Ken Burns Classroom

Art & Propaganda

Ken Burns Film: The War

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: Art English Literature US History

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods

Lesson Overview

When the United States entered World War II, government officials worried about generating a “total war” effort from the civilian population. They knew the enemy had a massive head start in building its forces and raising the consciousness of its population.

By 1941, America had spent its past nine struggling through economic depression. As devastating as Pearl Harbor was to the American spirit, the government would have to mount a concerted effort to get the country emotionally mobilized for what it knew would be an unprecedented war effort.

Propaganda is an important tool in any war. It comes in many forms, through different media: film, print, radio and television broadcasts, and public rallies. Poster propaganda is an early method of solidifying the hearts and minds of the public, but 20th century advances in photography and color printing allowed propaganda to become an effective art form and even weapon. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government launched an aggressive propaganda campaign to galvanize public support. The government recruited some of the country’s most talented artists and filmmakers to wage this portion of the war effort.

Effective propaganda takes a thorny concept and distills it to a very basic message, often couched in terms of good and evil (we’re good, they’re evil). The images and messages are designed to drive at human emotions. The newsreels and posters target specific audiences for specific purposes, warnings citizens what they might lose if victory isn’t achieved. Propaganda campaigns of the day included pleas to buy war bonds to fund the effort and encouraged people to accept racial integration and women in the workforce. Propaganda pushed for more work, more production, more sacrifice on the homefront.

But as the reality of war stormed into American’s consciousness, on the battlefield and at home, people began to understand the importance of the messages sent through the newsreels and posters.

Lesson Objectives

The student will:

  • Analyze the importance of propaganda posters and newsreel films in a nation’s war effort.
  • Identify the ways propaganda posters appeal to human emotions and motivate people to take action.
  • Analyze how the propaganda posters created during World War II reflected real-life conditions and sent messages of encouragement and inclusiveness to civilians.
  • Create their own propaganda poster art on current issues of interest.

Lesson Procedure: Why We Fight

In this activity, students will view clips from the film series The War that focus on key themes and then examine how these themes were reflected in propaganda posters. The video clips often contain segments of newsreel stories that introduce the theme. These are followed by commentary from some of the reoccurring characters in the series.

Next, a set of discussion questions will help students explore the themes and propaganda messages in more detail. In culminating activities, students will create a presentation that examines the composition of propaganda posters and their effectiveness in communicating their message. Students will also have the opportunity to create a propaganda poster on a current topic.

  1. 1. Explain to students that U.S. government officials understood that the attack on Pearl Harbor had angered the American public, but that the initial shock could subside quickly into despair or uncontrolled anarchy. To bolster morale and focus the public’s attention on gearing up for war, the government launched a full force media blitz that explained why fighting this war was necessary.
  2. Begin by reviewing the film clip “Why We Fight.”
  3. Then discuss the following questions:
    • What are the messages presented in the newsreel “Why We Fight”?
    • Why do you think Burnett Miller at first believed the wartime propaganda was “an awful lot of baloney?” How did his attitude change later, as the war progressed?
    • Examine the propaganda posters individually, and describe how well each might shape the thinking of people like Burnett Miller.
    • Do you think such persuasion techniques in the posters would be effective today? Why or why not?
  4. Then divide students into small group and assign each group one of the following topics.

I. Buy Bonds

Fighting a war on several fronts would cost money, a lot of money. Taxes couldn’t support it all, so the U.S. government asked Americans to purchase war bonds that would help fund the war in the short term and provide financial benefits to the buyer at a later date. On an almost continual basis, the government launched one bond drive after another, recruiting Hollywood movie stars, war veterans, and just common everyday folk to encourage investment in the war.

  1. Have students view the National Archives online exhibit: Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II
    World War II propaganda poster of soldiers assaulting a beach with rifles.

    World War II-era poster produceed by the US Treasury Department shows an African-American airman
    World War II-era poster produceed by the US Treasury Department shows an African-American airman, thumbs hooked under the straps of his parachute, as he gazes resolutely skyward, accompanied by the text ‘Keep Us Flying! Buy War Bonds,’ 1943. The pilot who modeled for the posters illustration was Robert Deiz, a member of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  2. Discuss the following questions:
    • Why were movie stars recruited to help sell war bonds?
    • Examine the themes in each poster example and identify the different messages each makes to appeal for funds.
    • Why do you think buying war bonds was important to the American public?

II. Sacrificing and Rationing

The United States was caught almost totally unprepared for waging a world war. It had only a skeletal defense force, and nearly all its industrial production was tooled for consumer products. All this changed as businesses converted peacetime production to wartime goods. The government imposed wage and price controls and rationed consumer goods to divert raw elements to the war effort. The government encouraged the public to sacrifice even more by voluntarily donating anything they could to help war production. The public responded with scrap drives and victory gardens.

  1. View the video segment Rationing and Recycling.
  2. View poster art images:
    World War II rationing poster
    World War II rationing poster
    Vintage World War II poster of a mother and daughter canning vegetables
    Vintage World War II poster of a mother and daughter canning vegetables. The little girl asks, We’ll have lots to eat this winter, won’t we Mother? The print declares – Grow your own, can your own.

    Digitally restored war propaganda poster of a man in his easy chair
    Digitally restored war propaganda poster.
  3. Discuss the following questions:
    • Identify items mentioned that at first glance might not be considered usable in a war. Then discuss ways rationing these items would contribute to the war effort.
    • According to the film, rationing helped make people on the home front feel they were a part of the war effort. Identify examples of how individuals and communities were asked to ration and sacrifice. Why do you think this generation of Americans felt such sacrifice was their patriotic duty? Do you think Americans today could make the same sacrifice under similar circumstances? Explain your answer.
    • Identify examples in the poster images of how individuals and communities were asked to ration and sacrifice.
    • Describe the tone of the message to the public in these posters. How do they express a sense of urgency? Are they asking for cooperation or giving commands? Do you think such techniques would work today with the American pubic? Explain your answer.

III. Wartown

World War II changed the demographic of U.S. urban populations forever. Millions of Americans came to the cities in search of work and to contribute anything they could. Old prejudices and social customs were entrenched in the attitudes of many original residents, but most Americans understood the importance of war production and set aside racial biases to accept the influx of new people into their communities.

  1. Review the film clip Wartown.
  2. Then view the poser images from the era:
    "For Every Fighter a Woman Worker", 1st World War YWCA propaganda poster
    “For Every Fighter a Woman Worker”, 1st World War YWCA propaganda poster by Treidler, Adolph (1846-1905) (after); Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; English, out of copyright

    war propaganda poster
    Digitally restored war propaganda poster.
  3. Discuss the following questions:
    • What messages do you find in the newsreel segment called “Wartown?”
    • How in some ways does this brief newsreel segment provide a history and geography lesson about America?
    • The immediate conversion from peacetime to wartime production was nothing short of miraculous. What assets and advantages did the United States have that made such production possible?
    • Identify the different messages these posters presented to workers in America’s defense plants. What types of emotions are inspired by these messages?
    • In what ways might this emotional inspiration help workers feel they too were fighting the war?

IV. Women in the War Effort

One of the more unprecedented propaganda campaigns launched by the U.S. government was aimed at encouraging women to join the war effort. Following the lead of the Office of War Information’s campaign “Women in Necessary Services,” the Saturday Evening Post commissioned artist Norman Rockwell to create the cover of its Labor Day issue, featuring an illustration of a woman clad in red, white, and blue and encumbered with the accouterments of defense work, including tools for victory gardens, nursing equipment, construction gear, and surveillance and air raid warning equipment. Women were asked to do it all.

  1. Review the film segment Wartown.
  2. Then view the following poster images from the era:
    "For Every Fighter a Woman Worker", 1st World War YWCA propaganda poster
    “For Every Fighter a Woman Worker”, 1st World War YWCA propaganda poster by Treidler, Adolph (1846-1905) (after); Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; English, out of copyright

    war propaganda poster
    Digitally restored war propaganda poster.
  3. Discuss the following questions:
    • Describe how women like Emma Belle Petcher challenged the stereotypes about women in the work- force. Identify the ways her inherent talent helped her move up the ranks of the factory hierarchy.
    • Besides women having to make adjustment from the traditional role of homemaker to factory worker, Wartown residents also had to adjust. Summarize the attitudes presented in the video clip as women began to work in the factories and explain why such change was difficult for some people to accept. How are some of these same issues present today?
    • How do the posters encourage female participation in the war effort and address the stereotypes held by many that would oppose such participation? Describe how you see the women depicted in the posters. How realistic do you feel these representations are?
    • Comment on the impact of women entering the workforce during WWII and the precedent this set for later generations of women. How did the news- reels and posters help contribute to this effort? Do you feel similar media messaging on a woman’s role in the work world is necessary today. If so, how might it be presented? If not, why not?

Culminating Activity

Construct a propaganda poster on an issue America faces today. This can be related to foreign policy, as was the propaganda posters of World War II, or it can be related to other topics such the environment, the economy, or community concerns. In planning your poster, think about your intended audience, the overall message you want to communicate, what symbols and statements you will use to convey this message, the use of color, and how you will emotionally draw the viewer to take some sort of action.

National Standards

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) at (

United States History

Level III (Grades 7-8)

Standard 25: Understands the causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs

Historical Understanding

Level III (Grades 7-8)

Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective Benchmark 2: Analyzes the influence specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history.

Benchmark 6: Knows different types of primary and secondary sources and the motives, interests, and bias expressed in them.

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective Benchmark 11: Knows how to perceive past events with historical empathy

Visual Arts

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

Benchmark 1: Knows a variety of historical and cultural contexts regarding characteristics and purposes of works of art

Arts and Communication

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 2: Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products

Language Arts

Level IV

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Benchmark 4: Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the validity and reliability of primary and secondary source information (e.g., the motives, credibility, and perspectives of the author; date of publication; use of logic, propaganda, bias, and language; comprehensiveness of evidence).

Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of information texts.

Benchmark 4: Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the clarity and accuracy of information (e.g., author’s bias, use of persuasive strategies, consistency, clarity of purpose, effectiveness of organizational pattern, logic of arguments, reasoning, expertise of author, propaganda techniques, authenticity, appeal to friendly or hostile audience, faulty modes of persuasion)

Thinking and Reasoning

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 2: Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.