordi­nary Ger­mans.

all american superman

“Don’t Be a Suck­er!” uses a clever rhetor­i­cal strat­e­gy, appeal­ing to the self-inter­est and van­i­ty of the every­man while couch­ing that appeal in egal­i­tar­i­an val­ues. The very recent his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of fas­cist Europe car­ries sig­nif­i­cant weight, where too often today that his­to­ry gets treat­ed like a joke, turned into crude and mud­dled memes. This film would have had real impact on the view­ing audi­ence, who would have seen it before their fea­ture in the­aters across the coun­try.

It’s worth not­ing that this film came out dur­ing a peri­od of increas­ing Amer­i­can pros­per­i­ty and com­par­a­tive eco­nom­ic equi­ty. The jobs “Don’t Be a Suck­er!” lists with pride have dis­ap­peared. Today’s every­man, we might say, has even more rea­son for sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to the dem­a­gogue’s appeals. The Inter­net Archive notes an irony here “in the light of Cold War anti-Com­mu­nist pol­i­tics, which real­ly came into their own in the year this film was made.” The street­corner pop­ulist calls to mind peo­ple like Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover (and he looks like George Wallace)—powerful gov­ern­ment author­i­ties who cast sus­pi­cion on every move­ment for Civ­il Rights and social equal­i­ty.

“Don’t Be a Suck­er!” may seem like an out­lier, but it’s rem­i­nis­cent of anoth­er piece of patri­ot­ic, anti-racist-and-reli­gious-big­otry propaganda—the Super­man car­toon above, which first appeared in 1949, dis­trib­uted to school chil­dren as a book cov­er by some­thing called The Insti­tute for Amer­i­can Democ­ra­cy. You may have seen ver­sions of a full-col­or poster, reprint­ed in sub­se­quent years. Here, Super­man express­es the same egal­i­tar­i­an val­ues as “Don’t Be a Suck­er!” only instead of call­ing racism a con-job, he calls it “Un-Amer­i­can,” using the favorite denun­ci­a­tion of HUAC and oth­er anti-Com­mu­nist groups.

His­to­ry and the present moment may often prove otherwise—showing us just how very Amer­i­can racism and big­otry can be, but so too are numer­ous counter-move­ments on the left and, as these exam­ples show, from more con­ser­v­a­tive, estab­lish­ment cor­ners as well.

“Don’t Be a Suck­er!” will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

h/t Daniel Buk

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Redis­cov­ered: The First Amer­i­can Anti-Nazi Film, Banned by U.S. Cen­sors and For­got­ten for 80 Years

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

Did Hol­ly­wood Movies Stu­dios “Col­lab­o­rate” with Hitler Dur­ing WW II? His­to­ri­an Makes the Case

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • Eddyb says:

    Just in time as its racist ‘open sea­son’ in UK

  • Cawk A. Zhen says:

    Absolute­ly need­ed in today’s soci­ety! The irra­tional hatred (includ­ing self-hatred) of white per­sons has nev­er been high­er.

  • E says:

    It’s real­ly inter­est­ing to see exam­ples of this mes­sage in old media––I’d nev­er seen either of these before. It’s amaz­ing how quick­ly a peo­ple can for­get the lessons of a war still (only just) with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry.

  • TimJ says:

    Real­ly great and rel­e­vant find, thanks for post­ing!

  • Joe says:

    Guns don’t save lives, yet all the politi­cians have armed secu­ri­ty. FB CEO said lets build bridges and not walls yet he is build­ing a wall around his prop­er­ty in Hawaii.. Come lets join the hypocrisy. I do agree with the arti­cle lets love each oth­er for our dif­fer­ences. but lets not be stu­pid. for the peo­ple who believe there are no real threats in the world, go out on vaca­tion in the mid­dle east this year and let me know how that goes for you…

  • fnn says:

    This film needs to be shown in Israel so they’ll stop mis­treat­ing Pales­tini­ans and African migrants. If noth­ing else, it will pro­voke a lot of laugh­ter.

  • bryce says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s appalling and tru­ly fright­en­ing what is hap­pen­ing in Amer­i­ca, my coun­try. That Trump stands any chance at all of win­ning in Novem­ber … it’s already a tragedy. I think the best we can hope is that he and his whole par­ty are crushed at the bal­lot box — crushed so bad­ly that none of their hate sur­vives.

  • Maxwell says:

    This isn’t the same as what’s going on today because the film is refer­ring to Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. Today’s prob­lems are not due to Amer­i­can’s who “look or think dif­fer­ent­ly” but peo­ple who aren’t Amer­i­can.

  • Phil McCracken says:

    Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is turn­ing out to be an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter. It’s odd how you rarely hear crit­i­cism of xeno­pho­bia in any coun­tries oth­er than west­ern ones. Japan, Israel, Sau­di Ara­bia, etc. all seem to get a pass. Oth­er words tossed out and regur­gi­tat­ed as some faux argu­ment are anti semi­te, homo­pho­bic, misog­y­nist, etc.. It’s not an argu­ment to attack the mes­sen­gers char­ac­ter and it’s not work­ing. Only the naive are still buy­ing that line.

  • Christine says:

    “It’s worth not­ing that this film came out dur­ing a peri­od of increas­ing Amer­i­can pros­per­i­ty and com­par­a­tive eco­nom­ic equi­ty.”
    “ ‘in the light of Cold War anti-Com­mu­nist pol­i­tics, which real­ly came into their own in the year this film was made.’ ”

    This film was orig­i­nal­ly released in 1943. It was re-released in 1947.

  • Brian says:

    Enough is enough.

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