Use the enemy's own films to expose their enslaving ends. Let our boys hear the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master-race crud—and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform.
September 16, 2012 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Why We Fight is a series of seven documentary films commissioned by the United States government during World War II whose purpose was to show American soldiers the reason for U.S. involvement in the war. Later on they were also shown to the general U.S. public to persuade them to support American involvement in the war. Each of them is in the common domain having been produced by the US government, available online, and linked below the fold:

Most of the films were directed by Frank Capra, who was daunted yet also impressed and challenged by Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film Triumph of the Will (Complete with subtitles in English) and who worked in direct response to it. The series faced a tough challenge: convincing an only recently non-interventionist nation of the need to become involved in the war and ally with the Soviets, among other things. In many of the films, Capra and other directors spliced in Axis powers propaganda footage going back twenty years, and recontextualized it so it promoted the cause of the Allies.
Prelude to War| (52:21) Chapter I describes World War II as a battle between the "slave world" of fascism and the "free world" of American liberty. In the "slave world," the entire populations of Germany, Italy and Japan have been hoodwinked by madmen, opportunists who capitalized on their people's desperation and weakness to rise to power. These demagogues promised revenge for past losses, and in the process convinced their people to give up their rights and accept dictatorship. In the "free world," the principles of equality, freedom, and liberty characterize the greatest leaders, embodied in the works and words of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. This freedom is a threat to the fascist dictators of the Axis powers, who claim that democracy is weak and must be eradicated. The film claims that the ultimate goal of the Axis powers is to enslave the nations of the "free world," a desire made manifest in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and Mussolini's destruction of Ethiopia.

The Nazis Strike| (42:32) Chapter II summarizes Adolph Hitler's plan for world conquest and Germany's full scale preparation in pursuit of this end. While the Nazis plead poverty and pacifism, they spend incredible amounts of money to prepare a war machine of unparalleled strength and destructive capability. While Hitler assures the other leaders of the world he has no interest in promoting National Socialism, he begins "softening up" future target nations by sponsoring local Nazi organizations in other countries. The film explains that the key to Germany's world conquest is the occupation of central Russia, a heartland rich in natural resources. Hitler begins his march in this direction by annexing Austria and part of Czechoslovakia. With these new territories, he now possesses a massive front against Poland, which he invades and conquers within three weeks. After the invasion of Poland, Britain and France declare war on Germany, which then signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviets so Hitler can re-focus his energy against his enemies to the west.

Divide and Conquer| (56:23) Chapter III begins with Britain and France's declaration of war on Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland. The film covers the Nazi capture of Denmark and Norway, steps necessary to mount a future attack on Britain, then describes in detail Hitler's strategy as he conquers Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Special attention is paid to Nazi atrocities. Dead and injured children are shown en masse and the film explains how the bombing of Rotterdam leads to "thirty thousand men, women and children killed in ninety minutes." The narrator tells how the Luftwaffe bombs small villages so that refugees clog the highways, and how it uses precision machine gun fire to herd the survivors toward the allied armies, who find their progress severely constrained as a result. An American military officer details the Nazi plan for an invasion of France, which Hitler conquers in just over a month. The Germans bludgeon the French armies into surrender, then "enslave" much of the local population to service the German military regime.

The Battle of Britain| (52:12) Chapter IV begins after Hitler's conquest of Western Europe. Once firmly in control of the parts of France and Norway closest to Great Britain, the Nazis commence their massive air assault on the British isles. Outnumbered six to one, the fighters of the Royal Air Force defend their skies against the Luftwaffe for close to four months. Capra embellishes the British successes, for example the film claims the RAF fought 200 dogfights in the first thirty minutes of the battle alone, and that by the end of the first month they had destroyed 900 German planes. (In truth, the number is closer to 260). However, the success of the British defenses forced the Germans to change strategies, switching to more frightening night raids that terrorized London. But the British resolve won the day, in grand fashion. The film claims total German losses of more than 2,700. The real number is closer to 1,600. The number of downed British planes equaled approximately half that of Germany.

The Battle of Russia| (1:22:57)Chapter V follows the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler. In Part Two, the German army falls victim to the Soviet scorched-earth strategy. The Russian forces flee from the start, retreating deep into their homeland, drawing the Nazis farther and farther away from the German border. As the Red Army falls back, it destroys infrastructure and natural resources, making it difficult for the Nazi army to live off the land. Once the famed Russian winter sets in, Germany is doomed. The film focuses on the stalwart defense of Leningrad. After the Nazis surround the Soviet metropolis in an attempt to starve out its residents, the Russians outsmart them by constructing a fully operational railroad across a frozen lake to get supplies to the beleaguered citizens. The Battle of Russia ends up as a disaster for the Germans, who lose more than 800,000 men.

The Battle of China| (1:02:50) Chapter VI explains why the Empire of Japan possessed such a strong interest in ruling the disparate lands of China. In an attempt to break the will of the Chinese people in one massive assault, Japan invades Nanking and massacres forty thousand civilians. The attack results in an opposite effect, galvanizing the Chinese resistance and unifying the separate lands into a single Chinese identity. While the Japanese take control of all Chinese ports, hoping to cut off all resources from its victim, China's allies effectuate an engineering miracle. They construct the seven hundred mile long Burma Road over the mountains of Myanmar, and set up a constant caravan of trucks to ship food and materiel to the Chinese armies, keeping them alive. Frustrated by their inability to conquer China, the Japanese turn their attention to the islands of the Pacific, and the United States.

War Comes to America| (1:02:11) Chapter VII begins by celebrating the American values of liberty and freedom that are threatened by the aggressive forces of Germany and Japan. The early years of the war are seen from the perspective of the United States, with particular focus on the reluctance of the American people to get involved in a European or Asian conflict. As the German army rolls across Europe, Nazi organizations spring up across the United States. The film attributes the rise of such groups to Hitler's policy of softening up future targets with political sympathizers, and shows one surreal Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, where paintings of George Washington hang alongside the swastika. Eventually the American government realizes that war is inevitable and cranks up the production of weapons and drafts the largest army in its history. The film ends with the war's beginning for the United States, the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Other War Films also made by Capra
The Negro Soldier| (41:02) The army used this film as a means of propaganda to convince African Americans to enlist in the army and fight in the war. Most people regarded the film very highly, some going as far to say that The Negro Soldier was "one of the finest things that ever happened to America". Due to both high reviews and great cinematography, The Negro Soldier proved to be a breakout film that influenced army members and civilians of all races. In 2011, it was chosen to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. During World War II, Nazi Germany threatened to take over Europe, North Africa and the Near East. The United States Army was looking for men to enlist. Although the U.S. army was officially committed to practicing segregation, they looked to African Americans to add manpower to the group. Social scientists of the time argued that films and television were the best method of instilling a message within people and pushing them to act towards a common goal. Analysis

Two Down and One to Go| (9:30) A short propaganda film produced in 1945; as its title might suggest, its overall message was that the first two Axis powers, Italy and Germany, had been defeated, but that one, Japan, still had to be dealt with. Presented by the Secretary of War (Henry Stimson) and narrated by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, the film is notable for its heavy use of animated graphics, spliced with stock footage. Opening with a fasces being splintered over Italy, and a swastika being exploded over Germany, the film cuts to a Arthur Szyk caricature of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tōjō, an X being superimposed on the respective dictators, then turning to Tojo. Gen. Marshall informs the audience why the United States had chosen a Europe first strategy for the war, noting the supply lines where far shorter for Europe, and that the US simply did not have the material, in the early stages of the war, to launch an invasion of Japan. He also notes that in the European theatre the US had strong fighting Allies and airbases in England which could help them launch an attack on Germany, while in the Pacific theatre we had "no airbases near Japan, and no strong allies, however brave". The general ends the film by reminding the audience that the war cannot be won until Japanese military might is "completely crushed".

Tunisian Victory| (1:15:50) An Anglo-American propaganda film about the victories in the North Africa Campaign. The film follows both armies from the planning of Operation Torch / Operation Acrobat to the liberation of Tunis. Interspersed in the pure documentary format are the narrative voices of an American and a British soldier (voiced by Burgess Meredith and Bernard Miles respectively), recounting their experience in the campaign. The British and American talk separately until the end of the film when they have a dialogue, agree to co-operate after the end of the war, with the other Allied nations to create a more just and peaceful post-war order.

Know Your Enemy: Japan| (1:00:08)The original intention of the film was to prepare U.S. soldiers for war before deployment in the Pacific, though ultimately it never realized this purpose due to the war’s abrupt end soon after its completion.

Inspired by the name of the films, a new documentary Why We Fight (2005) describes the rise and maintenance of the United States military-industrial complex and its involvement in the wars led by the United States during the last fifty years, and in particular in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The film alleges that in every decade since World War II, the American public has been told a lie to bring it into war to fuel the military-economic machine, which in turn maintains American dominance in the world. It includes interviews with John McCain, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Gore Vidal and Joseph Cirincione. The film also incorporates the stories of a Vietnam War veteran whose son died in the September 11, 2001 attacks and then had his son's name written on a bomb dropped on Iraq; a 23-year old New York man who enlists in the United States Army citing his financial troubles after his only family member died; and a former Vietnamese refugee who now develops explosives for the American military.
posted by Blasdelb (24 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Whoops, The Why We Fight (2005) documentary is an hour and thirty nine minutes long. All in all there is eleven and a half hours of footage in this post.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:35 AM on September 16, 2012

Thank you for posting this. I've seen the 2005 documentary, but I have a cold and wasn't going to get anything done today anyway. :-)
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:59 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember these films from Grade school. Are these recently available on-line?

Use the enemy's own films to expose their enslaving ends.
reminds me of Katyn massacre for some reason.
posted by clavdivs at 10:01 AM on September 16, 2012

"Are these recently available on-line?"

They have been in the Public Domain since they were made, but I imagine they've been available online for a good long while.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:04 AM on September 16, 2012

I'm enjoying watching these, but yeesh, the gate weave in some parts is making me sea sick.

It's also funny to see some of the same rhetoric we see in politics today being used. For instance, at about the 19 minute mark the narrator talks about removing kid's from their fathers and teaching them that the state is the only religion is something I could hear coming straight from the Christian Right as an accusation towards the Left.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:21 AM on September 16, 2012

Excellent post. I've seen a few of those when they were broadcast some time ago on a
Dutch documentary channel. Propaganda, but relatively honest propaganda.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:24 AM on September 16, 2012

have been hoodwinked by madmen, opportunists who capitalized on their people's desperation and weakness to rise to power
posted by casual observer at 10:52 AM on September 16, 2012

The Battle of Russia is an excellent film for those wishing to study Eurasia/Eastasia war propaganda shifts from real life. Recall that a within few years hence, these beleaguered, heroic Russians from The Battle of Russia would be portrayed by the same filmmaker as evil, maniacal robots bent on conquest of the US.
posted by telstar at 10:53 AM on September 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for collecting these. I have seen the 2005 documentary and was really, really quite moved and also enraged by it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:48 AM on September 16, 2012

My late grandmother bought me these one at a time from the drugstore. My sister and I still say "MANCHURIA BECAME MANCHUKUO!" with the same sense of contempt that Prelude to War's narrator used.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:20 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Propaganda, but relatively honest propaganda.

The "Tanaka Memorial", supposedly leaked Japanese war plans that the first video's discussion of Japan revolves around, is described as "generally considered by scholars to be a forgery" in The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang:
Today, this report is generally considered by scholars to be a forgery, one with possible Russian origins. But when the Memorial first emerged in Peking in September 1929, it led many to believe that Japanese aggression against China was part of a well-coordinated Japanese plot to conquer the globe. The English text of the Tanaka Memorial later appeared in English in a Shanghai newspaper and even inspired the classic Hollywook movie Blood on the Sun, in which James Cagney attempts to steal Japan's master plans in order to save the world. Today the Tanaka Memorial still has a considerable grasp on the world imagination: many Chinese historians believe that the Tanaka Memorial is authentic, and Chinese encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as English-language newspapers and wire service articles continue to cite the Memorial as historical fact.

Currently, no reputable historian of Japan believes that there was a preplanned conspiracy by Japan to conquer the world. An examination of the chaos in the Japanese state administration in the 1920s and 1930s suggests that such a conspiracy was unlikely: the Japanese Army hated the Navy, the High Command in Tokyo didn't know what the Kwantung Army in Manchuria was doing until it was too late, and relations between the Foreign Ministry and the armed services were often chilly to the point of silence.
All of the originals are also available for download as Ogg and MPEG4s at the Internet Archive, btw.
posted by XMLicious at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

"...inspired the classic Hollywook movie Blood on the Sun, in which James Cagney attempts to steal Japan's master plans in order to save the world..."

Which you can also see in its entirety on Youtube.

(For more dated views on global politics, see also Mission to Moscow.)
posted by BWA at 1:12 PM on September 16, 2012

While it is now generally understood that the Tanaka Memorial is a forgery, aside from scattered suspicions, that consensus is relatively recent and its development was only really started after the war with an examination of documents surviving on occupied Japan. It looks like it was written in China by either Chinese or Soviet communists specifically to fool us, and it largely worked. The idea that Frank Capra, or even Marshall, believed the Tanaka Memorial to be false and included it in his films anyway, is pretty ridiculous
posted by Blasdelb at 1:18 PM on September 16, 2012

I think Capra, on behalf of patrons, was being opportunistic. This stuff is pure propaganda, after all, so trying to determine what Capra really thought was the truth in order to make an accurate film is besides the point.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:35 PM on September 16, 2012

Yeah - whatever he actually believed, I do not think that being honest or accurate about Hitler's "buck-toothed pals" and the country's other adversaries was too high on the priority list. Nothing in these should be taken without a grain of salt; the substance is basically accurate but they weren't trying to be fair or impartial.
posted by XMLicious at 1:52 PM on September 16, 2012

They certainly wern't impartial, though the globally ubiquitous casual racism of the day isn't really a demonstration of that. Perhaps better would be the descriptions of Japanese bombing campaigns where bombing of civilian populations was portrayed as fundamentally evil, as bombing of civilian populations was being performed on German cities by the allies. Even that though, does remain at least fundamentally accurate.

By sneering at the films as mere propaganda though, are you suggesting that they were inadequate in some way - aside from the obvious, though remarkably sparing for the day, casual racism? Or that their purpose was somehow immoral? There was a clear and obvious moral imperative to join that war, and then to win it. Similarly, there was clear and pressing reason to educate American soldiers, most of whom had not even graduated High School, as well as the American public about the context of the wars we were fighting and the theaters we were fighting them in. Sure, the long vignettes about the inherent nobility of the people of $ally-of-convenience at the beginnings of the 'The Battle of-' films are kinda cringe worthy today, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of the audience of American GIs would have known precious little about what it meant to be British, much less Russian or Chinese. For all but the very top of the global elite, trips across oceans were with one way tickets.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:04 PM on September 16, 2012

The sneering is all in your head. World War II happened seventy years ago. It's long past the point when there was any reason to be uncritically laudatory of everything the Allies did down to the point of praising war propaganda as frank and honest educational material. It is not immoral, ridiculous, or some sort of unreasonably harsh judgment to point out factual errors in these films or that one objective is to draw caricatures of those on the other side.

The need to take advantage of uneducated people (and educated people alike) by trying to manipulate their opinions and beliefs into service of the war effort is one of the bad things about war. Even if participation in World War II was justified, which I would tend to agree with you on, we should not try to portray it as an unalloyed and noble good.
posted by XMLicious at 4:54 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

No Captain America? What kind of God damned movies are these?
posted by stormpooper at 6:06 PM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Now I understand why Why We Fight was the name of the season 1 finale of Jericho. I knew it sounded familiar. (Netflix has me living a few years behind the times.)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:08 PM on September 16, 2012

These sorts of collected useful resources and info are why I love Mefi. Thanks Blasdelb for putting all this together.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:15 AM on September 17, 2012

My new boss played the intro to the 2005 documentary before a "team values" meeting. At first I was like "wow, this guy's going to have some deep material". Then as the credits wind down he says "now doesn't that make you proud to be an American". I was stunned, sad part is, I was the only one in the room that noticed anything odd.
posted by tetsuo at 11:42 AM on September 17, 2012

By sneering at the films as mere propaganda

Who's sneering? While I am certainly aware of how the Japanese behaved across Asia, on the other hand the Americans fought a shockingly violent and brutal campaign against the Japanese, collecting ears, noses and teeth as souvenirs. This propaganda certainly helped play a part in that.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:39 PM on September 17, 2012

Oh - I hadn't noticed that you were the OP here, Blasdelb. I would agree with Wretch729, thank you for putting the post together: it's a nice and thorough one and I've been enjoying watching the material. Please don't take my observations about the nature of these films as war propaganda as criticism of your post.
posted by XMLicious at 5:06 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Comming back to this thread, XMLicious, I'm sorry I reacted so strongly. The contemporary understandiong of what the Tanaka memorial is definitely adds to the post.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:35 AM on September 19, 2012

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