Comic-Strip Propaganda

How Washington officials inserted ideas into the funny pages


The U.S. government has a history of inserting propaganda into popular culture, sometimes overtly and sometimes behind the scenes. Comics historian Jeet Heer has dug up a particularly interesting example: Roy Crane's strip Buz Sawyer. Crane not only coordinated his storylines with Washington during World War II and the Cold War, but he sometimes allowed officials to dictate the details of his plots.

In 1952, for example—just a year before a CIA-assisted coup in Iran—Crane set a story in that country. As part of the process of producing it,

And then to get Mosaddeq out, amirite?
Roy Crane

a State Department official named Eugene V. Brown sent Crane a ten-page memo, explaining in precise detail the plot points the government wanted for Buz Sawyer, along with what purpose those points served. These included finding a way to "stress [the] importance of Private Enterprise" and to portray "the manner in which Communism attempts to discredit development and improvement programs of the West." Crane, meanwhile, should do his best to steer clear of certain delicate topics. "It would be best to avoid any reference to OIL in discussing Iran." Because winning hearts and minds was key, Brown wanted a story showing "a strong bond of friendship" between Buz and an Iranian pilot named Sandhu, the purpose of which was to "provide entry of Buz into local situation on common level with indigenous forces." (Crane followed this direction, although he used the name Ali instead of Sandhu.) Other plot points were designed to provide "further evidence of machinations of Communism" and "display American individual's ingenuity in coping with operations." Six months after the strip appeared, Crane praised Brown's contribution in a letter to Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state and one of the key architects of the cold war…

As Heer notes, the "millions of Americans who read Buz Sawyer in 1952 would have gotten a very distorted image of Iran. They would have seen a country where Americans were chiefly helping to avert a famine, where the major threat of disorder came from Soviet spies, where Americans were good-hearted aid officials, where control of the oil supply wasn't a factor, and where the U.S. government had no conflict with the democratically elected government." Such storylines weren't good for the cartoonist's craft either, Heer argues: "As Crane became more concerned with tailoring his strips to a political message, they lost the spark that had once made them special."

To read Heer's whole article, go here. To read about the government's efforts to influence radio programs during World War II, go here. For a more recent story of this sort—the messages that the Clinton-era Office of National Drug Control Policy inserted into prime-time TV shows—go here.

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  1. My in laws showed some classic Superman cartoons from WWII era. One had a rich japanese american businessman who went into his office and opened a secret panel displaying a shrine to the emperor. He then did some bowing, and went out to blow up a top secret zeppelin carrier.

    Good times. Good times.

    1. WW2 era comics are among the most entertaining out there.

  2. It’s interesting how much less acceptable government propaganda has become since the Cold War. Things that used to be routine and taken for granted, now are consider scandal worthy. At least that is how it seems.

    1. These things were never “routine and taken for granted”. The reason Jesse is writing about this particular case is that it didn’t really come to light until now. The propaganda that was done in this article sure wasn’t talked about in the open and had people shrugging about it. In fact, part of the US Government’s propaganda mission during the Cold War was to pretend that the USSR was a massive purveyor of propaganda against its own citizens (which it was), in contrast to the wonderful, pure US as a government that would never do that (which, as we can see here, it absolutely would).

    2. In pre-Cold War comics, the U.S. government is usually the hero and on the side of justice. Post-Vietnam, there is always nefarious scheming going on by Uncle Sam.

      1. Not true! Sometimes the schemer is the head of a large, sinister, multinational corporation.

    3. Government run schools basically engage in state propaganda constantly. It’s more effective than putting pro-state messages in a few comic books.

      My history department at my high school (in a heavily Republican suburb of Chicago) was run by outright socialists, for example.

      1. But outright socialists at least hate everything the US Government does, if I remember my Howard Zinn. They love the Idea of the State, pure and uncorrupted, but hate what the Capitalist Swine do to it.
        I mean, I bet your teachers didn’t go on about “Vietnam: how we betrayed our word and so death camps filled up” or “Cuban military imperialism in Africa and Latin America.” Fuck, I bet there was no lecture on “Welfare State in US eats at least 60% of the federal budget and is not in Constitution. Military is and get 17%”, even.

      2. Of course, most of the propaganda taught in government schools isn’t really controlled by the local people in that way. Listen to your teachers, they’re smarter than you; you’re in school right now, which is good for you, not prison; learn how to share; drugs are bad mkay; etc.

  3. Looks like a Dauntless with that alt text. One of my favorite planes.

  4. Listen here Walker, I have been assured many times, some even right here at reason, that it is illegal for the US government to use propaganda against its own citizens.

    Therefore, it isn’t happening.

    1. Yeah, all those feel-good stories about O-care have to be true!

      1. If it’s good for for Rosie the riveter…

      2. +1 Julia

        1. Do you think the name was specifically chosen so she could be the love interest in Obama’s vision of 1984?

  5. These included finding a way to “stress [the] importance of Private Enterprise” and to portray “the manner in which Communism attempts to discredit development and improvement programs of the West.”

    Yeah, I don’t think we need to fear this propaganda coming from any Western government anymore. Progress!

    1. Stressing the importance of private enterprise and discrediting communism is bad, m’kay?

      1. I apologize. I shall prepare a self-critical report for the next meeting, comrade!

        1. Those “development and improvement programs of the West” were not, in fact, private enterprise.

          1. Thank you, comrade! The wreckers and kulaks must be brought into line!

    1. It was a very rigorous yoga class.

      1. “Now, breathe deeply and stretch the truth.”

        1. “Feel the burn!”

  6. This makes me think about all those television shows and movies that demonized commies and glorified the war on drug users. I wonder if the producers of them were somehow nudged by the government.

    1. Or even the “Anything to stop the terrorists” shows.

      1. I’m not sure which alternative is worse: that they allowed their scripts to be revised and manipulated by the government, or that the government didn’t need to bother because they accepted the ideas uncritically anyway.

    2. I wonder if the producers of them were somehow nudged by the government.

      Hey, sarcasmic, that’s a great idea for a TV show! It’s like those musicals about what goes on behind the scenes of a musical.

    3. I’m sure some of them were. I’d also bet that some just wanted to “do their part” or “support the effort”, just like in previous wars. But the point is the government was, overall, purposefully trying to create an environment where people would be happy to do that. Or else.

    4. Remember this?

      So the drug czar’s office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought ? in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo.

      1. I was just musing. Didn’t know that it was true. Wow.

        1. I liked Joss Whedon’s attempt to cash in.

          This plot was written with the plan to take advantage of funds from the Office of National Drug Control Policy available to shows that promoted an anti-drug message. Funding was rejected for the episode because “[d]rugs were an issue, but … [it] was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. Viewers wouldn’t make the link to [the ONDCP’s] message.”

          1. I do remember some shows having plots that were really preachy about drugs. I had no idea that the government had something to do with it.

            1. Wasn’t Nancy Reagan on Diff’rent Strokes?

          2. It was a bad episode, but recovered by some awesome acting (they should have had Buffy be comic character more).
            Season 6 Willow plot line, on the other hand… I actually hope they got some anti-drug money for that, so that someone, somewhere, had a rational reason to put it into production.

          3. God that was a stupid episode. Good thing Sarah Michelle Gellar is so cute. And Alyson Hannigan. And Charisma Carpenter. Wait a second…they used hot chick propaganda on me!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOO

            1. Oh my god, Charisma Carpenter. Plus they gave her the best lines, too. “Tact is just not saying true stuff.”

              1. Show went downhill when she left, and she was wasted on Angel.

                And by god, that woman. When she was on Veronica Mars Season 2, right after Angel ended and after she gave birth, she was easily the hottest thing on there, even in scenes with Kristen Bell.

                1. Season 6 Buffy has its moments with the ennui and shit, and I continued to like Spike and Buffy’s interplay, but yeah. It was a mistake to move her to Angel.

                  Can we talk about how much we hate David Boreanaz, by the way? “Crikey! I’d pay $50 US to see David Boreanaz’s house!”

              2. She still looks AMAZING. Damn.

            2. something something certain kinds of sex ….

          4. “… otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. ”

            Was the guy reviewing Dune?

      2. This just reminded me of those stupid “just say no” and “this is your brain on drugs” ads.

        1. Who was the hot chick who smashed the kitchen with the frying pan? Because something something drugs. Fuck, was that commercial hot.

            1. At least we had different links…

              1. Your link worked?

                *pats SF on the back*

            2. Minneapolis native Rachael Leigh Cook began her career as a model at the tender age of 10, gracing Milk-Bone(R)


          1. Dude, stop making me want to watch She’s All That.

            1. That’s a fucking terrible movie dude.

              1. What are you talking about? Rachel Leigh Cook is totally believable as an unpopular nerd who no one realizes is totally hot until she takes off her glasses.

                1. I WANT TO BELIEVE

                  For more of this ridiculousness, go enjoy She’s Out of Control. They do the exact same “fake braces goofy glasses look Ami Dolenz isn’t hot…and now she is!” thing. It’s also a fun movie.

                  1. Alien from LA.

                    Yeah, Kathy Ireland in a bikini isnt hot because her hair is in a bun. Right.

              2. You really are the worst, Nicole. Can’t I just enjoy a teenage *cough* they’re not even remotely teenagers *cough* romance movie with a cute girl in it?

                1. I felt sad for those girls in *Halloween*…not only was a lunatic trying to kill them, they were held back in high school until they were like 30.

  7. Why do you American bastards no longer make cool propaganda like this?

    Fuck it, I am not a fan of paying taxes, and it still working on me.

    And where is the New Soviet Man (or, today, Happy Ummah Brother) version of ,this?!

    1. I love how the stereotype of the cheap Scotsman is used.


      Donald Duck was Scottish?

      1. His uncle Scrooge McDuck certainly was, so it’s not so far fetched.

      2. I read somewhere that the Spirit of 1943 provided both the first version of Scrooge McDuck (yes, Donald obviously has some Scottish ancestry) and of Gladstone Gander.
        Which also reminds me that I was wrong in Trumpyria thread, Tony Stark isn’t the Libertarian superhero. It’s Uncle Scrooge.

        1. You will be please to learn that there is a Finnish prog-metal concept album about Scrooge McDuck. You’re welcome.

          1. Life and Times is awesome (though I never read the whole thing – should probably get on it), so hopefully this is up on iTunes store!

            Warty, you are a gem among people, I care not what others say!

            1. You do recognize I’m…I’m standing…right next to you, right? A fellow compatriot.

              /slowly lowers head. Raises eye and peaks over.

              1. Did you provide me with Finnish metal album based on graphic novel by Don Rosa about the Greatest American Fictional Character of All Time? I think not.

                Advantage: Warty!

                1. I actually really like the album, too. It’s fun.

  8. Give new meaning to the term “comic con”

  9. I’ve been reading and watching U.S. (and to a lesser extent Canadian – Johnny Canuck!) animated propaganda for years and years. I thought this was common knowledge by now. Guess not.

    1. “he was characterized as wholesome and simple-minded”

      Nailed it.

  10. “Comics historian Jeet Heer”

    Is this the same batshit-crazy jeet heer who writes for TNR?

    1. Given that the link goes to a TNR article…probably?

  11. I remember reading* a Dick Tracy where criminals were selling tires in violation of the rationing laws.

    To be fair, I think they needed rubber for the war effort.

    *Not during WWII, I mean later

  12. garfield fell into teh lasanga again tODAY lol

    1. …thereby showing the importance of Michelle Obama’s campaign for healthy eating!

      Hey, how did that get in there?

  13. makes sense. Buz Sawyer was boring, like propaganda usually is. can you check on Mike Nomad and Mary Worth? they were just as boring.

  14. I make up to $90 an hour working from my home. My story is that I quit working at Walmart to work online and with a little effort I easily bring in around $40h to $86h? Someone was good to me by sharing this link with me, so now i am hoping i could help someone else out there by sharing this link… Try it, you won’t regret it!……


  15. Buz Sawyer’s propaganda? You don’t say!

    Got any other breaking news for us? Like maybe something about those newfangled color televisions they’re talking about?

  16. Although, to be fair, it sure is great that TNR is so comfortable with the mask off.

    Complaining about ‘propaganda’ designed to counter existing soviet propaganda–why it’s as if TNR wanted a communist takeover.

    Private enterprise bad! Countering Soviet indoctrination badder!

    Jesse, you might want to tighten your mask though–you’re still supposed to be presenting as a ‘libertarian’.

    1. If you’re describing the Cold War liberals’ foreign-aid programs as “private enterprise,” I guess the propaganda worked.

      Or at least it worked on people confused enough to think such propaganda is the sort of thing libertarians are supposed to support.

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