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Office of War Information

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Office of War Information

"OWI" redirects here. For the criminal offense, see Driving under the influence.

The United States Office of War Information (OWI) was a U.S. government agency created during World War II to consolidate government information services. It operated from June 1942 until September 1945. It coordinated the release of war news for domestic use, and, using posters and radio broadcasts, worked to promote patriotism, warn about foreign spies and recruit women into war work. The office also established an overseas branch, which launched a large scale information and propaganda campaign abroad.


The OWI was established by Executive Order 9182[1] on June 13, 1942, to consolidate the functions of the Office of Facts and Figures, OWI's direct predecessor; the Office of Government Reports, and the division of information of the Office for Emergency Management. The Foreign Intelligence Service, Outpost, Publication, and Pictorial Branches of the Office of the Coordinator of Information were also transferred to the OWI. (The Executive order creating OWI, however, stated that dissemination of information to the Latin American countries should be continued by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.)

Elmer Davis, who was a CBS newsman, was named director of OWI. Among its wide-ranging responsibilities, OWI sought to review and approve the design and content of government posters. OWI officials believed that the most urgent problem on the home front was the careless leaking of sensitive information that could be picked up by spies and saboteurs.

OWI directly produced radio series such as This is Our Enemy (spring 1942), which dealt with Germany, Japan, and Italy; Uncle Sam, which dealt with domestic themes; and Hasten the Day (August 1943), which was about the Home Front. In addition, OWI cleared commercial network scripts through its Domestic Radio Bureau, including the NBC Blue Network's Chaplain Jim. The radio producer Norman Corwin produced several series for OWI, including An American in England, An American in Russia, and Passport for Adams, which starred the actor Robert Young.

Several thousand lacquer discs (records) made by the Office of War Information were later transferred to the Library of Congress.[2] There are more than eight thousand programs in English, which include propaganda broadcasts from 1942 through 1945.[2] Recruiting women, from home, to support the wartime effort was a job that the OWI deemed for the radio. Eventually there was too much war program activity. There was such a rivalry among broadcasters that the Office of Facts and Figures (later renamed the OWI) started scheduling the broadcasts. A constant channel of communication between the OWI and professional radio allowed, from time to time, the re-examination of policy and that often raised questions or disputes.[3] Program technique was often in question. Some advertising agencies believed that the war message should be regarded and treated as sales, separated from the entertainment portions. This would achieve a more clairvoyant point of view. The contrary point of view advocated that war messages were to be put directly into radio story-line messaging.[3]

During 1942 and 1943, the OWI contained two photographic units whose photographers documented the country's mobilization during the early years of the war, concentrating on such topics as aircraft factories and women in the workforce In addition, the OWI produced a series of 267 newsreels in 16 mm film, The United Newsreel which were shown overseas and to U.S. audiences. These newsreels incorporated U.S. military footage. Examples can be seen at this Google list.

OWI also established the Voice of America in 1942, which remains in service today as the official government broadcasting service of the United States. The VOA's initial transmitters were loaned from the commercial networks, and among the programs OWI produced were those provided by the Labor Short Wave Bureau, whose material came from the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) was formed under OWI to network with Hollywood. Every film had the opportunity to diminish or enhance America’s war effort, and America's reputation abroad.[4] According to Elmer Davis, director of OWI in 1942, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”[5] Films that had the most impression received the most attention, and included those depicting the armed forces, showing the United States as a democratic nation or a united society, and also the ideology of the enemy.[6] Until July 1942 influence was placed on Hollywood only by patriotic persuasion, by review of movies already produced prior to release, and by the “Manual for the Motion-Picture Industry”. In July, OWI found the best way to have an effect upon Hollywood was to be present during the production of feature films. This was a result of the screening of Little Tokyo, U.S.A. which showed a complete intolerance for Japanese-Americans. The main focus in favor of the war effort should be security of the nation, not the ideals set forth by the writers and producers.[7] The presence of OWI in Hollywood was enhanced as time went by, and by the fourth quarter in 1943 every studio, except for Paramount, allowed OWI to read all movie scripts. Overall, Hollywood was interested in helping with the war effort, and was mostly cooperative.[8] Although, OWI had no censorship powers and failure to comply had no repercussions, their question to studios was simple: “Will this picture help us win the war?”[9]

The Psychological Warfare Branch, used radio and print media to demoralize enemy soldiers and to discourage enemy civilians.[10] Print media was distributed in two manners: newspapers written in the foreign language and “leaflet warfare”.[11] Initially a modest industry, leaflet warfare boomed during World War II. It was utilized in Northern Africa, Italy, Germany, Philippines, and Japan. For example, during the war in Japan, the OWI printed and dropped over 180 million leaflets, with about 98 million being dropped the summer months of 1945.[12] The other forms of media were newspapers and publicized magazines. Magazines distributed to foreign audiences, such as Victory, moved to show how the people of America were contributing to the war.[13] Victory was used to showcase the American manufacturing power and to foster an appreciation for the American lifestyle.[14]

Aside from the aforementioned publication and production styles of propaganda, the Office of War information also utilized miscellaneous and unconventional ways of delivering messages known as "specialty items." Specific examples of these items include packets of seeds, matchbooks, soap paper, and sewing kits. The packets of seeds had an American flag and a message printed on the outside which identified the donor. The matchbooks were inscribed with the Four Freedoms on the inside of the covers, which were then widespread overseas. One of the more detailed records comes with the soap paper. The paper was meant to lather the body quickly, and was transfused with a message: "From your friends the United Nations. Dip in water - use like soap. WASH OFF THE NAZI DIRT." The sewing kit included a unique pincushion. The side that was used to stick the pins was shaped like a human rear end. On the other side, a caricatured face of either Hitler or Japanese General Hideki Tojo was imprinted.[15]

The Foreign Morale Analysis division of Pacific Affairs, under the leadership of historian George E. Taylor commissioned a series of studies designed to help policymakers' understanding of enemy psychology. Among these studies were The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict and John Embree’s The Japanese Nation: A Social Survey (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1945).[16]


Among the many people who worked for the OWI were Jay Bennett (author), Humphrey Cobb, Alan Cranston, Martin Ebon, Milton S. Eisenhower, Ernestine Evans, John Fairbank, Lee Falk, Howard Fast, Alexander Hammid, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Wade Jones, David Karr, Philip Keeney, Christina Krotkova, Owen Lattimore, Murray Leinster, Paul Linebarger, Irving Lerner, Archibald MacLeish, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, Charles Olson, Gordon Parks, James Reston, Peter Rhodes, Arthur Rothstein, Waldo Salt, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Dody Weston Thompson (researcher-writer), William Stephenson, George E. Taylor (historian), Chester S. Williams, and Flora Wovschin.

Many of these people were active supporters of President Roosevelt's New Deal and extolled the President's policies in OWI-supported radio programs such as This is War, which irritated Congressional opponents.[17][18]

Some of the writers, producers, and actors of OWI programs admired the Soviet Union and were either loosely affiliated with or were members of the Communist Party USA.[19] The director of Pacific operations for the OWI, Owen Lattimore, who later accompanied U.S. Vice-President Henry Wallace on a mission to China and Mongolia in 1944, was later alleged to be a Soviet agent on the basis of testimony by a defector from the Soviet GRU, General Alexander Barmine.[20][21][22] In his final report, Elmer Davis noted that he had fired 35 employees, because of past Communist associations, though the FBI files showed no formal allegiance to the CPUSA. Flora Wovschin, who worked for the OWI from September 1943 to February 1945, was later revealed in VENONA intercepts to have been a Soviet spy.[23]

Opposition and termination

Congressional opposition to the domestic operations of the OWI resulted in increasingly curtailed funds. In 1943, the OWI's appropriations were cut out of the fiscal year 1944 budget and only restored with strict restrictions on what OWI could do domestically. Many branch offices were closed and the Motion Picture Bureau was closed down. By 1944 the OWI operated mostly in the foreign field, contributing to undermining enemy morale. The agency was abolished in 1945, and its foreign functions were transferred to the Department of State.

The OWI was terminated, effective September 15, 1945, by an executive order of August 31, 1945.

See also



  • Allan Winkler, The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978)
  • Howard Blue, Words at War: World War II Radio Drama and the Postwar Broadcast Industry Blacklist (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2002). ISBN 0-8108-4413-3.

External links

  • OWI images at the Museum of the City of New York
  • OWI recordings at the Library of Congress
  • Images from the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection (Library of Congress)
  • Records of the Office of War Information (OWI) in the National Archives
  • World War II OWI posters
  • Digital Collections
  • The Papers of Edward P. Lilly, special assistant to the director of OWI 1944-1945, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
  • Papers of Paul Sturman, Foreign Language Division of OWI, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
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