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Comic-Strip Nation

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Comic-Strip Propaganda

reason

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 Cranea 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.