“IN TERMS OF PEOPLES
RATHER THAN NATIONS”:
WORLD WAR II PROPAGANDA
AND CONCEPTIONS OF U.S.
History has not been kind to the World War II propaganda initiatives of the U.S. government. The work of the Office of War Information (OWI)— the best known and most influential of the wartime propaganda agencies—has received very little acclaim indeed (nostalgic appreciation for the iconic images of Rosie the Riveter and The Four Freedoms notwithstanding). During the war, the OWI provoked howls of protest, mostly from conservative critics, who complained about incompetence, waste, and liberal bias. In subsequent years, historians have redirected those criticisms, but not the overall judgment, in characterizing the organization as mismanaged and ineffective.1 Overall, the OWI story—although not exactly relegated to the dustbin of history—is certainly not regarded as central to the plotline of World War II.2 And this is unfortunate because while the OWI may have failed on its own terms, its existence and its operations symbolized and precipitated a broader transformation in conceptions of U.S. foreign relations.
Before World War II, overseas propaganda was widely viewed as peripheral to, if not entirely separate from, the foreign policy process. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9182, which created the OWI in June 1942, there was little expectation that it would become enmeshed in debates over U.S. foreign policy. FDR’s crusty Secretary of State Cordell Hull spoke for the relentless traditionalists at