The magazine racks of the average newsstand must have been a lovely, lovely sight in midsummer 1942. More than 500 publications -- including many of the most popular comic books -- carried the American flag on their covers that summer, seven months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Very often it was in vivid color, along with the words "United We Stand," and frequently with an additional image urging readers to buy war bonds and victory stamps.
Nothing about this outpouring of patriotism was accidental, a chance convergence by magazine editors thinking the same thoughts at the same time. Liberty magazine, whose cover sported a gorgeous Stars and Stripes unfurled in the wind in front of a very blue sky filled with puffy white clouds, proudly called it a "patriotic conspiracy" that everyone agreed to spontaneously, an idea whose time had come.
This conspiracy had been hatched in the mind of Paul MacNamara, a publicist for Hearst Magazines. MacNamara thought that a "United We Stand" campaign by America's magazines featuring covers that caught the public's eye and spoke to their heart might serve two purposes: One, to foster patriotism in a country now running behind in a vicious war; and, two, to raise the public's interest in magazines.
The National Publishers Association (now the Magazine Publishers of America) eagerly joined up. So did the United States Flag Association, a group founded in 1924 to promote the proper use and display of the flag, signing on with a promise to hold a contest to judge the best covers and award prizes.
The U.S. government gave its imprimatur in the form of the enthusiasm of Henry M. Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of the Treasury. Morgenthau, who was deeply concerned that war-bond sales had plummeted dramatically after a brief Pearl Harbor surge, saw the magazine covers and United We Stand campaign as a way to increase the public's interest in buying his bonds.
This effort was a success, and it came at the right time: Things were looking up for America. In June 1942, the United States gained a victory over the Japanese in the Battle of Midway and, on July 4, along with Great Britain's Royal Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Forces flew their first combat mission over Europe, dropping bombs on German bases in the Netherlands.
Amidst these encouraging signs the displays of the covers set up in more than 1,200 leading department stores in every corner of the nation, not to mention those thousands of newsstands, made Old Glory ubiquitous. Bond sales increased. But surprisingly, until very recently the entire United We Stand campaign and the gorgeous magazine covers it spawned were events that history forgot.
Those covers go unmentioned and undisplayed in history books or film documentaries. And they might have been largely lost to our national past had it not been for the late Marguerite Storm, a lady from Pacific Palisades, Calif., who collected many of the covers when they appeared in July 1942, then kept them stored safely away.
Peter Kreitler, a retired Episcopal priest and collector of magazine covers with American-flag images, happened upon Storm's collection and saw its significance. Finally, Marilyn Zoidis, a Smithsonian Institution curator deeply interested in the role the American flag has played in our culture, helped plan, along with fellow curators Helena Wright and Kathleen Kendrick, an exhibition of more than 100 of those covers titled "July 1942: United We Stand." It now graces a section of the National Museum of American History in Washington and will be there through Oct. 27, when it will be returned to Kreitler, who has done his own lovely little book on the covers, United We Stand: Flying the American Flag.
No one anticipated before Sept. 11 just how pertinent the show would become in America. The Smithsonian has been working on "July 1942" for a year or more, Zoidis tells INSIGHT. …